Family Orchard

Nothing for me, unpacks homegrown memory like apples. And my dad jogged that memory by bringing a box of apples from Western New York this May.

I grew up in an apple orchard.

There is a picture of me as a three-year-old wedged between bushels of apples on my grandfather’s farm wagon.  My mother put me there to keep me from toddling around the wheels of the oil- and dust-caked Alis Chalmers that pulled the wagon through the soggy, September orchard.

My hands were too small to hold an apple, so I would press the apple to my chest.  This explains the heart-sized, brown stains on my sweatshirt.

Our family orchard was tended by my parents and grandparents.  Later, my sister and I tried our hand at pruning, picking, and mowing, when we weren’t sparring over the work.  We tended varieties planted by my grandfather’s father or his father with names like: Rome, Golden Delicious, McIntosh and Cortland—names that nodded to other growing areas in New York.

My favorite apple trees stood near the back of the barn and the lilac hedge—the farthest from the house, of course. The hike was worth it. Biting into the rich, maroon skin of the plump Cortland, yielded large flavor and crisp, smooth-grained flesh. Likewise, the McIntosh, while more colorful and a bit tarter, was another favorite I hugged to my chest.

Susan Brown, Professor of Horticultural Studies at Cornell University, outlines a history of apples at (  My grandfather once told me that my favorite Cortland’s were a hybrid. The website explains that Cortland’s are a hybrid of Ben Davis and McIntosh.  Cortland’s were developed in 1915, four years after my grandfather was born.  He might have been a shirt-stained toddler too, when my favorite tree was sent from Cornell for planting.

The apples my father brings are Empires, a hybrid of the McIntosh and the school cafeteria favorite: Delicious.  The Empires were developed in 1966, probably too late for our orchard.

What I remember most about apple season was the inescapable aroma wafting across the ancient orchard:  wet grass, drying leaves, strains of wood smoke and fragrant, lingering apple. The smells mingled saying it was time to do what generations of my family had done: harvest and put-up apples for another year.

Some varieties held up well in my grandmother’s basement, others my mother and grandmother made into applesauce or sliced and froze for pies for home and church. The best apples, though, went directly from tree to tummy!

How I loved to ride the apple wagon when it left the harbor of the orchard!  My sister and I would sit on top of the baskets. Apple stems poked through our pants, as our hands gripped the rough-edged bushels.

I can still hear the belch of the tractor as it lumbered through our tiny village of Pekin, threading its way past the Methodist Church and the old Grange Hall up Townline Road to Kelch’s Cider Mill.  When the tractor slowed, we’d lose our balance in the lurch of the trailer against the hitch. As cars, tractors and trucks piled up behind us, my sister and I reveled in our place in this seasonal parade.

One year, my family resurrected a blackened, hand-cranked, turn-of-the-century cider press from the barn.  Whether the crank was too hard to turn or too many bosses were involved, we pressed cider only once.  I still recall the tangy, foam-topped cider that dribbled from the press and my wonder at the secrets the press might reveal from its ten or more decades of family cider making.

But my favorite apple memory is a simple, repeatable one.  My grandmother, a respected farm- and Grange-woman could peel apples in a rhythmical, mesmerizing blur, rendering an apple skin into a single, long peel. She had a lot of practice, but her ability to separate  an apple into one part curvy peel and one part naked apple was magical.

And, as if munching down the crunchy, table-length peelings without breaking that continuous coil weren’t reward enough, I grew up on the best apple pies, tarts, and sauce heard of in the Empire State.

I like to think about how the different varieties of apples planted through the generations came together at our table.  As new family members join our table— like new apple varieties—they bring with them names telling stories of their origins too. But above all, through the generations we keep walking among those trees, holding apples close to heart.

Thanks Daddy.

15 thoughts on “Family Orchard

  1. We have just started to pick our Anna apples. Like your family, I freeze the apples for later to make apple sauce and pies (if they make it to the freezer!). Towards the end of the harvest season, I rinse a huge pile of apples, then pick out a long movie, put my feet up and peel away. I could probably work more quickly in the kitchen, but it makes for a pleasant afternoon in the heat of our Phoenix summers. But until then, we walk the few steps to our tree from the back door to pick a warm apple from the bowing branches. The first bite is always the best.


  2. Great memory… Reminds me of eating the green ones on the wild trees in the wood growing up.. Thanks for the memory jog.


  3. Oh I can almost taste the apples in your orchard as I read. Here, Winter has just started and we have citrus trees that are so loaded with ripening fruit they can hardly hold up the load. Growing your own fruit is one of life’s pleasures indeed.


  4. What a nice bit of storytelling. I love the visual of you as a small child with a dirty spot on your shirt.

    I made an apple strudel tonight using some unexciting (the term my husband used) apples we had sitting around. John eats loads of fruit and it surprised me that he found these too boring to bother with. He loved the strudel I made with them.

    While I was peeling the apples, I remembered how my great-grandfather in his 80s used to scrape his apples with his pocketknife after he peeled them making them soft like applesauce because even though he only had a couple of teeth left, he still liked to have an apple a day.


    • Elizabeth, what a great image of your grandfather with apples! And, that you made strudel? Will you post a recipe as part of a day in your life on your Gifts of the Journey blog? I love the contemplative peaceful feeling that comes from visiting your blog!
      Thank you. – Renee


  5. I loved hearing about your childhood experiences growing up on your family apple farm. How little I knew about the different names, flavors, origins, and purposes of the apple. Your voice certainly expresses the gratitude you feel for the privilege to spend such formable years listening and learning from your grandparents. Like you, my grandparents were true “salt of the earth” kind of people who worked the land and took great pleasure enjoying and sharing the fruits of their labor. Those lessons were far more educational than anything I read in a textbook!


  6. The description throughout this post is fabulous. I grew up in Michigan and one of my favorite smells was the day we went to the apple orchard. It is such a sweet smell and you describing it is terrific.


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