July is the month we say goodbye to some regular writers who have aged out or are moving on to other projects. We’re extra thankful for Paula today—she’s been writing with us since August 2017.
Every year, Mom ruffles through the stacks of paper in the drawer beneath the telephone at the end of the hallway. She finds it tucked between newspaper clippings and takeout menus–a simple half page flier proclaiming: “U-PICK BLUEBERRIES” with a hand-drawn map to the patch. The hours and prices and a phone number are also listed, but the ad is now nearly two decades old, so she calls the number from the landline phone: “Hi, are you picking today? Ah, oh, good! How much per pound?”
We’re all here for the week: Mom, Dad, Jonathan, Gregory, and myself, just like we were last year and the year before that and the year before that. Like years prior, the next fifteen minutes are spent persuading everyone to go blueberry picking. It’s an easy enough sell for me, and Jonathan and Gregory, too—they appreciate the tradition, though it wasn’t always that way. Dad always says no and that he’ll contribute by making a blueberry pie, which is a funny way to say that he’ll contribute by eating blueberry pie. Last year we managed to convince Dad to come along, and we packed beers in the little blue cooler as a reward: one for Dad (for being agreeable) and three for us (for convincing him to join). We forgot the bottle opener, so Dad said something about angles and physics and managed to crack open the bottles on a fence post with a deft whack.
I find the stack of Dean’s ice cream tubs (the milky white ones with the blue handles) in the garage next to the water skis and beach toys, and Mom reminds us to bring a belt or a rope—it’s easier to pick when the bucket is tied around your waist. Mom puts the red square Tupperware containers in the back of the car, along with water bottles, sunscreen, and a wet washcloth in a Ziploc bag (for sticky hands). We drive half an hour to the farm—along the lakeshore, past the campground, a left turn towards town, then a right turn, a country road, and then a gravel road until the small painted sign greets us to our left: “U-PICK BLUEBERRIES.” Now it’s just a short drive down the packed dirt path to the makeshift parking lot where we spill out of the car with our ropes and water bottles. It’s the late-July cicadas kind of hot, with the white-bright kind of sunlight, and our feet kick up dust as we walk past rows of bushes. We receive a hearty “Welcome, hullo! Glad you’re here!” from the blueberry man, who is sitting in a plastic patio chair next to an old truck filled with boxes and buckets. I wonder if he remembers us from last year and the year before that and the year before that. He hands us red buckets with thin metal handles, and Mom asks for an extra. “Marilynn’ll show you where to pick,” he says, and motions to his wife, who wears a pink styrofoam visor and a sparkly-eyed smile. She leads us to a row of bushes, and I double knot the bucket around my waist, because “remember that one year, Gregory, when you lost all your blueberries because the knot was loose?” Marilynn reminds us to eat while we pick, an invitation that I’ve already taken advantage of—tart sweet as the warm berries burst against my teeth and tongue.
We begin at the end of the row, two to a bush, and pick until the bush is clean. This rule bothered me when I was young—why spend so much time in one place, if there’s a patch full of berries to pick? The plump berries are easy to finger-thumb-roll-plunk into our buckets, and soon the bucket bottom is covered and the ropes dig into our hip bones. We slide into a blurred mix of scripted tradition and easy conversation: “Mom, tell us again about blueberry picking when you were a kid.” She will share about her first summer job and her first paycheck: picking for seven cents a pound and listening to “Monster Mash” on WGRD over the transistor radio they hung in the branches of the bushes. She will tell us about Boots, the smelly farm collie who barked at the mice that scurried between the rows. She’ll show us how they flung blueberries from the supple inner branches of the bush when the farmer’s wife wasn’t looking, and then we’ll launch a few blueberries at each other across the patch. About now, Mom will have a bucket full and she’ll begin on her second. Gregory will hold the big blueberries up to his eyes, and Mom will laugh and say that he’s always had blueberry eyes. Jonathan will look up at the sun, squint, and then sneeze, because he’s sensitive to sunlight and even though he’s glad to be here, inside he’s maybe wishing he was inside. Mom’ll say, “Ok, we can go after this bucket is full.” We pick faster and fill her bucket with handfuls of berries. The sun is high, and we’ve drained the last sips from our water bottles.
We bring our berries to the blueberry man at the front of the patch and pay in cash or check, please. We pour the berries into the ice cream tubs and red Tupperware and wipe our stained and dusty hands with the wet washcloth and pile long-limbed into the car and sting our fingers on the hot seat belt buckles. We roll the windows down on our way home and stop by the farm stand that sells maple syrup candy—the sandy-colored kind that’s pressed into the shape of a leaf. Then we take the country road, the left turn, the right turn towards the campground, and then the road along the lakeshore back to the cottage, just like the year before and the year before that and the year before that. That’s blueberry season.
Paula Manni (‘13) works as Arts Programming Coordinator and is an arts advocate for the Calvin College community. She enjoys throwing parties on the side, and fills in the gaps with wine making, music listening, museum visiting, and Michigan exploring.