Saturday, September 17, 2016

50 dollars will buy you a heck of a lot of apples and one unforgettable afternoon


They wanted to stay home last Saturday.

After all, it was Saturday, and so many other things cried out for their attention. And, really, what teenage boy gets excited at the prospect of driving out to the country to pick his own apples when he could be lounging in his pjs in front of some sort of mind-numbing electronic device with a bag of chips or fruit snacks in his hand? (Don't judge me, there will be more on this later.)

Now, my older son Zach is usually pretty mellow, and he will go along with pretty much anything. But my younger son Sam has a stubborn streak, and he was trying his best to come up with a reason we shouldn't spend half our Saturday picking apples.

But I was determined. And if there's one thing that's true about me, it's that nothing deters me when I'm determined. Just ask anyone who's been anywhere near me when I've decided it was time to clean the garage or assemble furniture or paint the spare bedroom. 

I cannot be stopped.

And I was not taking no for an answer this time, either.

It was the first weekend in September, and we were going to pick apples . . . and have fun in the process . . . if it was the last thing we did.

My boys caught on to my mood, or at least they got tired enough to give up, because they finally slipped some shoes on and climbed into the backseat of my car.

The ride to the apple orchard was pleasant enough. Having long since discarded any notion of getting out of this venture, the boys settled into their seats to await their fate.

As we pulled into the parking lot, they perked up a little, craning their necks to see what lay in store for them.

And here's what they saw, the reason I had pulled them away from their computer and Xbox and friends and pajamas . . . 

Goats. 

Trees.

Chickens.

And . . . drumroll, please . . . more trees.

Zach looked at me like he was dying inside and asked me if this was all there was.

I rolled my eyes (only in my mind, though - I  have learned enough about parenting over the years to realize somebody has to be the adult at all times, and - guess what? - that somebody has to me because they sure aren't able to pull it off) and I told him to give it a chance. We were just getting started.

Being the mellow kid that he is, he just looked at me like I had told him getting a cavity filled would be fun, and he slumped over to look at some goats.

My daughter Rachel and I decided to check out the little store before heading out to the orchard, so I called the boys over and we headed inside. We walked around and sampled apples and looked around at homemade preserves and bags of freshly-picked produce. We bought caramel apples and a little basket to carry our crop of apples home. Everything about the store was charming in the way that only country can be charming.

Rachel and I were in hog heaven (which is a phrase that may not entirely fit this situation; but as there were goats and chickens aplenty, I feel it serves a purpose here).

Once again, Zach asked me if this was all there was.

This time, I groaned. (Again, only in my mind . . . although it came close to slipping out.)

Meanwhile, Sam had already left the store and discovered the joy of feeding his apple cores to the goats. He was thoroughly entertained.  He asked if he could go eat more apples so he could feed more cores to more goats, but we had come with a mission in mind to pick our own, so we said bye to the goats and moved on (but not before getting a picture of strange, three-horned goat that looked like the kind that would start talking to us if we had been in Narnia).

Before we reached the orchard, however, we passed a tent where a lady was making kettle corn the good old-fashioned way. She was stirring it up in huge black kettles that could pass as cauldrons (at least, that was my first thought, but then, I happen to know a few people who could use a good cauldron, if you know what I mean). 

How could we not stop to buy a bag of that salty-sweet goodness? What God-fearing, warm-blooded American has that kind of self-control?

Let's just say we are a very warm and God-fearing people.

Half a bag of kettle corn later - and I'm not talking about a little Baggie; I'm talking about a bag about as long as my right leg - we finally made it over to the orchard.

That is where it got real. The nice lady in the industrial apron handed us a couple of paper grocery bags and gave us the run-down on orchard etiquette: taste what you want, pick what you want, bring everything back here to be weighed when you're done. 

Got it.

Minimum of 20 pounds.

What?

For $30.

Say again?

Well, okay, that was a really good price for that many apples, and that was actually what we came out here for, so, although that was a LOT more apples than we had intended to pick, we agreed to the price, took the bags, and marched on toward the rows and rows of trees.

At the risk of being overly sappy, the rest of the afternoon was magical. It was a beautiful time of walking together, finding the best apples together, tasting new kinds of apples together, and having plain and simple fun together.

The kind that doesn't need plugged in.

We talked, tasted, laughed, and picked the afternoon away until we guessed we had about 20 pounds of apples, and then we headed back to the tent to pay.

