Burnsville, MN circa 1975
When Papa purchased our home in the small town of Burnsville, Minnesota, it was primarily because it sat on a large acre lot. Much to my chagrin, more than half of the land was dedicated to producing the fruit of the earth—tomatoes, cucumbers, red hot chili peppers, eggplants, green peppers and, oh yes, the Jonathan Apple, Macintosh Apple, Crabapple, Red Delicious Apple, Cortland Apple, Red Rome Apple, Japanese Apple, and three or four other kinds of apples I have blocked from memory
The apples were piled in our huge kitchen, taunting my sister Hannah and I with their sickly sweet, liquor smell. My elder brothers and sisters were smart enough during the summers to keep away from the cursed fruit. They found jobs, went to summer school or quickly found fiancées and married. Hannah and I paid dearly for not being crafty enough. There were never fewer than 40 to 50 overflowing bags waiting for our attention. Each summer we gathered and processed no less than 80 bags of apples—most of the time it was more.
Our job was to peel each loathsome sphere, cut it into fourths, core and chop away any worm-eaten flesh, deposit any wriggling live worms in the garbage pile, slice the fourths into smaller pieces and place the prepared chunks into a yellow melamine bowl. Then they were dumped into a five-gallon pot, along with sugar, cinnamon and a pinch of nutmeg. I half expected to find a section of a light brown red-ringed apple worm that had escaped my scrutiny or even a portion of a chopped finger floating on the surface. The giant vat of applesauce bubbled and popped on the stove. In the final stages, the mixture was spooned into sterilized, quart Mason jars and boiled until the metal lids popped, one after another, like dozens of dimes hitting a metal can. Our basement shelves were packed with rows and rows of shiny glass bottles, filled with brownish-pink applesauce. Sometimes, it made me feel rich to see so many. Even our large family couldn’t consume enough to exhaust the supply.
The task would not have been so bad if Papa had allowed us to collect only the perfect apples. Those that were huge and crunchy, the sweet white flesh contrasting crisply to the glossy red skin, the kind we had watched Snow White bite one Sunday night on the Wonderful World of Disney. Oh no, we had to collect each and every stinking apple. Those on the tree, on the ground, those cut to shreds from our attempts to destroy them by running over them with the lawnmower, those eaten by worms and bugs, even those we had picked up and smashed against the basement’s cement wall in sheer frustration. Every single one.
Many years later in the autumn of 2005, Papa came to visit our home in New Jersey. He and I strolled all around my acre size yard, the vibrant leaves of turmeric, saffron and pomegranate crunching underfoot. He gave me hints and advice on how to increase my produce output the next season. He asked me about my life, my children, my writing. His deep rolling voice reminded me that not only had we worked together in our Minnesota garden, but we had spent so many hours talking as well. I had loved so much just being in his company—discussing school, my friends, his life, God, our family, books, his work and much more. By the time we came to the end of the garden tour, I ached with sadness. I missed working in the garden with Papa.
The year Papa turned eighty; my siblings and I created a scrapbook. We each chose our favorite snapshot with him. My choice was this photo that was taken when I was about ten. In it Papa is sprawled on the lawn, supporting himself on one elbow, while he works in the dirt. He is wearing dress pants and a maroon short sleeved polka dot shirt. His usually neat black pompadour is ruffled and a lock of hair has fallen on his forehead. I am next to him in a prim yellow round-collared shirt, green cardigan, long pants and cat-eye glasses. My hands are next to his, buried in the dirt near a bag of peat moss. Together, we are planting an apple tree.