The Christmas Apples
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 25, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
As the holiday season approached each year, my Mom would often recall her Christmas memories from her childhood on the family farm in Two Mile, West Virginia. She was born in 1914, delivered by a midwife, in the holler that had been acquired by her great-grandfather, Adam Scites, after he voyaged across the Atlantic Ocean with his family from Esslingen, Germany in 1820. According to the genealogy research of my doctorate candidate nephew, Scott Lucas, my Great-Great-Great-Grandpa Adam set up an operation on the farm to raise silkworms -- an unlikely profession that provides me with reassurance that there is some genetic basis for my own eccentricities. It is also known that, not long after settling at the farm, Adam made a trip over to Ohio to purchase some Pound Royal apple trees (known as the Malus x domestica 'American Golden Pippin'). Descendents of these trees are reported to still be bearing fruit in the holler.
By the time my Mom came along as one of fourteen siblings, life on the farm was pared down to the basics to ensure, above all else, survival of the family from season to season and year to year. The meager profits from any cash crops, such as tobacco, were used to buy the staple kitchen commodities: flour, salt, baking soda, and sugar, from Hal Short's general merchandise store in Branchland, along with a few other necessities that could not be derived directly from the land. The dark, rich loam of the farmland, carefully tended for generations, was bountiful. A shallow creek, verdant with watercress undulating between the polished quartz rocks along its banks, ran through the holler basin. This was a favorite play spot for me in my youngest days of chasing crawdads and scooping up minnows in a Mason jar. The household laundry was done on a washboard with mountain spring water drawn up from the well, using a swaying, splashing, galvanized tin cylinder at the end of an ancient chain and pulley. The washwater was heated in a tub over an open fire, and the red clay encrusted clothes were scrubbed with crude bar soap rendered from hog fat that was mixed with lye and cooked to solidify in a kettle blackened from many years of continual use. The pigs provided most of the meat for the table, alternated with the chickens and their eggs. This fare was supplemented with game from squirrels, deer, and other denizens that roamed in the misty blue backdrop of the Appalachian hills, munching now and then on a healthy sprig of native ginseng. A good cow was a prized possession. Its milk would sustain the infants after being weaned from the breast. It would also provide rich, thick cream, skimmed off the top when making fresh butter, churned in an earthenware pot to the toe-tapping, rhythmic singing of a favorite hymn. Cooking was done on a wood fired stove using iron skillets and pots passed down through the family as heirlooms. Transportation was by horse or mule.
Nothing was wasted. Whatever was not consumed immediately was canned and stored in the cellar -- a hollowed out, granite rock-lined depression in the side of the hill behind the house. The cellar provided natural refrigeration for the shelved rows of tightly sealed jars. The farm's seasonal supply of green beans, tomatoes, and other vegetables; sweet syrup laden peaches, spicy apple butter; and cucumbers preserved as a variety of pickles, were always on hand. A musty blend of vinegar, mold, and a century of other aromas had permeated the cool, earthen floor of the cellar, providing a sense memory of past harvests. Sides of meat were salted down and hung in the smokehouse until needed. In a good year, potatoes were abundant. Like all the garden crops, they were planted according to "the signs." Farmers paid heed to the particular day of the week or month, and phases and influences of the moon. They were sensitive to indications of aberrant climatic conditions and the behavior of birds and beasts. These divinations were deemed necessary steps to ensure a good harvest. Corn was a plentiful crop. It was picked fresh from the fields and boiled on the cob for dinner, canned as whole kernels, or preserved with green and red peppers as pickerel relish. Some of the fullest, firmest ears, usually of white corn, were shucked and sunk into a large crock filled with salt-water on the back porch. The corn was weighted down with a large rock over a saucer covered in cheesecloth. The time would eventually come in winter to crack the ice off the top and reach deep into the brine for a finger-freezing treat of an ear of pickled corn.
The outhouse was the only available "convenience." It presented a harrowing experience for me in my first attempts at being potty trained. No American toddler today will probably ever know the terrifying trauma that can come from precariously perching over a gaping adult-sized oval hole above a seething cesspool some six-foot deep. My tiny arms would be rigidly locked at the elbows to prevent slipping through the crevasse (to follow the many small children that were frequently reported to have gone before). My timid body would tremble from the not unreasonable fear of plunging, with little hope of retrieval, into the stinking abyss below. Sears Roebuck's grainy-paged, brown paper catalogs and the stiff-bristled flat surface of dried corncobs were the makeshift toilet paper of the day.
No one was "poor" in this Hillbilly community, because no one did without. Everyone in the surrounding hills was generally on an even par, so there was little basis for comparison. If someone was in need, family and neighbors would join together to share whatever they could, even if it meant a little less for their own table. Deaths were communally mourned, and healthy births brought jubilation to every household. Weddings convened everyone together for a "bell crowd," which involved the new bride and groom being forcibly, ceremoniously marched several times around their house. They involuntarily led a veritable army of kinfolk, neighbors, and friends clanging cowbells, beating tin pots with wooden spoons, firing off shotguns, and making all manner of ear-deafening noise.
