Lois Rosen Sept. 5, 2020
The strawberry crop came on as school ended. Cora was sentenced to spending the best months of the year—June, July and August—as a picker. Farmers, including many of the students’ parents, needed cheap labor. What else were kids supposed to do in Mint with no swimming pool, no summer enrichment classes, no Y?
Betsy and other 4-H girls insisted it could be worse. Strawberries didn’t have thorns like blackberries. Cora did like fruit. She’d enjoyed helping Nonna in the rooftop garden in Portland. For round-trip bus tickets to visit Nonna, Cora needed money. Hence, her fate was sealed—a picker she would be.
“Don’t worry,” the 4-H girls said. “In the fields, you’ll have fun with friends.” What friends? Marta worked with her mom’s flowers. Betsy worked as a crate-checker, not picking. Mike had to help move irrigation pipe, mend fence, and whatever else needed doing on his family’s farm. She’d be lucky to see him at some event like the Stayton 4th of July Parade, or the County Fair, but there were no guarantees.
Her life as a picker began at ghastly 5:00 a.m. the second June Monday. No need to take a shower, Betsy had told her, she’d come home stinky and stained with berry juice. By 5:45 A.M., she and her mother finished gobbling toast and fried eggs, grabbed icy cans of Shasta cola from the freezer, and wrapped Mason jars of water in newspaper. To their sacks, they added peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, napkins, and toilet paper to use in an outhouse. Ugh.
Cora and her mom had only hiked twice before to the bottom of the one-lane road from the top of Pond Hill, but Mrs. Briggs, the 4-H leader, had told Cora, “If you go behind your farm to Haver’s, it isn’t more than a thirty-minute walk on gravel. I’ll give you a lift home. Your mother might want to pick for pocket money. I’ll call her.”
“Cheer up. It’s not for the whole day. Mrs. Briggs promised she’d come for us at 1:30. She said when the sun becomes too hot, berries become mushy. It will not be every day. There are days off between crops and for 4-H members to compete in the fair.” Cora wasn’t raising her sweet lamb, Itty Bit, so some rancher could buy her to murder for lamb-chops. She heard if you worked till the end of the season at Haver’s, you got a bonus, a picnic the farm hosted at Detroit Lake. Big deal, one trip to a lake after a summer of work. “Is it legal for a farmer to insist workers stay till a crop’s all picked? And what about minimum wage law?”
“My old bosses, Bellini or Moskowitz, could answer in a second. I doubt anyone checks what a farmer pays the young people or even adults.”
“That’s not fair.” Maybe Cora would become a labor lawyer like her mom’s former bosses. She wouldn’t waste her education. Instead of fattening themselves for slaughter, the cattle they passed should’ve leaped the barbed wire fences, hid behind bushes, kicked any human closing in. What if her parents ran out of money and needed her to drop out of school to work? She’d be damned if she let that happen. It was wrong a wife had to abandon a career because her husband inherited a dilapidated farm. Top of her class in business college after only one year in America, her mom was a linguist who spoke Italian and dialects, French, Spanish, and English. But the legal secretary, who wore dark suits and pumps to a law office, was hoofing it downhill in her husband’s old shirt, frayed at the collar and cuffs, overalls and a goofy straw sombrero that looked scavenged from a scarecrow.
Cora kicked rocks in the road. They passed cows imprisoned by barbed wire, oak, Douglas fir, and blackberry thickets higher than their heads.
“Keep away from the edge, hon. Thorns really hurt.”
“Don’t I know?” Cora’d gotten scratched up plenty in their garden. “I could walk by myself. I still don’t get why you’re making yourself do work so beneath you?”
“A break from housework, different scenery, to make friends. When I have a car, our lives they will be better. Even poor pay will be money I won’t ask your father for. ”
“But you keep the accounts. Cook Italian specials at Don’s. Why beg Dad for money?”
“I don’t beg him. We discuss. The farm costs much.”
“But there must be a better job for you.”
