Picking Clean

SH-StrawberriesYou can visit Carding any time in my novels, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, and The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life. The fourth in the series, Coming Up for Air, will be out later this year.

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When I was a kid, my grandfather was the man I looked up to and admired most in my life. He was straightforward, honest, worked hard, and treated everyone with respect and courtesy.

When he retired, Grampa expanded his home garden into several acres, growing blueberries, strawberries, corn, and lots of different vegetables. In addition to hoeing and weeding and planting and picking, my cousin and I (being the oldest grandkids) ran his roadside stand.

Grampa taught me that you did more than expected for your customers so they would come back. He taught me that a reputation was precious, and a good reputation the most precious of all.

To this day, every time I pick strawberries or blueberries, I think of him. He inspired this story. It was originally published in the summer of 2016.

Edie Wolfe squinted up at the sky while she waited for her friend Andy Cooper to retrieve their cardboard flats from the back of his pickup. As planned, they were the first customers of the day at the Tennyson strawberry patch so they could pick while it was still cool.

“Good thing we’re getting dew in the mornings or we wouldn’t be getting any water at all,” Andy remarked as he handed one of the pails to Edie. “Can’t believe how dry this summer is.”

She nodded. “Look, the mist has already risen halfway up the trees. Let’s walk over to the eastern corner of the patch. The shade lasts longest there.”

Lee Tennyson smiled at they approached the weighing station then reached down to pick up his eldest son, Scott, planting the child’s feet on a wooden box so he could reach the scale. “What do you say to folks when they come up to you?” Lee prompted.

Scott grinned from one seven-year old ear to the other, showing off the gap where an adult tooth was slowing taking its place in his mouth. “Good morning,” he squealed. “Do you want to pick taw-berries?”

Edie giggled. “I would, yes.”

Scott glanced at his father who nodded encouragement. “Okay, put your flats here.” He pointed to the scale’s platform then turned back to Lee. “What do I do now, Daddy?”

Lee handed him a roll of masking tape. “You tear off a piece of this, and stick it on the outside of the flat.”

Scott spun off a footlong length from the roll and onto his shirt before Lee could intervene. Andy turned away to hide his smile, remembering when his own sons were that size and helping out in his store for the first time.

“What now Daddy?”

“Hmmm, may I provide some assistance?” Edie asked, carefully keeping a serious expression on her face.

“Yeah, sure. Is that okay Daddy?” Scott asked.

Lee nodded. “Oh yes, especially with Edie. She is very good at assistance.”

Edie tore a small piece of tape from Scott’s shirt, and stuck it to the side of her flat. “Now what do I do?” she asked.

“You…you…you put the flat on the scale.” The child suddenly stopped, his whole face tied up in a smile of delight.

“I did,” Lee said, checking the weight of Edie’s flat, and handing his son a marker. “Now, can you put a dot and then a three and a zero on the tape?”

Scott nodded, and applied the tip of his tongue to the corner of his mouth, his eyebrows bunching up over his nose as he slowly marked the tape. Then he handed the cardboard strawberry container to Edie. “Here you are. Pick clean!”

Edie and Andy shared a chuckle as they walked away. “And another Tennyson generation enters the strawberry business,” Andy said.

Edie sighed as she popped a fat berry into her mouth, and squashed it with her tongue. “Pick clean,” she said as they settled at adjacent bushes. The morning mist now floated high above their heads, and a small breeze fussed with the leaves of nearby maples. “Those words always make me think of my grandfather when we picked berries from his patch.”

“Leave no suitable berry behind,” Andy said.

The two friends thumbed fruit from the low-lying plants in a silence unbroken except for the occasional grunt as one or the other of them straightened up to ease their back. Edie’s mind soared a million miles away as she thought about her grandfather’s face, its expression always intent on the job at hand.

Even though David Wolfe had raised his family during the Depression, he never talked about it much. But Edie knew it had shaped his world view. It’s why he gleaned every berry possible from a bush, and fed vegetable scraps to a small clutch of hens he kept in his backyard.

It’s also why, when he had to cut back on his newspaper’s payroll, Grampa Wolfe made sure that every one of his employees got a share of the work that was available.

“You never know what’s going to happen, Edie. Some day you may need help and these folks will remember that,” he’d say. “That’s why it’s important to take care of yourself and your family and your neighbors. We’re all in this together.”

Edie pulled her mind back to the business at hand, and checked the ground near her feet for a good place to kneel. She tried to keep her small “oomph” to herself as she lowered herself to the ground though why she bothered, she had no idea. Andy’s knees weren’t any better than hers, and his groans were always audible.

After a while, she stopped to examine her work site, checking to be sure no berry had been left behind. Edie had spent a lot of time with her grandparents when she was a little girl. Even though she’d admired her Dad, Senator Danielson Wolfe, she cherished her grandfather, and learned her greatest life lessons from him.

Pick it clean = Always do the best job possible.

Be polite = Treat other folks with respect.

Check your math = Make sure you’re honest with other people’s money.

Don’t interrupt = Be sure to listen because you learn more that way.

“How ya doin’?” Andy asked as he reached down to help Edie up.

She brushed her knees then gave her back a stretch. “Got enough for a couple of shortcakes and then some,” she said, indicating her flat full of red fruit.

“Shortcake?” Andy’s whole face turned up.

Edie nodded. “There might be some with your name on it if you bring the ice cream.”

The two friends started back up the path, nodding to neighbors and friends headed in the opposite direction, all of them sporting great lengths of masking tape on their flats.

Andy grinned. “Looks like Scott is getting the hang of the family business.”

Just then, a little girl toddled past, her fingers wrapped firmly in a hand much older than hers. The white-haired man nodded at Edie and Andy as he steered his granddaughter toward the rows that still lay in the shade.

“What does ‘pick clean’ mean, Grampa?” the little girl asked as they passed by.

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