Fur checks with Santa

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, December 18, 2011

Santa: [answering phone, already annoyed] Blitzen, stop pestering me about the formation, would you? It’s a year ending in 1, and you’re behind Comet. Period. [pauses] You listening?

MCW: Hello, um, is this Santa???

Santa: [pauses] Who is this? How did you get this number?

MCW: I got it on Facebook. Wow, your voice. It sounds so potentially jolly, so authentic. Wait — are you saying you didn’t post on Facebook? Because you got 2.9 million Likes.

Santa: Of course not. Why would I post on Facebook? There’s one elf who’s always getting into something, it must’ve been him. [strokes beard] That many Likes? And you’re the only one who actually dialed the number? Figures.

MCW: What do you mean, it fig—

Santa: Figures that everyone thought it was a joke. Also figures it’s you — that one adult who’s been writing me letters every year. Telling me I look like Freud and that I’m a superhero and a lot of other rubbish. Then feeling smart about it. Then asking me for things I can’t possibly give you like transformation and hints about the Big Picture. You need remedial Santa letter writing. Big time.

MCW: Why do you think I was so eager to call? I mean I had actually just written “Make me a reed in the wind” when I saw the post on FB.

Santa: A reed! Next you’d be asking me for three more metaphors! I don’t do metaphors, FYI. Only rarely do I do sarcasm. I deal with concrete wants, Michelle. Bulleted lists and such, which children are remarkably good at.

MCW: Well, can I try it now? I’ll do better—

Santa: [sighing, checking watch] Only if you promise: no follow-up letter! I’ll do it to keep you from going right back to those mesmerizing organizing tips at marthastewart.com. While shoveling buttery popcorn into your mouth.

MCW: [wiping grease from lips] You actually see me when I’m bad or good?

Santa: Ho, ho, ho—

MCW: Hey, you said you didn’t do sarcasm.

Santa: I said rarely. Because I rarely deal with adults. But adults rarely understand sincerity, so I have to improvise.

MCW: Marthastewart.com puts a little bubble of serene hilarity beneath my sternum bone. It’s both calming and ridiculous, which is …

MCW with Santa chiming in: … not a combination you feel very often.”

MCW: You know what I’m going to say, too? I mean, what happened to free will?

Santa: Oh stop! I gave up philosophy when I took this job. Now, then. I’m putting you on speakerphone. [immediate din of a toy shop]. Tell Santa what you want for Christmas.

MCW: In front of all those people?

Santa: They’re not people, they’re elves. Plus, ever since I told them no more Justin Bieber, most of them have headphones on.

MCW: Ew. Well — I want the same things I always want. Which you already know, so what real good does it do—

Santa: [interrupting] You don’t get it. The list is for YOU. YOU have to know what you want. [sound of hand over phone and muffled Get Dasher and Vixen in here for fur checks please? And page that blasted elf, what’s his name… Bjorn.] OK. Tell me which candles you want. Again. Practice asking.

MCW: [crushed] Forget it. I’m just going to put the links up on my blog. [sniffs] You know very well it’s diptyqueparis.com. [shyly] So what’s it smell like where you are?

Santa: [inhales deeply] All the smells you like … fir needles, clove, sandalwood, notes of vanilla, rosemary, sweet orange, a touch of patchouli.

MCW: I hate patchouli—

Santa: [real belly laughing] You don’t even realize it’s in every perfume you love! Every single one. Speaking of metaphors. Go scratch your head about that one.

MCW: I like patchouli?

Santa: In the proper amounts, it’s your catnip.

MCW: [blushing] Oh. Well, what else do I like that I thought I hated?

Santa: Wrong magical being for that question. Stick to the list. Didn’t you want to ask me for the new 27-inch iMac? Graphics software? Coffee table books from taschen.com? Facials with what’s her name?

MCW: Stop! Gee, I thought I was supposed to practice asking! Plus, I was going to edit that list. How embarrassing. I sound so … oh, whatever. Can I call you again in, like, 10 minutes when I’m more prepared?

