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My earliest recollections of fruit are located in the fields and orchards behind the homeplace. These fields picked up where the rose garden and truck patch left off, and ran all the way to the woods. In Delaware, strawberries ripened in May, and the excitement began when my father carted several pieces of lumber to the edge of the field, where he erected a makeshift ticket station.
I remember kneeling in the soft dirt between strawberry rows, a tray of berry baskets beside me. I had been taught how to lay the leaves gently aside in order to expose the fruit as it nestled there in every stage of ripeness. One must never pick the green-and-white berries, not even if they had a blush of deep red. It was tempting to do so, for a five-year old wanted to fill up a basket fast in order to collect a ticket for pay just like the pickers who had come from town.
When my Delaware relatives learned I was moving to Florida, they launched into Florida strawberry stories. One cousin had, as a child, made annual treks to Plant City (berry kingdom of the South) where his father was a distributor.
Since those early days in the strawberry patch, my life had been strawberry-poor. The fruit we bought in our upstate New York markets did not even resemble the berries I remembered. Therein, Florida might have redeemed itself.
But one devastating strawberry season followed the next. The berries were often beautiful - enormous and very red; I couldn't wait to sugar down the first basket I bought. But their flavor had been sacrificed to size, and the juicy Blakemore variety we grew on the homeplace soon became the focus of my ever-expanding strawberry mythology. Every year my husband listened to my tirades of loss - his own indignation tempered by lack of comparison.
"The strawberry of a poet's childhood tastes better than just about anything in the world," he observed one evening. In the astuteness of his comment I nearly rested my case.
Although it is true, this inferiority of the present-day strawberry, my passion is aroused not so much by the loss of taste as by the recollection of abundance. The world of those berries has vanished. I know, in my yearly bother at the produce market, that I am actually reciting a litany of riches: a small black cash box chock full of worn claim tickets, the peopled fields, the stain of berry juice on front and behind, and that smell - a faint musk of overripe fruit, with two parents about. It was the world before worry began.