When we went to high school in Abbotsford — raspberry capital of the world, apparently — Sam and I swore that we would never pick berries for a summer job. We used to see our friends scraped up from raspberry brambles, stooped over in the strawberry fields or bent over in the blueberry fields and we did not want to join them. Not even for the money or the supposed Fraser Valley rite of passage. Instead, we worked in a children’s book store and babysat, which were jobs that did not result in the kinds of aches and pains that no adolescent should ever endure.
And to be honest, I don’t think of berry picking as a quaint summer activity to do with your family. I still think of it as back-breaking work performed in some of the harshest conditions; pesticides and blazing sun and row upon row of ripe fruit that needs harvesting before it rots in the fields. But I’m learning to change my thinking about berry picking. Last year Esmé and I went with Finlay and his moms, and we had a great time and came home with buckets full of fresh raspberries. I could see the novelty of it, and it was genuinely fun popping those juicy morsels off the vine and enjoying some along the way.
When Jack suggested that we go berry picking last week, my first thoughts went again to hard labour. As in, why would I choose to do hard labour for fun? But then I remembered how much Esmé and I had enjoyed it, and so we piled into the car along with Auntie Sam, and headed for Driedeger Farms in Langley to pick some raspberries. It was a fiercely hot day, but I took some comfort that we’d be in the shade of the raspberry bushes.
Only, the raspberries weren’t quit ripe yet. But the strawberries were. My heart sank. Strawberry picking is the worst. But not according to Jack and Esmé, who ran into the field and happily set to work filling their bellies and their buckets. Even Hawksley enjoyed himself, crawling along the dirt paths and mashing dirty over-ripe berries into his gullet as he went. Me? I took pictures, and ate a couple of berries here and there. And they tasted amazing, warm and ripe and juicy. But the long rows of fruit and the bent over pickers reminded me of something much sadder.
When I was a teenager we lived down the street from the Buttars who had a strawberry farm. Their daughter was my friend, and so I was there a lot. We ate a lot of strawberries, but none that we picked. She didn’t want to pick them either. Instead, we’d hang out inside watching Indian soap operas with her grandmother and eating homemade samosas fresh from the fryer. With strawberries for dessert. I can’t mention the Buttars without mentioning the terrible house fire that happened in 2000. Five members of the Buttar family died in the fire. Including the grandma, and a little cousin of my friend.
Thinking about them knocked me back to my senses. All five of them. I could hear my children laughing, and Jack helping Esmé figure out which berries to pick. I could see Esmé swinging her bucket as she skipped down the row to where Jack was offering Hawksley another berry. I bent and picked one myself and popped it into my mouth. The taste of fresh strawberries right off the bush is unbeatable. And the sweet hot smell of a sunny summer day in the berry fields should be bottled and sold as a perfume to encourage world peace. It was a beautiful day with my family, all of whom are here to enjoy it. And thank goodness for that.