The Magic Strawberry Patch


1983 Short Story Contest First Place Winner

“Castle round the bend,” answered Grandpa on the other end. Grandpa always answered the phone that way after school when I’d be calling, and lots of other times too. Folks knew they’d reached the Duke house when Grandpa said that.

Of course, Grandpa didn’t live in a real castle. He lived in an old farm, but it was round the bend all right. Grandma and Grandpa’s farm kind of nestled in the big curve off the road a ways from the big highway to Twin Falls.

The old farm sure had some castle features, though; but I guess that’s to be expected with Dukes living there. It had moats all around the fields and a snake pit for torturing, should the need ever come up, and it had rusty old dragons in their burial ground behind the barn, only they were too big to be buried. You couldn’t hardly find dragons like them on the nearby farms. At the house, the tower wasn’t used anymore except to store secret documents and other boxed-up treasures, and maybe a prisoner or two if need be. The big, black, fire-breathing knight heated all three rooms downstairs when he was fed big chunks of coal.

The place just exploded with adventure, and Grandpa was the court magician. Without any notice whatsoever, he could whip up some yarns about Blackball and Snowball, identical twin bears. Why, those twin bears had more adventures than Ali Baba and the forty thieves and Sinbad and his sailors all put together. Grandpa never did tell the same story twice.

Grandma had her magic too. Hers was outside in ten long rows that she looked over and tended faithfully. I mean, if it had been up to me, I’d have given the thing up about the first planting time. But to Grandma, it was her only source of money. She kept her profits in a fruit jar to be used for little extra things she might want to do for us grandkids.

I guess that’s why she labored so over that strawberry patch. It was a real chore for her, ’cause Grandma was a big lady. To my way of thinking, she was just right—Grandma looked like a grandma should. She had an ample lap, sitting or standing, and she always wore these big aprons with two huge pockets that collected various items during the day. She had long, gray hair peppered with black, and it was braided in a thick braid that was wound round and round the top of her head.

Grandma had thyroid problems and problems in her neck, so it was kind of difficult for her to get around. But she’d hobble around in her orthopedic shoes or Grandpa’s old slippers. When she worked in her strawberry patch, she’d wear a big straw hat to shade her face, but she’d always be smiling and humming as she tended to her patch day after day—a-weeding and a-picking and a-watering and whatever else a-tending went with the rows. I never did hear her complain on those hot afternoons when she’d stop to wipe the sweat off her forehead with a big handkerchief she kept in her pocket, but that’s all right, ’cause I complained enough for the both of us when I was out there helping her.

Now, for sure, all that back-breaking labor paid off—at least in reputation. Folks clear in town, five miles away where I lived, and even farther, came to buy her strawberries. They said they were the biggest, most luscious, juiciest, best-tasting strawberries around. Well, didn’t I know that for a fact? Why, I’d had those strawberries about every way possible—strawberries on homemade biscuit shortcakes, strawberries in fresh cream, strawberry regular pie, strawberry and rhubarb pie, strawberry jello, and strawberry syrup.

In fact, Grandma always preserved some strawberries, and for Christmas all us grandchildren got little jars of jam or jelly tied with a bright string of yarn. The name tag would read “FROM Blackball and Snowball,” and it would be printed in Grandpa’s handwriting.

I really savored that jam. That jam was about the best there was; there wasn’t any way you could buy that in a store. I used to ration it out, but it still disappeared so fast that I kept it hidden in my drawer wrapped in tin foil. I had a hunch someone was “accidently” using some of it. My parents didn’t seem too concerned about my jam disappearing ahead of schedule; in fact, they’d been known to dip into it a few times until I made it clear that it was given to me, and my property ought to be respected same as theirs. But to make sure, I moved it to my underwear drawer.

Sometimes, people would even phone Grandma in advance and put in an order for a whole neighborhood from town, and Grandma would say without even figuring how much she’d eaten, sold, or given away that day, “Yes, you bet. Come on out. They will be ready.” And they always were. It seemed like she coaxed them berries into blooming early and lasting after everyone else had quit on theirs for the season. I guess that was part of the magic.

So, you can see the potential for real money-making Grandma had. But she didn’t have much business sense, to my way of thinking. I’d see her filling up big bowls of strawberries to send over to anyone in the ward that she’d hear was sick. She didn’t even wait to make sure it wasn’t a rumor. Now these very people might have been cash-paying customers a few days earlier or a few days later, but here she was giving away what they obviously would be glad to pay for.

“Grandma,” I’d say, “you can’t afford to give away all those strawberries!”

