We arrive in the raspberry fields when it’s dark. It’s dark when we pile out of our secondhand pickup. My father, my mother. My brother and me. It’s dark when we start walking the rutted, sopping dirt road that…
The notion of putting this particular story of poverty I’d experienced into words, of picking berries for money with my family as a child, took up space in my head for years. But like a lot of my childhood memories, it felt too complicated, too complex, to be transformed into writing. Writing memories is, for me, like being a translator, and for a very long time I felt I didn’t speak the language of this particular memory well enough. It’s as if every memory has its own dialect, its own syntax, and I hadn’t yet learned this one’s vocabulary. So, I waited. And over the years I’d tune into it. I’d let the memory play out in my mind, waiting to see if there was an image I could latch onto, something simple. Some small little part I could figure out how to translate and from there, discover the language to tell the whole story.
And then it hit. I was replaying the memory from the very beginning—pickups and cars coming to rest in the dirt, before the sun had come up, and all at once the words were right there. “We arrive in the raspberry fields when it’s dark.” That’s all I needed. As if those nine words were a cipher, transforming the entire memory into language so quickly it was as if the story had been there all along, just waiting on me to figure it out. To learn how to tell it.
A lot of people don’t realize there’s a vast difference between being poor and being impoverished. They don’t realize the distance between “living” and “surviving” isn’t miles, it’s light-years. It’s one of the reasons writing my own experiences, especially from the perspective of a child, can get so complicated. What’s the best way to convey what the experience does to you, how poverty sinks all the way into you, changing your emotional and mental DNA forever? And what’s the best way to explain it to myself, to the child inside me, who never got any explanations at all? As an adult, I strive to translate between the two of us, child me and adult me, so that hopefully we both might understand just a little.
WILL McMILLAN is a queer writer born and raised in the untamed wilds of the Pacific Northwest, where he still lives today. His essays have appeared The Sun, Bending Genres, CHEAP POP, and Atticus Review, among many others. In 2021 his essays were nominated for the Pushcart Prize and The Best American Essays. His essay, “Our Familiar Faces,” was listed as Notable in The Best American Essays 2022, and his work will be featured in The Best Small Fictions 2023. Find him on Twitter at @willmcmn.