Most Sundays I visit my mother. When you spend time with your parents or elders you never know what story they’re going to share.
Mom came into the kitchen from the backyard holding what I thought was a grapefruit.
“From my tree,” her smile and voice triumphant.
She opened her hands and a boulder of an orange rolled onto the kitchen table where I sat reading her Sunday newspaper.
“That’s huge.” My awe not only resulted from the size of the fruit but the fact my mom has a dwarf orange tree making its size more incredible.
The scent of sweetness and tang sprang into the space around us.
“This is a 220,” she said, smiling with every flick of the peel. “At the packing house, we sorted 220’s from 200’s, 210’s.”
“I’m guessing that’s the weight?” I asked.
“Don’t know, but the 220’s were the best of the best. We wrapped them in Sunkist tissue paper before we put them into a special box, all nice.”
“Like those Harry and David fruit boxes?”
She continued peeling, clearly not hearing my question. Not only is she legally blind, but she has significant hearing loss, not that anyone can really tell of either impairment since she’s so vivacious.
“Ufff, the conveyor belts filled the warehouse, running above us, on the sides, everywhere. There were the regular oranges, the unblemished ones for supermarkets, not a spot on them, and the perfect ones for shipping. And the not so pretty ones for juice.”
I wondered if the beauty of the perfect oranges became a horror at the end of an eight or ten-hour shift where she stood the entire time. Did they still appear beautiful after a thousand oranges rolled by on the conveyor belt?
“Most all the women in the neighborhood worked there. Lots of chisme (gossip) and jokes, the time passed.”
My memory flashed to a summer job I had during college. I worked the graveyard shift in a similar packing house in Oxnard, California sorting strawberries. The women were not so talkative during the night shift.
The conveyor belt rolled at a quick pace while I snatched bruised or overripe berries off the belt and plopped them into the running stream of water alongside the pulleys. The best were shipped to Japan, the worst sent to be made into jelly.
The frigid air reeked of earth and berries, the cold keeping us awake at three in the morning. At the end of the shift, the berries looked like hordes of crawling red spiders.
I finished the strawberry season but that was the last time I worked in a packing house. Mom and her sisters worked in several fruit and chile packing houses for years: Sunkist, S & W, DelMonte.
She often came home, lugging her plastic apron and gloves to wash, reeking of California green chiles, berries, or fruit oil depending on the season. How did she do it? I’m sure she’d say, “You do what you got to do, as long as it’s honest.”
“Now, let’s see if this 220 is sweet,” Mom said. She sectioned the orange with her fingers, piece by piece, working her fingers down the crevices, picking off the white residue of webbing.
She offered me a wedge before she bit into her own piece. Her eyes fluttered with delight. “Ah, a good one.”
My own piece dripped with sweetness. I smiled, not only for the piece of orange but for my mom’s story and opportunity to visit her past.