The world is an apple, my mother once said. The first bite is an adventure: you don’t know what you’ll find. Will the apple be young and fresh, as clean a thing as you can imagine? Or past its prime, corrupted by time, soft, and secretly bruised? Will it be so mass-produced, have traveled so far, that its taste is corrupted? You hesitate before its wholeness, shortly to be marred forever. You turn the apple in your hands, deciding where to start, where to puncture the lustrous globe. In each apple you encounter, a nature and a history are opened.
My mother never picked apples—we never walked out our back door, a pail swinging between us, and climbed the rough incline of our hill behind our house where some grand apple trees—they were mostly Macintoshes—sprawled in the old manner, here and there a straggler of no particular cultivation, going almost wild. The trees survived according to their own powers, unnourished, unpruned, and unprotected. Yet each year of my youth, in the proper season, they gave birth to the windswept beauty of apple trees hung in fruit.
My parents didn’t want to maintain an unprofitable patch of apples, our homely orchard on a hill. The land, after a long period of neglect, was sold off along with the adjoining corn fields and became in time a housing subdivision named Deer Park in the way that all new subdivisions are named for what they destroyed when they came into being. The transfer of the land happened after I left home and yet the wound of it still festers.
My mother died in September, apple-picking time. Her ashes were buried in the Aldrich plot at the dilapidated cemetery in Allentown , Pennsylvania , where the last spot waits for my father to join her. His stone is erected, just the final date is missing. The grave digger dutifully dug the hole and we watched as my mother disappeared within it. If it had been up to me, I would have scattered my mother’s ashes at the roots of apple trees, sprinkling them freely among the dropped apples, some hard, cold ones, tart or sweet, green or red, and the ones with yellow innards. Human complication is buried in the stories we tell of our origins, and our ends.
I drive out of town in Michigan where I now live, far away from the eastern hills of Pennsylvania where I began and where my mother rests, on country roads, leaving the subdivisions behind, crossing the railroad tracks and passing houses with giant sunflowers in the side yard and tables at roadside laden with baskets of tomatoes and squash next to signs saying Free Produce. I go deeper and deeper into the country of farms and pastures and ponds until I reach Clear View Orchard.
I park near bales of straw neatly stacked. A man with a weathered face says to park here and walk up the hill, or drive up to the orchards, or—he points in the direction of two horses hitched to a wagon—I can take the hay ride. The horses look bored with the charade, and I tell the man I want to walk. With a surprised shrug, he hands me two half-bushel bags, and off I go, past the sheep on my right and the pumpkin patch on my left, an orchestrated quaintness. The road up the hill is unpaved and rutted. I walk on the grass alongside, so as not to block the traffic driving up behind me. Looking back downhill, I see a little city of vehicles parked in the open field. Without the familiar lines of the parking lot, the drivers cannot arrange their cars, and they lie at left and right angles like play toys a child has scattered.
The orchard is on a plateau, under an open sky. When I come close, I think of the Afghani proverb—the night may be dark but the apples have been counted. I head first to the stand of Macintoshes. Some have fallen of their own accord and litter the ground. Those that have not been collected promptly have browned and broken open, but others are delectable, unbruised and flawless as the apples still on the tree. I should choose from those already down, already offered, I should gather what falls. After all, I have dropped from the tree. And yet if I simply gather the apples from the ground, I will finish too soon. I have come to pick my apples. I want to reach up and pull down, I want to ponder the heaven of apples, the boughs drifting above like a mist and sweeping down, here and there, dripping dark clusters of green leaves in a wash of apples, now yellow, now dappled rose. I’ve come to feel the breath of apples, the caress of my mother’s cheek. I’m torn between the apples already down and the apples still aloft. For today I divide the choice, half picked and half gathered. Soon, though, I will take only the fallen apples.
I return home with two bushels of apples. I pull two laundry baskets onto the back deck and fill them with the overflow.
Marcia Aldrich teaches in the Department of English at Michigan State University . She is the author of Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton and selected as a Barnes and Noble Discover New Authors book. She has just completed a follow-up collection titled The Mother Bed.
“My older sister Carol was obsessed with boys. A boy was always in tow. She’d make curfew, but then sit with her date on the built in bench of our front stoop below my parents’ bedroom. Chattering, laughing and what have you. My father asked my sister to come inside. When nothing happened, he’d stick his head out the window and shout : ‘Go Home.’ When that didn’t work, he grabbed a bucket, filled it with cold water, and dumped the water on them from above. The boy ran for his car, deciding not even my sister was worth what might come next. My sister shrieked while running inside for cover. Then my mother and father had a humdinger of a fight because my sister had woken up half the neighborhood. But instead of blaming my sister she blamed my father. And my father blamed my mother for not curbing my sister’s boy craziness. I watched on the sidelines taking notes. Even at five I knew it was better to come in the back way.”