Santa: I’m late for fur checks already. But next year, if Bjorn or one of his minions posts on Facebook again, and if you happen to see it, I will expect your call. Our code word will be…

MCW: Patchouli?

Santa: Correct! Have a Merry Christmas, snowflake.

Note: True and recent discovery about patchouli. How could I possibly make this up? I went to http://www.basenotes.com and found all my favorite perfumes, which I admit to having a great weakness for, contain it. All I have ever done is complain about patchouli oil. This fries the basenotes in my brain.

Rock, paper, scissors, hair

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, December 4, 2011

I am standing, scissors in hand, poised and inches away from my sister’s thick hardly-gray-even-though-she’s-ten-years-older tresses, thinking about gene puddles and the great wagon wheel of karma.

Joelle and I, though we have identical voice registries and laugh at the same time at the same jokes, look not only dissimilar, but as if we’re from different hemispheres. I’m from my dad’s Scotto-Iro-Anglo, freckled, digestion-sensitive half of the family, and she’s from my mother’s French-Moorish, olive-skinned, good-haired side.

Irish, French, Irish, French

When, as a pre-teen, I was getting summer sunburns (in Seattle!) building wood replicas of hydroplanes like Miss Bardahl and Miss Budweiser with my friends, she, the teenager, was lying out on the upper deck using Johnson’s Baby Oil, browning herself to perfection for every one of the beautiful boyfriends I was secretly in love with. Joelle, with her thick, wavy black hair and dark skin, at any time might have been mistaken for a world citizen – Turkish or Mexican or Iranian or Greek. Me? I had a guy come up to me on a Manhattan street once and ask me if I was Irish or Chinese, and when I reluctantly told him I was half French he rubbed his greasy chin and told me that that made sense.

What kind of sense did it make? Did it matter he’d just exited Off Track Betting and I had headphones on and had to remove them to hear what he obviously felt was important enough to interrupt me, a complete stranger, for? What compels someone to demand to know where a face – or hair – comes from? Every face, it seems – with its kaleidoscopic mish mash — may not launch a thousand ships but certainly a thousand questions.  It does in my family, anyway.

My father was quirky about hair. Joelle had to wait until she was twelve to have it cut, but was instantly offered an outlandish sum for the fifteen inches being held up by the beautician like a shimmery fish. I was allowed to have mine cut at age eight and still have my braids from that very day.  Joelle was given a big-girl bob appropriate for 1960. Me? A pixie, inappropriate for any year, including 1966. A haircut so short that I’m mistaken for a boy and called Michael at third grade roll call. “It’ll grow,” says my mother casually, my mother, whose brushed black hair is one of the furling and unfurling flags that has captured my dad. Who on earth will a pixie cut ever capture?

Boy, girl, or pixie?

Flash forward to the present moment. My sister has just had her hair butchered by a sleepwalker holding shears in a shopping-mall chain, and then gone on to Penney’s Salon for remedial work — bad choices made by someone who has never feared for the shape her filamentous biomaterial will – or will not — take.

“Did you want so much cut?” asks her son, Jeremy, who has had every haircut on earth, including dreads (as a rapper in Beijing) and now a buzz cut  (as Chinese language specialist in the army).

“I went in for a trim–” she insists, as I rake my fingers through a baffling sort of hirsute luxuriance. Her hair was long and now it’s long-short, a wildly lopsided quasi-mullet, six inches on one side of her head and about three and a half on the other.

“It’ll grow,” it’s Jeremy’s turn to say, while his wife, a slight, very hip Korean woman, looks on. “I don’t think it’s so bad,” June says with so much conviction everyone feels better for a second, then somehow worse. June Lee has straight black hair that looks fantastic short and long and probably even long-short.

“How do you even know how to cut hair?” My daughter, who got my hair and not her father’s (thick, wavy hair she knows full well I’d always cut), continues to hold this against me. It’s tense as small increments of her aunt’s genetically superior hair fall to the floor.

