Rita Jane Gabbett
“Hey. Gotta pick some apples. You wanna go?” My dad flashed his Irish grin, the light of the TV catching the green in his eyes. He had a way of posing a question that made me feel like a pal, a fellow conspirator, instead of a kid.
I scanned the room for my three older sisters within earshot, and quickly realized I had a rare opportunity to run an errand with Dad alone. Then I catapulted my nine-year-old body off the couch, happy to leave Gilligan to his island and, like my dad, do something instead.
Dad had already put two bushel baskets in the car, I noticed, as I pulled open the long, heavy passenger door of our used 1961 Ford Galaxy 500. We always bought used cars. I knew where we were headed. Dad farmed a few plots of land surrounding our small farm town. One of the small plots he rented had a farmhouse that was long abandoned and uninhabitable, though still fronted by stunning six-foot high tea rose bushes. To the left, just beyond the outhouse, stood a couple of apple trees that still bore fruit faithfully.
Every year Dad would pick apples and present them to Mom to “do something with.” That something usually ended up being a whole lot of applesauce and a couple of her famous Dutch apple pies. The apples were small, often bruised and sometimes wormy. It wasn’t Mom’s favorite job, but I think she understood how much it meant to Dad. Personally, I found it thrilling to pick free food from a tree and eat something that didn’t come from a store.
He rolled right up to the trees and, without coming to a complete stop, shoved the car into park—a move that could have sent me flying since nobody wore seatbelts then, but I had learned to grab the dashboard and plant my feet upon approach.
“You take a basket and I’ll take one,” he instructed. “You start on the ground. I’ll get the ladder.”
The best apples were probably still in the tree, but the ground was also covered with them. With a little patience, we could find plenty of decent ones that other creatures had yet to sample. Sure, they might be small or oddly dimpled, but some of those apples were nearly perfect and had grown so without any human intervention. We hadn’t watered those trees or pruned them or fertilized them. It was as if God were saying simply, “Here. Have an apple.”
I bit into a firm, medium-sized pink and red apple that was dappled with green on both ends and still warm from the sun. The green flesh was at once tart and sweet, and the juice ran down the side of my hand all the way to my wrist. These were good apples.
Dad returned with a ladder that he propped against the tree.
“I’ll climb!” I shouted. I was small for my age, but tree climbing was a specialty of mine. Dad smiled at my eagerness or perhaps at my fearlessness. People in town told me I looked like him: his deep-set eyes, his thin straight nose.
“I’ll hold the ladder. Don’t you fall out.” He winked at me.
“I won’t.” And I didn’t.
I climbed and plucked a few apples, though most were out of my reach, hanging heavy at the ends of long branches.
“Get down. Let me up there. I’ll shake ‘em.”
Dad and I switched places and his longer, stronger arms soon had it raining apples. Within ten minutes, we had filled both bushel baskets and hadn’t even begun to tap the bounty of these trees. I wondered how Mom was going to react to the not one but two bushels of peeling, slicing, coring and cooking in her future. As for me, I started imagining an apple pie business. Apple butter. Maybe we could sell applesauce to the school. There were hundreds and hundreds of good apples here.
But when we turned out of the gravel lane, Dad started driving in the opposite direction of home. He seemed to be on a mission.
“Where are we goin’, Dad?”
“Gotta make a stop.” That’s all he said. His brow was bunched in thought.
Five miles later, when we turned into a long, narrow dirt driveway, I realized where we were.
The Logans were a mystery to me. They lived in another old, formerly abandoned farmhouse on another of the plots of land my dad farmed. This one he owned, which meant he also owned the tumbled-down two-story wood-frame structure that had come with the sale. He let the Logans live there for free.
There were maybe five kids in the family, maybe seven. I didn’t know their names. This farm was across the county line, so they didn’t go to our school. I had only ever seen them from afar, usually from the inside of our car, as we passed their house on the way to the field, perhaps bringing a new part to a tractor that had stalled. This was about to be my closest encounter.
Three of the Logan kids were in the yard.
“Hi ya!” Dad called and waved as he got out of the car. They did not wave back. They did not move. They did not smile. They just stared. He opened the trunk and hoisted one of the bushel baskets now heavy with apples.
I glanced down at the small orange Kool-Aid stain on my shirt and the grass stains on my Keds. My own clothes were hand-me-downs from three older sisters, as well as older cousins and family friends. These kids’ clothes, however, were worn and dirty in a different way—as if they had never been washed, as if they had never been new.
“Your mom home?” Dad asked a boy who looked to be about my age. He didn’t answer.
Dad set the basket of apples down, marched up to the door and knocked. Then he waited. I stood several feet back. These kids weren’t like any kids I knew so I was keeping my distance. Dad knocked again. And again. “Hey!” he shouted. “Anybody in there?” Nothing.
Finally, as he turned to leave, the screen door inched open slowly. I could see a thin woman with tight lips and wispy hair that looked like it wished it could fly away. Slowly, head down, wiping her hands on her apron, she emerged with a slant-eyed stare. She looked at my dad. Her children looked at her looking at my dad. I looked at my dad looking at her.
Being Irish, my dad led most situations with a joke. Not this day. He seemed solemn, almost nervous. “Say, I brung ya these here apples. Thought they’d be good for the kids,” Dad said in a low, matter-of-fact way, brushing some dirt from the thigh of his grey-green work pants and looking down toward his weathered work boots.
Mrs. Logan seemed to stare right through him but said nothing. At five-foot-eight, Dad wasn’t that much taller than Mrs. Logan, but his muscular frame stood solid, while she seemed unsteadied by the warm September wind.