“Not in Mint. Today, think of strawberry shortcake. Mrs. Briggs said at the field, berries we buy cost little.”
Who, unfortunately, will be the assistant, hulling, slicing, stirring those berries?
“Look how beautiful Mount Jefferson is,” her mom said.
The snow-capped mountain glittered, but it didn’t match the beauty of Portland’s view of Mount Hood. Along the road down to Haver’s, beer bottles lay smashed. Foxgloves struggled to bloom through rusted mattress-coils. Hoodlums-in-the-making like Ron Weems must’ve dumped it. Cora tripped. If she broke a leg, she wouldn’t make any money for bus fare. Nonna’s heart problems made it hard for her to visit Cora on the farm. She needed Nonna to tell her about Jewish life in Italy, about Assisi, Pitigiano, and Rome, hiding, arriving in America. Nonna listened to her. She never called Cora “lazy” or “spoiled.”
Recently, Cora noticed Nonna tiring and suggested she rest. Vederti è la migliore medicina una nonna potrebbe avere, Nonna said. Seeing you is the best medicine a grandmother could have.”
At the field, strawberries glittered. Kids, already picking, stuffed their mouths. Rosy juice dripped down their chins. Cora would eat all the strawberries she wanted here. The air wrapped her in strawberry perfume. Picking might not be all-bad.
Many pickers were grade-school kids, plus a few parents. Teens, except Cora, had the better jobs like row boss, irrigation pipe mover, or checker. Betsy left the sign-in table and had Cora and her mom follow her to a row brimming with fruit. “Watch me,” Betsy said. “Pick like this.” She placed a flat wooden carrier on the ground. Both her hands plucked berries from the plants. Cora and her mom thanked her.
After about ten minutes, her mom said, “Speed up, or you will not make much money.”
What planet was her mother on? Cora worked as fast as she could. She knelt in the damp dirt, muddying her jeans. She only had two pairs. If she wore out the knees, she’d have to sew on patches like a hobo. She wore one of her dad’s stained, long-sleeved shirts. Sweat-soaked sleeves stuck to her arms. As she stooped, Cora pictured being crushed like a bug.
The nastiest girl from 4-H, Doris, row boss on duty, where Cora slaved, appeared above her as Cora put a strawberry in a crate with her left hand, popping one into her mouth with her right.
“You’re here to pick, not eat.”
Everybody ate while picking. All Doris had to do was look at faces around her. She lorded it over Cora. Fellow 4-H members were supposed to show solidarity, but not that bratty boss. “You better pick clean.” Doris pointed at Cora’s crate. The crate was full of berries, no weeds or leaves.
Cora straightened, hands hips, and looked daggers at Doris, made- up with eyeliner, mascara, and lipstick as if that would make a sour-face, attractive.
“Go ahead, show me. If you locate one weed, I’ll give you my earnings for the crate. If you can’t find one, you pay me. Fair is fair, right?”
Doris wagged her finger. “You don’t know the first thing about picking. Picking clean means to make sure to pick every berry off a plant before starting the next one. Look at those ripe ones you missed. Pick the clumps clean.”
“It woudn’t kill you to explain first.”
Her mom materialized beside Cora. She reached out her hand, no matter how berry-stained, to shake Doris’ and smiled as if she hadn’t heard Doris snarl. “I’ve not had the pleasure to meet you. I’m Mrs. Terrell.”
Doris said her name. Cora expected her mom to frown since she’d told her about Doris’ nastiness. However, she smiled at Doris. “Cora, she told me of your excellent presentations at 4-H. You’re one of those nice girls who help teach her.”
“I was explaining that all ripe berries on a clump must be picked.” Doris winced. “Not just ones on the outside.”
“We wouldn’t want to waste them.” Cora’s mother nodded. As Doris scurried off, her mother whispered, “Al piu potente ceda, il piu prudente. Better to act a little with respect and protect yourself.”
“That grouch yelled at me not to eat berries.”
