I miss strawberries. Despite the fact that my acquaintance with them began quite by accident, I still miss them. It all started when, as a child, I was foraging in the woods behind my house and stumbled onto a patch of wild strawberries. I had already gobbled down berries of all sorts that morning and figured that the insignificant sampling of fragaria vesca wouldn’t amount to much. I was wrong. The berries were delicious beyond description. As I feasted on the wild wonder, all other berries hung their heads in shame.
And now for a change in direction, but not topic. Last night I mistakenly tuned into a TV “makeover” program. Not one where they transform a clap-trap shamble of a house into a modern wonder, but one where they make over an actual human being—a woman to be more precise. I had tuned into the part of the program where a plastic surgeon was holding up “before” pictures of a normal-looking woman. He chided her for once having looked so plain. Then he bragged about the miraculous transformation he and a team of surgeons, silicone experts, and cosmetologists had performed. Although no one said the words, it was clear the transformation team believed that looking like a runway model should be the goal of all caring people.
“Just look at her!” the plastic surgeon exclaimed as the woman finally walked on stage. They had replaced the plain person with a firmer and “rounder-in-the-right-places” beauty. Behold Barbie. The woman gushed. The team applauded. The crowd cheered. I doubt that when penicillin was discovered the celebration was as boisterous as this one.
The woman they had transformed worked as an elementary school teacher. When the TV program cut to a video clip of the remade teacher’s cheering students, I was surprised by their boisterous reaction. I figured the kids would be disappointed, but they seemed to like the new version of their teacher. One boy went so far as to say that she was “hot.” I flinched.
I also thought my first-grade teacher was beautiful and I can remember the day I was most struck by her beauty. My classmate, Tammy Ray Black, had just completed a coloring assignment. She was the kid nobody liked; learning was a challenge for her. And as is often the case with children who struggle, she was constantly acting out, whining, and causing her classmates grief. Finishing a task was a breakthrough for her and Miss McDonald didn’t miss this chance to reward her efforts.
At first, I couldn’t believe that my beloved teacher was praising Tammy Ray for completing a coloring assignment. Heck, I’d done the same thing a hundred times before and she never said anything to me. And then I got it. Miss McDonald was trying to help my classmate feel better about herself. How lovely. At that moment I thought she was as beautiful a person as I had ever seen. Curiously enough, she didn’t look a bit like Barbie. Of course, Barbie hadn’t been invented yet, so how was I to know what was beautiful and what wasn’t?
Back to the wild strawberries. “So you liked the strawberries,” Grandpa remarked as I told him about the ones I had discovered. “They aren’t just tasty,” he went on to explain, “they’re also honest.” I didn’t catch his drift, so Grandpa quickly clarified his point. “You see, most fruits and berries employ trickery. They look good on the surface, all the while hiding their inner seeds. You bite into a beautiful piece of fruit and nearly break a tooth on the concealed pit. The strawberry, in contrast, wears its seeds on the outside. That makes it honest.” Or so said Grandpa.
Let’s leap to a still different time and place. The summer before I started junior high school, I entered the workforce for the first time. Each morning, I rode a bus with my buddies far into the country. Here we would walk into a sea of parallel rows and pick strawberries—the honest fruit.
As it turns out, strawberries are also the user-unfriendly fruit. They offer no relief from the sun as they lay low to the dirt, requiring you to either stoop or crawl if you want to harvest them. But these commercial strawberries were nothing like the wild ones I had discovered. They had been transformed through the miracle of horticulture into larger and prettier berries. But at a cost. They weren’t nearly as flavorful as their ancestors.
It only got worse from there. In my fifth summer of picking strawberries, I was selected along with two other kids to harvest a new, experimental field. The small patch sported the latest and greatest variety of strawberry. The new breed was huge, deep red, and flawless. Horticulture experts had outdone themselves. And because the berries were so large, I could fill a box in half the time. For a dream-like two hours, I filled each flat of twelve boxes in a mere fifteen minutes, not the half hour the other, smaller berries took. I loved those new money-doubling products of horticultural science.
But not for long. Sadly, as I bit into one of the uber-berries, I discovered the rest of the story. The new strain was even more bitter and pithier than the commercial ones I had been picking for years. Worst of all, gone was the taste of strawberry. Imagine that. A strawberry that didn’t taste anything like a strawberry. As you may have already guessed, the experimental berries that I picked over forty years ago are the same huge, deep red, tasteless fruit you can buy at the grocery store today.
Putting it all together. I’m exercising a fair amount nowadays in order to lose weight. I want to be able to play with my grandkids without dropping dead from a heart attack. For me, thinning down is not so much a looks thing as a health thing. That’s because I mainly like who I am and I’m glad that my wife, children, and grandchildren seem perfectly satisfied as well. Like a strawberry, I typically wear my seeds on the outside. I’m deeply aware of the fact that I look like a cross between Tom Cruise and Danny DeVito—minus the Tom Cruise part. And you know what? I’m okay with that.
I don’t believe it when TV commercials and programs tell me I need to transform myself into someone else’s view of how I should appear. In my particular case, today’s beauty vendors routinely try to tempt me with the wonders of liposuction or maybe even calf and pec implants. Imagine that: little plastic pillows sewed inside me to make my chest look more muscled. You’re talking about a guy who doesn’t miss his hair all that much or even think to comb it for that matter.
Most important of all, I never want my wife, children, or grandchildren to feel that they too are unfinished until someone transforms them into the world’s view of the perfect prototype. I love them just the way they are. I love them for who they are. And like the wild strawberry, I love them for what’s inside. I know that sounds corny. It is corny. But maybe I’m not thinking clearly. When I look out the window of my office and see puffy-lipped, silicon enhanced, calf and pec sculpted, and curiously look-alike “perfect specimens” jog by, I have an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia. I miss strawberries.