By Claudia Jacobson
I have a yen, an ache for picking wild apples.
It hit me hard, sitting shotgun in a car moving slowly because of the curves of an ancient road. Eating apples grown on short wild trees with gnarly branches was an old memory made immediately urgent again. I could see them, smell them and feel the weight of the full bag. Recall the tired, heavily-ladened walk home with a hungry growl in my belly, remember a last over-my-shoulder look at the apples left on the ground.
My friends got into trouble for climbing trees, but not me. The better at climbing, the stronger I was at shaking loose apples, the better life was for Omi and my little sister and me. Omi, my grandmother, was my antagonist and my constant critic. She wanted apples. The more the better. We avoided fallen apples because they were often bruised, infested with worms, or missing a chunk from a deer bite. Apples I could pick or shake down were our choice, and because our harvest was bountiful they had to be perfect.
I was the ideal tree climber: unafraid of heights and strong as a small ox, I’d willingly climb out on the limbs. Since I was able to tell weak branches from strong I didn’t fall. Omi depended on my straight pitch so I made sure not to hit her or my sister with apples.
Omi traveled light and wanted much. She would use every gnarly apple and every apple scrap. We went early and stayed late. We had no car, so everything we got was carried home by Omi and me. Omi didn’t bring lunch. This wasn’t a picnic. The three of us ate fruit, and by the end of the afternoon we were famished. Three bellies growled impatiently.
As usual, Omi and I argued:
I’d say, “Omi I’m hungry, we’ve got a lot. Let’s go.”
My grandmother would answer, “All right, but look at that tree over there.”
I would answer, “Yea. We don’t want to leave them.”
After climbing that tree, stretching to reach the reachable, picking off each apple by hand, then for good measure shaking the tree, Omi, well into her sixties, tiring, sounding hungry herself, would say to me, “Honey, let’s go.”
I rarely heard her call me ‘Honey’ so I’d push a little more. “Omi look, there are more. We can’t leave them!”
So it went until exhaustion and sense hit one of us. Without a wagon we had bags to carry home. Omi’s broad, powerful grip and my determination combined to get our apples home. We pushed ourselves. We left nothing behind. It was an occasion to be a team. My gut knew that too.
I was satiated with thoughts of winter time and homemade applesauce, most often served on top of big, flat, thin pancakes made from numerous eggs, beaten with milk and a scant amount of flour. It was my favorite dinner. Omi’s pies were heaven-sent, loaded with slices of wild apples coated with a little sugar and generous amounts of cinnamon and wrapped in homemade crust. We would come home from school and see the Formica table covered with apple jelly jars.
As far as I can remember, Omi’s canned applesauce was made like this. She dumped the mixed varieties of apples and washed them in our big stainless sink and then transferred them to her pressure cooker. The apples cooked, on low pressure, with no added water, until they were soft enough to be pushed by her strong hands with a wood stick with a round wood ball on the end through a large strainer. After seasoning with cinnamon and maybe a touch of lemon juice, the hot apple sauce was canned in jars with a cinnamon stick. Later each jar was covered with extremely hot liquid wax. The wax was allowed to solidify. On top of that a splash of rum protected against bacteria. Lastly, the jar was sealed with a new rubber ring and a boiled lid. Not to waste anything, the juice created from the leftover pulp and apple skins was boiled with sugar and pectin to make apple jelly and put through the same process of canning, sealing and closing with a splash of rum.
Gruff, still my nemesis, Omi didn’t forget her girls. We’d ask her if there were popsicles, made from excess apple juice and she always said, “No.” The next warm day though, she would pull those popsicles from the worn pale bluish Tupperware popsicle maker. Damn they were good.
Even better if we’d gone berry picking too.~