Crazy for Strawberries

Why do some memories, in their crystal clarity, stay with us as we age—while others fade, or disappear entirely? For this country girl from Norwichtown, Connecticut, the most enduring ones seem to be seasonal in personality, often associated with food,  bittersweet events, or both. They float into my consciousness in a reliable sequence every year, often with a thread of related memories.

In one of these memories, I see my dad and I picking strawberries at a Preston, Connecticut farm, about thirty years ago when I was in my 30s. This past year, it kept tickling my mind and heart as I longed for spring. This particular strawberry picking junket occurred during a June visit to my parents’ home, when my dad was about the age I am now.

With my dad gone nearly twenty years, this memory is a precious one to me, but it is incomplete. This is nagging at me.

Back then, in the 1990s, I was stopping off at my parents on my return from a business trip to Boston or Providence, just cannot recall. (Photo left taken about that time at my corporate job.)

As I came through the door to my childhood home, Dad’s first words were, “Well hello, do you want to go and pick strawberries with me?” No thought needed! I accepted.

My dad said that lately he liked picking at two different farms in Preston, a town located east of Norwich. As he backed out the driveway and started down the street, he smiled and said, “I know which one we’ll go to today!”

While he drove to our destination, Dad and I were chatting away, and honestly, I totally missed the drive and its turns. Before long we were exiting the car and the strawberry field was just a short walk ahead.

Where were we in Preston, I kept wondering this past spring. If my mother were still alive, she would laugh and say I flunked Paying Attention 101, again! Those of you who read my second book, The Ponemah Years are familiar with that life theme of hers. What I did take in, though, became a vivid and indelible image.

My dad and I enter the strawberry field. Rays of the late afternoon sun stream into the land. Brilliant and of perfect temperature, the day seems created just for us. The small idyllic field holds rows of strawberry plants. Their low, dense green leaves cloak most of their ruby treasures, but deep red clusters visible here and there preview a good picking. My dad blinks a smile, and then we each select a spot to begin. We are the only ones here. It is quiet, except for the periodic song of birds.

Just recalling the strawberry field and that afternoon with my dad brings in a flood of related strawberry season memories. Back in my childhood, our family would muster as many strawberry picking jaunts and eating cycles as the weather permitted from Father’s Day to the 4th of July. I bet we could have blindfolded Dad in those days, and he still could have navigated to Malerba’s Farm, located about four miles away in the East Great Plains section of Norwich. On weekdays, we went picking right after supper. When our baskets were full, almost beyond their capacity, Dad paid the cashier, placed our delicate cargo in a protective box in the car, and we headed home as the sun was setting.

Dad and Mom had honed their berry fixing process. Mom sliced off the caps, losing as little strawberry goodness as possible, and then washed the berries. Dad then cut the strawberries lengthwise in quarters, often filling our largest Pyrex mixing bowl. The two of them sampled a few berries, decided on how much sugar, stirred it in, and then waited for the clear crimson syrup to flood the strawberries. It was a long thirty to sixty minutes of waiting for all of us, but especially for Dad. He emphasized, though, how the beautiful syrup was worth the wait, since the syrup was the secret ingredient in super tasty strawberry shortcake.

While he waited for the syrup to generate, Mom whipped the cream and my sisters and I often helped her set up the kitchen table with shortcakes, dishes, utensils, and milk. Dad typically distracted himself with a magazine or a TV program, but he walked back into the kitchen to check the syrup status several times. When his excited voice announced, “Oh boy, the berries are ready,” we all lined up to make our own shortcake. A generous ladle of strawberries and syrup would soak a soft, round Hostess sponge cake. With a big dollop of just-whipped heavy cream, every spoonful seemed a heavenly creation. The only sound that could be heard at our kitchen table was the occasional crunch of a strawberry seed. Dad gobbled down the luscious strawberry shortcake in what seemed a few bites, at a speed even faster than his quick eating pace. He claimed he adopted the no-nonsense eating clip during his 1940s military service days, when meals could be cut short by a call-up.

When native strawberries were in season, my dad used every breakfast, lunch, and supper as an opportunity to take in his most favored fruit. I couldn’t resist snapping this 1960s photo of him one evening after someone in the family lovingly teased Dad about how crazy he was for strawberries. He laughed and then beamed, as an idea struck him.

To demonstrate this truth, he placed three sponge cakes in a large mixing bowl, loaded on the berries and whipped cream, and practically inhaled the treat that might have fed three people. My mom, two sisters and I stood there astounded at how fast he put away this mountain of his delight. My mom commented that he’d probably be visiting the medicine cabinet later for an antacid tablet, but anyone who ever watched Dad eat strawberry shortcake could feel his joy—as he downed each mouthful of the delicious deep red jewels, cream, and syrup soaked cake.

