This piece was originally published in 1955 and reflects the attitude of what many women felt in the face of popular magazine wisdom and social pressures of that time.
Excerpt from Onions in the Stew
BRINGING IN THE SHEAVES
ACCORDING TO TIDBITS I have picked up from my reading over the past twenty-five years, it seems to be an accepted fact that the happy woman is the woman who has some interest other than bearing children and the subsequent washing and ironing and cooking and sweeping. These backbreaking tasks, thrust upon her with her wedding ring, are her lot and she is expected to perform them with willingness, dispatch and quiet efficiency, but, we are told, the discussion of them is not interesting to the husband—that lucky pup who goes downtown every day to meet new people and eat in restaurants.
If you want to keep your husband’s love, so say the instructions, you should always look pretty, be fun, keep your house immaculate, get up and cook your husband’s breakfast, and have outside interests. There is one thing to be said for this state of affairs—it offers a challenge—a challenge about as easy as getting along with Russia.
When we moved to Vashon Island my outside interest was working for that contractor. (Discussed in previous chapter)
It was an outside interest, though, and I could fill up the evenings telling my husband and children how tired I was, how incompetent everybody else in our organization was and how much cabbage was selling for in Alaska. Then in February my sister Mary decided that I should become a writer and introduced me to an editor who told me to bring him a five-thousand-word outline of my book. Never having dreamed of writing a book I was not as quick with the outline as I might have been. In fact, I had to stay home from work to write it and some pal in the office told the boss what I was doing and I was instantly fired and thus became rather unwittingly an author. The job of being a lady writer not substantiated by any regular salary has always been regarded by my family with the same tolerant amusement they accord my efforts toward making my own Christmas cards. “All I ask,” I tell them, “is one quiet spot where I can write.” (This is a lie, of course, and they know it. What I really want is a million dollars so I won’t ever have to write another word.)
When I am writing I itch and hate my family, especially during that painful period known as “getting into the book,” when I am trying to decide whether I shall be Marcella Proust or Thomasina Wolfe and know I shall end up being Betty MacDonald and sobbing over nasty reviews. Thank goodness, I am not alone in this, because I read The Cost of a Best Seller by Frances Parkinson Keyes and another book about writing by Kenneth Roberts and they had their feelings hurt—in Europe too. Apparently the only writer who is never sorry for himself is Ernest Hemingway and according to a recent article by his wife, he is not only well adjusted but usually stripped to the waist. I have tried writing in the kitchen, the dining room, the living room, our bedroom, the guesthouse, the porch, the patio—it is always the same. I am first last and always a wife and mother and must stop whatever I am doing to—”try and remember where you left the big screwdriver”—”I am up in Vashon and I lost the list—what was it you wanted?”—”read the directions and see if Weevil Bait can be used for slugs”—”give me the recipe for chicken in olive oil and wine”—”I’m bringing the children over for the weekend.” …
Late in the spring of our second year on the island, a week or so before school was to let out, I moved my typewriter out to the umbrella table and Don and I decided that if I was ever to have a minute’s uninterrupted quiet Anne and Joan should also have an outside interest and earn at least part of their school clothes. The girls, who had already planned a summer of sleeping late, swimming, talking about boys and not helping, did not greet this decision with hand-clapping. In fact for days and days we ate our meat and potatoes to the broken rhythm of—all the children on Vashon earn money by picking berries—I always worked when I was a boy—I always worked when I was a girl—we do too like you—you can go swimming when you get home, anyway berry picking is not steady work—we do not want your money for whisky—it is not against the law for children to pick berries—of course we don’t expect you to walk ten miles, the farmers call for the pickers—because nobody wants to adopt two great big girls, that’s why….
The berry picking was not much of a success. Late rains had almost ruined the strawberry crop, not enough rain had withered the raspberries, the currants had blight, the mean old man who had the cherry orchard made tiny crippled children climb clear to the top of huge trees just for three wormy cherries, and have you ever seen the thorns on gooseberry bushes?—well, picking nettles would be more fun.
