Rise and shine, it’s potato pickin’ time

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.

picking-potatoes-in-color

Photo courtesy the Library of Congress

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.

potato-picking-collage

Photos courtesy the Library of Congress

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!

rise-and-shine-its-potato-pickin-time

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44 thoughts on “Rise and shine, it’s potato pickin’ time

  1. Thanks for taking me to a place I’d never been. What a beautiful piece! I found you through Mostly Blogging and look forward to reading more of whatever you have to say!

  2. Molly, this is such a wonderful piece. I didn’t have to work nearly as hard with my two most-hated chores–pulling weeds along the bank of our front yard and scrubbing the fringe on the patio canopy. I agree with you–I don’t want to do either again, but I’d love to hear my dad calling me on Saturday morning to pull weeds and my mom saying she had the bucket of “Clorox water” ready for me.

    • I can smell that clorox water, Lee. Let’s face it. Manual labor really stinks and it is much worse when we are children, right? But to go back under the protective arms of our parents would be a nice trip back in time.

  3. Bittersweet memories. I wouldn’t be without them for the world, but like you, I am rather keen to leave them where they belong: in the past. Beautifully written, Molly, I could just about smell the dirt.

    • Wow! That is truly an interesting image for a farm girl from northern Maine. A beach club across from a potato field. That sounds like a great combo, Beth. I probably wouldn’t have minded picking them so much if that had been the set up.

  4. Hi Molly, I experienced mixed emotions as I read about your experiences in the potato field! The connections I made with the blueberry-raking days of my youth were both painful and joyous.

    Though not a part of a family operation, the same as yours, the connections are there — beginning with clinging to the back of a work truck with the added responsibility of a half dozen (more or less!) younger siblings in the predawn hours during the bumpy ride up the blueberry barrens, then to be assigned a blueberry rake and a roped off ‘rick’ (rows) to work. No seat belts for sure! The reward for lugging heavy, bushel baskets, filled to the brim the long distance to the ‘winnowing machines’ and helping younger kids with theirs was the punched ticket. The hole punches translated to $ at the end of the week and new school clothes and shoes before school started in the fall — YAY! The ride home WAS happier in spite of sunburn, sore backs, blistered hands/fingers, and blue teeth (we were given permission to consume as many blueberries as we wanted!). Amazingly, we both retired from these early occupations at the age of 17!! BTW, would I wish to return there? Good answer — Hell, No!
    Thanks for allowing me to share 🙂

    • I love reading of your similar child labor experiences in the blueberry fields, Sharon. It definitely sounds like a similar ordeal and not for wimps! In the end I’m sure it was good for us, but at the time it was an extremely difficult way to learn a work ethic. Wasn’t it grand to feel the pride of earning money for our own new clothes and shoes though? Thank you so much for sharing.

  5. Thanks for sharing Molly! As a current “Mainer from away”, I appreciate hearing these memories from one who lived it! Well Done!!

    • Thank you Stephanie. I shed a few tears when I did the wrap up. I actually presented this piece to my classmates at my class reunion and had to practice several times to get to the point where I didn’t cry at the end. 🙂

  6. Molly, My Mama sang “Rise and Shine in the early morning” YES! It’s a song!! Worse even than hearing it shouted!!
    My eyes are welling up with tears, for your last wish to see your Mama, and ride with Linda one more time….
    I came here from MostlyBlogging.
    You are so funny! And I agree that comments are gold! Who cares about math? Uh- I mean stats.

    • It’s so good to find another kindred soul Melinda, who not only values comments like I do, but leaves a lovely one on my blog with your first visit. Stats are useless without comments like yours. I love that your Mama sang Rise and Shine and I’ll have to google that song to hear it. I’m told my Dad did some singing in the fields but I don’t remember ever hearing him sing. Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving me a nugget of gold.

  7. Oh what a wonderfully evocative story! I really enjoyed the glimpse into your memories. So well told too. It must have been quite a challenging way to earn a living but it also sounds like it was a very warm, family and community oriented way of life. Have those days gone? Lovely story to read as I settle down to sleep – thank you.

    • Thank you so much for your comment Gilly. There are harvesters now, so I don’t think anyone does hand picking any more. But schools still start in August and let out for a month so kids can help with the harvest. It certainly taught me a work ethic and I have fond memories midst the muddy ones.

  8. That was great Molly and so memorable. There was an older lady (my Mom’s age) from our home town of Levant who went to the County every fall to pick. That was her “wintering-over” spare change. She lived to into her 90’s and tough as a pine board. Good memories. Our rows on the garden at the farm were not a challenging as yours.

    • I know you have been a faithful reader, Lin, and I can’t tell you how happy I am to have you leave a comment today. I love your story of the woman from Levant who earned ‘wintering-over’ extra money. I’m not surprised she lived into her 90’s. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • Thank you my friend. This one was a labor of love. I originally planned to present this as an oral presentation but the event was cancelled. I hear it in my head when I read it. Thank you for your comments of appreciation, a nice compliment from a fellow writer. xoxoxo

  9. Nice piece of writing, Molly. I can hear your Dad saying what he did. I started picking when I was 6. We rode to the field in barrels on the back of Glen O’Leary’s truck. My Dad always drove for him in the fall. We got 20 cents a barrel that first year and I can still remember my old red tickets with #21 on them. Dad would show up, jump out of his truck and help me catch up on my section, toss me a chocolate milk from Gilman Hartt’s general store and get back in his truck with a, “Keep going, you can’t quit!” We’d ride home on the digger, lugging our baskets. Then, we’d get up the next morning and do it all over again. Like you, I don’t know what I’d give to ride the truck, get behind and have Dad help me pick up, and then jump on the digger to be home for supper again. Memory serves us well as that’s what we still have of the god old days. Thanks for stirring mine today.

    • Ah, you were a bit of a slacker Dave, sitting it out until age 6! LOL. I love reading the story of your Dad and his encouragement. Fueled with his words and chocolate milk you couldn’t help but succeed in your first job. Fond memories indeed….thanks so much for the comment.

  10. great story you have. i found you off the mostly blogging blog. good to find you. I like the way you write and use humor I hope be able to do that more writing my memoir. Us memoirist or at least see my and need to let it go into humor and relize the reader will get the hurt through that. u do it i can I hope 🙂 blessings donna marie

  11. So vividly told! I could actually smell the pungent earth and feel the body ache from the long days in the fields. Such hard work but what character it built for those of us who participated in bringing in the crop.
    Loved the memory of bouncing around in the back of the boxed-in pickup truck. The ride home was so much more enjoyable than the frosty, early morning ride out!
    I got in the habit of bringing home the biggest potato I found each day…big enough to fill my lunch box…and bake it for my supper.
    Thanks for the memories, cousin Molly…this time of year does make me feel bittersweet. We were in different towns with quite parallel experiences….

    • I remember bringing home some of the oddly shaped potatoes, the ones that made me laugh, but I think your idea of baking the biggest one of the day is a much better idea, Kim. Yes, many similarities even though miles apart. Thank you so much for reading and for leaving a comment.

    • Thank you Roxanne. This was the piece I planned to present at Plain Spoken. I still think I need to speak it somewhere. Maybe I’ll do a youtube. Anyway, thank you so much for the kind words – means so much coming from a fellow writer of your caliber. XO

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