Monday, August 30, 2010

Apple People

I went to an orchard in Michigan this weekend--not a pick-your-own orchard, unfortunately; that'll come later in the season and in Indiana. This one was all pre-bagged and ready to go, priced and labeled and just waiting for someone to grab up a bushel or a peck and hurry out the door. The orchard started back in 1865, I was told. The Civil War had just ended and someone came home from battle and started planting trees . . . or seeds or saplings or whatever they might have been called. Now, 145 years later, the fruit trees still stand, all lined up obediently and waiting to be plucked.

Plucked--a fresh, ripe kind of word that feels like what it is and smells of fall harvests, crispy apples, juicy last-of-the-season peaches that you get to eat cut up, a slice of bread and butter on the side, a glass of milk to wash it all down. There's something about the bounty that comes from trees--something high up yet reachable--that makes me feel hopeful. You can have your berries and your vines; I'll take my trees.

When I was a kid, we had two June apple trees in our side yard. I have no idea if that was the real variety name or if it was just a nickname derived from when the apples ripened--not that I paid any attention to when they ripened. No, being no more than eight or nine, I didn't wait until they were ready to be plucked. I yanked and tugged and pried those little things off and then ate until my stomach ached from devouring them before their time. And then the smell of them rotting beneath the tree because the novelty had worn off by summer's end? Not a bad smell at all to me. It's what fall is about. It's a time of decay and dying. It's a preparation for winter. It's nature and natural and the makings of whatever newness the death and decay can bring on when spring needs its nourishment.

The old guy sorting apples at this orchard in Michigan was 92 years old and didn't look a day over 90. But he was there and seemed content and occupied, still being 'useful' as so many people as they age feel they are not. With my four kids all in school full day now, I wonder how soon before I become, as a friend of mine put it recently, an inactive parent--one that's there but isn't needed quite so much anymore. It's a thought that disturbs me, even if it is nature and natural. I'm not ready to not feel useful anymore.

Ron and I were looking over a box of peach seconds--the ones no one wants to buy unless for preserves, because no one wants to eat them, split apart and rotting as so many are. One of the old women working there said, "Kids won't eat 'em. Too many spots." I agreed. Then she added, full of righteous indignation, "Unless they're raised right . . . like I raised mine." The implication was clear in its context: she raised her kids right; no one else did anymore--certainly not me, who had started to walk away from the box at that point, knowing full well my kids would never eat a peach that bugs had found their way into.

So I went back and bought the case. And last night I made peach butter with some of the fruit. Tonight I'll make more. We'll eat some of it, give a lot of it away, I suspect; there were an awful lot of peaches in that box.

My older sister made apple dolls the summer we moved from Arizona to Virginia and camped out at a lake while my dad looked for a job and a house. I was four and she was eleven. I don't remember much except the smell of the slow rot and watching their faces crinkle up and dry out over the course of those summer weeks. I thought they were kind of eerie looking, like little people all shriveled up. My dad bought a shrunken head years ago. Don't know where he got it or where it is now. Not much different from an apple head, really--except the story behind it, which is forever lost anyway.

I wondered as I watched the people running this orchard how long ago some of them stopped loving the fall, at what point it started reminding them too much of their own winter's approach. I wondered whether the old man at 92 had ever resented the smell of rotting fruit or if he still loved the bitter taste of a June apple and simply learned to deal with the stomach aches. I wondered if the old lady in her 70s had her kids around still, or her grandkids. I wondered whether the spring in them refreshed her now and then. I wondered whether the old man, who looked to be her husband and about the same age, had a smile somewhere underneath his severe frown and was just trying to remember how to bring it up again.