Every morning I injected the girls with maxims—the idle man does not know what it is to enjoy rest—all work, even cotton spinning, is noble—fixed them hearty lunches and shoved them out the door. When they came dragging home in the late afternoon I looked hopefully for signs of self-reliance and found only boiling resentment and berry stains which almost looked as if they might have been smeared on purposely and wouldn’t come out even with Chlorox.
In July Mary telephoned and offered Anne a job as messenger for her husband’s laboratories. Anne was delighted. At last she was returning to her rightful place in the city, and she was going to earn lots and lots of money and perhaps, this was a secret hope, Don and I might become so dependent on her earnings we wouldn’t let her go back to school.
Joanie, who to date had earned exactly $3.87, heaved a sigh of relief because certainly we wouldn’t expect her to pick berries alone, and got into the rowboat where she intended to spend the rest of the summer.
Then Anne received her first week’s pay and came staggering home under a dazzling load of skirt material, new white socks, panties with ruffles, a new blouse, paprika lipstick and nail polish and blue eyeshadow. Joan said, “Old First-Born always gets everything. She is your favorite. She always has been.”
Anne said, “Favorite! That’s very amusing. All you do is lie around on the beach getting brown while I run all over downtown in the boiling sun carrying terribly valuable reports. When I’m not running, I’m washing test tubes and how would you like to eat your lunch in a place that smells like boiling urine?”
“Do they really boil urine?” Joan asked.
“Of course we do,” Anne said importantly. “And we kill rabbits by injecting air in their veins. It’s for the pregnancy tests.”
“Yeah, but look at all the money you make.”
“I earn every cent of it,” Anne said. “Those laboratory technicians work me like a slave. I don’t even get to sit down, all day long.”
“I wouldn’t care if I sat down or not if I had all that money,” Joan said. “I sure wish I had a job like yours.”
“Perhaps next year,” Anne said grandly. “When you’re older. Now you’re considered a child and nobody will hire you except the berry farmers and that’s just because they’re such big cheaters and don’t want to pay anything.”
I said, “I feel sorry for the berry farmers. From what you have told me all you and your little friends did was drink Cokes and throw berries at each other.”
“That was only when we were too tired to pick any more,” Joan said. “You should just be out in that boiling sun, crawling around in the dirt trying to find those wizened-up little strawberries.”
With her next paycheck Anne bought a new bathing suit and some huaraches. Joan examined them enviously but continued to spend her days in the rowboat, spearing sole and chasing crabs with her friend Bobby.
With her next paycheck Anne bought two men’s sweaters—one pale blue and one yellow. As she laid out her purchases she said to Joan, “Labor Day is only two weeks away you know.”
Joan said, “Oh, you just think you’re smarter than anybody in the whole world.” But Monday morning after she had washed the breakfast dishes, she made a telephone call. Then with elaborate casualness she approached the umbrella table where I was miserably huddled being creative. She said, “Mommy dear, would you do me the biggest favor in the whole world?”
“Of course,” I said heedlessly thinking in terms of another request for macaroni and cheese, or perhaps some new huaraches.
“Well,” said Joanie, “I just called Karen and she says that maybe I can get a job picking peaches at Hawkins’ orchards. They pay sixty-five cents an hour but if you stay all season you get eighty-five cents. Karen says it’s not hard and last year she earned eighty-two dollars. Will you call the Hawkinses for me, Mommy?”
“Of course,” I said getting up. “Do you want to start tomorrow?”
“Yes,” Joan said, “and tell them they can pick me up on the road by the Falcon’s Nest.”
So I gave the Hawkins number to the operator and after a while a female voice that had been tempered in a forge yelled, “Yeah?” and I said timidly, “Are you hiring peach pickers?” and the voice said, “Any experience?”
“Oh, my yes,” I said.
“Where you live?” the voice asked.
“At Vashon Heights,” I said. “Right near the Falcon’s Nest.”