There is no choice, at this point, but for me to retell the Story of the Perm. The one Joelle gives me at seventeen. The one she leaves in way, way too long, thinking it won’t take on my shoulder-length, baby-fine locks. The one that takes well enough to leave me with a 70’s Afro so extensive and so tight there’s no getting a cake cutter – let alone a comb —through it. The one her Danish beautician friend takes one saucer-eyed look at before saying “Oh my.” And then deftly cuts right back to that third-grade length.

We all laugh.

In a game of karma wheel, family tree and scissors, doesn’t scissors win over family tree? I do a little Edward Scissorhands clicking next to Joelle’s ear as I ponder our far-flung features, our pale to dark eyes, our freckles and tans, our thin to thick manes, our voices, and our vanities that sometimes require a bit more pruning than our precious hair.

The originals, French and Irish

“That future boom, boom, boom…”

 Telluride Daily Planet, Saturday, November 12, 2011 

MCW: [crossing herself] Bless me father, for I have sinned. It’s been, um, 35 years since my last confession.

Father: Welcome back, my child. And it’s 36, actually. But who’s counting?

MCW: Oh. Well, [sound of fidgeting] where to start, right? Disrespectful thoughts about my parents when they were still alive? Passive aggressive behaviors? Vanity, pride? Stealing grapes from the grocery store — and even a kumquat once. And some yogurt pretzels from the bulk bins and a cookie in 1982 from a box of Entemann’s. Then there’s the prevaricating. And cursing so many times I can’t really guestimate. [pauses] Because back in the ‘80s —

Father: The ‘80s were bad … let’s not start breaking it down into time periods, however.

MCW: Oh. Then, uh — not necessarily recently or in any order — I’ve smoked, drunk, was wanton and threw myself at men, was envious of others, was disrespectful to myself, I listened to a lot of hip-hop, spoke words of ill-will and held rancor in my heart. Also gluttony.

Father: [sighs] You need to watch the passive aggression and the rancor especially. But what was that fourth-to-the-last thing you said?

MCW: That thing about … hip-hop?

Father: Yes. That. Is that recent?

MCW: Well. Pretty recent. Like on the way here. [starts swaying and singing “She was buzzing all over me…”]

Father: A woman of your age?

MCW: [bows head] However unnatural and wrong I know it is, I just keep listening, singing, dancing and downloading. Then the inevitable shame. And then scorn for the genre. In public, I pretend I don’t even know the songs.

Father: Scorn is not a good thing. Ever. [pauses] When did this start?

MCW: [taps fingers in dark confessional] Hm. Sixth grade. Mrs. Lee’s music class. We were dancing to Michael Jackson’s “A B C” when James Woods — the tallest boy in the class — said I was officially a soul sister. Michael Jackson was exactly our age.

Father: They found that doctor guilty of manslaughter, you know. Go on.

MCW: Then I guess there was no stopping the rest of Motown. Especially Marvin Gaye. I must have listened to that “I Want You” album five thousand times.

Father: Thinking impure thoughts all the while?

MCW: Dude. I mean, Father: I was 15 and in Catholic girls school. Most of my thoughts were impure. Repression does that, you know.

Father: No comment.

MCW: It’s just … I never had much interest in so-called white music. When my brother Eric told me his band was on the radio and it was called Cream, I believed him because I was 9 and had no idea who they were.

Father: [snorts] That was Eric Clapton. A soul frater in his own right.

MCW: Yeah, well. My husband used to say I missed the ‘70s entirely. I never even knew who the Grateful Dead were until I saw them here in 1987. I’d been listening to Parliament Funkadelic and Prince.

Father: [speaking low] Shakin’ your groove thang?

MCW: [ignoring him] Even after Tupac when it all sort of devolved for me into that contagious hip-pop. The T-Pains, and Jay-Zs and DJ Khaleds and Kid Cudis and Beyonces and Rihannas and Nicky Minajs of the world. Music that makes me feel so good I know it has to be bad.