“It’s part of the magic,” she would always reply. “Now, take these on down to the Hanks’s and hurry along before they lose their charm and get mushy.”

All the way down the country road I’d be thinking that she didn’t have to give such a big bowlful, and I’d be thinking that I hoped they appreciated this heaping bowl of profits earned by a poor old lady’s back-breaking labor. And I’d be thinking, “I hope you realize you’ve got ten times what she has.”

The Hanks and all the others I delivered to were always delighted. But I figured this delighting other people was costing Grandma much of her profit. I found myself not only carting berries to sick old people, but carting berries to kids who had chicken pox, measles, tonsillitis, broken bones, flu, or any other squirmy little thing that might lay a kid up a day or two.

Then, if that wasn’t enough, I’d find myself carrying bowls of strawberries to every new mother in the area! And at every ward function she’d pile up a bunch to add to the homemade ice cream. No wonder Grandma never had much in her money jar. It was clear to me that all these good deeds was costing her, oh I’d say, at least a third of her profits.

“It’s all part of the magic,” Grandma would say, not in the least worried, every time I tried to hint that she might improve her profits. She’d always say it with a big grin and sweet smile on her face. Man! To be so good-natured when her valuable profits were dwindling by the day! She seemed more concerned about my worrying than anything.

Well, maybe doing for good neighbors and church is ok. But then I noticed her giving to the people stopping off the big road to ask for handouts. They were always stopping at her door. I sometimes wondered if they just didn’t pass the word along to be sure to stop at the old farm in the bend of the road. Sometimes, Grandma and Grandpa would let a guy do a few odd jobs and feed him a meal, and Grandpa was even known to drive him in his old ’39 Ford into town to save him five miles of walking if the weather was bad or if the guy looked especially down and out.

So here’s Grandma one day handing a man a lunch-size sack and saying, “Why, yes, you are most welcome to fill this sack with strawberries to eat on your way. The second row nearest to the fence should have the best ones today.”

Then that man got down on his knees and helped himself to the very best she had. He wasn’t content just to fill the sack. No, he shoveled them in his mouth as fast as he was picking. I figured he helped himself to a good $3.00 or $4.00 worth, in spite of me standing right in front of him giving him my double-whammy evil-eye dirty look.

“But, Grandma …” I said, disgusted, when he was on his way. “Don’t tell me that’s part of the magic. You should have seen how much he ate and how much he took. He practically cleaned out a whole half row.”

“Oh, but it is part of the magic, my dear,” she said. “Don’t you worry about that row. The next strawberries that grow there will be even bigger and better.”

She could see I wasn’t convinced. “Suppose you were hungry and had walked a long time and still had a long way to go. Suppose it was a hot day, and maybe you were awful discouraged about lots of things in your life. Suppose you and your family, if you even had a family left, were having real tough times. Suppose you were about scraping-the-bottom-of-the-barrel down and out. Don’t you see how refreshing some strawberries might be, even if for just a few minutes? Strawberries given in kindness?”

“Well, I guess so,” I said for her benefit but still mulling it over in my mind. For sure, on a hot day there was nothing more refreshing than a handful of hosed-off berries fresh from the patch. But still, I had to give that one some more thought.

Well, the next morning I allowed that Grandma had a point about helping out strangers. But the way I figured it, she was giving away at least half her profits.

I guess I would have to abide it if that’s the way she wanted to do business, though it still kind of struck in my craw that most of those she was doing for were so much better off than her. I didn’t have much hope of convincing her that she needn’t be so generous with her strawberries.

One day Grandpa went to town leaving Grandma and me to make raisin-filled cookies. I was in the front room searching for the hymn book ’cause we always sang hymns when making cookies. Grandma knew them all by heart, but I needed the book. I had just picked the book off the windowsill when I noticed the big Hanks boy and the oldest Beck kid helping themselves to the strawberries. Well, this is where my Grandma draws the line. She doesn’t cotton to stealing of any sort, and that’s a fact.

“Grandma,” I yelled. “Grandma, the Hanks boy and the Beck kid are helping themselves to your strawberries. They’re a-robbing you blind!”

Well, Grandma, with this alarmed look on her face, came quicker than I’d ever thought possible. She grabbed her straw hat from the hook by the door and, floured hands and all, scurried to the patch.

No one is going to steal my grandma’s berries, I thought. I’d never seen her dress anybody down, but if anyone deserved it, it was these overgrown spineless lizards sneaking around out there.

“Boys, boys,” she was yelling all the while, “you come on over here. Come on over here, now.”

They knew they’d been caught, and they knew they’d better fess up to Sister Duke, or Brother Duke would be calling their folks for sure.