“Way down there?” the voice said. “Golly, I don’ know. How many of you?”
“Four,” I said, making a mental note that this was not a lie as there were four in our family.
“Okay, then,” said the voice. “We couldn’t come way down there for less. Be on the road at seven-thirty tomorrow morning.”
I hung up the phone. Joan said, “What’d they say? Will they take us?”
“Us is right,” I said grimly. “They won’t come down here for less than four. Can you get anybody else? What about those little girls that live down by the store?”
“You mean the Hansens?” Joan said. “I’ll call them but I think they are visiting their grandmother. They have fun in the summer. Their mother says picking berries is for Indians.”
I said, “In wartime everybody works. In England countesses are milking cows and shoveling manure.”
“Why don’t they let their servants do it?” Joan asked.
“Because the servants are working in war plants and all the men are at war,” I said. “Now call the Hansens.”
But the Hansens were at their grandmother’s not working. “See,” Joan said hanging up the phone and sighing heavily.
“Try somebody else,” I said briskly.
“Who?” she asked.
“Your school friends,” I said.
“I don’t know any of their telephone numbers,” Joan said.
“Look them up,” I said.
Finally, after a great deal of urging, she called the few of her schoolmates whose names she could remember and learned that they were all either already working at Hawkins’ or in some other peach orchard.
“Oh, ho,” I said spitefully. “I thought you and Anne were the only children in the whole wide world who had to work in the summer.”
Joan said, “Well, I can’t work because you said Hawkins won’t come down here for only one.” I knew then what was coming as I had known from the minute Mrs. Hawkins said hello.
Joan said, “Why don’t you come, Mommy? You’re not doing anything and that would be two.”
That night when Anne came home she announced that she had quit her job because Aunty Mary thought she should have some vacation and, anyway, she had all her school clothes but her shoes and a new coat and Aunty Mary didn’t think that even Don and I were mean enough to expect little children to earn their own coats. She also said, “It’s certainly going to be too bad for you when school starts, Joan, unless you can persuade your friend who gets her clothes off the city dump to take you along on her next trip.”
Joan said, “You don’t have to worry about me, Miss Barbara Hutton; Mommy and I are going to pick peaches.”
“That’s not fair,” Anne said. “Betty, you didn’t help me with my job.”
“It’s just for one day,” I said. “The Hawkinses wouldn’t come down for only one picker. Tomorrow Joan will arrange with some of her school friends to take my place.”
Don said, “I thought the girls were to learn self-reliance and independence. Why can’t Joan make her own arrangements?”
“Nobody could make arrangements with that voice,” I said. “It even scared me. Anyway it is only for one day.”
“Be sure and fix plenty of sandwiches,” Joan told me the next morning when we were getting ready. “Picking makes you awfully hungry. What have you got for dessert?”
“What’s the matter with peaches?” I said. “We’ll be in a whole orchard of them.”
“Mr. Hawkins doesn’t let you eat the peaches when you’re picking,” Joan said.
It was a hazy morning, with a long white plume where the Seattle shore should be, but the sky behind the big firs was already a clear glassy blue and showed it was going to be a hot day. I put on shorts but when I came out to the kitchen Joan said, “Mrs. Hawkins won’t let the ladies wear shorts, Mommy. She says they’re indecent.”
“Who does this Mrs. Hawkins think she is?” I said crossly. “Everybody wears shorts in summer, even old ladies like me.”
“Wear them if you want to,” Joan said, “but she won’t let you pick. Karen said she sent Ethel and Mary Everts home because they were wearing cut-off jeans and they’re only fifteen and sixteen.”
So I changed into jeans and a white sweatshirt and wooden shoes, which we wear on the beach. Joan wore jeans and a red sweatshirt and huaraches.
As we crunched along the beach at seven-fifteen, Joanie said, “Lucky old Anne, still asleep.”
I said, “She’s been getting up early for weeks and weeks while you’ve been sleeping.”
