Chilly morning today, mid-October, not yet Cold in the sense of New England winter. Enough to bring out my knit hat, though, and gloves, if I’d remembered. Raspberries grow on the edge of the hayfield, Inherited from some long-ago farmer perhaps. Or grown up from an errant seed, planted by a wandering animal or resting bird. The crop is always small. Only effort we put into this messy collection of free bushes is to pick the berries on sunny days in the summer. Never enough to freeze, maybe a pie or two mixed with apples. If they even make it into the kitchen. We've had a frost or two already, cold rains and howling winds that stripped the autumn trees. But there they were, a small cluster of ripe berries. A gift, a promise of harvests to come. I picked them carefully, carried them gently in my ungloved hand. Seven fragile berries, all the way back to the kitchen. Beautiful enough to warrant cream in my cereal instead of the usual two-percent. Sweeter than the summer ones, more precious, these last raspberries of the year.
Nothing is quite like the first bite of a strawberry
Not from the fresh produce section at the supermarket
Because they were picked some time ago and Fresh
is gently plucked in the field, getting down on hands and knees and struggling
back up to walk the row for more. Then eating them for breakfast.
Once we had a pick-your-own strawberry farm.
We tended the fields from early spring until November.
In spring late frosts would sneak in from the North, and nights were spent irrigating the fields to save the crop. Days we battled weeds and blight,
and armies of gypsy moths that marched along the irrigation pipes and munched
on tender leaves and flowers.
Supervising groups of teenagers desperate enough
to try farm work to earn a dollar, we learned the truth of the old farmer’s mantra:
“One boy is a boy, two boys is half a boy, and three boys ain’t no boy at all.”
When people came at harvest time they saw the long, straight beds
raised up to house the roots in soil deep enough to nurture abundant growth, and rocks mysteriously gone, even though this is New England and rocks grow
over the winter to snare the spring time plow.
And after the harvest, we tended the fields until November, when finally we could put the fields to bed, covering the precious plants with mulch to see them safely
through the winter. Sometimes, depending on the weather,
we had to miss Thanksgiving dinner to beat the cold.
Only during the actual harvest time did I sit sometimes and rest.
The old timers came and picked without complaint,
blessing us with stories of their youth, when they picked a quart to earn a nickel.
The younger ones came, and city folk, too,
Who sometimes complained about the heat, the bugs, and the cost of berries.
One time as I was weighing a woman’s tray of berries, she said to me:
“Running a pick-your-own farm seems like a good idea. All you have to do is sit there and collect the money, while we do all the work.”
I’m pretty sure she was in the city folk category, so I gave her a pass and didn’t reply. Or bury her way in the back of the field, which is what my sun-burned, mosquito-bitten, blistered and exhausted brain told me to do!
It occurs to me, though, that most of us humans make this mistake too often. We get a very small glimpse into someone’s life and make very big assumptions about what it is like for them every day of every month of every year.
There is milkweed in the rye field.
Orange daylilies, creeping
bellflower, bird vetch, too.
Queen Anne’s Lace, prairie fleabane.
Wild turkeys hide within and mock
the farmer’s plan.
He plowed and planted rye, but then
The tractor died.
Man plans, God laughs, they say.
©Martha Hurwitz, 8/10/20
Photo by Author
We’d been living on the farm for a few years and still didn’t have indoor plumbing. This wasn’t a big problem as far as I was concerned, being an outdoor, non-squeamish type of girl child (at that pre-feminist time referred to as a “tomboy” because, you know, girls don’t climb fences, or god forbid, pee in the woods)!
Frankly, I do sometimes wonder what it was like for my mother to deal with diapers and toilet training without indoor plumbing, not to mention doing the laundry. Knowing her upbringing and that she had internalized the messages about being a “good” (i.e. submissive) wife, it’s doubtful she complained much–at least not out loud.
After all, my mother’s mother, Grandma Ila Thomas Collins, had presided over all domestic chores on the family farm, initially without electricity, flush toilets or running water. Grandma Ila was a kind, loving and tolerant woman, but she definitely had her standards when it came to housekeeping.
My mother once told me that her mother ironed the bedsheets. For me, the idea of ironing bedsheets belongs in the triple-OCD category, and is not something that my laissez-faire self would even consider. It would be difficult enough with modern fabric and a fancy steam iron, but my grandmother did it with a cast iron that had to be heated up on the woodstove–even in the summertime!
