Back in 1973, I lived in Oregon. It was hard times. The state had been in a deep recession for several years. My husband was out of work, and I, too, had been laid off. We had two children, ages 4 and 8.
For days I scoured the want ads and sent out resumés, but had absolutely no luck. To economize, we’d moved to a small apartment, but with utilities, groceries, and gas for our VW Bug, our money wouldn’t last long. I could only hope our aging car would keep running and we wouldn’t have unexpected expenses like doctor or hospital bills.
Summer arrived. I realized there wouldn’t be that much time before the school year began. How was I to buy even the basics—pencils, crayons, and paper, much less new shoes?
Heading home one morning after dropping off one more resumé, I drove past fields of berries and beans. I could see the workers, some stooped over, some almost crawling, filling large flats with rich, red strawberries.
Near a drive-through gate, there was a large hand-lettered wooden sign: “Pickers wanted. Paid every day.”
I quickly turned and headed up the rough, rutted dirt road. A long table stood not far from the gate. There a tall, skinny, white-haired man in overalls was busy at a large scale while a gray-haired woman sitting in a rusty metal chair wrote numbers and weights on a chart. A line of men, women, and a few older children waited with flats heaped with strawberries.
As I waited and listened to the chatter, I realized that most of the workers spoke very little English.
When my turn came, I stumbled on my own words. “I…I need a job.”
The woman rolled her eyes and spoke in a raspy smoker’s voice, “We don’t need pickers. You go on and look for a real job.”
My voice grew louder. “I need a job, any job. I don’t even have money for shoes for my kids.” I looked away, ashamed of begging.
“Betty,” said the old man with a snort. “Let her try. She won’t last.”
The next morning , just as pale pink light crept over the hills, I pulled up and parked between a faded green station wagon and a flatbed truck with wooden racks. Three boys and a girl around nine or ten tumbled out of the wagon and ran, followed by a younger boy complaining loudly in Spanish. He did his best to catch them, then stopped and slowly walked back, his shoulders slumped in defeat.
That’s when I noticed the old woman struggling out of the front seat of the station wagon. She was so small her jeans must have come from the children’s department. She said something to the boy, patted him on the shoulders, tied back her long gray braids, and went to pick up one of the empty plastic carriers.
I got my own tray and followed directions to my assigned row. At first I bent from the waist to work; strawberries grow close to the ground. Before long I felt a sharp pain across the middle of my back. I switched to hands and knees, but the gritty soil soon made that painful, too, so once again I stood.
It was a hot day and promised to be hotter: Sweat was already seeping from the bandana I’d tied around my head. I stooped for a row and knelt for the next one, back and forth, finding some small relief.
The tiny woman with braids worked in the next row. She walked slowly as if she hurt, but her hands were fast. It seemed no time before her tray was full. Mine wasn’t even half.
At last a whistle announced lunch break. I went to the car for my peanut butter sandwich and thermos of coffee. Picking them up, I felt a soft touch on my shoulder. I turned and there was the old woman. She spoke in Spanish, motioning me to come with her.
I tried one of my few Spanish words, “Gracias,” then added, “but I brought lunch.” I showed her my sandwich. She spoke slowly, “No, no. Much food. You come.”
She walked off and left me to follow. When I caught up, she patted her chest and said, “Manuela.” I patted mine and said, “Pamela.”
Under the trees along the road, there were two large picnic tables set end-to-end. They were covered with pots, plates, bowls, and baskets. It was a feast—beans, enchiladas, tamales, a sweet lime drink in a 10-gallon cooler, some enormous spice cookies shaped like pigs, and delicious-smelling things I didn’t recognize.
People filled up their plates and sat on the grass, on car tailgates, and—a few—on chairs. Manuela sat me down and filled my plate with a bit of everything before she filled hers.
When we went back to work, Manuela came to my row and handed me two large sponges and a handful of safety pins. She pointed to her knees, then to mine. Working with sponges pinned inside my jeans made the afternoon go much faster.
My first day ended with embarrassment when the man in overalls loudly counted into my hand, “Twenty, five, and two ones make twenty-seven dollars.” Manuela made seventy dollars more than that. I saw some workers collect well over a hundred.
I went back the next day, and the next, and the next. Each night I fell into bed exhausted, but looking forward to the next day. In a few weeks, we changed fields and crops. The warm quiet mornings calmed my worrying, and the easy laughter and teasing at breaks and lunchtime lifted my spirits (even though my Spanish vocabulary remained extremely limited).
Eventually I learned to pick faster. My biggest payout was still under sixty dollars, but it helped pay the bills and bought my kids school shoes and supplies. We even splurged on an entire day at the Oregon State Fair—and stayed for the night-time rodeo.
I had planned to quit as soon as I found something else, but as the days passed, I stopped job hunting. When the season came to an end, it was hard to say goodbye. Manuela and her family were leaving for the apple harvest up north along the Columbia River Gorge.
In 1981 my second husband and I moved to his family’s mountain ranch in northern California. Since then our garden has gone through many transitions, but for more than ten years we have grown organic produce that we deliver door-to-door. Our specialty is heirloom tomatoes.
Along with many other things, we grow strawberries. Every time I pick them, I remember Manuela and her kindness and hospitality to a fumbling stranger.
As usual this morning, I was out in the garden soon after day-break. The cool breeze and a moist hint of dew felt so good after weeks of high temperatures. The quiet was occasionally interrupted by the scolding cries of a pack of Steller’s jays, our garden gangsters. I scolded back, laughed at their demands, and, like a good worker, kept picking. ❖