Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Creative Non-fiction by Amy Carpenter

Stories From My Mother

Have you eaten potatoes recently? I bet you have. Between mashed potatoes and French fries you’ve probably had at least three servings of potatoes in the past week. My family tends to eat more than that. In my earliest memories I can remember my mother peeling potatoes almost every night for supper. Her thumbs and hands are scarred from cuts and she would give me the carrot peeler to help her. I would stand on the kitchen stool slowly rotating the oblong root, taking off the brown skin and listen to her. Sometimes she would tell me stories about how when she was young, she knew first hand how this vegetable got out of the ground.

My mother would tell me stories about potato harvesting and my aunts and uncles pass down their experiences to me as well. “It’s thing of the past now”, says one of my uncles. Labor laws, machinery, outside competition and chemical pesticides have killed the Maine potato economy and the Maine potato harvest. Children no longer get three weeks off of school in mid-September to bring the harvest in. But they used to. My mother and my aunts’ and uncles’ schools started classes in the middle of August while muggy heat and mosquito swarms still dominated the days and nights. But the cold comes quickly in The County and very soon it’s time for the harvest to be gotten in.

If you were a farm kid, no matter how young, you helped pitch in. My mother started working in the fields at the age of nine for 30 cents a barrel. By her senior year of high school, the amount paid per barrel had only risen 20 cents. At least if you worked on a harvester you got state minimum wage-$3.35 an hour.

One of my aunts tells me, “The one day I worked on a harvester, I felt overwhelmed by the noise and vibration of the machinery and picking potatoes was like a nature walk compared to that.” At least if you worked in the field your greatest danger was a rotten potato in your knee.

“You could loose a finger on a harvester, working in the pit”, my mom said. No one knew anyone who really had lost a finger but there always was that threat.

“You wear layers”, my mom says. Undershirt, t-shirt, long-sleeved shirt and sweatshirt and long johns under your jeans but still you shiver in the early morning frost. Girls wore bandanas to hold their hair back, their ears tucked under the dingy paisley print to protect from frostbite. When I was young my mother would tie my hair up in a bandana with the tips of my ears covered when it was cold. She told me that that was how she wore her hair and I was proud to do the same.

It wasn’t just farmers and farmer’s children who harvested. “You could always tell the Townies apart,” my mom laughs. “They couldn’t pick as fast and always came in the morning clean. For us, we couldn’t get a bath until Saturday night and we didn’t have enough clothes to be wearing clean ones everyday.” Every night before dinner the children would wash their faces and hands like they were wearing white gloves and masks above their real identities.

When you got to the field the field boss was already there. He handed you your tickets, tough pieces of oaktag with a number corresponding to your name, and told you to mark your section. Potato rows were long and you worked across them, not down them. Then you got your basket, a woven wooden one made from brown ash straps. The local Maliseet tribe made these baskets and they held about one fourth of a potato barrel. One Maliseet man brought his entire family every day to the harvesting, all ten children, and he wouldn’t straighten up all day, working furiously for every last cent.

One of my aunts remembers, “Once in the field there are the smells – earth, decaying tops and diesel fumes from the tractor as it chugs by bringing up the first rows of picking for the day. When we were quite young, our Dad would have chocolate bars tucked in his clothing. As he dug the sections his children were responsible to pick, he would drop a chocolate bar into the row to raise our spirits as we came upon it leaning over our potato baskets.” Only the youngest of the children crawled through the dirt to gather the potatoes. Everyone else bent at the waist and got used to the pain by the second or third day.

As every barrel was filled and a ticket squeezed underneath the top band the potato truck would drive by, a young man driving, an even younger boy standing on the flatbed operating the hoists and rolling the barrels as they were brought up onto the truck. “One of the boys sang “You Are My Sunshine” to me every time he came around to my section”, my mom recounts. “I turned red every time which is why he kept doing it.”

And so it went until the crop was in. As it got later in the season my mother remembers crawling inside one of the cedar barrels and pulling another one on top of it to block out the wind. But after all these years, this is what they all remember.

“Autumn leaves… colors bright everywhere…running through the fields. In and out of the trees and up and down the nearby gravel pits. Yelling…screaming…dancing. Weary muscles, bent skeletons, tired, dirty and mashed potatoes for supper.”

These are the stories my aunts and uncles tell me. These are the stories that my mother tells me.