So my mother was primed to go along with my father’s desire to be a farmer and to live the “good life” in the country. But after a couple years on the farm, enough was enough. She was pregnant at the time with a third child and at that time women usually remained in the hospital many days after giving birth. According to family legend, my mother made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that she would not be returning to the farm unless indoor plumbing was part of the deal.
Somehow my father and our hired man managed to install a “bathroom.” Knowing my father I am sure it happened the night before my mother and new brother were scheduled to come home. The bathroom (flush toilet and small sink) was stuffed into a corner of my parents’ bedroom and the wall studs were in place. As far as I can remember, the walls were never finished, and a shower was eventually installed in the basement.
This must have satisfied my mother because she came home. I remember well when our car pulled up in front of the house and my brother, Warren, opened the passenger side front door. Our new brother, Steve, lay wrapped up in a blanket on the front seat next to our mother. “Oh, isn’t he cute,” Warren said. I don’t think I said anything and don’t have any recollection of whether I was glad to have another brother, or just happy to have my mother back home. Time has a way of blurring memories and re-framing them over the years with other events.
I do know that during our childhood years there were many conflicts and struggles among the three of us. Despite Warren’s initial positive comment, we were not always kind and considerate, and sometimes were downright mean. It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say that we didn’t love each other, but we often acted as if we didn’t like or care about each other very much.
While I will always feel sadness over the time we wasted in conflict, life doesn’t give us “do-overs,” but instead provides numerous “do-betters.” During our adult years, my brothers and I have come to realize that children can only respond and interact in ways that fit into whatever paradigm they live in. My brothers and I have developed a level of understanding about where we came from, have forgiven each other for the hurts and love each other very much. I will always be glad that my mother made that deal, won the bargain and brought home my little brother.
©Martha Hurwitz, 6/17/20
Growing up on a farm was probably not my original destiny. We ended up there because my father was convinced it was his path to a life filled with a deep sense of accomplishment and belonging.
My mother came from a long line of northern Vermont farmers, and was born at the family farmhouse. My father, on the other hand, was the first child of Jewish immigrants, born in Flushing, NY, and raised to follow the upward mobility track.
After he met my mother, my father was exposed to the comforting security of life as a long-time member of a small, rural community. Even immigrants and their children who work their way up and achieve the American dream can suffer a lifetime of unease and insecurity over whether they really belong at whatever level of achievement they have arrived at. I’m pretty sure my father thought his in-laws had such a secure sense of belonging because they were farmers, and not from the fact that their ancestors had lived in the same area for well over a hundred years, and were white and Protestant like most everyone else in their farming community.
By the time his first two children (myself and a brother 2 years younger) had arrived, our father was working as a full-time professor at a college near Albany, New York. Although he had achieved the status and success expected of him, his hunger for the security that he sensed in farm life nagged and nagged at his spirit until he finally decided to purchase a rundown, raggedy old farmstead about 20 miles from the college.
I have only fleeting memories from the time before the farm, but having lived there from the age of five to my early teens, memories abound of life on the farm. When I call this a farm, try not to imagine a neat, white house with picket fence lined by abundant hollyhocks, lupines and sweet smelling roses. Or a red barn, freshly painted, with secure fencing surrounding lush pastures where healthy cows graze contentedly.
Don’t even think about imagining indoor plumbing, running water, or heat that is produced by turning up the thermostat. To be honest, we had running water. It ran from the well, through a rubber hose into a hand pump installed just outside the front door, on what could only be called a stoop, and not a very nice one either. I can’t imagine the pump didn’t freeze up during the winter. Of course, without running water, there was no bathroom.
We had an outhouse a short walk from the kitchen door. This was in the days before commercially available composting toilets, but it did eventually produce compost. Many years later my brothers and I paid a visit to the current residents of the house. They told us about how they found lots of interesting vintage bottles after digging that area up when putting in a foundation for a garage. Composting and recycling all in one humble facility! We were so very far ahead of the times!
After several years we did get an indoor shower (in the basement) and an indoor toilet. The story of how that finally came about will be told another day. And there will be stories, too, of the expansive nature of childhood play on an old farm outside a small town before the days when every stranger was suspect and neighbors actually knew your name.
If you would like to know what motivated me to create this blog site, please read here.
©Martha Hurwitz, 4/19/20