“But she didn’t have to be at work until ten o’clock,” Joan said. “Look, deer tracks. I bet Bucky has been down taking a swim. Next year I’m going to get a job in town.”
The Hawkins truck stopped for us promptly at seven-thirty but before he would let us in Mr. Hawkins yelled, “Where are the others?”
“Home, sick,” I said.
“Whatsa matter with them?” he asked suspiciously.
“Flu,” I said. “Sort of intestinal flu with nausea and dizziness.”
“Will they be okay tomorrow?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said, “that flu never lasts long.”
“Okay,” he said. “Climb in.”
The tailgate of the truck was as high as my chest but I managed, with the help of the ten or eleven children, to scramble in, just as Mr. Hawkins with a roar and a lurch started off. There wasn’t straw or gunny sacks or anything for us to sit on and Mr. Hawkins immediately turned off the paved highway and drove like double greased lightning over what appeared to be partially cleared land. By the time we got to their ranch, Joan said she felt like a milk shake.
After he had unloaded us, Mr. Hawkins said, “Can’t start pickin’ until the mist gits off the trees. You can set around and wait. But the pay don’t start until you start pickin’.”
The pickers put their lunches and jackets in a heap, then lined up on the porch of the packing shed to watch the mist on the trees and look woebegone. Joan, her friend Karen, a pixy-ish little girl with black pigtails and freckles, and I wandered down into the orchard and ate slightly green peaches while Karen gave us the lowdown on picking.
“Pick them with the palm of your hand, like this,” she showed us. “If you use your fingers you get bruise marks and they count against you. We all have numbers so they know who picked what boxes. Mrs. Swensen is the forelady and she’s the meanest old crab you ever saw: ‘No talking in the orchard, girls.’ ‘Faster, girls! Work faster, girls!’ ‘You’re leaving finger marks, Karen!’ ‘Number seventeen report to the packing shed, I’ve tattled on you!'”
“Which one is she?” I asked.
“She wears a big green straw hat,” Karen said, “but she’s still in the house, drinking coffee and tattling to Mrs. Hawkins. When you get tired, and you sure do in the afternoon, climb up to the top of your ladder and sit and eat peaches. You can see the old crab before she sees you and pretend to be picking like sixty. Yesterday she sneaked up to where I was picking, but I saw her coming and when she was right beside the ladder I dropped a great big rotten peach on her head. ‘Oh, excuse me, Mrs. Swensen,’ I said, then busted out laughing. She was awful mad but she couldn’t do anything because I picked the most boxes yesterday. We picked till nine last night and didn’t get home until after eleven.”
“After eleven!” I said. “How awful!”
“Yeah, it is,” Karen said, “but Mr. Hawkins won’t drive the pickers home until they are all through in the packing shed.”
“What about dinner?” Joan asked. “We only brought lunch.”
“Oh, they give you sandwiches and Cokes,” Karen said. “Two halves of a sandwich and one Coke. I could have eaten twenty. I ate about a hundred peaches but they aren’t very filling.”
It was ten o’clock before Mr. Hawkins gave us our tickets and told us to start. I was number twenty-seven—Joanie was twenty-six. Karen had already showed us where the best trees were, so we went down to the other end of the orchard about a mile from the packing shed. The land between and under the trees had been plowed and disked thoroughly and recently, and walking in it was like walking over sand dunes. Joan’s huaraches filled with dirt immediately so she took them off and went barefoot, like Karen. My wooden shoes also filled with dirt and I kept stopping and dumping them.
Karen said, “It would be better if you could take your shoes off too, Mrs. MacDonald, but Mrs. Swensen won’t let the older ladies go barefoot. She says it makes them look tough.”
I was pretty slow filling my first two or three boxes because I couldn’t tell which peaches were ripe enough to pick and was very conscientious about not putting finger marks on them. Joan and Karen filled five boxes to my one, ate peaches by the dozen, threw the rotten ones at each other, skittered up and down their ladders like squirrels and by noon were so far ahead of me I couldn’t even hear their giggles.
