Each year, the apple tree in our backyard would blossom bright white in the spring, become bushy and full through the summer months, and by autumn be laden with hundreds of small crab apples. When these apples started falling from the tree Mom would send us out in the evenings as she cooked dinner to gather them up in old four-liter ice cream pails.
We waited until the apples fell because that meant they were ripe. You could pick them right off the tree to avoid bruises or blemishes but then you’d often get apples that were sour or tart. You’d also pick at least a few before they were fully grown. By gathering them once they fell you avoided these problems. And since all of them would become apple pie, or apple crumble, or apple cobbler their looks matter much less than their taste.
On any given evening, Mom would call me into the kitchen. She dig me out a couple ice cream pails from the corner cupboard where the lazy Susan used to be before we renovated in ’92. Hopefully one of my sisters, maybe Carolyn, would come with me because gathering apples was a chore and, even though it was a fun chore, chores are still best done with others. Together we’d hop down to the landing, slip on the oversized shoes of Mom or Dad, and exit out the backdoor to find the apple tree.
If it was still early in autumn and it had been a good year for apples there would be plenty of them on the ground every evening for weeks. Plenty. The crab apples weren’t very big but they made up for this with sheer numbers. It’s wasn’t a big tree either. But somehow every single spring apple blossom developed into an apple without fail. So each evening we had our work cut out for us.
The ground under the tree was never grassy. It had some grass, sure, but mostly it was bare dirt because it never got enough sunshine. When we got down under the tree we had to be careful: if I muddied up the knees of my pants while getting apples I wouldn’t be doing my Mom any favours—I would just be making more dirty laundry. “I just washed that!” she might say, and the cosmic karma debit of going to get the apples would be nullified by my carelessness. Knowing this, Carolyn and I never crawled about on our hands and knees but instead we’d squat down into a crab-walk position, knees fully bent, legs swinging around and forward to move about.
The first apples we’d pick were the ones nearest the trunk. These were in plain view and had few bruises as they had fell into what little grass there was. Next we’d pick the ones just a bit further out, still easy to spot, but now a bit more muddied and perhaps bruised because of falling on dirt not grass. Last, always last, were the apples that fell into, or fell and rolled into, the hedge. The apple tree was very close to the house and to the sidewalk that led up to the back door; there was a small hedge that separated the sidewalk from the tree. The apples would roll down by the base of this hedge into little nooks and root-holes, and into the grass out-of-reach by the lawnmower.
So we’d scuttle around the hedge looking for apples, crab-walking and scavenging like beachcombers. Carolyn might find a nice one and announce it to me (“hooray!”) and next I might put my hand into a root-hole and find an apple that should have been collected a week ago (“gross!”). Because the apples that ended up in the hedge were often bruised, insects would find them a lot earlier. If an apple fell in the morning by the time we were out in the evening it had had a whole day to be picked at by worms and ants and beetles. If I found an apple like this I should have scooped it up and put it in the garbage, but more times than not I left it to compost in situ or to be found by one of my more responsible sisters.
But even worse than this were the spiders. You might pick up an apple only to have a spider crawl up your hand or you might reach for an apple only to trap your hand in an unseen spider web. The response was instinctive and the same in every case: apple immediately forgotten, hands shaken frantically, body leap back and away from certain death by spider poison. It happened at least once a season which was just often enough to terrify everyone until next year.
If both buckets filled before we finished we’d pop back inside to ask for another, calling to Mom from the landing to drop anything she may have been doing to bring us another bucket. Once all the apples were gathered we’d carry them up triumphantly to Mom. She’d fill the buckets with water and set them down beside the sink to mark that our job was now complete, and thank us for doing our small part in the annual autumn apple harvest. Until tomorrow.