My Great Aunt Stella was a quirky fixture of my youth. Her jolly sister, Florence, often gathered all available kin for potlucks or a picnic at the beach of nearby Lake Michigan. Aunt Stella invariably brought buttery spritz cookies as her contribution. Those cookies earned my forgiveness over and over for the time when I was 7 and she insisted that I "pick clean" on a strawberry-picking expedition.
We were both the daughters of fruit farmers, and I couldn't imagine why she didn't know to leave the small white berries to ripen, but I had to defer to her since she was much older.
Another of her quirks was picking up every stick in her yard. She'd step and stoop, step and stoop, as the scraggly bouquet of sticks grew in her hand.
Years later I found myself dragging a plastic trash can behind me on a late winter day, picking up the fallen sticks in my yard, even poaching across the property line to get my neighbors' twigs. My thoughts turned to my inflexible Aunt Stella. I had a new insight on why she kept her yard so tidy.
The farms where Aunt Stel and I were raised were neighboring properties in southwestern Michigan. Her parents, Swedish immigrants, made their many children do farm chores.
My youthful labor was more optional and certainly easier, what with advances in labor-saving devices. Still, one task that had to be done manually was pulling brush from under fruit trees after the winter pruning.
In my childhood, Dad did most of the pruning. He first nipped out the suckers, those thin vertical stems that shoot straight upward and have no flower buds.
Diseased wood was cut next, and then he made some decisions about cutting healthy branches to open up the tree's canopy. These latter cuts were like erasing lines on a floor plan. "If we take out this wall, it'll open up this section ..."
After pruning, the cut wood has to go, both for aesthetic reasons and for the health of the trees. "Pulling brush" was a good kid job when I was young, and surely it was when Stella was young, too.
Sometimes the pruned branches could be flipped free from the tree with a hooked pole. More often, the branches fell inside and got caught in Velcro-like twig spurs. To remove these, one had to get inside the tree's canopy and pull them out one by one, being careful to minimize breakage since the clinging twig spurs contained the knobby flower buds that were next year's fruit crop.
As a teenager, I spent several spring breaks pulling brush. The weather was Marchy - either raw and unpleasant or brilliantly sunny with the snow underfoot rotting quickly into slush. Beneath the snow were pieces of fruit, transformed into brown mush in the months since they had eluded the harvesters.
To protect my feet from slush and rotten fruit, I put on Dad's black rubber boots over my tennis shoes. The extra two inches of flabby rubber beyond my toes rendered me an unwilling clown. I also donned a snowsuit that reeked of machine oil from hanging near the coveralls Dad wore to fix tractors.
Though I disliked my attire's bulk and smell, I needed its protection lest I end up looking as if I had been vaccinating wildcats. I would dodge and push my way through the pointy twigs and supple branches on the business side of the tree into the safer interior, where the limbs were thick and the twigs few.
After I pulled the brush within easy reach, I would angle for the pruned limbs caught overhead. Invariably, if one was just out of reach, I had left my hooked pole behind. Rather than fight my way out of the tree and back in, I would stretch to reach the elusive branch.
Everything went in slow motion as I pointed my toes inside the floppy boots and my arm seemed to stretch and separate from my shoulder. Even my fingerprint ridges gained length until I could just barely tap the dangling end of the branch.
A tap usually jarred the branch lower, and then it was mine to grasp and pull down. The satisfaction was cousin to the pleasure of getting a sticky lock to work or lifting a hair snarl from a bathroom drain.
Suckers presented a hazard when I was gazing upward, looking for brush. Although snipped off, they often stayed put, resting precariously on their stumps and one other contact point. They could jar loose at any time and plummet downward like an arrow. I learned to watch out for falling suckers.
Pulling brush is mostly physical work, but it is somewhat cerebral, too. One gets a sense of how much weight a branch can bear and just how to unhook a snag. An intuitive twist, a little shake, and the branch pulls free.
As adults, both Aunt Stella and I ended up living in towns somewhat distant from the family farms. Perhaps Stella, too, felt nostalgic for being warmly bundled up and pulling brush from bare-limbed fruit trees on a late winter day.
Perhaps for her, too, picking up sticks was a way to revisit her own life's early spring.