The trees were so loaded with fruit, almost every branch had to be supported with a stake. The peaches were very large, a deep golden yellow with flagrantly painted cheeks. Their color was a lovely contrast to the bottle-blue sky, the pointed drooping silky green leaves. As I stood on my ladder and with the heel of my hand gently twisted off a plump golden peach and tucked it in the box beside other plump golden peaches, I decided that this was the life. Beauty, independence and a feeling of harvest. This would be my chosen work. I could see our car loaded with camping equipment, Anne and Joan and Don and me crowded happily inside, singing as we spun along the highways heading for the hop fields, or the orange groves or the apple orchards. What a life! To say nothing of seven or eight dollars apiece per day—let’s see—eight times four is thirty-two dollars a day! Heavens! It was the life. I reached way above my head and picked a small ripe red peach, bit into its sun-warmed juicy-ness and then nearly fell off the ladder as a nasal voice zinged up at me, “You have two finger marks, Number twenty-seven, and you are not cleaning the trees properly.”
Quickly tucking the small bitten peach into my box, bite-side down, and choking down what was in my mouth, I said, “You mean I am leaving ripe ones, Mrs. Swensen?”
“I certainly do,” she said. “Come here.”
I climbed down. Peering at my wooden shoes through her steel-rimmed spectacles, she said, “What on earth do you have on your feet?”
“Wooden shoes,” I said. “We wear them on the beach.”
“Well, they may be all right for the beach but they are certainly inappropriate for picking peaches,” she said. “Look here, this peach is ripe,” deftly she twisted it off. “And so is this one, and this and this. Where is your flat, Mrs. MacDonald?”
“Up on the ladder,” I said. “I’ll get it.”
When I brought it down she immediately reached in and grabbed the small peach I had been eating. “That one is too small,” she said, then seeing the bitten pieces she added, “Eating the fruit is not encouraged, Mrs. MacDonald. After all, this fruit belongs to the Hawkinses. It represents money to them. Helping ourselves to their fruit is like helping ourselves to their money.”
She handed me the bitten peach and I accepted it humbly with hanging head. “Now,” she said briskly, “you are very slow. Let me see how you are picking.”
I reached over my head and got hold of a peach that looked ripe but was as hard as a stone and apparently cemented to the tree. I twisted and twisted and yanked and twisted and it stayed on the tree.
Mrs. Swensen said, “Here, let me show you.” She reached up and snapped the peach off and laid it in the box.
I felt like telling her that if somebody would loosen them up for me I wouldn’t have any trouble either, but instead I tried another and it did come off finally, after I had wrung it like a dishrag.
Mrs. Swensen had on great big mustard-colored culottes, a long-sleeved Kelly green silk blouse, brown Red Cross oxfords with medium heels and the big green straw garden hat. I said, “Isn’t this a lovely day?”
She said, “It has been a very disappointing day for the Hawkinses. Those early mists make picking so late.”
I said, “On the beach where we live the mist was almost gone at seven o’clock.”
“That’s impossible,” she said. “I could hardly see to drive at seven.”
“It was, though,” I said. “We are on the southeast side. Perhaps the wind blew it away.”
“It seems very unlikely that it would be foggy at Hawkins’ and clear at your place. That’s a green peach you just picked.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “What shall I do with it—throw it away?”
“Of course not,” she said. “It will pack, but be more careful in the future. You must work faster too. You’re way behind the others. Perhaps if you had on sensible shoes like these you could go up and down the ladders faster.”
“I could go barefoot,” I said eagerly.
“Mrs. Hawkins doesn’t approve of the women going barefoot,” she said. “It makes them look tough.”
I saw that the sun was directly overhead. “What time is it?” I asked.
“I don’t wear a watch,” she said. “I can tell the day is over when my work is finished.”
Just then there was a loud banging, like somebody pounding on a wash boiler with a hammer.
“There’s the lunch gong,” she said, still picking.
