The thermometer in the car read 91 degrees as my four-year-old son and I headed out to the strawberry patch. It was the orchard’s last day for picking strawberries this season. I was not going to let the heat deter us.
“How many berries can I get for $6.00?” I asked the woman behind the counter, feeling around my pockets for any stray coins.
“Well, you have to buy a family pass in order to pick, and that costs $1.00,” she said.
“Okay, how many berries can we pick for $5.00?”
“About 10. Twelve at the most. It depends on how big they are,” she said. “But you better keep it to 10, because you can’t go over $5.00. And once you pick them, you have to pay for them.”
“Okay, pal, we only get 10 berries,” I told my son as we walked out to the patch. “Let’s go out there and pick 10 of the most perfect berries they have.”
This year, I didn’t want to drive all the way out there for 10 berries so I stopped at a gas station on the way there for an ATM. Once we stopped, my son had to poop, I wanted coffee, and he wanted gum. Twenty minutes later, we were on the road again, though my son complained for about a mile about wanting his gum, and I said he couldn’t have it until he ate his sandwich. He’d been in the pool all morning for his swimming lessons, and I didn’t want him standing outside in a hot strawberry patch with no nourishment, even if it was just half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
“I don’t waaaaaaaannt it! I want the gum,” he whined.
“You’re not getting the gum until you have the sandwich,” I said. I always feel funny in these situations, forcing my son to eat something that’s not particularly healthy simply because it’s what I made him for lunch, when in another form, something as sweet as peanut butter and jelly could be considered dessert.
“Daddy gives me gum,” he said.
“Fine!” he said, and literally growled.
He nibbled at the sandwich, but about half a mile later, he started screeching. “Bugs are biting me!” he yelled. “Bugs are biting my penis!”
“They’re biting your what?”
“They’re biting my penis,” he said. “Mommy, bugs are biting me!”
I reached around while I was driving and tugged on his bathing suit, thinking maybe his penis had gotten caught in the cloth mesh of the suit.
“They’re still biting me, mommy! Bugs are biting me!”
“There are no bugs biting you!” I said.
“They’re biting my butt!”
“We’ll be there soon,” I said.
“It hurts! It hurts! They’re biting my butt!”
“I said we’ll be there soon!”
“Mommy! They keep biting me!”
Suddenly, the heat and the incessant whining, the driving back and forth to his swimming lessons in summer traffic, the fact that my laptop broke, the story deadlines I have looming and yet have little time to work in order to meet them, the fact that my taxes are due and I haven’t had time to get everything together and the accountant keeps writing to me, “When are you sending me your stuff?” the filthy house with sand and toys in the rugs because the cleaning woman quit on me a year ago when she got a job, the laundry that doesn’t stop no matter how many loads I do, the body that won’t stop aging on me and no matter how much I run, it just doesn’t get any easier, it all erupted inside of me like a pot beginning to boil, and I yelled at the top of my lungs, louder than anyone should shout in the small space of a car, “Stop it! Just stop it!!”
My son grew quiet. I felt regret. It’s a common pattern. He whines. I yell. He stops. I feel regret. And then I take stock of what kind of mother I am. At times I’m the best mother, better than most – fun, witty, engaging. We do crafts, we read, we sing, we dance. And other times, I’m the worst mother, worst than most — impatient, stressed out, yelling. I’m like the girl in that poem, “There once was a girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her head. And when she was good, she was very, very good, and when she was bad, she was rotten.”
“I’ll pull over as soon as I can,” I said. “I’m about to get off the highway.”
I suddenly feared what if there really is something biting him, like a bee or a little crab. What a terrible mother I am. I felt like a heel. As soon as I exited the highway, I pulled into the first driveway I could find. I got out of the car, opened my son’s car door and unbuckled his seat belt. He had bits of peanut butter and jelly sandwich on his lap and some jelly on his stomach. He stood up in front of his car seat, and I pulled back the elastic on his bathing suit and looked for whatever may have been biting him. There was nothing in the back of the suit or the front, and I couldn’t find anything on the seat.
“Bud, I think it was these tags here,” I said, showing him the three tags in the back of his bathing suit. “They were probably scratching you.”
It didn’t really explain what might have been biting his penis, but I didn’t bring it up. Still feeling regret for having yelled so loudly, I handed him a piece of gum.
We got back into the car and drove to the strawberry patch. As we got out of the car, you could feel the heat. It was oppressive. I grabbed our bottle of water. I should have taken two, I thought. We went to the counter to get a basket for our berries and headed out to the patch.
The paths in between the rows of strawberries were narrow and the dirt was hard and uneven, making it difficult to walk. My son nearly fell a few times in his plastic sandals.
“Try to find really red ones. Like this,” I said, holding up a berry that was deep red.
“Like this, mommy?” he asked, pulling a berry off a plant.
“Darker,” I said.
As we moved down the dusty row, the heat in the patch was stifling. The only respite was the occasional light breeze that would blow by and feel cooling because your body was wet with sweat. It reminded me of Budapest, where my husband and I lived for a year, where there were few air conditioners and people just allowed themselves to sweat, and that was okay. The oppressiveness of heat can be grounding, like one of those heavy jackets they put on you before taking an x-ray. There was no point in fighting the heat so I relaxed and gave in, and it felt good. I walk around all day stressing out, frenetic. It felt good to be ground into the earth, to do nothing more than sweat and hunt for berries. Even the hunt was therapeutic, the search for the perfect berry. It’s like fishing, or hunting for deer, or looking for the perfect seashell. Out in the hot patch, there’s nothing else out there but you and the berries, and so you search for the perfect berry, and everything else just falls away. And in that moment, you are in the moment, and that’s all there is, right?