Apples (my father’s dream)

Telluride Daily Planet, Thursday, September 15, 2011

After dad retired from the Army, he got a job at Boeing. I’m not sure exactly what he did there, but he got laid off along with everyone else in Seattle in the early ‘70s, and, to my mother’s great surprise, became a permanent fixture in the house after that. She had expected at least 10 more years of peace and quiet. And as the only kid left at home, I certainly understood her apprehension. What was he going to do all day long? It was a big house, but not nearly big enough for this turn of events.

Dad had not taken well to civilian life, and so when Boeing canned him, he decided we’d subsist on his meager military retirement income. He stopped drinking aperitifs, discovered Levi’s, and then the world opened up like a flower. Jim Curry had time now. Time to organize, to be an inventor, to order us and the dog around, to learn about this new device called a computer, to fight the IRS, to raise his expectations of me, to fiddle in his workroom, to raise his expectations of me, to hone his many opinions and to raise his expectations of me. He also had time to indulge in a few of his obsessions, one of which was apples.

Apples made my father dream, made his brain swell and get hot. Here we were, in our great apple-basket state surrounded by apple products and shiny-red, candy-apple pride. One of his sons was becoming an apple pathologist. His wife had relatives from Normandy, France’s parallel apple capital. It was natural for him to pine for an apple-driven dream of his own.

At some point, he actually proposed selling our 1911 six-bedroom house and moving to eastern Washington to dump everything into an apple orchard, where, brain boiling hot, he’d fulfill his heroic mission of bringing Calvados to the United States. Not that he knew anything about farming, or distilling, or marketing, or distributing or even apple brandy itself. But who cared? This was about apples!

Mom, who had already spent 25 solid years following orders, nixed the orchard idea as if swatting a fly dead on sight. This wasn’t the Army anymore, Jim. And she wasn’t going. Eventually, coming to terms with her terms, dad had to make do with his own personal-sized orchard and planted a dozen dwarf apple trees known for the enormous fruit they would produce. He rigged the pond to irrigate the trees, and learned to espalier using techniques from pre-Google resources like library books and pamphlets and advice from French relatives.  

My mother, an actual plant expert who spent 35 years volunteering at Seattle’s Arboretum Foundation, didn’t want anything to do with the orchard, the pruning, the immense fruit dragging the branches down unnaturally, almost pornographically. She’d never seen the advantage of growing big fruit or big anything at all. They just don’t have that proclivity in France, where even the men are grown smaller.

But the trees did produce. By the late ‘70s, dad was sending apples — packed like an engineer — to me at my college dorm. Six to a box. I remember prying a cartoonish specimen out and holding it in my raised hand, a dark red apple right out of “Snow White.” Then I remember wondering what mom was going to do with basket after basket of them showing up on the kitchen counter. Luckily, she had something called a food mill. Luckily something called applesauce could be made and then served cold. Sort of like revenge, come to think of it.

These were not the heirloom-ing, seed-exchanging, species-saving years. The apples dad championed were pound-each, juiced-up versions of a humble fruit one used to eat in three or four bites. They had one unambiguous flavor: sweet. But, to dad, they were magnificent, archetypical and pure Essence of Apple. I loved that he took the time and care he did to send them to me, to remind me of my home, to remind me of him and his dreams.

In September, I honor apples for their place in my life. My mother ate an apple a day for many years (small ones from the grocery store!). She ate the entire fruit — core, seeds, even the dirt and little bugs in the tiny well where the stem is. She believed in the fiber, the pectin, the vitamins in the skin and the notion of swallowing something whole.

And as for the French family, they still have their land in Normandy, where at last count there were more than 20 types of just one apple, the Calville. My cousin stores the fruit for months and months at a time in a basement utterly permeated by their sweet but complex smells. Her preference, she tells me in a recent letter, is to let them shrivel and get very sweet, then bake them, either whole with a little sugar or in a tarte tatin, a caramelized tart served warm. As the weather changes, it sounds so good, doesn’t it?

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