“Mary?” he asked.
Sound awake, I willed myself.
“Mary, can you make sandwiches for today?”
“Mhm.” Sound awake! “You bet! I’m on it.”
Five minutes later I was slathering butter onto cheese sandwiches and fitting jugs of tea into our lunch box. The kitchen floor is cold these days, so I had on socks and the street outside our window was still wrapped in fog.
Into the van went the lunchbox. Into the van went our buckets and pails. Into the van went water and gasoline, shears and weed-trimmers, ladders and gloves. Into the van went three Americans, rubbing the sleep from their eyes and pushing the cold from their fingertips.
Every year we go to a cottage a half hour outside of Prague to harvest apples. It is owned by a very sweet old lady at our church. I didn’t know her very well last year when we spent a day collecting apples from her orchard and clearing out her yard. As a girl she was forced to learn German, but she doesn’t speak English. Last September we sat in the tiny kitchen of her tiny cottage (in Czech it is called a chata, which means “shack” – and that’s about the size of it). She made a tea spread for us to warm up with during lunch break and talked about, I don’t know – life, I assume. I didn’t understand much Czech last year…(And I was extremely preoccupied by the sugar cubes).
But age is catching up with her and she wasn’t able to come with us this year. I wish she had because I feel like I would be able to understand more of our lunch conversation now.
Jerry, Jared and I trundled along through tiny towns on roads that wind between tree-laced hills and sprawling farmlands, all of which are turning out their autumn robes.
“I buy our honey from that guy,” Jerry told us as I tried not to fall asleep against the window. “And down the road is where I get our vegetables sometimes…” He trails off as we drive past a quaint patch of tilled soil in someone’s yard. People grow their own food in this country and I think it’s the greatest thing ever.
Across the railroad tracks, over the creek, past a field of horses and down a very narrow dirt road (the kind with grass growing in between the tire tracks) we pull up next to the cottage which is barely larger than a trailer, but sturdily made with dark wood panels and sleepily purple roof tiles. Jared and I stood in the damp dirt and looked across the empty field next to us. The sound of Jerry fiddling with the rusty lock on the gate wrinkled the otherwise peaceful surroundings.
The lock fell to the ground with a ‘plunk’ and we unloaded the van into the overgrown grasses of the orchard.
“They look good,” he said with a smile. “It looks like they’re all here.”
Last year someone robbed the orchard before we could harvest (I know. Who steals apples?) so I know he was relieved to see the fruit still clinging to the branches.
Because I’m competitive and because Jared is a good sport, we quickly turned “apple picking” into “who can get the most salvageable fruit into their pails?” We breached the 100 mark in the first half hour.
“Not fair,” I called to Jared who was standing by the gate lopping low-hanging fruit off branches. “You’re tree is way easier than mine.”
I was balanced precariously on a ladder, one hand on a limb, one stretched out for an apple.
A spider crawled out next to my finger.
“Okay,” I said, quickly descending. “I think we got all the good ones here. Where to next?”
Jerry motioned me towards a tree with blotchy red and green apples while Jared ambled along to another high-capacity low-hanger.
“75!” he informed me.
“Are you kidding me?” I yelled back, livid and falling off my ladder.
My tree had apples too, they were just really high up.
I swatted at the reachable picks for a while before hearing Jared shout out, “100! …Are we still playing?”
There was only one thing to do. Me and my 47-count were going to climb the tree.
“Of COURSE we’re still playing, Jared,” I said.
Balancing on the top rung (which I’ve been told by every father-figure I’ve ever had is a pretty bad idea), I hoisted myself onto the top tree branch. Jared and Jerry were both out of sight so I had no one to whimper to. It was just me and the spiders up in the apple tree.
Once I was sure I was stable, things were okay, even for someone not necessarily okay with heights. I sat on the bottom limb for a while, clawing at nearby apples. Then, following the flighty spirit of competition, I made my way up the tree, twisting this way and that to reach for the hangers.
“That’s one way to do it, Mary!” said Jerry, cheerfully passing below me with a pail full of the glossiest, reddest apples I have ever seen. “You didn’t have any trouble getting up, did you?”
Getting up is never the problem, it’s getting down.
(Jared was referencing a tree adventure I had this summer that never got blogged about).
“Just make sure you watch out for dead branches,” said Jerry. He was standing at the base of my tree as if ready to catch me from my inevitable fall. “If you step too far out on them they’ll snap off.”
