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Life in the strawberry patch

As I pulled into the dirt parking lot, dust flew up from my tires and enveloped the car. Unfortunately, I had the convertible top down at the time, so now there’s a layer of dirt covering the layer of pollen on my dashboard. That’s OK, though, because it’s May, now, and I can wash the car again with some level of confidence that it will stay clean for more than a night.

Friday’s trip to a strawberry patch on Bennett’s Pasture Road reminded me that there are some other great things about May — namely, fresh berries and the memories I have of picking them with my mother when I was a little boy.

Even the blowing dust at the Lilley Farms patch carried with it the smell of springtime. Sitting there under a tent with Carolyn Lilley as customers came and went — occasionally holding up traffic on the two-lane road that fronts the farm as they stopped to turn left into the drive — time seemed to turn back a few decades.

Never mind that one of the employees was sending texts from his cell phone and another was studying from a book about computer networking or some other advanced technical subject. As her customers stopped at the table to pay for their containers or occasionally to ask for pre-picked berries, they all slowed down for a few minutes to chat.

How are the berries? (Starting to ripen. Next week should really take off.) Where are the best ones? (Out in the middle of the field, they’re nice and plump and red. Most folks don’t go that far out, so the edges get kind of picked over.) What’s the biggest worry? (Rain. It ruined much of the crop last year.)

Some customers shared stories about strawberry events around the area, while others proudly came back to the tent holding buckets filled with strawberries the size of crabapples. One lady — who had just bought a quart of medium-sized pre-picked berries — shot a covetous look at the bucket held by a man who had spent the previous 10 minutes in the field and returned with huge red berries stacked in a mound above the rim.

She’d been working in the yard all day and was too tired to do her own picking, she said. When someone asked him whether he’d be willing to sell her his own berries, the man said, “No. But I’d be willing to go back out and pick some more for her.”

That kind of offer might not have seemed unusual in 1950 or even 1970, but standing under a tent in a rural pocket of quickly-growing North Suffolk in 2010, it was almost too out-of-place-and-time.

The lady declined the gentleman’s offer with a joke, and both made their way separately home. Perhaps some things do change in this world — even at the old-fashioned strawberry patch.