I WAS A BLUEBERRY THIEF

AUNT JO AND UNCLE JOE

“Don’t worry! I know the farmer. He doesn’t mind if we pick his blueberries.” 

            Uncle Joe Siligato waved away my father’s concerns as Jimmy and I jumped into the back seat of the Oldsmobile. Unsafe and unsecured, we held on to the seat rim as Uncle Joe hit the gas pedal and sped down the sandy dirt road on a Hammonton farm. I kept an eye on the speedometer as the green line under mph numerals changed to yellow then red. We hadn’t seen a house in forever, only a blueberry bush wilderness stretching for miles with pine trees on the horizon. I had two worries: that the speeding car would flip over and leave us alone to die in the fields, and that a farmer would appear with a shotgun.

            Spoiler alert: our blueberry heist was a success, with no buckshot in our behinds but with purplish fingers holding pints of those sweet berries on our laps. Our lips were blue; our faces, streaked with sweaty dirt and blueberry juice because, of course, we had to sample the harvest as we worked. I worried about washing off the pesticides, but Uncle Joe advised us to rub the berries on our shirts or just kiss them up to God. The front of my shirt became splattered with goo before I gave up entirely on sanitation practices and simply popped the berries into my mouth. 

            Uncle Joe was married to my Babcia’s sister, Josephine, so they were my mother’s aunt and uncle, too. I once asked my mom if they married because they had the same name. I imagined that they met one day at a dance and said,

            “Hi! I’m Joe.”

            “I’m Jo, too!”

            “Let’s get married and be Joe and Jo! And we rhyme with Siligato!”

            Aunt Jo and Uncle Joe did not have children, but visiting their home was so much fun. The trip to Hammonton, down the White Horse Pike, was an adventure in itself. The Pike was full of odd landmarks that Jimmy and I would race to be the first to spot: the white horse sign on a sky-scraping pole, the huge and creepy tire guy, the Ideal store’s Quonset hut that made us sing,

            “If you’ve got a passion for fashion/and you’ve got a craving for saving/take the wheel of your automobile/and swing on down to/Ideal.” 

            When we spotted the odd cylindrical façade for Arena Buick, we knew we had arrived in the center of Hammonton. Aunt Jo and Uncle Joe had an acre of sandy South Jersey soil in which they grew vegetables. Uncle Joe would lead Jimmy and me up and down the rows of tomatoes and peppers and eggplants, pointing out stages of ripeness. He allowed us to choose a tomato each for immediate consumption. Those warm Jersey tomatoes tasted of sand and sunshine and red. 

            We would pick a bag of garden vegetables to take home. Sometimes, we picked bushel baskets full of vegetables from deep in the fields of a big farm because Uncle Joe said, same as the blueberry heists, that we didn’t need to worry because he knew the farmer, who was very happy that we were picking his vegetables. Add tomato thief to my rap sheet. 

            When we visited older relatives, I usually sat in a corner reading a book–children should be seen and not heard and all that. But Aunt Jo and Uncle Joe kept us busy. Besides the farm adventures, I was allowed to explore, very carefully, Aunt Jo’s sewing room. Aunt Jo was an expert seamstress, and her room was full of fabrics, buttons, and spools of threads of every color. She had drawers full of patterns, those tissue-paper mysteries full of dotted lines and undecipherable symbols. When I was in junior high and had learned to operate a sewing machine in home economics class, Aunt Jo would give me sewing lessons and help me with my projects. In the summer of 1967, I created a long “granny” dress in the then-current hippie style, but I only wore it twice because everyone asked me why I was wearing a nightgown outside. The next summer, I stuck to making pillowcase handbags and chic sheath dresses. 

            Once when we were visiting in mid-July, we all piled into Uncle Joe’s car to attend the Our Lady of Mount Carmel festival. At the Italian American parish church, a statue of Our Lady, dressed in gorgeous fabrics and placed on a on a flower-covered pallet, was hoisted onto the shoulders of the men of the parish and paraded through crowds of worshipers. Some of the ladies cried. Others prayed aloud. People threw money at the statue! The pallet was covered with dollar bills! The statue itself was covered with dollar bills pinned to its dress! St. John Church back home in Collingswood had no equivalent to this level of religious fervor. 

            After the procession, I could not wait to get to the schoolyard full of amusement rides and food vendors. I added red gravy from the meatball sandwiches to the blueberry and tomato stains on my face, neck, and shirt. Dessert was the famous carnival delicacy, the spun sugar we called cotton candy, plus a zeppola or two.

            I fell asleep—exhausted, dirty and happy—in the car on the way home. 

            That’s what Deb said. 

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