Thursday, June 19, 2014

June 15 Letter from Harrisburg

Squished berries and silly stories make a house a home

We went to pick strawberries an hour after we got home from Minnesota, even though the van was still stuffed to the rafters with the old pie safe and Grandpa Adam’s little table and the Formica cutting board shaped like a pig that my uncle once made for Mom.
As we rolled heavily down Interstate 84, with Mount Hood ahead, more than 20 hours of driving behind us and our son Steven nonchalantly at the wheel, my husband called our friend TJ of Bear Fruit to see if the berries were still available.
“My wife is desperate,” he said. “We’ve been in Minnesota for her dad’s sale, and she’s afraid she’s going to miss out on the strawberries.”
Paul got off the phone. “They still have plenty. They’re not as big, but we can still get them.”
We turned into the driveway at 3:30 p.m., cleaned up a bit, looked at the mail, and drove to the patch, where TJ’s wife Marcia gave us buckets and directed us to the pink flags.
Green leaves pushed aside, bright red berries underneath, sun shining, dirt under my knees, family near me. The first bite was a taste of heaven.
Everything was going to be all right.
In Minnesota, strawberries ripen at the end of June, and when I was a child, the nearest U-pick patch was almost an hour away. Once a year, we would rise early, Mom and my two sisters and me, and load the car with ice cream buckets and huge stainless steel bowls.
The routine never varied.
First we picked with excitement, tasting frequently.
Then we picked fast, marveling at the clusters of red down under the overhanging green.
Hours passed and buckets filled. Mom picked steadily, crouching down in her worn dress and apron, with a bandana on her head.
We girls inevitably started throwing rotten berries at each other, giggling about the people in the next row and eating far too many berries without considering their high moisture content.
We talked with other pickers about the quality of the berries and the weather, and also about us, since this was far enough from home that people weren’t used to our “plain” appearance.
“Are you sisters?” an older woman in the next row once asked Rebecca and me.
“Yes, we are.”
“What order are you with?”
A confused conversation followed until we figured out that she meant Catholic nuns, and we meant female siblings.
By the time Mom finally decided we had picked enough, the sun was high and hot, we were dirty and tired and hungry, and our fingers were stained red.
We trekked down the long rows carrying our overflowing buckets, which we piled on the table in front of the little shed. While the cashier weighed and Mom paid, we girls dashed to the nearby PortaPotty and danced desperately as we waited in line, the same urgency, due to the same indulgence, having afflicted many of the pickers at once.
We drove home with the windows open and knew that our work was far from finished.
After a quick lunch, we sat around the kitchen table and stemmed berries for the rest of the day. Mom washed and cut and sugared. We scooped them into square containers for the freezer.
By late afternoon our fingers ached and we were tired of strawberries. Descending into silliness, we laughed crazily at things that weren’t that funny. We had quit eating berries.
I recall dropping an overripe berry down Rebecca’s back once, and squishing it flat.
And then, finally, we were finished. Stacks of containers carried to the freezer, clanking bowls sloshed in the sink, stems tossed to the pigs, and then we could scatter to relax and read a book or go outside to sit under a tree and just breathe.
Selling your parents’ belongings, moving your dad into your brother’s basement apartment next door, and saying goodbye to the home place is like a berry-picking day on a much larger scale.
We assembled the family, dove in with enthusiasm, worked impossibly hard, descended into silliness, exhausted ourselves beyond bearing, and were so sick of the stuff at hand — in this case, old papers and glass jars and Cool Whip containers — that we never wanted to see them again.
Mom and Dad sold their farm in 1984, the summer Paul and I got married, and moved onto a 5-acre property half a mile up the road. Sadly, the house and many heirlooms burned down in 1987, but they rebuilt on the same site.
So for 30 years of our marriage, that was the place we went home to.
From Highway 4 we would turn onto the dirt road. A mile west and the road stopped in a T with another gravel road, but we would continue straight ahead, down the long driveway with neighbor Olaf Johnson’s crops on the left, around the awkward uphill curve, and then we were there:  red barn with goats and cats and a pig or steer, the shed with the old Farmall tractor, and the white house with Mom rushing out to hug us.
We had big Christmas dinners there, and birthday parties, and lots of coffee. We came with our babies and Mom took care of both them and us, insisting that we needed a break. She made Popsicles for the grandchildren that they ate on the deck on summer evenings. She cut fresh lettuce from the garden and showed us all her latest quilts.
None of us liked to sleep in the basement bedroom under the kitchen because Dad was always up before 6 a.m., marching back and forth across the kitchen in his hard-soled shoes, fixing his oatmeal with its secret added ingredients and brewing his mysterious hot drink that kept him healthy for these 97 years.
Did it really take that many trips across the kitchen to accomplish this, we wondered, stuffing our heads under pillows and feeling like the troll under the bridge, with Papa Billy Goat Gruff trip-trapping over our heads.
Dad’s morning routine never changed, but other things did. The corners got dirty and the basement smelled funny and dark things accumulated in the garage.
When we came home, we took care of Mom instead of she taking care of us.
Mom and Dad were determined to stay in the house, and fully independent, until they died. We all worked together to make it possible, and they stayed until Mom broke another hip and was overcome by dementia.
She passed away last December. Dad realized that the heart and life of the house was gone and said he was ready to sell and move out.
So we came from Oregon, Oklahoma, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. From Turkey and Yemen and Canada.
We dug and sorted and washed and boxed and recycled and threw away.
We told stories and laughed until tears ran down our cheeks, especially when Anna the sister-in-law described the frightening experience of coming upon Dad suited up all Darth Vader-like to spray his apple trees.
And when Rebecca found the old enema apparatus that Mom, having trained as a nurse in the 1940s, relied on to bring down fevers, which taught us quickly that it behooved us to stay healthy.
We found forgotten teacups and old report cards and an unexplained box labeled “Letters — Discouraging Times.”
And then, exhausted, we sold what we could to friendly neighbors and sent the goats to a new owner and packed our vans and stripped the beds.
When we left, east on that long lane, we left empty rooms behind us, a silent barn, an abandoned garden.
I posted a nostalgic update online, and our son Matt commented, “One era ends, another begins ... your house is quickly becoming ‘the home to go back to’ for your children.”
Today we picked more strawberries, pushing the season’s deadline. The children are busy stemming, talking, getting tired and gradually more silly.
I hope to have 50 pints in the freezer by the end of the day, all washed and cut and sugared, a big job accomplished because we worked together until it was done, because this is what families do, and this is how a home is made.

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