“With this type of boss, look like you’re listening, ignore later. With Fascists in Italy, we learned that lesson to stay living. Do not to eat more berries. Your stomach will ache.”
“I saw you eating some.”
“Yes, but I tasted spray. I stopped. So should you.”
Her mom had been getting caught up in news about birds and pesticide poison written by Rachel Carson.
Her Mom frowned. “Eating these strawberries is stealing.”
Ridiculous. The farmers paid a pittance. Cora speeded up. Every hallock—a grocery store-size berry box—meant piddly money, but cash. She’d be lucky to make five dollars that day. What if next winter her dad didn’t have work? Road construction didn’t start till April.
In a separate field, workers picked fast. “Mom, it’s sad, isn’t it, to see all those Mexicans stooped picking.”
“They may not only be Mexican. You can’t tell by skin. They could be Guatemalan, El Salvadoran, Nicaraguan. Many couldn’t go to school very long. In the law office, we also dealt with immigration cases for foreign teachers, doctors, lawyers here because wages in their countries are so low, they can’t support families, or they’re in danger.”
“Marta’s dad graduated from a university. He’s a businessman. Those people picking live in those shacks over across the field, god knows how many crowded in.” Strawberries dropped from Cora’s stained hands like blood running from Christ’s hands at the Catholic churches she’d gone to with her dad. “Why aren’t churches helping them? Isn’t the farmer a Christian?”
“Good question. Remember what you saw here. My back’s aching. Yours, too?”
“Every part of me hurts.”
Doris shouted, “Watch where you put your feet. Stop squashing berries. Don’t pick any green ones. If the cannery sees them, they refuse the whole load from Mr. Haver, and it’ll be your fault. ”
Jeez. How stupid did that jerk Doris think she was? Kindergarteners know the difference between red and green. She’d love to shove berries in Doris’ face. But she wouldn’t waste one berry on her.
Only nine-thirty—four more hours to go. She reached for the one cup tied with a string to the faucet. “Don’t ever use that cup,” her mom hollered. “That’s how people catch diphtheria.”
“Good thing we brought jars of water.” For once her mother was right. Cora felt woozy. Maybe she should stop stuffing berries in her mouth. Sweat coated her face, and her hair was sticking to her head under her Yankees cap
“Rub this on your face” her mom said. “You’re getting red.”
Cora didn’t mind slathering on Coppertone. The smell reminded her of Portland splash parties and walking in the Rose Garden with Nonna. She sipped cola, ice already melted.
At noon, she and her mother sank on the grass under a tree to eat. It would be a long hour till Mrs. Briggs came. Lunch done, her mother said, “We might as well pick.”
“Right. We won’t earn a penny sitting here.” Her mom reached to lift her. After the back-breaking work, Cora could barely straighten up.
When they checked out, Cora exchanged her tickets for the measly two dollars she stuffed in her pocket. Doris swaggered up. “Pathetic. You’re not gonna make college money if you keep working at your snail’s pace.”
“Thanks for reminding me.” Cora’s tone dripped sarcasm.
Betsy piped up, “Doris, that’s no way a 4-H member should talk. For the first day, Cora did well.”
“Doris, didn’t intend to be mean.” Cora made herself smile. If her mom could turn on the charm, so could she.
Doris blushed, “Gotta go,” and dashed off.
“Nice going,” Betsy giggled. “You have a future in the diplomatic corps.”
Some berry-stained diplomat in mud-streaked jeans.
“Mr. Haver will be informed about her nastiness. She’s out of here if she doesn’t shape up.”
“Fat chance. Mom told me an Italian expression like killing more flies with honey.” Though her arms hurt, she winked at her mom and carried their strawberries to bring home. Waiting under a tree, they watched kids having strawberry fights “Stop that right now,” Cora hollered. “Wasting good food.” The kids stuck out their tongues, but they stopped.
“Someone’s got to speak up.” Cora smiled.
“I’m proud of you”
This was about more than throwing berries. Feeling like her back would break, she was learning the hard way—what food costs.