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Gooseberries


A gooseberry is defined as “a round edible yellowish-green or reddish berry with a thin translucent hairy skin.” Just reading this definition brings back memories of the “hairy” part. The dictionary also notes that this word can refer to “the thorny shrub that bears the gooseberry”. So attractive: hairy and thorny!


One of the most interesting places I was “farmed out to” as a child was actually a “farm”, a nearly allegorical version of “farm” that belonged to my “Aunt Christine and Uncle Artie”. They were good farmers in every sense, with all the appropriate animals, crops and side ventures like garden vegetables and fresh hen eggs for sale. Aunt Christine, who was also my godmother, was never fun but I learned a great deal from her. I suspect, however, that the lessons would surprise her as they were rarely those she set out to teach me.


I had a rich array of “jobs” while at the farm. Because I was a preschooler during the earliest years, some of my most interesting life lessons emerged then, before “educators” could make sure in proper schools that they determined what I was to learn and how. My best memories are the stories of the preschooler making sense of a farm and its life style, the endless work to be done. One of my many jobs was picking “gooseberries”, hairy little green balls on thorny bushes. Aunt Christine made jams, jellies and pies with the fruits of my labor. It took a lot of little green balls to meet her expectations.


Of greater interest than the job itself, however, was the gear necessary to pick gooseberries. Much of it, in retrospect, can provide rich entertainment. First was the footwear. My Uncle Artie had a pair of “rubbers” which then meant “waterproof shoes made of rubber which are worn over regular shoes to keep them dry”.


Because Aunt Christine did not want me to get my shoes muddy, she required that I wear these “rubbers”. As is perhaps obvious, they were about twice the size of my shoe so I had to walk carefully in them simply to keep them on. I hated wearing those “rubbers”. Revisiting the story is of course, enriched by the new meaning of “rubbers” I learned later.


It gets better. Only when I was older did I learn the reason that Aunt Christine also required me to wear one of my Uncle Artie’s chambray work shirts. Needless to say, it too was too large, so when I put it on, it dragged behind me on the ground. Aunt Christine would roll up the sleeves…many times…and then give me a brief lecture about how important it was to keep this shirt on while I was out picking gooseberries.


Eventually, I learned why. She wanted to make sure I didn’t get a sun tan, because for her, being tan indicated that you were a “loose woman”, a challenging option for a four-year-old. Augmenting the “anti-tan” initiative, I was also required to wear one of Uncle Artie’s discarded straw work hats that he wore “in the field”. Thus, geared up, I could now pick gooseberries.


The bushes themselves were in the back part of Aunt Christine’s totally awesome garden: she grew just about everything and meals for much of the year were enriched by the garden. It seemed huge to me, especially when I had some challenge, like weeding, as my job for the day. To get to the garden, one left the house and walked about 100 feet along a cement walkway leading to the graveled driveway onto the property. Crossing the driveway, one was in the garden; one had to then walk the depth of the garden to get to the thorny gooseberry bushes.


One of the common community practices in this farming community was a way of saying “Hi” when you passed the farm house of someone who was a relative or who you considered a friend. You would simply beep your horn; if someone was outside, you would also wave. The person outside would then wave back. This was normalized to such a strong degree that to fail to beep was viewed negatively. I knew about the practice, had seen it played out numerous times.


One day Aunt Christine told me she needed me to spend the morning, maybe the whole day, picking gooseberries. The picking was OK because it got me out of the house; the gear, not so much. She geared me up, rubbers, long shirt and straw hat, and sent me out with a bucket in hand. Even I knew I looked odd at best. As I was trudging along the walkway to the garden which was parallel to the main road, a car drove by and beeped: no wave, just a beep.


In my mind, I started processing what had just happened. It was clear to me that what the person driving by saw was that someone had cut Uncle Artie in half: only his top half was walking about, wearing rubbers. Now it seemed to me that this person should have slowed down, pulled in the drive way and investigated. Really, if you saw someone you liked had been cut it half, it is only courteous and caring to check on them, see how they are doing, find out what happened to them.


I fretted about this all the way to the gooseberry bushes, where I knew I would be busy all morning. I located the bushiest part of the bushes to hide behind, took off all the gear, and got to work. The thorns scratched my arms but I knew the gear would cover up the scratches. I never knew if Aunt Christine knew that I cheated and was possibly getting a sun tan, the first public indicators of preschool sexual promiscuity. I also decided not to ask her about the person who drove by, beeped, did not wave, and showed no compassion for Uncle Artie’s plight. I never forgot it though, and it is as real today as it was then.


Why is this important? Because it shines a light on the thinking of a child. I do not recall ever being told as a young child that one should notice when something catastrophic happens to someone you care about, that you should investigate, offer to help. I think I probably saw people do this, but I do not recall being told about it as a choice I could and should make.


If a little kid can come up with this insight and be disturbed by the failure of adults to intervene, then it seems to me this indicates something about the human spirit worthy of recognition and celebration. My story is just an example; little kids are providing comparable stories every day.


Like many, I am unspeakably weary of journalists who think “news” is only “bad news” and even neutral topics must be mined for “negative posturing”. I have been assured that this bias has been locked in because we news consumers, held captive by our lizard brains, prefer, even gravitate to “bad news”, seduced by “click bait”. Profit driven news providers “give us what we want”. This half-baked excuse simply says greed is more important than information.


But the little kid walking toward the garden, facing a gooseberry day, realizing she actually appeared to be half of her uncle…this moved beyond the confinements of a lizard brain. If you listen to little kids, deliberately and consistently, you will find this concern for the well-being of others, this amazement that the grown-ups are overlooking suffering, the dilemma of how to help out when things are not as they should be. I think of it as a powerful window into the human soul, uncensored by “growing up”.


My wish for others: Every time you have a chance, start a conversation with a child, and then listen carefully. Ask questions, be curious, and censor nothing the child shares with you. Pay attention!


“There is a wisdom in children, a kind of knowing, a kind of believing, that we, as adults, do not have. There is a time when a kingdom needs its children.”


- Adam Gidwitz -


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