As new parents living far from relatives, my husband and I once found the warm shelter of family where we least expected it, in a Southern berry patch. It was only for an afternoon, but that afternoon was as brilliant and comforting as a slice of blueberry pie.
Our daughter was born during a blistering June in Alabama, and we soon began introducing her to her amazing new world. While driving outside town, we passed a hand-lettered sign at the roadside, extending a cheerful invitation, "Pick your own blueberries." It felt rude not to.
After our station wagon crunched up the gravel drive, we lifted our daughter out, coaxing her tiny limbs into the openings of her new infant carrier. I slipped my shoulders into the straps so she dangled in front of me, arms and legs limp and sleepy. Her downy puff of dark hair came alive with my every breath.
The proprietors, a husband and wife, came out to greet our new family. Their smiling faces looked comfortably lived in, creased in all the right places, much like a favorite couch. We nearly burst with accomplishment as they admired our daughter. Like all new parents, we beamed as if we had personally devised this miraculous process of creation.
They grabbed buckets and led us through rows of bushes slumping beneath the strain of all those plump berries. The air shimmered with heat, and my husband and I fussed over the baby, shading her eyes and tender skin.
As we settled in to pick, the couple didn't return to their farmhouse as we'd expected. Instead, they added handfuls of berries to our buckets, chatting and laughing with us.
As my sweat dampened our baby's hair and trickled down her arms, our kindly farm friends declared, "Y'all aren't eating enough berries before you pay. That's the whole point of picking them yourself!"
With a "yes, ma'am," my husband and I dutifully stuffed ourselves with blueberries. When our daughter squeaked with hunger, our hosts continued filling my bucket to overflowing while I nursed in the shade.
After we'd paid some paltry sum for our mountain of berries, it was difficult to leave. Far from our own parents, in a state that did not yet feel like home, we had basked in this couple's kindness, relieved to be taken care of after our sudden introduction to the weight of parental responsibility.
Many years and three children later, we still pick berries when the season arrives. Outside our suburb far north of Alabama, the advertised "pick your own" family farms are actually sprawling commercial establishments. When we drive out to the berry patches, uniformed workers stake out our territory with red flags.
This summer a customer chastised my husband, who had inadvertently picked outside our designated realm. Although I tell all four kids to eat up while they're in the field, I squirm when the staff glimpse me cramming sun-warmed berries into my mouth.
I wish I could share that Alabama berry farm with our kids, although the couple's name and location are long forgotten. Looking back, I realize that it was not just another family farm where you pick your own produce. It was actually a "pick your own family" farm, even if the family you picked was yours only for the afternoon.