My first job was picking berries for Hicken Mountain Mowings, a sprawling farm in Dummerston, Vt. It was the summer of 1986. I was eleven years old and going into the 6th grade. My cousins—a family of Laotian girls a few years older than me—had worked for Mr. Hicken the previous summer. My parents talked me into giving it a try. I have the privilege to say that until then, I had never worked a hard day in my life.
The farm lay at the end of a series of sun-dappled dirt roads. The main house was a traditional butter-yellow New England farmhouse flanked by a low stone wall and a large canopied tree. A small parking area gave way to tractor paths, which we followed to find neatly tended fields of berries. As Mr. Hicken also sold tree fruits, I assume his spread included an orchard. I was not yet 5’ tall and could barely see over the raspberry bushes.
I suppose I had never seen a proper raspberry until then. I had assumed all raspberries were unripe blackberries—the button-sized nubs that grew wild on pricker bushes, and which I ate with abandon, staining my palms and lips a royal plum. Mr. Hicken’s berries were jewel toned and chamois-soft. They lacked tartness, but burst with liquid. They reminded me of bruised lips that had to be handled tenderly. Gentleness was imperative, as was speed. We were paid by the quart. I was the youngest and smallest of the girls and never earned as much as they.
The raspberry rows were so long, one could barely see from one end of the hedge to the other. Labyrinth like and endless, the hedgerows sprung my imagination. Alternatively talking to myself and listening to the conversations between the rows, I slowly filled my tray. We were called away for the lunch hour, which we spent on an unused hay wagon parked near the farmhouse. My cousins and I ate what we ate at home: sticky rice and hot sauce, dried meats and raw vegetables. We were back in the berry patch the rest of the afternoon, until our parents picked us up.