We have a lot of trees at our place – part of what called us to up and move to Maine. Hemlocks and Balsam Firs shelter the house from west and north winds, sugar maples lend their shade and shower us with color, white birches provide levity. Most of the trees are old, planted by a hand that has long withered, though I fear that we’ll be the ones to outlast them: the giant elm in back, the brittle weeping willow, the towering twin spruce which is well beyond maturity. The only youngsters are two fruit trees planted in the way back, an apple and a peach.
Hairy with suckers, branches stretching toward the sky, the peach tree looks like it has never once been pruned. This spring I prowled it, checking each morning for a hint of blossom, but it turned out barren. We hear that growing peaches on Midcoast Maine is hard.
The apple tree was planted by the previous owner; chosen for her daughter Cecily, she said, when she handed us the key. Hidden from sight behind a fat white pine and planted into clay, it’s small and crooked, growing at an angle. Without something to withstand the wind that always rises with the tide, it didn’t have much chance to turn into an upright tree. My wife and I continued to neglect it. There was so much to do, I didn’t even notice that Cecily’s Apple bloomed. When I finally paid attention, I was surprised to see that it was now supported by a strong, bifurcated stake. And it was bearing fruit. Ugly little things, greenish red, with rough, russet patches… I bit into one and spat it out. The taste was tart bordering on sour, the texture woody. I went back inside.
That was September. On this bright October morning I am greeted by a mound of apples, piled up in the big porcelain washbowl which centers our kitchen island. There are so many, some have rolled down onto the marble slab.
“I was worried about frost with the full moon coming.” My wife gives me her morning smile. “And don’t you think it’s time that you get to know St. Cecilia’s apples?” There’s a quick peck and she’s outside again.
I used to love the Saints when I was little, used to collect their gilded images like trading cards of cars. A Saint for every day, a Saint for each profession, gave me a sense of order and made me feel protected. I proudly claimed my own. I loved the incense and the music, flowers, candles, rustling vestments, I loved the pomp and circumstance. I loved processions, the voices of the congregation warbling in the open air. I loved my shiny Sunday shoes. But each time we’d say grace around the kitchen table I struggled with the words: “Come Jesus, be our guest and bless the food that you have given us.” I didn’t understand why I should thank him. I knew where our food came from.
I approach the apples slowly – they’re just as ugly as before; russet patches have been joined by warts. I choose one. Next to the stem there is a wormhole. Somebody liked Cecily’s apples, might as well find out why. I cut off a slice. Firm and juicy; all they had to do was ripen. They’re not so bad at all. And their acidity is now counterbalanced by an aromatic sweetness from that extra month of sun.
I measure six big scoops of plain rolled oats into my yellow saucepan, add water and turn the stove on low. Reach under the sink to retrieve the compost bucket and take out the breakfast bowls. While the oatmeal simmers, I prepare two apples just as I’ve done for years. Cut them in half, then into quarters and then carve out the cores. Only this time it’s much slower because I must deal with worms. Each time I think I’ve sliced away an underground canal, a new one opens up. Each time I take a cut, worm excrement, like coarse coffee grounds, spreads across clean apple chunk. It sticks to my fingers. I have to wipe it off. Sometimes I barely yield a sliver and yet, to me, it’s worth the work.
Cut, carve, wipe, slice – somnambulant, but focused repetition, much like a prayer or a chant, it is a rhythm from my childhood. This is what we did, my family and I, on countless summer evenings and well into the fall; we’d clean the mushrooms that we found that day. Chanterelles, boletes and morels, puffballs and young parasols, shaggy manes and chicken of the woods – each one was a treasure, each one had a history. This king bolete, redolent with the earth’s aroma, my father found it partially hidden under beech leaves, anchored into the mossy ground. How he had laughed in pride! Of course the worms had found it, too. These chanterelles I had discovered in a hollow, a family ring of a good dozen, pine needles tucked inside their whorly folds. Remember, this one housed a millipede. Those parasols my mother came across, right behind some birches where she went to rest her bike. Cream-colored caps dabbed with buff concentric scales and crisscrossed by the finest grass blades, each mushroom was a work of art. If we could at all avoid it, we wouldn’t rinse them so as not to water down the flavors. Instead we’d cut, carve, wipe and slice on newspaper spread across our kitchen table, the precious bits into a common pot placed in the center, mushroom refuse growing all around. It often took us hours to clean the fragrant finds, sitting around that kitchen table, my mother, my grandmother and I.
The oatmeal bubbles softly. I rinse my hands and dry them off. I like to catch it at the moment of perfection, a little gooey, but still liquid, enough to slide from pot to bowl with ease. I top each bowl with Cecily’s Apples, sprinkle on sunflower seeds, a tablespoon of golden flax and, finally, dried cranberries. Just as I pour on maple syrup, my wife comes back inside, her arms filled to overflowing with sunflowers, the last of her beloved crop.
Silently we eat the oatmeal. It’s good and solid, nothing fancy, like our life in Maine. As I savor sweet and creamy, enhanced by nutty and balanced out by tart, I cannot help but ponder the gratitude of middle age. And when I finish, when spoon meets bottom of the bowl, I turn to my wife and say: “Maybe next year, with the proper pruning, the peach tree will bear fruit.”