A life of apples and adventures in reading

Red Delicious apples were the first ones. Heart-shaped, burgundy colored, and crisp, they had bumps on the bottom that let each one stand up straight. If the flesh had pale pink streaks, even better.

These were reading apples. A big chair in the living room, my novel of the weekend, or the day, an ice-cold Delicious, a snowy winter afternoon, and I was set. I read "Little Women" when I was 8, and found out that Jo March used to retreat to her garret with six apples and a novel to weep over in private. Curled up in my reading chair, apple in one hand, book in the other, I knew I had found a soul mate.

I also knew that this was a perfect match, the apple and the novel. Turn a page, take a bite. Plums are too quick, peaches too messy, grapes too small and too frequent. Poems, stories, magazine articles - fine. But novels need apples. Apples are fruit you settle in to eat, that have patterns discernible only over the course of eating the whole thing.

When I was 9 years old, we moved from Michigan to Connecticut. Our new house sat across the road from a small, family-owned apple orchard. I would cross the street with a $5 bill from my mother; I'd hand it to the white-haired orchard lady in exchange for a peck of McIntosh apples and a peck of Macouns. One for applesauce; one for eating.

I'd return home with a bag under each arm. My mother always had the cutting board and the paring knife ready for the McIntoshes. I'd wash off a Macoun, plucking the felt-green leaves that still clung to its stem and, unable to wait until I found my book and my chair, bite into the side.

Perfect. Thin, clear Macoun juice filled my mouth with the taste of autumn, of a new school and new people, with golden leaves on white birch trees and brilliant red leaves on oaks. How childish Delicious apples seemed by comparison. Too sweet, too simple - like the evergreen trees in front of our old house in Michigan that never transformed, but stayed the same season in, season out.

I was reading "Jane Eyre" now, watching Mr. Rochester gallop up to Thornwood with his black cloak flying behind him as Jane, a lonely governess, peered from behind the curtains in the schoolroom. She, too, was in a strange, new home, with people and responsibilities she didn't understand.

I would bite into my Macoun again and taste Mr. Rochester's temper, Jane's pale defiance, the Yorkshire wind and rain. I devoured page after page, unable to slow down in my eagerness to find out what would happen to Jane. Would she end up cast out and alone once more?

As I read, the smell of cooking apples snaked out from the kitchen. Tonight for dessert we would have warm applesauce, chunks of syrupy McIntoshes brown with cinnamon and heat. Just like the applesauce my mother grew up eating at my grandparents' house in New Jersey.

My grandmother Rose told me stories about life with her six brothers and sisters in the big Victorian down the street from my mother's childhood home. When Ro was a girl, she shared one bed with her two older sisters. She told me that she went to bed one night with an apple for a late-night snack. "Does anybody else want one?" she asked before going upstairs. "No," said her sisters.

Then, lying together in the dark, they heard my grandmother crunching her apple. "Rosie, can I have a bite?" one sister asked. Then the other asked, then the first again. The next night, and every night forward, my grandmother brought two apples to bed: one for eating and one for "bites."

I would lie in my own bed, in my own room at night, making up historical epics in my head for huge casts of characters - always large families in big Victorian houses with lots and lots of brothers and sisters. What was it like sharing a bed with two sisters and living through the Depression? What were the secrets they told each other late at night, between bites?

I have so many kinds of apples to choose from now. Crispins, Ida Reds, Jonathans, Mutsus. They still have to be hard like stones, sharp, and clean in taste.

After I write for a morning, I go downstairs to my refrigerator and reach for a Braeburn, red-and-orange-streaked, imported from New Zealand and never as bright tasting as the Macouns from across the street when I was a girl. But what is? I can't read three novels a week anymore; it takes me months to write a story instead of a single night of imagination.

Still, the apple is crisp, and it is good. Tucked into the comfortable chair in my living room, I eat, starting around the middle, saving the biggest, most satisfying bites for the end. I think about the words I have just written, the stories I've read and been told, the stories I don't know yet. My mother's stories, my grandmother's stories, stories that my new daughter will tell me someday. Paper bags, bushels, houses, orchards full of them.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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