My first job was picking berries for Hicken Mountain Mowings, a sprawling farm in Dummerston, Vt. It was the summer of 1986. I was eleven years old and going into the 6th grade. My cousins—a family of Laotian girls a few years older than me—had worked for Mr. Hicken the previous summer. My parents talked me into giving it a try. I have the privilege to say that until then, I had never worked a hard day in my life.
The farm lay at the end of a series of sun-dappled dirt roads. The main house was a traditional butter-yellow New England farmhouse flanked by a low stone wall and a large canopied tree. A small parking area gave way to tractor paths, which we followed to find neatly tended fields of berries. As Mr. Hicken also sold tree fruits, I assume his spread included an orchard. I was not yet 5’ tall and could barely see over the raspberry bushes.
I suppose I had never seen a proper raspberry until then. I had assumed all raspberries were unripe blackberries—the button-sized nubs that grew wild on pricker bushes, and which I ate with abandon, staining my palms and lips a royal plum. Mr. Hicken’s berries were jewel toned and chamois-soft. They lacked tartness, but burst with liquid. They reminded me of bruised lips that had to be handled tenderly. Gentleness was imperative, as was speed. We were paid by the quart. I was the youngest and smallest of the girls and never earned as much as they.
The raspberry rows were so long, one could barely see from one end of the hedge to the other. Labyrinth like and endless, the hedgerows sprung my imagination. Alternatively talking to myself and listening to the conversations between the rows, I slowly filled my tray. We were called away for the lunch hour, which we spent on an unused hay wagon parked near the farmhouse. My cousins and I ate what we ate at home: sticky rice and hot sauce, dried meats and raw vegetables. We were back in the berry patch the rest of the afternoon, until our parents picked us up.
That first week of work went like this: my mother packing my lunch pail before heading to her housekeeping job, me watching the mist rise off the mountain in the slowly defining morning, riding with my cousins to the farm, filling quart after quart of giant dewy berries. Lunch. The trail of full trays I left behind in the rows I worked. Home.
Home where I’d immediately plop into the cushy sectional, and close my eyes for a breather, the first real rest I’d had all day. My body gone limp with relief. What I’d wanted was a few minutes to myself; what I got was raspberries. My days were so full of harvest, every time I closed my eyes, I would see berries. I took deep breaths and tried to forget the day. Instead, the imprint of those juicy fruits would remain even in the darkness behind my lids. It was maddening.
I delighted instead in the feeling of exhaustion that made my body tingle. I had never been an active child, my preference being reading and TV watching. Occasionally when peer pressure got the better of me, I joined in tag, softball or touch football. But I didn’t like games that had more than three rules, and I didn’t like to run. Berry-picking made me aware of my fingers, my callousing skin, my feet. My heart. All of me tingling.
My unwinding ritual was made even sweeter when I realized my parents secretly delighted in seeing me fully spent. I’d grown up in their eyes. They gave me the luxury of a quarter hour of doing nothing. And so I lay quiet as a mummy and tried to forget my day. I stretched those fifteen chore-free minutes into twenty, or until my mother called for me to help with dinner.
At eleven, I did not fathom that work could be a lifelong, tedious necessity. It was fun. This was the most independence I’d been given thus far. Mr. Hicken’s workers checked in on us throughout the day, but for the most part, I was entrusted with the work. Raspberry picking eventually led to blueberry picking. As we were moved around the fields, I ran into other summer workers, including a classmate of mine from the previous year.
Chad was sharing a row with his mother, whom I’d seen once during an open house. We said hellos. I supposed I would see him at lunchtime, but do not. And at school in the fall, we never mentioned that summer. Chad had given me a Valentine card in fifth grade. He’d drawn a copy of Chester the Cheetah (the Cheet-Os mascot) in it for me. He’d claimed that his family was a part of the KKK, which I had never heard of. He seemed proud of it. He was a clown. I liked him. At the end of sixth grade, he told me his family was moving back to Tennessee, which is where I always assumed he still lives.
The only other workers we associated with in the fields were two boys that my cousins knew from the previous year. By midsummer, I had developed a crush on Butch, the younger of the two. He rode in with the other boy, a teenager whom I’ll call Matthew. I suppose that my cousins went to school with Matthew. Butch was also going into the 6th grade, but he was twelve. He lived in Newfane, a town 30 miles from my own, and his head of chestnut locks was splotched with a natural patch of blonde at the crown. They ate sandwiches during lunch.
There are two instances at Hicken’s that have stayed with me: the time my cousin Maryanne discovered that Jesus Christ and God were not the same person, and the afternoon that Butch and I did not got back to work.
I always deferred to those older than me. And because Maryanne was attending catechism regularly, I assumed that when she said Jesus Christ and God were the same person, she’d had teachings far beyond my learning. Her wild reckless laugh shot through the leaves and dared anyone to argue. I remained quiet throughout her afternoon rant as I pondered how God could make a son without also becoming the Son himself. If they were one and the same, I wouldn’t have to duplicate my prayers. I knew Greek mythology. I understood that gods walked the Earth. By the end of the day, I was a true convert to Maryanne’s school of thought. Then during the ride home, she asked me why didn’t I correct her? I shrugged. Either Matthew or one of Mr. Hicken’s men set her straight. She laughed her rowdy, rough cackle all the way home, delighted with the truth.
I don’t remember the conversation Butch and I had as clearly. We were probably talking about our respective schools, and did I know what hockey was? The next thing I remember was Butch telling me a funny story about a friend of his. Our older companions had returned to the fields and we were alone on the hay wagon. He bragged about something. I bragged about something back. He told me a knock-knock joke. We laughed a lot that afternoon.
Nostalia has glazed this moment with the sweet patina of summer innocence. It had never occurred to me to join my cousins at their labor. If it had occurred to Butch, he did not suggest it. I was happy as a drunken butterfly. No one came to pluck us from our reverie. We’d forgotten about money, about the berries ripening on the stem. I’d forgotten completely about work.
Looking back now at my first job, I can see I have changed very little in my attitudes about work. It’s not money that motivates me. Or even the accomplishment of a good deed done. I’ve cared little about being better than my friends. What I really love is feeling alive inside my skin. Feeling full to the brim.
I saw Butch less after that day. He and I never played hooky again. Probably Mr. Hicken gave him a talking to, or Matthew did. Or his mother. After the summer ended, I never saw Butch again. My cousins worked at Dwight Miller’s farm the following summer. And as usual, I tagged along.