“Boys, boys,” Grandma kept hollering at them.

They probably figured they could make a deal with Grandma, and their folks would be none the wiser about them being caught red-handed. So they started slinking, heads down, toward Grandma.

“Boys,” she said to them all out of breath from yelling. Now they were going to get it, I thought to myself. “Now, boys …” she continued, still trying to catch her breath and waiting for them to get eyeball to eyeball with her, “You don’t ever need to steal my strawberries. Come on to the door and just ask me. You’re welcome to them. All you can eat, and that is a promise. They taste a whole heaping better without a guilty conscience. OK? Now you go on over to the back row there and fill this carton to take with you.”

I just looked at her like she’d gone plumb loco. Those big hoodlums just sighed a big relief and told her they’d had enough and thanked her for being so understanding.

“Oh, shucks,” she laughed. “Don’t think I haven’t had two sons of my own. Many a time I found them in the patch when they ought to have been elsewhere. I know young boys have a craving for fresh strawberries. So you are just welcome anytime.”

I knew she was going to tell me it was part of the magic again, so I didn’t even bother to ask. This one, for sure, stumped me. When we were back rolling out the dough, I guess she could see how perplexed I was, and she said to me, “I sure would hate to meet my Maker knowing I’d put some awful temptation in front of some nice young men. Why, that would just tear me up.”

“It’s part of the magic too, I guess?” I said not at all convinced. It didn’t seem right for magic to work for outlaws.

“Oh, yes,” she came back, “it definitely is part of the magic.”

The truth is, though, they were never seen around the patch again. I figured they might have had the same dream I did—the one about the little old lady in the middle of the strawberry patch. This nice old lady was surrounded by hoodlums with gunny sacks and cartons and grocery bags and wooden orange crates. They were there for the sole purpose of picking that patch clean. Just about the time they bent over to pick, this voice descends from heaven saying, “Let he who does not have a mother who may someday be old and poor pick the first strawberry.” Then one by one, they slink away without so much as touching one strawberry.

Well, I was pretty much convinced that there was no hope for Grandma improving her business sense. She just had too much heart or too much religion or something. And she was all wound up in the magic of that thing, though just what that magic was continued to escape me. I determined you just can’t teach a poor old grandma good business tricks.

About that time, Grandma and Grandpa decided to sell the farm. They said they were getting too old for such a hard life. Besides, they were needed elsewhere. One of my aunts had lost a son in an accident, and they thought maybe they could help by being closer.

They got an offer from a man who lived not too far away. He was going to do wondrous things with all his modern machinery, he said. He said he was going to put the farm in the black. He was real delighted with the strawberry patch, too. He said he’d had his eye on that for some time and he was going to do what Grandma should have done a long time ago.

“You won’t see me furnishing every Tom, Dick, and Harry with strawberries,” he warned. “This patch is going to be added revenue.” Now, there was a businessman. I was kind of glad Grandma wasn’t going to be around to see all the money she could have made if she’d approached the venture more sensibly.

So the castle round the bend was sold and with it went the magic strawberry patch. The following year, out of habit I guess, we got to hankering for some of those berries we’d been used to, so we drove out to buy some. But the berries were downright puny to behold. Other folks were there shaking their heads and complaining too, saying they weren’t as big, or as red, or as juicy, or as good as before.

“I plain don’t understand it,” the new owner exclaimed, shaking his head too. “We’ve done everything the very same. We’ve tended the patch just as good.”

But even he had to admit that the berries just were not the quality of Grandma’s.

“It’s the strangest thing,” he told my Mom. “I’m getting less than half what she said she got.”

Well, I began putting two and two together then.

The second year, Mrs. Hanks told my mom that the crop all but failed entirely. The new owner told her that by the time he figured expenses and time spent in the patch, they were losing money. Besides, the berries just weren’t that good. He said it was more of a nuisance than anything. So at the end of the season he plowed the patch over and planted alfalfa there.

I gave some real serious thought to the matter. I began to wonder if maybe Grandma didn’t know full well what she was doing after all.

I was tempted to ride out on my bike and fill the new owner in on the magic ingredient. But I was kind of mad at him ’cause he did such dumb things to the castle, like adding a modern bathroom, and putting in a furnace, and clearing off the dragon burial ground.

I figured it would be a waste of my breath; people who would ruin a perfectly good castle probably wouldn’t understand anything about the magic of a strawberry patch anyway.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Robert DeWitt

Sandra Bouley, mother of three and a high school English teacher, is secretary of the Mesa Arizona South Stake activities committee.