Father: Now I know you’re a Catholic! [mumbles in Latin] But. Not to say this isn’t inappropriate for someone in her mid-fif—

MCW: [interrupting] I know this, OK?! How do you think it feels to find myself singing “Shawty’s like a melody in my head/ That I can’t keep out, got me singing like/ Na na na na everyday/Got my iPod stuck on replay, replay.” Or “I’m so 3000 and 8, you so 2000 and late. I got that boom boom boom, that future boom boom boom.” Not to mention all the “unh”s and “yeeeuh”s, which, if I’m not careful are going to come out of my mouth at work one day.

Father: [sighs] Altar boys listen to that stuff, not their mothers—

MCW: What do I do?

Father: You need remedial 1970s. Revisit the Allman Brothers and the Dead. Cool down your blood. In fact a little bloodletting might not be a bad idea.

MCW: [stunned into silence]

Father: Just kidding! I guess just this once I’m going to tell you something I don’t want you to repeat. You never heard it and this never happened, OK? As in, off the record.

MCW: [leaning in] OK. What is it?

Father: If it feels good, do it, my child. For all the other stuff, say 50 Hail Mary’s — not the Tupac song but the prayer — and sin no more.

MCW: Really????

Father: In nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti. Go in peace, Shawty.

All saints, all souls, all seekers

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, October 30, 2011

It is the Day of the Dead.

And. Although I say a prayer for the souls who have passed over, who are no longer with us as we knew them – while I am saying a prayer for peace and momentum on their untethered and zero-gravity journeys, wading through the deep waters of way beyond – I am saying more feverish ones for those of us still here on our spinning orblet, in our three dimensions, with our five senses, our four directions on something called a compass whose needle suggests wavering but definitive direction.

For those of us staring at our hands and picking at our cuticles, thinking about touching and not touching things. What delicacy and awkwardness we bring to our fingertips. What gripping. What releasing with what tender reluctance.

For those of us wanting to knit again, with our antiseptic and empty hands, for no apparent reason, knit too-large sweaters out of wool made from the shorn skins of animals who generously give and give and give to spinners who spin so that we can make order out of fiber and slip our arms into sleeves of comfort because our own skins are not enough, not since we became rational creatures whose blackboard equations cannot answer questions like What’s a naked uber-animal doing in a place like this? And questions like What is a rational mind without perspective? And other questions like Why didn’t they teach us that kind of perspective in school, and Who, exactly, would teach it?

For those of us left to decipher things. Decipher fortunes from cookies, and flowchart patterns of raindrops converging, and sum columns of ledgers, and the angle of the sun when the shadows make lazy giants of us and our horses and haybales, and the infinite kindness of breezes. To decipher our Calder-mobile solar system when sleep doesn’t come, and unfamiliar words spoken by familiar people, and the lay of the land as it melts in the spring under our feet, and the horizon line when we are fortunate enough to see it, and glances from strangers who may not really be strangers, and fate lines, and food lines, and stories made-up but more real than reportage. To decipher stories, stories, and always mores stories for those of us left to play our parts sometimes like sleepwalkers simply told to go back to bed.

For those of us pinned to history like butterflies on cork, lying flat and struggling to remember what it was like to fly, our micro-feet free, our macro wings stuck and slightly ripped like the sheerest of silk with a nevertheless flight-canceling hole. Those of us trying to retrieve what is past and, then, once memory is worn again like its old sweater, trying to un-knit ourselves from its suffocating and tweedy warmth and into the light of a new room-temperature day.

Those of us left here lining up shoes in our closets, and sometimes shining them, and then looking out of windows as yellow leaves stick to the windshields of cars — crimping the already piecemeal view — because of lashing rain that will turn to snow in the blink of an eye, which will remind us of all the cold and quiet things that hibernate, and wouldn’t be nice if we could hibernate for a few months, just sleep with the sleepers of the world and that part of the sleeping world that is really and truly asleep or at least seems not to dream?

Those of us not only awake but watching the hands of clocks tick around, and clouds time-lapse by, and watching birds grip their high-perch branches with tiny bony feet as if, if they let go, they would be sucked into the whipping vortex of world weather patterns. Those of us watching seeds actually grow, and cheese actually mold, watching bookmarks change their position in nightstand tomes that may or may not say anything at all.