I kept picking, too, because I was afraid to stop. After ten minutes or so I heard Joan and Karen calling to me, “Betty, come on! Where are you?”
“Down here,” I answered. “Aren’t you going to eat lunch?” I asked Mrs. Swensen.
“I’m not hungry,” she said, drawing her lips into a small lavender rosette. “I’ve been having a little upset. Anyway I want to finish this tree.”
“I’ll help you,” I said weakly.
Then Joan and Karen came running down between the trees, carrying the lunch bags. “Come on, Mommy,” Joan said. “We only get a half hour and half of it’s gone already.”
“Well, I guess I’d better eat my lunch now,” I said to Mrs. Swensen.
“As you wish,” she said, not looking up.
Long before we were out of earshot, Karen said, “How come you were stuck with the old Crab Patch?”
“She was teaching me,” I said, adding sadly: “She said I’m slow and don’t pick right.”
“Oh, she tells that to everybody,” Karen said. “She thinks she’s the only person in the whole world that can pick those darn peaches. If they’d let her, she’d pick the whole crop all by herself.”
It was very hot and dusty between the rows of trees, but under each tree was a circle of cool dark green dappled shade. I suggested going under a tree to eat our lunch but Karen said no, because of the yellow jackets swarming over the peaches on the ground. We finally ate on the porch of the packing shed along with the other pickers. The sun had swung around and was shining directly on the heap of jackets and lunch and our sandwiches and milk were warm. After we had gulped down our food I said I wanted a drink of water. Karen said we had to drink out of the faucet in the yard. The water was warm and tasted like it had been standing in a tin can.
As I stood up and wiped off my lips, Joanie said, “Gosh you look hot, Mommy! Your face is as red as a beet.”
“I am hot,” I said, “I wish I’d worn a thin blouse.”
“Karen and I are going to take off our sweatshirts,” Joan said. “We’ve got halter tops on underneath. I wish I’d worn my short jeans.”
“Let’s cut ’em off,” Karen said. “Here, I’ve got a pocket knife.” She jabbed the blade of the knife through the material of her jeans at the inside seam, gave a yank and ripped off one leg. Then she cut off the other. Joan asked her to cut off hers. When they went back to work a few minutes later they had shed their sweatshirts and in their bare feet, halters and very short jeans, appeared as cool and carefree as pearl divers. I clumped hotly along behind them through the orchard.
About two o’clock my wooden shoes felt like they were made of iron and my throat was so dry it crackled. The tractor, hauling a sled that picked up the peaches and left empty boxes, went roaring by leaving a cloud of chokey tan dust. I climbed down from my tree and went in search of water. Ten or twelve trees away I found Karen and Joan. I asked Karen if there was any water nearer than the packing house. She said, “Ask the Crab Patch, she’s supposed to have it hauled down to the orchard.” I finally found Mrs. Swensen whispering to one of her lady friends behind the packing shed.
“Could we please have some water in the orchard?” I asked her.
She said, “Didn’t you get a drink at noon?”
I said, “Of course I did, but it’s awfully hot and the dust from the tractor is terrible.”
She said, “Well, I’ll take it up with Mrs. Hawkins.” She looked very disapproving of the whole idea.
I went defiantly over to the faucet in the yard, took a long lukewarm drink, washed out and filled Joan’s and my milk bottles and started back to work. Once I looked back and saw Mrs. Swensen pointing me out to Mrs. Hawkins. Joan and Karen were grateful for the water but instead of drinking it, poured it on their heads.
“Makes you cooler,” Karen said and I wished I had wet my hair when I was up at the faucet.
About four o’clock the tractor hauled down a ten-gallon can of water and a tin dipper to a place about in the middle of the pickers. The word went through the orchard with a whoosh. “Water!” the pickers called from tree to tree and we all hurried up to the sled. Mrs. Swensen was disbursing it as if it were vintage champagne.
“Don’t waste it,” she kept warning us. “Don’t crowd—don’t loiter—don’t be piggish—don’t push—be careful!” When my turn came I deliberately poured two dippersful over my head, then drank one.
