I was Mamma’s last baby, and she always said the year I was born was the best fall she ever had. I was technically born in the summer, but in Aroostook County, Maine, September 15th is considered the fall and coincides with the beginning of potato pickin’. Dad hired extra help that year, so Mama could focus on recovering from birthing me, and give her relief from peeling endless potatoes and battling potato dirt.
I escaped picking potatoes for the first four years of my life, but I celebrated my 5th birthday in the field, accountable for picking a section about 10 feet long. Thus began a tradition of observing my birthday while fulfilling my annual sentence of child labor, harvesting the round whites that for me represented nutrients on the table, a positive entry in my savings book, and a new plaid dress with a sailor bow.
Dad hired a family from Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, the Santiers, who came to help with the harvest. They lived in our garage, transformed into a makeshift ‘picker’s shack.’ In my mind, they had all the amenities: comfortable beds, a wood stove and hearty home-cooked meals.
I don’t remember them taking a turn using our one bathtub, so where they bathed remains a mystery, one that I’ll not uncover since Mama and Dad are gone now. I never thought of them as migrant workers or poor, but I suppose they were both, scraping by with seasonal jobs.
In retrospect, I realize this was the time of year when Dad was the happiest. This was his baby, planted in late April or early May, nurtured through the threat of blight, potato bugs, and weather that alternated between drought and torrential rainfall. After all the sweat, toil, and worry, his crop was at its peak and ready for reaping.
During harvest, he would awaken us with glee, shouting ‘Rise and shine!’ Appreciation for my father’s excitement was lost on a child who over time grew to detest his morning cheer. Sore from laboring the day before, groping for crusty overalls, and searching unsuccessfully for a pair of gloves without holes, did not inspire me to have a positive outlook.
My late sister Linda drove Dad’s Ford pickup, gathering energetic children, released from school for a month so they could be part of our disparate crew. We sat on crude wooden benches in the back, where we bounced like popcorn on a griddle, while she drove as fast as she dared on rough, country roads.
As the sun rose on a new day, I would approach my work with cautious optimism; hopeful this would be the day I could keep pace with my assigned section.
I would model the standing technique of our best picker, Claire, a mother of four who could who pick a hundred barrels a day in this position. But after about five minutes, I would fall to my knees in defeat. I’d crawl in the heat, the cold, and the mud, plunking potatoes into my sturdy workbasket, handwoven by local Micmacs. As I grew and so did my hands, I could grasp two or three at a time, making shorter work of what appeared to be millions of potatoes lying before me.
Once the basket was full, I’d carry it to a wooden barrel, hoisting it to the edge and unload its contents. When the barrel was full, I’d identify it, placing my dog-eared ticket on the rim, while visions of a trip to J.C. Penney tumbled in my brain.
Despite my best intentions, by noon I’d be twelve rows behind. My only reprieve was the welcome sight of Mama arriving with a fully stocked picnic basket brimming with a pork roast dinner, complete with apple cake for dessert, made from the Duchess variety that grew in our backyard. Then I’d trudge back to those twelve sunbaked rows with a full belly and an abundance of despair.
My spirits would rise at the end of the day when cousins, friends, the Santiers, and Claire would descend upon my unpicked rows, and soon I’d be full of terror once again, clinging to a wooden plank, while Linda bounced us home.
I’ve celebrated 45 birthdays since I retired from picking potatoes at age seventeen. When I close my eyes and blow out my birthday candles this year, will I wish to return to the years when I picked potatoes?
Hell, no! What kind of masochist do you think I am?
But I’d give anything to take one more wild ride with Linda, glimpse Mama standing at the sink peeling potatoes, and awaken on a crisp September morning to the sound of Dad’s voice exclaiming, ‘Rise and Shine!
©2016, Stevens. All rights reserved.