Fall used to be my favorite season until I was pregnant with my second child and had morning sickness throughout those cooling-down months. The smell of dried-out leaves and pumpkin seeds still makes my stomach turn a bit. But I'm trying to get over that queasy sensation. I miss how much I loved the fall. I want it back. And I want it back before I forget how useful we can be to each other. Hope is a good thing, after all, and always ripe for the plucking.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Worst Date

I worked at Subway in college. Glamorous, I know. But I look awesome in a visor. Trust me. And yellow mustard permanently under my nails? Absolutely fetching . . . just ask the guys who asked me out while I wore my ensemble. Or rather, as the guy who asked me out. Can't help you on his name though. I don't remember it. I think they call that repression.

I said no the first time or twelve he asked. That he was willing to be rejected eleven times and still continue to ask should have reinforced that powerful "no" response in me. But it didn't. I finally sighed. "Fine. I'll go out with you."

We went for pizza. He sat across from me. That's all I remember from the dinner. (Though, in case you're interested, that restaurant is also where my often-boyfriend's roommate's girlfriend worked, the same girlfriend who would become my ex-often-boyfriend's wife a couple of years later.)

Then we went for a movie. I don't remember which movie. Why? Because I was too freaked out the entire time to notice anything except the exit signs and the overly intense attention of my "date"--in quotes because . . . well, because without the quotes, date seems too intimate a term for the guy who sat next to me for two hours staring at my profile. When I dared to turn to face him and ask what he was doing, he answered, "Just looking at you." Obviously. I got that much. "Why?" I asked. He'd just shrug.

Then he wanted to know about the ring I was wearing. It was a small emerald my parents had given me when I was sixteen. I told him as much. He called me a liar. A liar. So I shrugged.

"Your boyfriend gave it to you," he said (movie still rolling on the screen; different movie entirely now rolling in my head).

"I don't have a boyfriend," I said.

"You're lying. That ring is from you boyfriend."

Were his eyes bloodshot and wide like he'd been up all night casing my block? No. He thought he was joking. At least I think he thought he was joking. But seriously--two hours of watching me instead of the movie? Beyond creepy.

He took me home and as I stepped inside my apartment, he moved in for a kiss. I closed the door.

And locked it.

And bolted it.

He called me at work (I wouldn't answer his calls at home) to ask me out again. And again. And again. I said no over and over and over. He finally said, "Okay. I get the hint." "Good," I answered.

And I never heard from him again.


Moral of the story: If you have to say no to a boy more than ten times, there's a reason you're saying no. And if you look fetching in a visor, don't work where you have to wear one. They're just too hard to resist for some guys.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


I don't like gardening. I was born without anything resembling that gene. I don't like the stress of figuring out planting configurations. I walk into a warehouse full of potted flowers and greenery and I feel like the world is going to swallow me up. Where do I begin? How many do I need? Can I pick just one or two colors (orange and yellow, preferably) or do I need at least three? Because I'm really not a fan of pinks and reds.

And once the poor things are planted, I'm forgetful and end up with a yard full of parched plants when we're short on rain. Ron will say, "I planted . . . all you had to do was water." And I say, "Do you not understand that, really, that's just asking too much of me?"

We saw some perfectly pleasant fall mums at the grocery store a few days ago and he wanted to buy some. I said no this time, because I know they will be my responsibility. Truly, I can't have another form of life that I need to take care of. Four children and two guinea pigs is my limit, I've realized. And I would rather all of them live than a pot of flowers that I can't hug or pet.

All of that being said, I like weeding. I find a lot of pleasure getting dirt under my nails and yanking out what, to me, obviously doesn't belong in our little garden. I like the feel of strong roots coming loose, and I like the feel of weak roots giving way so easily that a strong wind could have done as much as I do. I like getting rid of the larger, obnoxious weeds, only to find smaller ones below that thought they could go unnoticed. I like pulling stray grass from the cracks in the pavement. I like following the vine of clover for a foot or so to its source. It's all very satisfying to me.

I think it's rather appropriate then that I'm an editor. When I asked my oldest what he wants to be when he grows up, he shrugged. I said, "You could be a professor like your dad, or you could be an editor like me." He gave me "the look" and said, "No. Not an editor." Heaven forbid: an editor.

