The parking lot was empty when we got to the apple orchard, but we really weren’t surprised. Weekday afternoons in mid-September aren’t considered prime picking time. Despite the choice of parking spots, we pulled into the same one we always do, right near the playground. It’s close enough to the scale and cashier so that the trip back to the car isn’t too far.
As soon as we parked, the kids hopped out of the car, ran past the tractor-pulled farm cart that would transport scores of families in the weeks to come, and headed straight for one of the small wagons lined up behind the barn. Grabbing some of the empty buckets nearby, they piled in the wagon and waited impatiently for us to start pulling them over to the block of the orchard where we knew the Ginger Gold apples, available only during the first few weeks of the season, would be ripe and waiting.
Growing up, my husband, Jeff, and I had known of a few different kinds of apple. “Banana apples” (Golden Delicious) had been my favorite; Red Delicious were Jeff’s. But in the decade of our visits to this farm with our children, our family had become apple connoisseurs, making multiple visits as such varieties as the Macouns, Crispins, Fujis, Empires, Fortunes, Honey Crisps, Galas, and Granny Smiths each ripened, turning the annual event of autumn apple picking into a season-long activity.
This visit, as I watched 8-year-old Emily and 13-year-old Matthew squish themselves into the wagon, I realized it would not be long before my son would have to abandon his ride and start walking – or pull the wagon himself. But even as the shock of his size hit me, the thought was not disturbing. Our traditions here have seemed to change with the children and the trees themselves.
In many ways, the orchard has become like the wall just inside our closet door: a place where we measure our kids to see how they’ve grown. Even as I watched them jump out of the wagon and race the last hundred yards to the trees, I saw them through a double – even triple – lens, running side-by-side with images of their younger selves.
The first time we came to the apple farm, I was seven months pregnant with Emily. The October outing, designed as a treat for a 4-year-old son about to lose his only-child status, was not an immediate success. The farm cart’s slat seats were less than ample for my bulky form, and, as I gritted my teeth though a bumpy ride I was sure would force me into labor, Matthew huddled sullenly into his father, wondering why we had taken him away from his Winnie-the-Pooh videotapes.
But when the driver left us alone amidst the rows and rows of trees, we found ourselves just standing quietly, almost awestruck, taking in the calm. Finally, Matthew tentatively pulled an apple from a tree, then another one. In no time at all, he mastered the art of clearing the lower branches, and, after suspiciously eyeing our example, blew a few deep breaths on an apple, rubbed it on his coat, and took a nice, big bite.
By the next year, he was firmly ensconced as the expert. Bounding from the farm cart, he ran ahead to locate the apples he wanted to pick, authoritatively directing his father to lift him up to grab the perfect specimens from the tallest branches as 11-month-old Emily munched the fruit happily in her seat atop Jeff’s back.
Soon the orchard became a favorite fall destination, a place to go to spend an afternoon, or if we just wanted the apples, a quick half-hour pick. Here through the seasons, the kids matured with the fruit, Emily’s crawl turning to a toddler’s walk, Matthew’s arms reaching higher with each visit. Together, they learned to twist, not pull, the apples from the branches to protect the next year’s growth; taunted one another with wormy finds; and tried, more successfully each year, to help carry the full buckets back when we were done.
Though we’re surrounded by orchards in our New York State region, we’ve returned to the same farm year after year, on days so cold we could see our breath and on days so hot we had to dig out the sunscreen. We’ve come after rainstorms just to watch the farm cart splash through the mud puddles in the ruts of the dirt road, and, once, in sorrow, to see how badly a violent storm had damaged “our” trees.
We’ve filled our buckets by the apples’ size, scouting out small fruits for school lunches and large ones for evening snacks, and scorned entry to the farm’s pumpkin patch to spend the whole of an afternoon stacking apples on our heads while reciting Dr. Seuss’s Ten Apples Up on Top.
As we’ve carted our bounty back to the scale, we’ve honed our weight-guessing game to an art, performing end-zone dances when our guesses are the closest to, but not over, the weight of the apples on the scale. Back home, we’ve done just about everything you can think of to do with apples, giving away and eating all we can in an unsuccessful effort to make room for more. It was here that we were stumped, until, one day, Jeff walked through the door with a triumphant look on his face and a professional-grade juicing machine in his hands.
We’ve picked many other foods. We’ve squatted in summer fields to pick strawberries, plucked raspberries and blueberries when their harvest times arrived, and even picked oranges and grapefruits on trips to Florida. Each activity was a fun experience we’ve repeated and enjoyed, but somehow, only apple picking has worked its way into our family’s chronicles, becoming the standard against which we mark our autumn jaunts, a family rite as deeply planted as the apple trees themselves.
So when the leaves begin to turn, I find myself with a secret smile on my face and the tune to “Johnny Appleseed” running through my head. I know it won’t be long before we’ll be returning to our favorite autumn spot to see how high the kids can reach, stock up on our favorite fruit, and write a new chapter in the annals of our family’s apple-picking tales.
by Jackie Rubenstein
Jackie Rubenstein, a freelance writer and editor for 20-plus years, has published numerous pieces on family and daily life. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.