There was no extravagant spending for Christmas; no expectations of brightly wrapped packages bursting with shiny, new toys. Instead, at the end of the fall harvest, my Grandpa Scites would carefully select the best of the golden yellow Pound Royal apples that his daddy had planted decades before, and which had been bequeathed to him to tend. Grandpa would store the fruit in a safe and secret place under the hay in the barn loft. When Christmas morning finally arrived, he would dig the apples out of the straw where they had remained cool and firm during the several weeks prior when autumn’s frost had given way to the frigid mountain winter. The first bite into a crisp, sweet apple on an icy December morn was eagerly anticipated for some time prior to the event, as we might today spend days before Christmas speculating what might be in all the wonderful boxes festooned with velveteen ribbons beneath the tree. When times were good, there might be some small extra item to join the apples: a penny stick of peppermint candy or other special treat.
Christmas Day meant a short respite from some of the continuous daily farm chores. It always included a precarious walk across the icy footbridge log to cross the frozen creek, and a slippery climb up the snowy hill on a rocky, mud slush road, in order to get to the nearby church. My carpenter father and other men from the area had constructed the church. It was situated on a parcel of land of my father's family's farm, rising on the hill above the holler, adjacent to the farm of my Mother's family. The acreage for the church had been donated by my paternal Grandmother, Laverna Franklin-Lucas, so that the community could have a proper church building, and to establish the Franklin Cemetery. A gathering of family and neighbors for a lively gospel service, featuring a children's Christmas play (often staged and directed by my Mother as part of her Sunday School duties), would be followed by a down home spread communal meal. Later, back at the farm, there would be sharing of gossip and tales with relatives not frequently seen. Convivial fireside discussions about what was going on around the countryside, replete with memories of times long past, raising raucous laughter and solemn tears, would bring the Christmas celebration to a close as the embers' orange glow blackened and the firewood hissed a final, resigned, whistling sigh.
My Mother died in May 2004, a few days before her ninetieth birthday. To the very end, her mind and memory were remarkably acute. When she would spin a tale of a childhood recollection, she could recall the names of all the characters involved, bits and pieces of folklore as asides to embellish the story, and delicious details down to the color of the morning glory flowers that covered a neighbor's back porch. I felt with her passing that her death marked the end of an era. Few people in our contemporary world can possibly understand what it is like to eek out a sustainable existence from the land. Even fewer are living a life devoid of frills, fixed firmly in the trust that neighbors will rush to assist in times of loss and sorrow to graciously meet whatever needs have arisen. Many of us lack the overflowing, generous abundance, comfort, and warmth provided by the richly textured fabric of a vibrant, close knit community.
Unfortunately, most of my Mother's stories died with her. Though I at one time bought a mini-tape recorder that I intended to use to covertly document the finely embroidered oral legacy she wove in her Two Mile Tales, my own hectic schedule and dedication to other diversions prevented me from getting her stories preserved for future generations. I greatly regret that.
To keep alive her memory of the simple country gift of the Christmas apples, I had considered always having apples available on Christmas morn, and initiating a tradition of sharing apples with my family and closest friends. Apples, however, are alien to me as a garden crop. They will not grow in northeast Florida, and even if they did, I certainly wouldn't be able to keep them for months, fresh, firm, and unblemished, hayloft or not, in my hot, humid sub-tropical climate. To sentimentally pass around apples, I think, would be a mockery of my Grandfather's sincere, humble presentation of the best he had to offer on Christmas Day. This ritual of mimicry would be as devoid of true meaning as the frenetic shopping and obligatory exchange of purchased presents (many of which will be unappreciated and returned), in our current consumer oriented, mawkish imitation of the gifts of the Magi.
No, my Grandfather's true gift was to share the best of his season, the actual fruit of his labors, garnered by the toil of his back, the calluses of his hands, and secured despite any setbacks from drought or flood, winds or hail, feast or famine. My desire is to appropriately honor my heritage and grow strong from the tree stock from which I was propagated. I wish to continue to draw nourishment from the centuries of eroded rock and flint of the mountains that has been literally taken up into my veins from the plants which nourished me and my forebears, and which remains a part of my essential being. To accurately achieve these goals of direct lineage in my actions, I must share simply and honestly, as my Grandfather did, that which I have produced as a result of my own dedicated efforts.
Though there have been few actual manifest calamities, it has been a difficult growing season for me. I have struggled, not always with great success, just to continue to tend my fields and glean what remaining grains of hope I might sprout in my urbane garden of life. Sometimes, the best any of us can do is just to continue to hoe the row. Despite the stormy emotional weather, in reviewing my past year, my "finest apple" was to complete a two-foot by three-foot oil painting, "Hetty's Joy No. 1," based on a plumeria photo by Dave's Garden friend, DutchLady. I donated the painting to an art auction to raise funds for a local charity.
This is the "Christmas apple" I bring to you.
I invite you to also review your past twelve months and select from your bounteous harvest or depleted provisions that single thing which represents the tangible results of your good work. I especially entreat you to share that achievement with our friendly online neighborhood community, in an unashamed, unrestrained sense of joy of your accomplishment, to provide us all a ray of winter sunshine, by posting a note below.
I would also encourage you, perhaps at your holiday dinner table, to take a moment for each of your family members to share in turn what they sincerely consider their finest attainment of this past year. In this way, we may all revive and relive the pleasure of the profound love and the physical and spiritual sustenance that was provided by my Grandfather's gift of the Christmas apples.
Photo credits: "Shadows on the Vizqueen Studio," by the author. Family photo: Me at age six with minnows in a Mason jar, my brother, Jack, in the middle, and a cousin on the right (photographer unknown). Creative Photographic Service, Jacksonville, Florida - digital photo scan of painting.