I say prayers for the living who get up each day to light gas flames that heat water that makes tea hot enough to comfort the coldest bodies on the coldest days so we can sip it and sip it again and think to ourselves, Hey, it’s quiet here in my brain for once and I feel the sun on my shoulders like warm and golden honey; and maybe someone will be nice to me today in a way that gives me infinite hope.

I say a prayer for the living. Those left to decipher. Those left to let go — and then learn to fly again with their patchwork wings of silk and feather and dust, and powered by the beating of their hearts.

Adventures in neuroplasticity! (featuring Max)

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, October 16, 2011 

Max, a calico guinea pig, was adopted as the family pet circa 1968, a few years after we lost the wildly likeable white rabbit we called Mr. K. I still don’t know how on earth my father, a military man, conceded to the string of non-traditional pets — Ping, the duck; Cocoa and Nosey, the first set of house-trained rabbits; K; and finally, Max — except that maybe in Ping, who actually adopted us, he saw the promise of new and unexpected behavior, which spoke directly to his heart.(In brief, Ping was left behind by his mother and imprinted on us. Would not go swimming in Lake Washington without us. Followed us as if we were his six-duck family. Would only sleep with the radio on. And might have taught us all quite a bit more about the true nature of bonding had he not ingested something deadly in the backyard one night.)It never occurred to us — despite the prevailing attitudes towards rodents — to put Max in a cage. He was given wood crates in the kitchen and pantry and allowed to roam freely between them — and anywhere else in the house, if he so chose. To get around the kitchen, he would stick close to the walls, a bullet-shaped Pac-Man, always taking the same safe path to get to the same safe spot — except when mysteriously and unexpectedly driven to risk wide open flooring.

Max was a diminutive tenant in a very large house. Although he did not physically grow to fit his space — like the goldfish in our pond did — he was asked to stretch his spirit and behavior, to respond to the towering giants around him and try new things. We spoiled him with rose petals, clover and his baffling favorite, the cover of TV Guide (the chewing of which could be heard across a room like a typewriter).

Of course, he exhibited the typical piggie behaviors — the “wheeking,” the noisy shudders, the happy jumping. He wheeked to the sound of the refrigerator door opening, but also to our calling his name. At night in front of the TV, even my dad would take a turn holding him. But only my brother Eric could get Max to flip onto his back, trust his human keeper enough for a belly rub.

When Max died of pneumonia, shortly after our return from vacation one summer, the vet told my mother — who was devastated by the news — that he thought our Maximilian really had died of a broken heart, having been lost without his people, the love, the stimulation, the learning curve.

As the days get shorter, darker, and colder — a natural time for us to venture in and within — I’m thinking about Max, his small testimonials to neuroplasticity, and our own tendencies the other way, toward habitual behaviors. Those grooves and ruts, the things we defend as time saving and efficient and easy and comfortable — even graceful. Especially as we age, we are prone to ask exactly what the harm is in routine.

What is the harm in swinging my legs out of the same side of the bed every morning, while having the same kinds of thoughts I always have as my feet touch the floor? What is the harm in sitting in the same chair for my morning toast and coffee, looking through the same window at the same view? It’s my ritual, can’t I keep it sacred, for Pete’s sake? Is it hurting anyone?

It may be hurting you. One of the fundamental concepts of neuroplasticity is that connections in the brain are constantly being “pruned” and neural pathways rechanneled and recreated. This means that by new behaviors and thoughts we can forge new and healthier pathways — despite shrinking numbers of neurons. That with new pathways we actually change the form and functioning of the nervous system itself. We stretch it. We grow it. We risk wide open flooring to get to a more interesting room.

The real question is what, exactly, will snatch us from our narrow and narrowing grooves, the gray-matter paths we tread with the shoes of habitual thought and action? A vague sense of atrophy? Of rigidity? A yearning for freedom, flexibility and cannier engagement in the present moment?

Or, in a moment of grace and neuroplasticity, will we eat breakfast in bed one day, look up from our cheese omelet, and realize just how beautiful — and liberating — the view is?