I should mention here that I have never been very good at math.

Thirty-five pounds and fifty dollars later, we walked back to our car. Our arms were full of apples, and we were high on sunshine, goats, kettle corn, and fall.

The drive home was beautiful, and I hoped the boys had enjoyed the experience as much I as had. But they're teenagers, and they're boys, so sometimes it's hard to tell.

When we got home, Rachel and I got busy stuffing apples into every available space in the fridge and on the counter. Over the sounds of the Xbox already coming from the living room, we could hear Sam telling my other daughter (who had to work and couldn't go with us) about the apple orchard.

"It was amazing," we heard him say, loud and clear.

Amazing?

I had only hoped for "okay," or "not bad," or maybe even an "all right."

But amazing?

Rachel and I just looked at each other and smiled.

I may be eating apples until St. Patrick's Day, but I would gladly spend $100 and fill my basement with apples to create another memory like the one we created last Saturday.

Because good memories don't grow on trees, you know.








Thursday, September 8, 2016

Midwest or Bust


I will always be a Midwesterner at heart.

How do I know this, you ask?

Because when I saw a couple of John Deere tractors drive by in the recent Labor Day parade, my heart skipped a beat.

Because county roads that take time to warn of potential deer crossing but then don't bother to illuminate said deer with street lights are not uncommon for me.

Because I consider eating funnel cakes at county fairs to be my birthright.

Because, if you were to cut me, I'm pretty sure I would bleed John Deere green.

I can't change where I'm from, regardless of what my return-address labels may say.

I have lived in many places. From my golden years playing on the beaches of Southern California, to the year spent holding my breath near the breweries of Milwaukee, and eventually to the memorable chunk of my life devoted to that dusty village in Thailand, I have been around. But, no matter where I have lived, I have never been able to change the fact that I am a Midwestern girl.

Not that I would want to.

When you are from a place, you're not just from that place. You are that place. You take it with you wherever you go.

And Illinois follows me around like a lost puppy.

Whether it's my flattened vowels ("What is that thang?") or my strong sense of community ("That's my favorite restaurant because I grew up eating there on Sundays"), the Midwest courses through my veins.

Here in the Midwest, we talk to the people behind the counter at CVS. If we shop there often enough, we know how many kids they have, and they know when our dad had his knee surgery. We can get the best sweet corn you have ever tasted (before we ship it out to the rest of you), but we'll have to wait 'til next year before our stores will carry the fashions you're already getting tired of.

Most of us have never seen a beach. Not a real one, anyway. With an ocean. We console ourselves with the Great Lakes, which do a nice job of pretending to be "a beach," but just cannot compare to "the beach" on either coast that so few of us have managed to visit.

And when summer finally decides to make its way into our neighborhoods, we run around like crack addicts in need of a fix. We are fueled by the sense of desperation that comes from knowing summer won't last as long as our favorite TV series. So we run off to barbecues, block parties, farmer's markets, county fairs, live music at the band shells, picnics, boating, swimming, and walking our dogs (who have a worse case of cabin fever than we do).

By the time September rolls around, we are so exhausted that we are actually a little relieved when it starts getting dark by 7:00 again (although we would never admit it). We love our summer, but we secretly love our hibernation too.

For six long months we stay locked up in our houses and stare out our windows at a cold, lifeless world. Once in a while, when the skies soften enough to shed a little snow on us, we get excited. Then we bundle up and head outside, thankful for the change of seasons our counterparts in California and Florida know nothing about. But all too soon the snow melts down into a dreary-colored slush, and we retreat back into our houses wrapped in quilts, drinking hot cocoa, and waiting for April.

In the spring you can find us hiding in our basements from the constant threat of tornadoes. We will be busy in the summer catching lightning bugs. The day after Labor Day, we will be in a tizzy over pumpkin everything. And I do mean everything. When winter rears its ugly head, we will once again resign ourselves to scraping ice off our windshields whenever we are forced to leave our homes.

This is the life that is lived out somewhere in between New York and Los Angeles. The center of the central time zone that produces the majority of the food for the rest of the nation.

This is me.

When I introduce myself and say, "Hi, I'm Beth," the Midwest is the punctuation surrounding that simple phrase, clarifying who I claim to be.

This is where I'm from. This who I am, and who I will always be.

And I wouldn't have it any other way.