Mrs. Swensen watched me with horror, then said, “I think we should all be very grateful to the Hawkinses for this nice water, Mrs. MacDonald. Mr. Hawkins filled the can and hauled it himself. I don’t think we should waste it. Mr. Hawkins is a very busy man.”
My hair was apparently thick with dust because the rivulets that ran down my face and neck were muddy. Joan and Karen giggled and said comfortingly, “Golly, you should see yourself, you look awful!” I didn’t care. I wanted to look awful. I was tired and hot and my legs ached and I had bleeding blisters on both heels and I hated peach picking more than anything in the whole world.
About five o’clock Mrs. Swensen announced that we would pick until dark, which was not until about ten as we were on double daylight saving at that time. I told her that I would have to call home and she said, “Well, I don’t know. Mrs. Hawkins doesn’t like the pickers to use the phone.”
“I don’t care what Mrs. Hawkins likes,” I shouted. “My husband won’t know where I am and unless you want the sheriff coming down here I’d better telephone.”
“Well, all right,” she said. “But I think arrangements should be made before you come to work.”
“How, by ouija board?” I said. “When I telephoned yesterday nobody told me that we were going to work until dark. I naturally assumed that we would quit at five or five-thirty. Where is the telephone?”
“I’ll show you,” she said.
“And tattle on you to Mrs. Hawkins,” Karen said to Joan audibly.
“You watch yourself, young lady,” said Mrs. Swensen turning around to Karen.
“Yes, ma’am,” said Karen, hurrying up her ladder.
The telephone was in the packing shed where about twenty women were sorting and packing peaches and screaming pleasantries to each other. It sounded like a hen house invaded by a weasel. I couldn’t even hear by own voice when I gave the number to the operator. I thought I heard Anne say that she and Don were going to my sister Alison’s for dinner but I wasn’t sure. Anyway, I was quite certain she understood that Joan and I would be late.
Mrs. Hawkins, a small sturdy brown woman with bright blue eyes, stopped her packing and came over to me. “How you getting along?” she asked.
“Fine,” I said, “but I’m awfully hot. I wish I could wear shorts.”
“Why don’t you?” she asked.
“I thought the women weren’t allowed to,” I said.
“Nonsense,” she said. “Wear your bathing suit if you want. We don’t care. Just so you don’t mark the peaches.”
I looked at Mrs. Swensen and she had her lips drawn into the lavender rosette.
We stopped for supper at six. Mrs. Swensen brought the sandwiches and Cokes to us. The sandwiches were egg and peanut butter and there were only two halves apiece. I could have eaten twenty and judging by Joan’s forlorn expression, she could have eaten sixty. Mrs. Swensen didn’t eat any. She said she was still upset and she didn’t like peanut butter anyway.
“Can I have yours, then?” Joan and Karen asked together.
“I suppose so,” said Mrs. Swensen ungraciously.
The long shadows of evening, with the soft bird sounds and a breeze from the Sound, gave us all a second wind. I was barefoot and even the earth between the trees, which had been as hot as a griddle during the afternoon, felt cool and cushiony to my tired feet. As we straggled finally up to the packing house I worried about Joanie. She was only thirteen, and seemed so small and slight to be doing such hard work. I asked her how she felt and she said, “Keen! I earned seven dollars and eighty cents at the very least and if they pay me eighty-five cents an hour like they are supposed to if you work the whole season but Karen says they never do because Mrs. Swensen chooses the ones that get eight-five cents, I earned ten dollars and twenty cents. Isn’t that keen, Mommy? You earned that much too,” she added generously.
I didn’t answer and she tucked her arm in mine and said, “It won’t be so hard tomorrow, Mommy. Karen says the first day is always hard.”
I had absolutely no intention of seeing what the second day was going to be like but didn’t want to bring it up at this time.