But what I love about editing is that I get to weed without getting bitten by mosquitoes (generally) and without sweating (occasionally). I get to take what's there and clean it up, make the good stuff shine, make the colors match. I can clear away the big weeds--the glaring errors--and note the little ones lying in wait beneath. And when I'm done, I know I'm leaving a project in better shape than I found it.

Perhaps my inclination toward weeding and editing is also why I like the revising process of writing best. I feel like the pressure of getting it all down and planted is over, and I can focus on making what's there more attractive--give it a little more curb appeal.

And perhaps this inclination explains why I feel more comfortable as the mother of a preschooler on up than as the mother of a newborn. There are SO many ways to mess up when you start from scratch, an empty plot in the yard, impressionable minds to mold. That time in my kids' lives was really stressful for me--and Ron handled it much better than I did. Of course, parenting a thirteen-year-old isn't the easiest thing in the world either, but I can work with what I have there and hope, when I'm "done," the result is presentable and that no one driving by will slow down and say, "What on earth was she thinking? Anyone in their right mind would know azaleas were not the way to go--and look at that: she left the pigweed but yanked the oregano. I hope the garden in the backyard looks better than this one."

Sunday, August 22, 2010


When I was in middle school, I had a gym teach who was a complete and total lech. Picture the early 1980s, the polyester shorts that were too tight and too short. I'd describe him more fully, but I think he still lives in my hometown and I'm not quite ready to demonize the guy should someone who reads this "recognize" him. He doesn't teach anymore, however, and since he didn't do anything criminal, I'll have to hope 12- and 13-year-old girls everywhere are safe.

One day after class, I had headed toward the locker room to change. He called me back to where he stood at the far side of the gym. I jogged back over and asked what he wanted. He smiled his slimy smile and said, "Nothing. I just like the way you look from behind and wanted to watch you walk away again." Twelve. I was twelve. years. old.

He never said anything like that to me again, but I can still recall the way he looked at me, and it turns my stomach. And did I tell anyone about this? Not a word--not a friend, not a teacher, not a parent.

I thought of him again recently when I was at my brother's bookstore in Virginia. I had some editing work to do and had brought my laptop so I could hang out in one of the store's comfy chairs and still feel like I was visiting with family. About fifteen minutes into my work, an old man came and sat across from me. I didn't even look up. I was there to work, not be friendly, and I wasn't interested in conversation. Ten minutes later, I realized the guy wasn't interested in conversation anyway--he was too busy . . . how do I put this delicately . . . entertaining himself. My first thought was, "No way. No freaking way is he sitting across from me doing that." My second thought was, "Bobbie, give the guy the benefit of the doubt. He's 70 if he's a day, and he probably just has an itch." An itch that lasted twenty minutes. My stomach was in knots. I felt frozen in place. Do I tell him to go see a doctor? Do I get up and walk away? Do I throw something heavy at him and tell him to leave the store before I call the police? I did none of those things. Instead, I leaned my head on hand, my elbow resting on the arm of the chair, and tried to focus on my work. Right about then (finally) a young man came and sat in the seat next to me. The old man stopped. The kid stayed for about ten minutes then left. The old man started.

I closed my laptop and got up to leave. The old man said, sounding as chipper and as harmless as can be, "You must be studying very hard. Perhaps working on a paper for college?" I'm 41 and am happy to admit it. I don't look 41 (under most lighting conditions), but I don't look like a college student either. But this guy was old enough that I suppose I could have been mistaken as being quite a bit younger than I am. I said, "No. Just working, and my laptop batter is dying." He directed me to where I could find an outlet, and I left.

First, however, I told my sister--the manager--about what was happening, still thinking I was imagining it all or that I was wrong and he really was just scratching. She sighed and said, "I was afraid of that." No one had ever come to her directly about this guy, but she'd had a bad feeling about him.

I headed off to the balcony, and the old guy followed me up about ten minutes later. I left, not even being nice about it this time, but STILL not saying anything to him directly.

