A story by Randy Randall from 1950s
Is it just me, or are the apples we buy today a lot smaller then the ones we used to get when I was a kid? It seems that way.
I can remember apples so large we had to hold them with both hands and nibble at them like mice. I remember the crates of Macs and Cortlands and Baldwins stacked up in front of Uncle Fred’s barn. I remember all these things when the days turn cool and the fall colors begin to show on the trees.
In my mind this is apple time and that’s when Mom and Dad would choose to visit Uncle Fred and Aunt Mae. Uncle Fred was great grandfather’s youngest brother and he had inherited the old family homestead, a hard scrabble Maine farm and apple orchard located in Limington, Maine in the foothills of the White Mountains. The farmhouse and out buildings were all joined together by a series of sheds and ells. Uncle Fred could make his way out to feed and water the stock in the winter without ever having to step outside in the snow.
I recall how our parents chose a clear bright fall day for our trip up country. This would have been on a Saturday, because we all knew Aunt Mae had been baking her weekly beans and our ultimate goal was to be invited to stay for supper. I remember clearly turning into the long gravel driveway and proceeding slowly up onto the low hill where the white clapboard farmhouse stood and all the barns and sheds ranged up on the hillside behind their home. Across the yard from the house was another barn that had been the ancestors’ original cabin. Inside you could still see the massive brick chimney and fireplace where they had cooked their meals and burned four foot logs to stay warm on freezing winter nights.
Aunt Mae saw us arriving and came to the side door of the kitchen and loudly welcomed us. Her hair was piled on top of her head in a sort of bun and she was wearing a calico housedress with a large muslin apron.
“Come in, come in,” she chortled. “So good to see you. Come on in, Polly and have a cup of tea,” Then she told our father, “Fred’s down in the orchard, You and the children will find him there”, and she pointed us in the direction of a cart path that led down over the hill into the orchard of apple trees that covered the slope. My sister and I toddled along after our dad and in a little while we discovered Uncle Fred busily gathering his “drops” to make cider. Fred was a lean and spry Yankee and when he spoke you couldn’t miss hearing his high nasal twang.
“Waall naow, look who’s here?” he said. “Just in time to help pick some apples.” My sister and I had already been picking huge apples up off the ground, rubbing them against our sleeves and biting into them. Fred had a flatbed trailer he pulled behind his ancient Ford 2N tractor and when the last crate had been lifted up onto the trailer, Dad picked Ruthie and me up and set us on the tailgate with our legs dangling over the edge. We all sat there on the end of the trailer while Uncle Fred steered around though the lanes between the rows of apple trees. The cool air was filled with the smell of bruised apples and rotting leaves. Uncle Fred pulled up and stopped right in front of the wide gaping door to his barn and switched off the tractor. Just as the motor coughed its last and died, Ruthie and I jumped down and ran inside the mammoth barn.
We were searching for cats. We knew Uncle Fred’s barn supported a huge population of barn cats and sometimes if we were lucky and listened carefully we would hear the faint mewing of kittens. In the past we had found a nest of squinting baby kittens behind a pile of empty burlap feed bags, but not this time. All we heard was the chirping and twittering of the flocks of barn sparrows that flitted and flew high up amongst the rafters. In a moment Dad and Fred had followed us inside the barn and Fred said, “Waall naow, you come this way and look at my new calf.” We followed Fred into his tie-up where his few cows were tethered in their stalls chewing their cud and munching the daily ration of hay. In one stall was a bright young calf born earlier that summer and Fred held us up each in turn so we could reach out over the gate and pat the small cow’s head.
I recall a number of family stories that centered on Uncle Fred. The one we heard most often was how Fred always had a deer hung in his cellar. The story was that Fred had some special dispensation from the local game wardens that permitted him to shoot deer anytime he found them molesting his apples. We were told Fred had only to call the warden and tell him he was going to shoot a deer and that would be OK. To that end Fred had a .220 Swift rifle that could shoot all the way from his barn down across to the furthest reaches of his apple orchard. In some ways Uncle Fred’s orchard produced two crops; the apples that he tended and grew there, and the whitetail deer that were attracted from out of the woods into the orchard where they could be aimed at through Fred’s telescopic sight. We knew that most likely there would be mincemeat pies for dessert and that Aunt Mae had made the minced meat from the neck meat of a deer.
As the afternoon slipped into evening it soon became time to go inside the farmhouse and join Mother and Aunt Mae for supper. “Oh, of course you’ll stay to supper,” Aunt Mae insisted, and we did not protest too much. On the way into the house Uncle Fred led us through his woodshed and picked up a few sticks to drop into the kitchen wood box. The old farm ran on stove wood and Uncle Fred had a large wood shed with double doors attached to the ell behind the house. I remember his woodpile seemed as big as a mountain and filled the building almost to the roof. Fred didn’t believe in handling firewood more then necessary. His shed had a dirt floor and he could back his load of wood in under cover and upend the cart. He had an antique tipcart that had been hauled by oxen in years gone by but now he pulled it with the tractor. Each fall he hauled many cords of seasoned fire wood into the shed and piled it up where he’d be able to split it and have easy access to the ash and oak and beech they needed for cooking and heating.
In the kitchen there was a long black slate sink over against the wall and Uncle Fred leaned his head against the cupboard doors that were above the sink while he washed up. He had been leaning and washing in this exact fashion for so many seasons there was a spot the size of his forehead worn on the cupboard door and scuff marks on the floor where he stood. I remember standing transfixed in the middle of the farm kitchen and staring in fascination at an ancient rifle hung above the doorway. Uncle Fred noticed my interest and said, “Waall naow that was great uncle Nathan’s firearm. He carried that in the war.” Fred then headed into the dining room and left it for my dad to tell me great Uncle Nathan had been in the Civil War.
Aunt Mae had been cooking and tending her beans throughout the day and the aroma of molasses and salt pork filled the kitchen. She pulled a pan of hot biscuits out of the oven and lifted the lid on the homemade brown bread steaming on top of the Atlantic Clarion. When we were ready to sit at the table, Aunt Mae positioned the large telephone book on one chair to help boost me up and she had a pillow for my sister. As we anticipated Aunt Mae had two pies for dessert, one apple and the other mincemeat.
By the time we left the farm it was very dark and my sister and I feel asleep in the back seat of the family Chevy. Before we drove off Uncle Fred lifted the trunk lid and set two crates of freshly picked apples into the back of the car. Aunt Mae stood on the granite door step and waved as we drove away. Now I think back to those times and wonder about those apples. I’m sure they were huge, much larger then the ones we buy today.