Blueberry picking with my granddaughter proved to be a memorable experience.
|“You’d better bring mosquito spray or wear long sleeves like I am,” I warned my granddaughter, Mandy. “And wear shoes you don’t care about getting dirty.”
“Okay, Gram, I’ll be ready.” Even over the phone, I could almost see Mandy roll her eyes.
We were going blueberry picking early the next morning so I called to make sure she would be ready and prepared when I got there. I don't know about other places, but blueberry picking in Florida is not exactly a fun time. There are all kinds of bugs to contend with, the ground is sometimes mucky, it is very hot in June, and I have even seen a snake or two. Only those luscious fruits baked in cobblers and pies, and sprinkled on cereal in the middle of wintertime make all the inconveniences worthwhile.
Going to bed early in order to be up at 5:30 in the morning might be a chore for Mandy, but I had faith. I was counting on the excitement over the new experience for a ten year old to get her out of bed. Oh, and did I mention the reward of a trip to the IHOP when we were finished?
The streetlights were still on the next morning when I pulled in her driveway. She must have been watching through the window because she was on the porch before I had time to turn off the engine. Following my advice, she wore one of her brother’s old blue shirts and a pair of nasty-looking tennis shoes.
"Morning, Mandy. Whew. You must have bathed in the bug spray."
"Just doing what you said. I'm ready for anything." Jenny raised her eyebrows like she was daring me to complain about my own advice.
I handed her an old belt as she settled in the front seat.
"What's that for, Gram?"
“You see those buckets in the back? You thread the belt through the handle, put it around your waist, and buckle it up. Then your hands are free to pick more blueberries.”
“Wow, that’s a good idea. Here, I brought you one of Mom’s banana muffins for breakfast. She couldn’t believe I got up.”
Driving and munching with the windows down to blow out the bug spray scent, we headed down backroads to the blueberry farm. I had never been to this particular farm before, but their ad had said “plentiful ripe fruit” and that made up my mind. If there was anything I hated, it was trying to pick blueberries that were either green or non-existent.
“How long does it take to pick a bucketful, Gram?” I could see my answer called for a little finesse. Mandy was wondering if IHOP was going to pay enough of an hourly wage.
“Well, a greenhorn like you might take awhile, but me, I can fill up a bucket in about twenty minutes.”
“Shoot, Gram, I bet I can pick just as fast as you. I’m way younger.”
“You wouldn’t want to put a little wager on that, would you?”
“What kind of wager?”
“If you can pick as many buckets as I do, I’ll spring for a movie tonight. That Narnia one you've been talking about."
“Okay! You’re on.”
“And if you don’t?”
“You don't need to worry about that, Gram. Just point me in the right direction."
I could see that Mandy was already picturing herself eating popcorn and sitting in the air-conditioned theatre.
Even though the sun was just peeking over the treetops, we could see several cars parked diagonally on the grass at the side of the lane as we pulled into the farm. No one was around so I knew the people were already headed to the bushes. I saw a cracker house with a tin roof at the end of the long lane and a homemade "Case Farm Blueberries" sign directing pickers around to the back. Mandy and I each grabbed a couple of buckets from the rear seat and headed down the path. The heat washed over us like someone had opened up an oven door. There was not even a whisper of a breeze.
As we neared a rundown back porch, I could see people moving off through a clearing in the pines. An elderly man, probably the owner, looked over and greeted us.
“Good morning, ladies. Just follow the others and you’ll soon find what you’re looking for. Glad to see you brought your own buckets. Come back when you’re done and I’ll weigh ‘em up for you.”
“Gosh, Gram, that’s a lot of people. Do you think there’ll be any blueberries left for us?”
“We’ll soon find out.” We followed the last couple through the clearing, stepping gingerly in the ruts made by some farm equipment. I noticed a ditch close by with moving water in it.
“I’ll bet there’s plenty of blueberries. They love to be close to water.”
Sure enough, up ahead were rows and rows of bushes casting a blue haze from their heaviness with fruit. That movie was looking more likely all the time. We both got to work and in just a little while, we each had one of our buckets almost full. We could hear people chattering close by, and there were even some pickers (or eaters) younger than Mandy. The sky was a beautiful clear blue, and butterflies and bees kept us company. The ornery bugs must have been on vacation elsewhere, but as that yellow ball rose in the east, the heat was making up for them.
I saw Mandy turn and look toward the ditch that ran alongside the bushes where we were picking.
“Did you hear that, Gram?”
I did hear something, but the older I get the more trouble I have determining exactly where sounds come from.
“It was probably just one of the other pickers."
“It came from the ditch, Gram,” Mandy said, pointing behind us.