I sat down rather dispiritedly on the edge of the packing house porch and watched other packers, even two very old ladies, bustle gaily, untiredly around gathering up shawls and jackets and lunch buckets. I decided that if I did have to work the next day I would bring a big thermos of coffee—I also realized I hadn’t had a single cigarette all day. I took one out and lit it and immediately Mrs. Swensen materialized in the darkness beside me and said, “Mrs. Hawkins doesn’t allow smoking on the premises.”
“Okay, then I’ll let her tell me to stop smoking,” I said.
Mrs. Swensen flounced away. Joan and Karen giggled but Joan said, “Please don’t smoke, Mommy. None of the ladies here do and it makes you look funny.”
“You mean tough,” I said, “like wearing shorts or going barefoot?”
“Oh, Mommy,” Joan said. “You know what I mean.”
“I do, sweetheart,” I said, “but I’m so tired I don’t care. I need a cigarette right now and I’d like a martini.”
“Shush,” Joan said. “Don’t talk like that. Somebody might hear you.”
“I could sure go for a can of cold beer,” a pleasantly loud voice said behind me.
“Make it two,” another answered.
“What about them?” I asked Joan.
“Yes, but they’re not mothers,” Joan said.
Wearily I stamped out my cigarette and accepted half of Joan’s lukewarm Coke in its place. Mr. Hawkins didn’t finish cleaning up and locking the packing shed until after eleven. It was eleven-thirty when he slowed up the truck just a little and Joan and I tumbled out at the top of the Sanders’ road. My blisters were so painful I couldn’t wear my shoes, so I carried them and walked in my sock feet. The road had recently been graded and covered with crushed rock, which was like walking over broken glass. It was also very dark as the road followed a wooded ravine sheltered from the moonlight by the steep hills, and we couldn’t see the larger rocks until we either stepped on them or banged them with our toes. We were stumbling along complaining about how tired we were when we saw the lights of Don’s car at the top of the hill back of us.
Joan said, “Mommy, don’t let’s tell Anne how awful it was. Let’s tell her it was fun and all we did was sit under the trees and eat peaches for eighty-five cents an hour.”
It seemed a reasonable request, so when Don slowed up and we climbed in, I tried to leap a little and appear sprightly.
“How was it?” Anne asked immediately.
“The most fun I ever had,” Joan said. “The peaches are enormous and delicious and you can eat all you want and all Karen and I did was sit under the trees and eat peaches and giggle and I earned ten dollars and twenty cents.”
“Ten dollars and twenty cents!” Anne said. “My gosh, I only got fifteen dollars for a whole week on my job.”
“Well, come on and pick peaches,” Joan said. “They need more pickers.”
“Do they really?” Anne asked.
“Yes, they do,” I said. “You know I had to promise Mrs. Hawkins we’d have four or she wouldn’t have come down for us.”
“Well, I’m going tomorrow,” Anne said. “Ten dollars and twenty cents! I could get new saddle shoes and loafers.”
The great advantage of having Anne along was that she became friends with the Hawkinses’ daughter and learned that we could have as much water as we wanted and as many sandwiches as we could eat for supper. The tiny portions had been Mrs. Swensen’s idea. Also Anne stayed loyally behind with me and let Karen and Joan scamper ahead and be champions. I wore shorts and tennis shoes and a thin blouse the next day and was much less tired. Mrs. Swensen sniffed when she saw me and hovered around my trees like a yellow jacket but didn’t say anything.
We didn’t work late every night and after a while I wasn’t so terribly tired when I got home. We were all paid off at eighty-five cents, a pleasant surprise. We went to town the Saturday before Labor Day and had a rich, well-earned spree. The girls spent all their money for clothes and records and charms for their bracelets, but I got a new typewriter ribbon, some new pots and pans, and a large white Lotus camellia bush.
Don was very proud of all of us and Joan said that next year maybe he’d like to pick.
Anne said, “Oh, no, Mrs. Swensen doesn’t like men pickers. She says men smoke and use dirty language.”
“Description fits me like a glove,” Don said. “Guess I’ll have to dig clams.”
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