For the rest of the afternoon, I kept an eye on him and realized he was wandering from one seat in the store to another, always sitting near younger women. So the fact that he thought I was in college meant, I realized, he'd targeted me. He didn't sit near anyone older than their early 20s. But with a male employee hovering nearby, the guy didn't start again.

My brother kicked him out. He hasn't been back and won't be back, and if he does return, the police have been notified and he'll be arrested on the spot.

I'm angry about what this man was doing--not because I'm a prude or because I'm even offended. I'm angry because what he was doing amounted to little more than intimidation, and I let him intimidate me! I'm not a 12-year-old girl anymore. I'm a 41-year-old mother of four who would have gone ballistic on this man if he'd done anything like that in front of my daughter or my nieces or even a perfect stranger. But I let him do it in front of me. I wasn't doubting him when I hesitated to say anything. I was doubting myself.

We teach our kids all the time about standing up for themselves, about how to tell the bad guys from the good guys, about how to trust their instincts and that little voice in their heads. And then we--or I--forget to lead by example. When I was twelve, I had an excuse. Now? Not at all.

Intimidation is a powerful tool. But so is my voice. And I should have used it. Next time I will.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


It's been a while since I posted. I've been feeling a little "worded out" the last few weeks. I read somewhere that women say about 20,000 to 25,000 of them a day. As a stay-at-home mom, I feel that number is a lot less for me most of the time. But I haven't been doing a lot of staying home recently. In fact, I just got home a few days ago from two and a half weeks away, every day spent talking. A lot.

But not just talking . . . processing. Family stuff going on, some major and some minor, all of it requiring me to not just babble but to think before I open my mouth. I don't want to offer up my opinion without really, truly considering whether it IS my opinion or just the easiest thing that seems to roll off my tongue. Someone might listen and pay attention, might think those hundred words or so I said have some merit. And then what if my opinion comes across as advice? What if it's really awful advice and I make matters worse? Add to the equation the possibility that what I say to Person A gets back to Person B--either verbatim or approximately, it doesn't matter. I try really hard not to ever say something that can be thrown at someone instead of just shared with them. But when you're speaking 20,000 to 25,000 words a day, there's a lot of room for really screwing up.

My little sister had a quote at the bottom of her email for a while that read, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you make them feel." Maya Angelou said that. And I love Maya Angelou. I've read five or six of her books, her poetry . . . I even wrote a paper about her in college. I think she's brilliant and wise. But I think she's wrong here, because I think people remember all of it: the words, the actions, the feelings.

I used to love to draw as a kid. My older sister gave me an art kit--the kind with the thick, bumpy paper and the charcoal sticks and the white smudge-free eraser and the various lead pencils--and I sat one Saturday morning drawing a duck-pond scene, complete with a barn and animals, hills in the background to reflect the Blue Ridge Mountains just a 20-minute drive away. I recall the red chair I sat on the floor beside in the corner where we once found a green snake. I remember the feel of the beige carpeting under my knees. I remember the quiet. It was a good morning for me.

When I was done, I showed that drawing to my mother and asked what she thought. She said, "Well, it's not as good as good as you sister's . . ." And my heart sunk. She didn't mean to tell me to put away my pencils and paper. The intention behind those words were not "you'll never be an artist." But that's what I heard. I'm sure she wanted to encourage me, to tell me how if I kept practicing I could one day be as good as my sister. But I was a kid and I didn't get that at the time.

While visiting my mom this past week, I was doodling as we were sitting with some other family members around the table. The next morning, she saw my picture--a cartoon man walking a dog--and asked who'd drawn it. When I told her I had, she said, "You're really good." I shrugged it off with a "It's not exactly art." And I didn't tell her about the time I did put away my pencils and paper because I thought that's what she was telling me to do. She doesn't need to feel bad now about something that happened 30 years ago. Those words don't need to come out of my mouth.

People do remember what you say. They may not remember every single word, but they'll remember enough that it's worth a few extra minutes--or hours or days--to hold them in before letting them out slowly, one thoughtful syllable at a time. You can't do much editing once they've escaped.