It sounded sort of like a snort and then like water splashing. I looked where Mandy pointed. The bank dropped off steeply just behind my feet so I turned around carefully. I noticed rings spreading out in the water from what appeared to me to be a rock barely sticking out of the stream.
“Somebody must have thrown a rock in the water, Jenny.” This from a person who knows rocks do not float.
The rock moved, stealthily at first, then heaved itself upward to reveal glistening scales. Muddy water roiled past the animal's gaping snout as it lumbered toward us.
“Gram, it’s a gator!”
Well, nobody had to tell me twice. I spun around, grabbed Mandy’s hand and took off toward the clearing. Little bugs were one thing, but big gators were something else. Our blueberries flew everywhere as we made our way at record speed back to the old farmhouse.
“Slow down, Gram. We’re losing all our berries!”
I yanked open the screen door to the back porch, huffing and puffing with sweat dripping off my chin. A skinny old man wearing a purple-stained white apron dozed in a metal glider. Confounded by my noisy entrance, he unfolded himself to tower over me. I was not daunted.
“Do you know you have an alligator in that stream next to the blueberry bushes?”
“Calm down, missus. You must mean old Ernest. He’s been in that stream over twenty years." When I made no comment to relay my understanding of this information, he continued. "He wouldn’t hurt a fly. How long you lived in Florida anyway?”
“I’ve been here plenty long enough, and I know from personal experience a gator is a wild animal. What if he doesn’t know he wouldn’t hurt a fly? You should be ashamed letting children get that close to a dangerous alligator.” Pausing for breath, I could see a hint of understanding in the old man's eyes.
“I sorta thought you were a new picker here, and I guess I shoulda told you about old Ernest, but when I saw your buckets I thought you must have been here before. I’m right sorry you got scared. Here, have a seat, and I’ll get you and the little girl a cold drink.”
Exhausted, I sat down in the old green metal glider as he disappeared through another rickety screen door into the main part of the house.
“Gram, the gator was moving awfully slow. He didn’t really try to hurt us.”
“Well, that may be true,” I said, feeling a little sheepish.
The screen door squeaked open as the old man came back out. “Here, ma'am, this’ll make you feel better.” He handed each of us a tall, cold glass of lemonade.
I took a huge drink. “That does taste like heaven. Mandy here tells me she doesn’t think the gator was trying to hurt us. I guess I jumped the gun a little. I’m just not used to being around alligators, is all.”
“Well, it’s my fault. I shoulda warned you to begin with. By the way, my name's Warren Case. Course you know that, this being the Case Blueberry Farm.” Mr. Case extended his hand to me.
I shifted my drink to my left hand and stood up on wobbly legs. “I’m Connie and this is my granddaughter, Mandy. We’re glad to meet you, Mr. Case.”
“I guess you don’t feel up to pickin' anymore blueberries today. It’s a shame you didn’t get many.”
“We picked a lot more than these, but they’re lying along the trail like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs,” I laughed.
“I always keep some in cold storage for people who come and don’t want to pick. I’ll just give you two buckets plus what you have there in hopes you’ll come back and see me again. I’m real sorry old Ernest scared you.”
Mr. Case turned and went back into the house, and I sat back down. I looked at Mandy, who by this time was smiling from ear to ear.
“Wow, Gram, that’s really nice of Mr. Case. We’ll have almost as many blueberries as we came for.”
I could see the wheels turning and the saliva forming from her just thinking about those pancakes.
Mr. Case returned holding plastic freezer bags bulging with frosty purplish fruit.
“I must pay you for the weight of the berries, at least, Mr. Case, please?”
“Well, if you insist. I could sure use the money. I do hope you’ll come back again, though. Honest, that Ernest wouldn’t hurt anybody.”
As we walked around the corner of the house carrying our booty, I was almost inclined to go back and take another look at old Ernest, the peaceful alligator. Then I came to my senses!
When we got back to the car, I put the cold berries in a white styrofoam cooler I kept in the trunk for grocery shopping.
“Gram, we don’t have to go to IHOP today if you don’t feel like it.” I guess I looked a little peaked from all my exertion. She gave me a hug and a peck on the cheek.
“I think the air conditioning would do me a world of good, Sweetie. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
As we rolled south down the highway toward our pancakes, I couldn’t help but think about the little kitty I once had named April. Jim and I lived near a lake at the time, a lake reputed to be home for some gators. Although I never saw any, when April disappeared, I got it in my head she had been somebody’s lunch, and my fear and hatred of gators was born. I mourned that little kitty for weeks. Mandy didn’t know anything about that, and I wasn’t going to burden her with the story. Let her think old Ernest wasn’t vicious, and maybe our blueberry picking would be a happy and funny memory for her. But all the same, I would need to find us a new blueberry farm.