Recently I asked a friend who’d just read “Pick It” to tell me about her favorite childhood activity. It turns out, for her too, it was berry picking.
But here’s what that meant to her:
Berry picking for Trang meant picking berries (and green beans and cucumbers) for pay every summer, between the ages of 12 and 17, seven days per week, with her four brothers and four sisters in rural Auburn, Washington. Her family would rise at 4, reach the fields by 6, and pick until dusk.
I was appalled. “Did you ever have a day off?” I asked. “Only when it rained,” she replied, “we were so happy when it rained.” All things considered, Trang remembers these summers fondly. Her mother would pack a delicious lunch: “Pork and rice with watermelon. Those lunches were sooo good.” At the end of each day the siblings would pool their earnings and cheerfully fork the purse over to the most industrious matriarch of the Pacific Northwest. These kids were proud of their collective contribution to the family cookie jar.
Where was I off track in “Pick It?” In assuming that all kids have limitless leisure time to dawdle their summers away, as I did, berry picking or watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus from my Texas Memaw’s shag rug.
Here’s another example where my limited thinking didn’t match reality:
One night I’d loaded the dishwasher and realized I was out of detergent. I didn’t want to lose my parking space by driving to the Shop Rite for soap so I hit all the 99 cents stores within a ten block radius of the Newkirk Plaza, searching for automatic dishwasher detergent. Guess what? 99 cents stores don’t sell Cascade. Why not? A woman, standing on the checkout line of Junior’s 99 cents overheard my request and explained proudly, but with some bitterness too: “I’ve never had a dishwasher. My dishwasher is me. Always has been. And I’m 58.”
That was meant for me, that slap in the face:
Wake up Maria! Roused, I realized that I bob along in a state of unconscious entitlement. Always have. I assume the gifts given me are givens for everyone else…
like a college education without student loan debt
like regular pediatric dental care followed up with orthodonture to correct buck teeth
like small class sizes and clean school bathrooms
like expert orthroscopic knee surgery that has left me nearly symptom-free for 30 years
like trips on planes and trips out of town
like ballet lessons and exchange programs to Paris
like orange juice, butter and roast beef instead of Sunny-D, margarine and bologna
like ham at Easter, turkey at Thanksgiving, & standing rib roast at Christmas
like gifts stacked so high under the tree that it takes the better part of Christmas morning to open them
Yes, all this time I have assumed that every kid has languorous summers and every grown-up deserves a dishwasher.
And here’s the danger of my pervasive presumptions and sense of entitlement: I remain oblivious to my privilege until someone, less fortunate, points it out to me.
Like the 99 cents store lady, or like my friend Trang, sitting at my kitchen table, enjoying my chicken soup.
Lessons learned: I try harder to dodge assumptions about how others live, and I try harder to wake up to the fact that I’ve got it better than most. I try to give back, in small ways, whenever opportunities present themselves...
To level the berry fields...
...and I insist that my 10 year-old shuck six ears of corn before supper and carry his plate to the sink after it. After all, it feels good to contribute to the family cookie jar.