Friends don’t let friends play Words with Friends (It’s addictive)

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, October 2, 2011

It’s not like I didn’t grow up playing board games. Scrabble, Monopoly, Parcheesi, Battleship, Mastermind, Numble, RSVP, Risk, Stratego, Trouble, Connect Four, Facts in Five. My mother — and sole opponent — was also my personal trainer in the formative crossword years.Any real instinct to play, however, has long been dormant — that is, until a couple of weeks ago when a nice-guy walk-in at work took it upon himself to install Words with Friends on my phone. “Here’s my handle,” he said, scribbling Whip______ on a scrap of paper. “You’ll love it.”
Love? I don’t know. I know I can’t stop. I know I can’t get enough. Is this love?
In fact, I am currently playing WWF — in between sentences — and doing it in the hip, multi-tasking, aggravatingly non-present manner in which things are done nowadays. I’ve fallen in, an infantry soldier in the trench war of letters. I have 12 games going, actually. Which doesn’t necessarily mean anything since it takes some people an entire day to make a move, or two days or even a week, which is why there are so many posts on the WWF Facebook page seeking that rarest of games: one played in its entirety. Can you imagine? Most of us don’t have time for that. We sneak in moves, trying to appear functional in our everyday lives.

Here in the virtual cloud of around 2.5 million players, posting screenshots of brilliant moves, spending hours staring down at their 2 x 3 inch screens, I am on the warpath with someone named Roy____ whom I cannot beat. He has just scored a modest (to him) 44 points with an s on my ziti and gees on the vertical axis. I have two a’s two d’s, an i and o and a u. I’m tempted to stall him in the chat bubble because, despite my knowing that things can seesaw at any time, even upend, I feel panic welling up — like, if I lose this game, my mojo will shrivel irreversibly. Am I that weak, down deep?

Who are you, Roy? I want to say, picturing him in the deep south, hunched at an old wooden desk, hound at his side, sunflower seeds and a glass of cold water the only things feeding his killer — and yet oh-so-casual — instinct. There’s a spittoon in the room. Haze. He is such a conundrum! Someone who plays the word “loves” after I tell him I feel like his pawn (it’s true, but, OK, also strategic). He tells me he’s sure I’ve beaten him before, using the word “u” for “you,” which rattles me. >From a wordsmith? Roy, who ARE you?

Meanwhile, I cannot come up with a word with my a-i-u-a-o-d-d. And since I don’t use the Words Cheat app, to which only the most morally rank would stoop, I’m left wondering about things like probabilities. How come he always wins? Chances are, he gets letters as bad as mine and just as frequently. Is it his will, then? Confidence? Or is he just better in every way?

In Words, you can make more points than you ever dreamed possible in the frowsy world of Scrabble, an old-fashioned game which asks you to have a vocabulary, be intelligent, clever and well read. Words has more triple and double word and letter squares, scattered over the board like candy. Someone, not Roy, scored 99 points on me yesterday and then actually used “OMG” in the chat bubble. Who are YOU, little girl? I thought. I know you don’t have board games in the resume of your brief career as a human being, and yet you dust me completely with one lucky word and then “Haha” me in the bubble.

What can I say — I’m new to this. I don’t entirely get gorging on scores. Of course, I tell my friends that what I am actually doing here is more important than trying to win, that I am engaged in a giant gestalt of left-brain massage, contributing to the language weather of the world. A total lie. I’m becoming a pointsmith.

I try all sorts of words on the Roy board, because you can try all you want in WWF, which feels dirty because it is. I stare down at the tiny grid on my phone, neck stiff, seeing an ugly, under-15 point play. I hit Send with “dodo” and “ad,” and then slump. Eleven points and three more vowels. Staring at the board, lack of distance strangulates me until I notice all of a sudden that “ziti” and “mob” and “hit” are all on the same board. I smile, and examine further. Did I play “winks” or did he? Who played “bites”? He plays “gleam” for a mere 22 and I relax, loosen the kinks in the my neck, and hit the shuffle key.

Because … it’s really not over ‘til it’s over.

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?