Friday, February 27, 2009

Coming of Age

At the wise old age of 12 years old my mother and father went their separate ways.  It depends on who you talk to as to who left who.  That didn't matter to me. What did keep me awake at night was the fact that my day-to-day life as I knew it had changed.  No more lazy Sunday mornings with Nat King Cole on the stereo crooning  'Unforgettable' while dad wrestled up his famous ranch style breakfast of bacon, sausage, eggs and pancakes.  No more hearing him shout out on a Sunday evening after the dinner dishes were put away, "Let's go for a ride and get some ice cream!"  No, those days were behind me.  My mother threw in her apron and dish towel for a two piece suit and a paycheck.  The house was quiet.  Eventually the nice car we had was replaced with an old beater that embarrassed me to no end.  I begged  my mother to drop me on an unfamiliar side street two blocks from school in the mornings lest my friends or strangers were to see me and ask questions.  The first summer without my dad was dismal. Mom had already left the house by the time I woke up.  She was gone physically, but she was never really far away.  She'd call home every half an hour.  If the line was busy, then next time she called I got an ear full the minute she heard my voice.   "Stay off the phone so I can call you!"  I want to know what you're doing!"  What I was doing?  I was answering the phone every half an hour.  I told her I was cleaning the house and that seemed to make her happy.  But truth be told, between phone calls my sister, Sharon and I were lathering on the baby lotion and and laying on our beach towels in the backyard, sipping lemonade and working on our tans.   We didn't know about skin cancer.  Maybe it hadn't been invented yet.  I don't know.  About 4 o'clock in the afternoon mom would make her final call of the day to walk me through the dinner prep.  I can't tell you how many times my spaghetti sauce resembled sloppy joes.  I waited for her review upon arriving home before I put on the spaghetti or opened a package of hamburger buns.  I didn't really care either way.   And so it went... I read Nancy Drew, answered the phone every half an  hour, practiced the art of a red sauce and with that -  fell into the rhythm of  the long, lazy summer.

Eventually life caught up with me as it seems to do and by the next summer my life that I was just settling into took a turn.  Mom announced that it might be a good idea if I had 'something to do' that would 'build character' and help me 'mature.'   I was thrilled.  Sort of.  She explained that while she'd 'love to' she really couldn't afford sleep away summer camp  but she'd found something better.  I was thrilled again.
I'm going to  tell you now that this experience was the one event that would mark my coming of age.  I'd like to admit that it was a handsome young buck I met while making gimp keychain fobs in the park down the street at the office of Parks and Recreation.  But it was not.  No, my coming of age involved a 5 am wake up call, a 4 block walk to the corner, and a truck load of Hispanic farm workers.  Day laborers. Berry pickers.  Didn't speak any English.  So let's put this into perspective.   I was thirteen.  It was 5:30 am.  I was on a street corner waiting for a rickety truck, opened in the back with wooden seats bolted to the floor, filled with young Hispanic men. OK.  Just so we have that picture in our heads.  By the time the truck reached my stop, most of the seats were taken.  Did I mention I was thirteen?  I climbed in with my little sack lunch tucked under my arm and took a seat. No one looked at me and no one talked to me. I'm sure they figured I didn't speak Spanish. 

The rickety truck sped on its way as the sun came up, eventually we turned down a dirt road. We bumped along  for what seemed an impossibly dusty eternity, finally coming to a stop near the only shade tree for as far as my eye could see.  We tumbled out of the back of the truck.  As I stretched my legs and took in the endless rows of green I realized to both my delight and horror that I was in the middle of a strawberry field.  Yes, my mother had traded the joys of an inner tube swing over the lake and the faintest possibility of  my bonding with a lifelong friend at summer camp for a two week stint as a farm laborer.    Under the shade tree next to a weighing scale was a big, fat, sweaty man with dirt under his nails and a straw hat.  He wiped his brow with a red checkered kerchief  and smiled at me. I smiled back.  His large silver front tooth gleamed.  I was suspicious but oddly not frightened.  My mom and I had our differences, but I couldn't find it in my heart to believe that she'd feed me to wolves.  At least not in daylight.

The large man pointed to a pile of flats and said something in Spanish.  The driver of our truck spoke English; "That's Jorge. We call him 'boss.'  He wants you to leave your lunch here and pick up a flat for the strawberries.  I'll show you what to do."   Reluctantly, I sat my brown crumpled lunch sack down in the dirt, lacking faith that it would be there when I returned.  Jorge looked hungry.  This was not what I had in mind of how I'd spend my summer days.  I'd envisioned chasing boys tripping over their own puberty, gossiping with the new neighbor girl across the street,  blasting my transistor radio, practicing walking in my mother's high heels and working on my dance moves. Clearly the universe had other plans for me.

And so it went. 

For two weeks it was the same drill.  Each morning at 5:30 am the truck showed up, I  hopped in, rode to the fields, smiled at Jorge, dropped my lunch, picked up a flat and headed into the field to pick the ripened berry.  I ate some, picked some, ate some and picked some. As each flat was filled, I carried it back to Jorge who weighed it and handed me cash.  97 cents per flat.  It was gold to me. It was my freedom.  I opted in for another two weeks the next summer.  The girl across the street, now my best friend,  joined me.  We had a blast.  And with all that, I still love strawberries.  Only now I appreciated how they get to market.    I'll bet you're wondering, 'so what does any of this have to do with a new garden?'  Well, this summer I'm planning on growing my own strawberries.  Not many, just enough to remind me that sometimes the most simple twists of fate make for the best memories.

1 comment:

  1. Nice intro to the teenage years! Now get off the phone and go plant those strawberries :-)