“Let’s go,” he said to me as he turned to walk toward the car.
As he did, her lips parted, and her words iced his spine. “Take ’em.”
Dad whipped around as if her words had been a snowball. “I brung ‘em for you.”
“We don’t need ’em.”
“They’re good food. Good for them kids.”
“Take your goddamn wormy apples and feed ‘em to your own damn wormy kids!” she spat.
“Get in the car, Janie,” Dad commanded.
He didn’t have to tell me twice. I flew there. I didn’t hear the end of the conversation, but they were both talking with their hands. When Dad got in the car, he was shaking.
I glanced back at the bushel of good red apples, still sitting in the yard where he left them.
“My God!” he said, clutching the steering wheel and hanging his head. “There weren’t nuthin’ wrong with them apples.” His eyes widened. “And them kids is hungry!”
Then he turned to face me squarely, his chin still tilted down. He looked up from his deep-set and now watery eyes and told me something he wanted me to understand but knew would be unimaginable to me. “And that’s a terrible feeling; to be hungry. A terrible feeling.”
Dad shoved the car into reverse and floored it all the way back down the long dirt driveway creating a Grapes-of-Wrath-worthy dust storm. We drove home in silence. He left our bushel of apples in the garage and didn’t even bother to tell Mom it was there.
My father grew up poor. Over the years, he told me how lucky his family had been to be farmers who could butcher a hog in the fall for meat and raise layer hens for eggs. Sometimes my grandmother would churn butter to sell, along with eggs, in town in exchange for sugar and flour. They also canned vegetables every summer from a large garden.
Some of his childhood Christmases consisted of receiving an orange and a new pair of underwear. I guess that explained the massive mounds of presents under our tree every year and Dad’s Christmas tradition of ordering a crate of oranges from Florida. A few years before he died, he gifted me his small plastic orange juicer, which I cherish. Whatever gift I gave him, he was effusive in its praise; if it was clothing, he put it on immediately, sometimes right over his pajamas.
My dad told me he had wanted to be a lawyer, but life had other plans. His father died of liver cancer when Dad was 19 years old, so he dropped out of college in his first year and came home to support his widowed mother and pay off his father’s debts, which exceeded the value of the farmland at the time.
“I owed everybody. Couldn’t walk through town without seein’ somebody I owed,” he once told me, shaking off a quick shiver of a memory.
When Dad died at 94, we retrieved from the local bank a safety deposit box brimming with yellowed documents: land deeds, insurance papers, his mother’s will. There was also a document settling his father’s estate. It listed liabilities, including $2.50 owed to the local blacksmith for sharpening plow shears. It was the item on the next line, however, that truly struck me dumb: $250 owed to the local grocer. This was in 1934. I did the math. In 2020 dollars, that was equivalent to a debt of $4,849.
People sometimes called my father “cheap,” but I saw him as a man who inherited nothing but debt and, once he paid it off, chose to keep it that way. He was generous in his own ways. He gave all four of his daughters the college education he lost and contributed to the college funds of all seven of his grandchildren. His generosity showed in other ways, too.
In my hometown, there was a man we’ll call Tommy, a veteran of the Korean War. His bright blue eyes and dark hair would have made him handsome in his blue jeans and denim shirt had he been able to make eye contact. Instead, his gaze alternated between his toes and the horizon. Today, he would probably be diagnosed with PTSD, but in the 1960s in our small farm town people just said he was “shell shocked.”
Tommy couldn’t hold a job. Some days he could work. Some days he could not. Some days he could drive a tractor; other days he could not. Dad took Tommy on as a “hired hand,” but it was really a most unusual arrangement. When Tommy wanted to work, he would simply show up and Dad would just think of something for him to do. Tommy might not show up again for another month, or he might show up the next day. Whatever he did, Dad paid him. Sometimes Dad would just give him a scythe and have him cut weeds in the ditch. It wasn’t work that needed to be done; it was work Tommy needed to do.
Sometimes Tommy couldn’t work at all but still needed money. He would come to the house and ring the doorbell in rapid succession—ding dong ding dong ding dong—sometimes 50 times, not stopping until someone opened that door. Dad gave us the same instructions: when Tommy comes to the door, give him whatever amount he asks for. Tommy never took advantage of the situation. He was always shy and nervous and very polite. “I only need ten dollars.” Or, “I just need five this time.” He always followed his request with, “I’ll work it off,” and, “Thank you. I appreciate it.”
By the time I was a teenager, we had moved into town. Sometimes Tommy asked for a ride out to the farm, about five miles away. Dad also left standing instructions for those situations: “He don’t like to get in cars and go a way he don’t know because once somebody told him they was goin’ somewhere, but then they drove him to the nuthouse. Go whatever way Tommy tells you to go.”
I learned a lot from my father about acceptance, about understanding, about meeting people where they are in this world and trying to find a way to help them. But even when the intentions—like those apples—are good, sometimes what we try just falls flat. Perhaps if we had cooked those apples up into pies or applesauce, our offering would have been accepted as more neighborly than pitying. Still, I like to imagine that maybe—just maybe—after we left their dirt driveway and disappeared down that narrow country road, Mrs. Logan bent down and carried those apples into the house.
Rita Jane Gabbett grew up on a farm in Central Illinois. She is an award-winning journalist and editor. Ms.Gabbett is currently writing a memoir of her childhood titled, Kittens in the Well.Patricia Crisafulli
IMAGE CREDIT: Alamy Photo All rights reserved.
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