Last October, I took my daughters to a family reunion at my parents' fruit farm in Michigan. Dad was going to press cider for the relatives to take home, and we took the girls to see it made.
Making cider is a banquet for the senses: the roar of the mill, the smell of the pulverized apples, and, of course, the taste of the new cider poured from a just-filled plastic jug.
The process wasn't exactly as it had been in my girlhood, when we took our apples to a hand-cranked press, after which the liquid was bottled in glass jugs.
But those differences aren't all bad. Washing the glass jugs was a big, arduous job.
On certain October evenings when I was little, Dad would ask Mom if he should get the cider jugs out of the granary. She'd agree reluctantly.
The jugs were buried behind "artifacts" from the previous three seasons: the toboggan, pink-stained berry boxes, and dented picking buckets. The battered cardboard boxes containing the jugs were stacked to the rafters along the back wall. Dad would get out 18 cartons, each holding four jugs. Once he set them on the farmhouse porch, they were in Mom's domain.
When the lunch dishes were put away, Mom would unpack the cartons and array the jugs like a militia on the kitchen floor. They were a motley bunch of conscripts, having served many jobs before being enlisted to hold cider.
Some had contained vinegar, Coca-Cola syrup, or brand-name juices. They each held a gallon, but some were taller and more svelte than their squatter, dumpier comrades. Most were clear glass, but a few were translucent brown.
Mom was primarily interested in their necks. Narrow necks were difficult to stuff the bottle brush through; short, wide necks made for easier scrubbing. Mom's favorites came from our neighbor, who gave us empty barbecue sauce jugs from her church's pig roasts.
The jugs were in various degrees of readiness. Those our family had emptied were immaculate when put into storage. But the majority of our cider was given to friends and relatives. Most folks returned the jugs clean, but a few only rinsed them, and others figured it was enough just to give the jugs back. The latter thoughtless souls poured out the last of the drinkable cider and left the dregs to ferment in the intervening year.
Each jug had either a metal or hard-plastic cap, which had to be removed and put into a saucepan, a task my little fingers could handle. In the silverware drawer, Mom also had a stash of caps saved from broken jugs. When all the caps were collected, she'd cover them with water and sterilize them on the top of the stove.
While the boiling caps jingled in the pan, Mom washed jugs. Her tools were hot, sudsy water; a funnel; her biggest tin measuring cup; a bottle brush; and dish towels.
Even though Mom had to be careful about their bulk and breakability, jugs stored clean were relatively easy to swish with soapy water and then rinse several times.
But then there was the scrubbing, scrubbing, scrubbing of jugs with clinging, petrified dregs.
Mom began washing a jug by taking a tentative whiff at its mouth. When she came to a ripe one, her falsetto "Whew!" rang out. I'd dance about her feet, begging to sniff, too, to see what had brought on the uncharacteristic yelp.
Every year a few jugs were deemed just too awful to spend time washing. Dad would happen in from supervising the harvest, and Mom would defiantly hold out a jug she was retiring. They'd speculate as to the culprit who had returned a jug in such corrupted shape, and Mom would say firmly that Dad was not to give that person any more cider.
Once the jugs were clean, the outsides were wiped dry, a sterile cap was put on loosely, and the cartons were repacked. To a connoisseur of cleanliness, the sparkling jugs were a fine sight to behold. But, like most results of housework, the sparkle was ephemeral: The next day the jugs would contain cider, which, in essence, rendered them dirty again.
A fire gutted the granary in the winter of 1977. The snow was so deep, the firefighters were delayed getting water to the blaze as they snaked hoses across the drifts from the distant tank truck.
Meanwhile, they opened the granary's upstairs door and pulled burning items out with a long hook. We could hear the glass jugs bursting, popping, and tinkling from the heat of the fire.
They were all a loss.
Around that time, though, plastic jugs became readily available, and they were cheap.
My parents got a chest freezer and liked filling it with plastic jugs of sweet cider for drinking until the next harvest, something previously unimaginable.
So my mom's afternoons of washing glass jugs – a task she'd never liked – ended forever.
She often used to say that it was a labor of love, done only for her nearest and dearest. "You couldn't pay me to do it," she'd say emphatically.
For better or worse, her 21st-century granddaughters know about making cider – but not that drudgery that went along with it.