It’s better without the fire ants


She calls me on Sunday and we chat about our weeks, her’s across the Atlantic, mine here in rural Pennsylvania.

“It sure is nice picking blueberries and not worrying about fire ants!” I tell her, comparing our Saturday berry-picking effort to the mornings we spent growing up, as Texas heat and Texas bugs complicated everything.

“I don’t remember that much,” she says, trying to agree but too honest to say even something non-committal.

And I’m struck, again, and the strangeness of a life where I’m 22 years older than my youngest sister. There’s only 11 years between me and the one on the phone, but 11 years are enough to bring entirely different life experiences.

I joke, sometimes, that I half-raised most of them, and that’s an exaggeration. But starting with her, it wasn’t, so much. She was born in late May the year I turned 11, when summer was in full swing in east Texas. All those evenings, night after night, she started fussing at dinner. I ate quickly, left a book in easy reach, and every hot evening we’d sit on the back deck, she and I,  rocking and reading.

Whether it was the rhythm of the chair or the still heat of summer, she quieted. And I read.

But I forgot she was just 5 or 6 when we left Texas, moved north, in a tearful caravan of cars and moving trucks. And so of course she wouldn’t remember much about that house, set half-way up the hill, out of a jungle of vines and poison ivy and tall, tall trees. It was an ill-advised wood-sided house in termite territory, and every spring you could see them swarm.

We used to pick blueberries then, in June, waking early and piling into the van as the sun rose. We picked in the (comparative) cool, berries and leaves still damp with dew, watching for spider webs with the huge, fat wolf spiders handing in their centers.

But berries fall and berries split open and the ants came, with bites that hurt bizarrely out of proportion to their tiny size. We always watched for them; step on a mound and they’d swarm so fast you wouldn’t have a chance to brush them off. Mostly we watched the toddlers. Whenever short legs found a mound, felt the swarm start, they panicked, froze.

By mid-morning it was always hot, and sticky, and we’d troop back to the farm office for the weighing and the bagging and the paying, then home to rinse and pick off stems and leaves and bugs, throw out the small green ones small children picked.

Saturday we went, he and I, to a farm on a hill rising above the others. It was already hot on a July afternoon, but I worked that morning and all other days were full and so Saturday afternoon it was. Blueberry bushes stretched up the hill, next to some sort of cabbages; and huge, fat berries fell off in clumps whenever you stretched our hand out.

And though it’s been almost 10 years since I’ve lived anywhere near fire ants, I still thought, first, how nice it is to pick berries without them.

And when the tired whine of a hot, sticky child a row behind us started up again, I wondered why we tried it then, all of us so small.

He and I, we picked for an hour or two, in near silence as sweat rolled down our faces. But $2.50 a pound isn’t bad and is there anything quite as delicious as a berry warmed to splitting in the summer sun?

“Did it take you long?” The woman asked us when she weighed our berries, just shy of nine pounds. And there was the hint of the south in her words and it just felt right that way.

So some summer, if one ever finds you here on this side of the Atlantic, come up here in July; and now that you’re old enough to remember, let’s pick blueberries again.

Without the fire ants.

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