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The berry-picking shirt: Stuff is where the stories lie

TARYN GEE/The Globe and Mail

The Essay is a daily personal piece submitted by readers.

Funny how the objects in life evoke memories, yet we are in such a hurry to clear out our clutter.

What does this say about us? Are we anxious to let go of our past? Is it a necessity to get rid of old memory makers to allow new ones in?

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It's the obsession with material goods that we complain about. We could do more with less, we say. We all have too much stuff.

Yet stuff is where the stories lie.

In the rough-hewn, white-painted wardrobe that sits in my basement (I bought it for my first Vancouver apartment, which had no closets) hangs my mother's mink stole.

Why it's called a stole I have no idea. Perhaps because it was fur "stole" off some nasty creature?

I am not fond of this little piece of fur, and can't even imagine using it as part of a costume.

What grabs my attention more is the shirt that is covering and protecting the stole. It's an old, made-in-Canada Bluestone, size 17-17½ XL that belonged to my dad in the 1960s.

A faded light brown, it's the colour of hot chocolate with not enough cocoa in it, with lines and squares of varying shades of brown and beige all blurring together to make you think it is almost plain, almost solid.

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I see this shirt, and standing before my memory eye, as if posing for a camera, is my mother.

She is about to walk out the cabin door. I will go back to sleep for it is way too early to be up yet. The temperature is cool, though we know the heat that will follow as the day lights up.

She's about to go meet up with Mrs. Binny or Mrs. Brown or Mrs. Wells to go raspberry picking. The shirt forms part of her armour, her protection from both the sun and the bugs.

Ever fashionable, my mother would probably have been wearing black pants, never blue jeans, not until she was much older.

On her feet – you know, I have no recollection of her lake footwear. Sneakers perhaps? Maybe less fashionable rubber boots with thick socks to ward off bugs and allow wading through dampness?

But covering her upper body was my dad's shirt – this very shirt. What rounds out the picture is her large-brimmed hat with its mesh-like fabric veil surrounding her head, making her look more like a Newfoundland mummer in December than a Manitoba berry picker in summer. Totally unrecognizable, she meant serious business.

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Raspberry picking, apparently, was not for the faint of heart. I don't remember ever accompanying her on these raspberry foraging expeditions. Maybe they were too early? Maybe they were way too dangerous? After all, besides humans, who likes raspberries? Wasps? For certain, hence the mesh. Bears? Of course. I know the shirt didn't protect her from the bears, but maybe she chose it because it was my dad's and, having what might feel like his arms wrapped around her, perhaps she felt safe?

In my memory of her raspberry picking expeditions it was always this shirt. The more likely explanation was that it was either too small or too old for my dad by that time. An object would never have been thrown away quickly without first finding a secondary use for it. Maybe mom thought the colour was perfect camouflage in the woods?

Maybe someone said mosquitoes don't like brown?

Raspberry picking was too important to risk bringing along a cranky kid whose interest would wane, who might put more berries in her mouth than in the pail, who would have to go to the bathroom, who would get tired of the tedious task, who would be fodder for the bugs, who would make too much noise and want to go home.

Besides, maybe there was only one old shirt that was old enough to take on a second useful life – no armour for the second picker. It never occurred to me that perhaps the best thing of all was the company of just women for a few early hours in the morning.

She'd return from the expedition, probably covered in bites in spite of her attempts to protect herself, with buckets of berries.

That would mean a full day's activity of deleafing, debugging, boiling, thickening, canning and wax-sealing jars of summer goodness, which she always followed with a well-earned nap on the cot on the verandah, screened in and safe from bugs and sun.

As I slide the hangers across the bar of the wardrobe, swapping summer and winter clothes, trying to decide what clutter should be removed, my hand brushes up against the now dust-covered shirt.

Poof! The camera flashes and an Instamatic picture appears – Barren Lake, Manitoba, July, 1965.

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