Fall and Apples
When September arrives, with a crispness in the air that makes walking a pleasure again, I long for apples more than any other fruit. For me, apples and fall are as perfect as the season itself.
When I was growing up I hated how the lazy drift of summer gave way every year to the frenetic pace of school. I never liked getting up early and would resist leaving my bed until the last moment and always had to rush to get out the door. Still, going back to school meant oatmeal, a breakfast favourite, and I loved how Mom would grate an apple on top for extra sweetness. My sister and I never got oatmeal in the dog days of summer but September and learning meant a return to it, cooked in cream for added richness, and made all the more delicious by the apple.
Because we lived close to our elementary school, we came home for lunch and, for the first month of a new school year, we'd be greeted with apple pancakes topped with caramelized apples and maple syrup or grilled cheese sandwiches with apples slices tucked inside.
As well as a return to school, fall always meant a trip to an orchard near Kingston for a Saturday morning of apple picking. I loved when the car rounded the bend in the road and all the trees would materialize in neat, seemingly endless rows, stretching back towards the blue lake, their branches weighed down with beautiful red orbs. It looked like something from a fairy tale and I wondered whether, if I walked back far enough into that orchard, I might encounter the wicked queen whose poisoned apple lulled Snow White to sleep. It was a delicious possibility.
A cup of hot apple cider was a delicious certainty which the orchard owner ladled out to customers to warm their muscles for the job ahead. While Dad climbed a ladder to get the fruit on the high branches, I searched for "good apples" (unbruised and without teeth marks from small animals) on the ground because I hated heights and couldn't get past the second rung, even for my favourite fruit. By noon we'd have four bushels of McIntosh apples in the trunk, enough to keep us going until Christmas.
Many of them went into lunches or were eaten in the evening as we stretched out on lounge chairs, bundled in sweaters staring at the stars, trying to imagine worlds beyond the piece of sky that canopied our house. Were other girls stretched out somewhere beyond those edges, eating apples and imagining, too? A few years later, when I had pen pals who lived under canopies of sky far from my own, I learned I wasn't alone in my wondering. Jennie, in Australia, tried to imagine what my life in Canada was like while writing about kangaroos leaping outside her outback window and spiders so big they looked like bats on her wall. She loved apples, too, and her mother always put them in her lunch bag, but she'd never gone to an orchard to pick her own and found this as exotic and exciting as I did the kangaroos.
I wrote that some of the apples we picked became applesauce which, when spread over slices of Dad's Sunday pork roast, made the tender meat even more delicious. Other apples were cut into circles and dried, their intense sweetness taking the place of candy, which Mom meted out sparingly.
At Hallowe'en we bobbed for apples in a big galvanized tub in the basement, our faces dripping as we plunged into the water, trying to bite into the slippery skins. Later, we stuck sticks into the apples and twirled them in melted caramel.
Neighbours still gave apples as treats then and the lady next door had candy apples in waxed paper for us when we came over. The red candy shell shimmered beneath the translucent wrapping and it splintered like glass when we bit into it, our lips and chins soon red-tinged and sticky. The plain apples that weighed down our trick-or-treat bags were piled on the kitchen table, waiting to become crisps or cobblers or, better still, one of Dad's apple pies. He made a couple each month throughout the fall and, although Mom always tried to get one of them into the freezer in case company came, it would never make it past the kitchen door.
In October, Dad made dark fruit cakes for Christmas, adding his applesauce to the batter and storing the cakes in a plastic pail—surrounded by cut-up apples—to help keep the cakes fresh.
I didn't know anyone who didn't love apples, I told Jennie, and she agreed. Even my grandmother, who warned of the apple's role in our expulsion from Paradise, always had a bowl of them on her kitchen table, which she enjoyed with slices of old cheddar. It was there that I, too, developed a taste for apples and cheddar cheese, although I drew the line at melting cheddar on slices of Dad's pie because it was perfect just as it was.
Although she ate apples in her kitchen, my grandmother would never eat them outside, like Mom and I did on weekend walks in the fall. We loved the smell of winter approaching (we were cold weather people more than hot) and looked for maple leaves that had turned orange or red to press between sheets of paper for my scrapbook. Sometimes we lost track of time searching for leaves but, as dusk settled in, we'd head for home with a bag of perfect specimens, munching on apples as we walked.
On another long-ago walk home, I managed to escape a neighbourhood bully who loved to push me into the ditch—by hitting him in the arm with an apple. As he howled in pain, I ran off and, although grateful for my escape, I mourned the loss of my apple. Later, I snuck back to the place hoping to find it, but it was gone. Even bullies like apples, I decided. I had a hard time begrudging him that pleasure.ap