Well… this past spring, I wanted to solve the mystery of the Preston location. I messaged a high school classmate who grew up in Preston, to ask if she or her brother (who still managed a farm there) might identify the farm from my 1990s memory. I extend my personal thanks to them for giving this question some thought on my behalf. They felt the setting was likely Maple Lane Farms. Allyn Brown, the owner, concurred via email that the location described was his farm. He invited us to drop by and walk around.

A week or so later, my husband and I attended a music event connected to my schooldays, after which we visited Maple Lane Farms in Preston. After passing miles of gorgeous countryside along Route 164, we turned into the Farm’s street. It was late afternoon, just like in my memory. The land and stonewalls on both sides of the street did look familiar to me.

After we parked the car and began to walk around, we noticed three men conversing by one of the stonewalls. One was Allyn. Together they zoned in, discussing the history of the field I wanted to see and then pointed us in that direction, suggesting we walk through the adjacent field where the long grass was being cut, literally while we were talking. What a terrific convenience… and coincidence! Couldn’t help but wonder if Allyn (or my dad) had a hand in that…

Time had passed and things change. The strawberry field from the 1990s, in which my dad and I picked, was now part of the back yard of a residence. Its house and front lawn occupied the former parking lot. So, as we walked down the field which was being cut, the former strawberry field was located to our left. I believe I spotted the space where my dad and I picked strawberries. The rows of strawberry plants had vanished and the middle bulged with bushy growth, but the size of the stonewall border seemed right.  The woodland always takes over, if you allow it. I decided not to snap a photo. Instead, I closed my eyes…

Dad and I are picking beautiful, ripe strawberries. We aren’t conversing. I am somewhat distracted from my picking—looking up and around. Weathered gray stonewalls edge the field, their lengths dotted with majestic maples. The compact field measures, perhaps, one hundred feet square. What an exquisite strawberry field! It could be the subject of a painting. I understand why he loves picking here.

I sense that Dad just wants some company while he spends time doing one of his favorite life activities. In the quiet, we clip the berry stems with our thumbnails and gently place the jewels in our boxes.  An occasional breeze carries the distinctive scent of strawberries. The texture of each strawberry brushes my fingertips.

In the silence, I am sure, my dad had weighty things on his mind. By the early 1990s, Dad’s good health had changed. He had survived open heart surgery, and was dealing more recently with a cancer diagnosis. Never a person who complained or whined about unpleasant things, he was typical of the best from “the greatest generation.” They weren’t the most important thing in their own lives; their children were. His and my mother’s generation tended to put thought into things and adapt. So, instead of shifting some of the burden to me that day in the strawberry field, he held it within himself. He knew of this extraordinary place, wanted to share it with me, and knew I would appreciate it.

It is July 4th as I write this, and I feel proud that my dad enlisted prior to the U.S. entry into WWII. He was only twenty years old.

Yes, he was young, they all were, ready to do what was necessary to protect our freedom in the face of evil. He even agreed to extend his service for two more years when they asked.

I know he was grateful to return home alive following WWII. When my sisters and I were growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I think he made the most of every day and the joys to be found in it.

In the years my sisters and I were growing up, he shared those simple joys with us. Those moments created powerful memories. I didn’t realize it in those years, but I was becoming a person of the seasons, like my dad. Though many of my suburban friends consider me quaint, we still plant a small vegetable garden, grow my dad’s golden raspberries, and pay attention to my internal clock. It alerts me—when it’s time for the harvesting of delicious fruit and produce (from local farms).

Who wouldn’t want to savor the magic in fresh blueberries, peaches, plums, raspberries, tomatoes, cukes, squash, etc.? So many memories connected to fruits and vegetables endure. But, I also see my dad’s face. It is lit with either his joyful quiet or his exuberance, while he anticipates or consumes the sun ripened tomatoes, fresh corn, fall apples, and of course, the strawberries he loved—and loved to share with us.

 


Comments

Crazy for Strawberries — 2 Comments

  1. Bernice,

    What a touching tribute to your father, and so powerfully evocative of cherished memories of a bygone but golden time! Your blog post was such a delight to read.

    The fruit that inspired familial memories for me was the old Italian prune plum tree that came with the house that we moved into when I was ten. It wasn’t particularly big or tall (maybe six and half feet tall by three feet wide), but for (at least) the next 10 to 15 years, every year its branches were weighed down with so much fruit that eating the small dark purple beauties as they ripened was not an option, nor was just giving away ice cream tubs of them to family and friends. We canned and canned and canned, and still had to give away lots (as jams) as gifts!

    I am reminded of that incredible bounty every time I can our homegrown fruit! 🙂

    Hui

    • Thank you, Hui. I love your warm remembrance of the petite Italian prune plum tree. The fruit of this tree is so delicious, especially fresh, but, as your family found, even the small trees deliver a huge volume of plums. Thanks for sharing this memory.

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