The sweetest fruit of our labors

My 88-year-old father came to my house last week with a handful of pinkish-yellow fruit. "You're letting the birds get these ripe cherries," he said. That's his way of telling me that our family fruit farm is about to begin business for the summer, and that I need to shift my thinking from the life I live now to the life I grew up with.

A hot, sunny week later, it is time to pick cherries. We've lined up our customers: local fruit markets, people who buy from us year after year, and the friends and neighbors who get a few pounds free. We've also lined up our usual family picking crew: three university professors, a computer-graphics expert, a librarian, a civil engineer, two housewives, and an ever-changing group of next-generation teenagers.

We haul out 20-foot aluminum ladders and a few old wooden ones from the barn loft, fix the hooks on our picking buckets, and get a good night's sleep.

Early in the morning, in the cool, damp grayness before sunrise, we pull on old clothes and shiver through the dewy grass to the far end of the orchard. It's a point of pride to be the first one out. "I've already got half a bucket," my brother calls to me when I get there. "Showoff," I reply.

We settle down to work, our cold, stiff fingers gradually warming up as we remember how to pick fast. Latecomers can tell where we are by the sounds: ladders clanking, laughter, cherries pouring from buckets into lug crates. Even the birds get noisy, scolding us for invading their territory and making off with the food.

We trot out our favorite conversation games, used only during fruit season. The best one is "Favorites." My sister calls from the top of her ladder, "Favorite first lines in American novels. 'Call me Ishmael.' Your turn."

A less-bookish brother hesitates, then offers, "Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers...," at which point he is roundly hooted down. "Well, it's American," he says sheepishly.

As the sun gets higher we work harder, filling 25-pound buckets over and over and emptying them into newspaper-lined lugs. When it gets hot, we all move into the shade and pick side-by-side, naming our favorite movie lines, pies, Beatles' songs, baseball players, and everything else we've ever liked.

Around noon, our father comes slowly creaking along on his ancient tractor, pulling the yellow hay wagon. Brimming with deep red fruit and bristling green stems, the cherry lugs are hoisted aboard, counted, and trundled off for delivery. We all trudge back to my house for popsicles and cold water, satisfied by hard work at a hard job and happy to be doing what we have always done in the summer, ever since any of us can remember.

But things change. After a couple of weeks of cherry picking, we start to get tired. Our middle-aged muscles complain ferociously every morning, our fingers are sore and juice-stained, and the cherries seem endless. We freeze in the early mornings and roast as soon as the sun comes up. Branches whip our faces and arms, sticks and leaves drop down the backs of our sweaty shirts.

We come to the last "Favorites" game: favorite falls from cherry trees, with a special category for ladder tumbles. Everyone has a couple of good ones to nominate. We even have names for them: the "Elevator Shaft," the "Crack and Ride," the "Slow Ladder to China," and the "Follow the Bucket Bounce and Drop." We remember our own falls gloomily and start arguing about who should top the next tree. At night we close our eyes, desperate to rest, and see only cherries.

Then one day, reduced to gleaning scattered handfuls, risking our lives in the tops of old, brittle, 60-foot trees,we hear the tractor coming earlier than usual. Our father slowly jolts along under the empty, leafy branches, as our family gravitates earthward to confer.

"Looks like we're done," he says, and together we nod in agreement, satisfied with the season and proud of our efforts, all of us suddenly in love with the farm again.

But in my father's lap is a handful of greenish-yellow fruit. "The birds are getting into these ripe apricots," he says. Standing in the heat and sun, away from our desks and professions, my scratched, sunburned family smiles with relief.

Apricots are a lot bigger than cherries.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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