“She knows,” said Jared from his tree.
“Yeah,” I said, trying to block that horrifying moment from my current thoughts. My clutch tightened just slightly. “This isn’t my first rodeo in a tree.”
Jerry seemed satisfied that I wouldn’t die and he meandered off to finish other chores.
For a long time I just chilled in the tree. Apples got scarce and there were other places where my time would be better invested. But It was so nice to have finally climbed a tree on my own without having to awkwardly scramble over people’s shoulders to the hum of giggles and shrieks and the thunderously loud thoughts of doubting onlookers. It was nice to just sit in the tree by myself. Shockingly, not even the spiders bothered me up here.
Getting down is the hardest part.
I did eventually descend – and, for those wondering, I did it without hyperventilating, crying or almost killing anyone (why did I never blog about this??). Very calmly, my feet met that top rung and then there was nothing left to do but keep putting one foot after the other (followed by the obligatory celebration dance upon reaching solid ground safely).
We stayed busy until about 1 o’clock. Our short lunch break consisted of my expertly crafted cheese sandwiches (mine also had jam because I’m on a weird jam-and-cheese stint right now), black tea and salty chips. However meager our meal was – and it seemed like a feast in that moment – it was made up for by the incredible view.
Rolling fields, their recently harvested soil churned up like dark coffee grounds. Red-roofed villages tucked away between cozy hillsides dressed with forests and tree tops. And a sky so big it looks like the mouth of the universe opening up right before you with galaxies and glowing comets hidden just behind the billowing clouds.
The Czech countryside is so beautiful that with its softest breezes it can seemingly quiet the whole earth and in the stillness you can feel the very flutters of your soul.
But lunch breaks, like tree-hangouts and all things good and perfect, eventually come to an end.
“Are we still competing?” Jared asked as we stumbled back into the orchard carrying the crusts of our sandwiches and a half empty thermos of tea. I smiled.
“No. You win.”
Jerry had dragged most of our apple pails and boxes up to the gate. The yellow apples were in one box and the green in another. The shiny red ones filled a huge tin tub and my blotchy ones were in a deep pail. We even had a box for apples that were bruised or blemished badly but still too good to throw away. Jerry informed us that the last tree we’d harvest would go towards making jablečný mošt – apple cider. There was something comforting about seeing all our apples organized and neatly collected. Everything a proper place. Everything a proper time. Everything a purpose.
I was exhausted when we finally loaded into the car and began rumbling our way back home, and frankly, the spiders that had seemed so harmless in the orchard were beginning to again become a problem.
But how could I complain about anything. The day was lovely, and best of all, it was done for a woman who I have come to respect and adore – a lady who has aged gracefully and welcomed me warmly into her world. Picking her apples for her for a day was the smallest way to say ‘thank you.’
Last year I wrote my thoughts down in bullet points – I’m going to do something similar here because if I don’t give myself some direction, I’ll just keep rambling for ages. (People think there’s a method to my madness – there’s not. I just write until I hit five pages and then highlight-delete until I get back down to three).
- Some things are worth getting up for, no matter how early.
- Winning is great. Losing, less so. Ultimately, what matters is that the apples get picked.
- Going out on a limb is scary, but not nearly as scary as clinging to the trunk, pinned down by your own doubts.
- There are more salvageable apples in this world than we tend to notice.
- Getting down will always be the hardest part. Harder than conquering the initial fear of how high your arms are reaching out in front of you. Harder than standing on shaking limbs on shaky limbs. Harder by far than looking at the ground below and realizing just how high you’ve gotten. But if you only think about how hard it will be to come down, you will never go up. And going up is important.
- The ground will welcome you back. When we do climb our trees, when we stretch beyond our limits and feel the insatiable tickle of adventure beneath our wings, when we reach a place that fits just right and feels like home, there is always the worry that leaving will ruin us. As if we could somehow leave an intrinsic part of ourselves in a tree and walk away. My friends, while pieces of our minds and hearts may remain high in the branches, it is the tree that will come with us as we return to the earth.
- There will always be other trees – not in a ‘plenty of fish’ way, but in a ‘do good things’ way. Just because you are finishing something doesn’t mean you will remain aimless, purposeless. There will always be a call waiting to be answered – we just have to have the courage to leave our ladders, step away from our lunches, and say, “Here I am! I’m ready.”