Apple Memories.

shutterstock_221166967Everyone has Apple Memories. Think about it. I bet you have one. Doesn’t matter where you grew up, most everyone has some childhood experiences involving the humble apple. It’s one of the first fruits children try as toddlers and the pie made from it one of their first desserts that isn’t birthday cake. Most folks grew up with an apple tree if not in their own yard then in the yard of a beloved Nana or Aunt Bessie. Caramel apples are synonymous with county fairs and apple butter lives atop biscuits more often than not. And in a bitter cold month like January, apples are pretty much the only fruit readily available that’s local. Probably from somebody’s root cellar.

No one knows this better than Diane Flynt of Foggy Ridge Cider, a self-professed apple enthusiast whose “Apple Memories” comprises the most charming section of her farm’s website. In it folks from all walks of life share their treasured stories. During my podcast last week Diane described when the cidery first opened its doors people visited, she presumed, to learn about cider. To her surprise it was just the opposite. Daily they regaled her with stories about picking apples as kids, hayrides, making pies, and apple butter. Their apple memories.

Diane began collecting these memories and thus her “Apple Memories” section of the website was born. During our talk she told me her own story, a childhood tale of horses on her father’s farm who ate the fruit from the tree over a fence, so much and so often that after a number of years the fence began to bow out. It was funny and touching and made me wonder what my own apple memory would be.

We had a small tree in our backyard growing up but the fruit it produced was small, green, and lip-puckeringly sour. Those apples were better as projectile weapons than food as evidenced by the neighbor boy who once ate five before promptly throwing them all up an hour later. No, I my apple memory would have to be about the big, red, inflatable apple purchased at The Apple House in Linden, Virginia.

The Apple House is a store that’s been open since the early 1960’s, about 5 to 10 miles as the crow flies on the rolling roads just east of Front Royal on State Route 55. Front Royal, where my Dad grew up and his parents still lived for much of my childhood. It was a tiny town in the 1970’s and not the DC-bedroom community it has since become. All you could find there were three stoplights, a few Mom and Pop restaurants and hotels, a Hojos, a Southern States, and a small main street.

My great-grandmother YaYa lived in a tiny apartment above Main Street and I remember as a young child thinking her very exotic, smoking cigarettes in an armchair, the view of the street from her window, a large antique tapestry hanging from the wall overseeing everything. It was all so urban and adult to me then, the way you had to enter her place from the alley, the way she got to live alone. In my loud, suburban household of anger and constant yelling this setup was so appealing. I craved her solitude.

Front Royal’s only claim to fame was its Royal Oak, its third-rate military boarding school Randolph Macon, and the smelly Avtex textile plant that sat on a hill far and above everything and all. The toxic smoke that reeked of rotten eggs permeated everything it touched. Vivid memories of my uncle Jimmy declaring during summer family barbecues, “Erma, can you please tell Avtex to tone it down?!” Erma was my Nana and the statement usually uttered by one of the family after a few beers was spoken so often it became a running joke. There was no way Avtex was ever going to tone it down. Its stacks spewed rank smoke from dawn to dusk and could clearly be seen from Nana’s front yard. Front Royal was a factory town back then and Avtex its life blood. We drove past its stacks on each trip to Nana and Pop-Pop’s and during barbecues I stayed close to the grill rather than inhale its sulfurous stink. To this day I wonder if that isn’t the reason why I adore smoked meats.

Dad worked at Avtex for a few weeks as a teen but quickly discovered he’d better hit the books to escape its smelly clutches. Much later when I worked for a remediation firm, Avtex was declared an EPA Superfund site. One of our engineers declared the property so toxic it would be 20 years before a soul could even step foot on the place.

But this is an Apple Memory, right? Forgive the transgression but when the images come they come hard and fast so it’s difficult to not travel down that particular rabbit hole at least partway. The Apple House lay at the doorway to all of these childhood experiences. Because when we reached The Apple House in Linden, we knew we were close to Nana’s cooking. Soon we’d be home.

If Front Royal was a tiny town, Linden was a blink and miss kind of experience. Now there’s a winery, a village of sorts, but back then there was just The Apple House, a small wooden store on the side of the road. Huge bins of apples everywhere. I don’t remember the varieties because when you’re a kid all you know are red and green. And you’re hoping they’re either dunked in caramel or red candy that turns your tongue and lips pink and is sold on a stick and can only be found at the State Fair.

I loved apples, but I didn’t love them either. In pies and as sauce or butter I enjoyed them fine, but carving off a slice and chewing always made my throat itch and close up. A strange childhood allergy I’ve since grown out of and one my Momma insisted was a lie, a ruse to get me out of eating any fruit that wasn’t baked into a pie. Nevertheless each time we stepped into the store to get Nana some apples I’d turn my nose up at the wooden bushel baskets on display full of shiny green and red allergens, drift past the stacks of apple butter, maple syrup, gift store knick-knacks and other assorted country store wares, and drift to the area where they made the apple cinnamon doughnuts. As kids tend to do.

In my memory’s eye the machine that pumped out each perfect circle of batter was huge, like in that movie, “The Doughnuts”, a film I saw every June as a kid. Teachers would gather us in the cafeteria for movie time when it was the day before break and they were too strung out to give us work.**

In my memory’s eye I watch fascinated as each circle of batter plops in the fryer, cooks to a golden brown, then rides along a conveyor belt before being delicately flipped over then tipped out onto a tray to be sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. I could have eaten them all but was permitted only one, and only then if I kept my hands clasped behind my back and didn’t touch anything. I was usually successful but not because of doughnuts. I just didn’t want a smack across my backside later. After inhaling it, I’d ask, once again, if I could have the big inflatable red apple that hung in the store window. And once again my parents would tell me no. What was I going to do with an inflatable apple? What was the point? Besides I’d already had a doughnut and they weren’t made of money.

It was the size of a beach ball, shiny, red, full of air with “The Apple House” printed in white across the front. I had no idea why I wanted it. I’m only six. At six you see a pretty and you want it. I didn’t know what I was going to do with a massive inflatable apple and I didn’t care. I just know I wanted it. And every time I asked they told me no. But I still asked. Was I a glutton for punishment? I didn’t know. I only knew I wanted that apple. Even more than the doughnut I wanted that apple.

Sometimes Pop-Pop took my sister and I to The Apple House as a special treat during our Front Royal visits. I loved these trips because not only did it mean time away from my parents, it meant treats. Pop-Pop spoiled us rotten. And even though spoiling your grandchildren is in the job description, I was still astounded when during one visit I asked Pop-Pop if I could have the big inflatable apple.

“Of course!” he replied. Just like that.

And just like that my faith in adults was restored and my sense of hope renewed. I hadn’t asked before because I was so sure of his answer. For him to say yes on the first try? I felt like a magician. I took the apple, wrapped my little arms around it as best I could and held it tight like the Holy Grail. All mine.

Then my sister wanted one. And just like that seeing her grasp her apple made mine not quite as special. Not quite as coveted. Just like that a treasure became less than. I played with the apple a few weeks then discarded it for other shinier toys. The air leaked out slowly until the apple resembled a wrinkled red prune, eventually ending up in the yard sale pile. My parents were right after all. Or were they?

Reading back over this my apple memory sounds like the tale of a spoiled brat who stomped her foot Veruca-Salt-style until she got what she wanted. And maybe it is. But for me, the story represents something significant. It was the first time I remember learning that yearning for something, wanting something, feels better than actually getting it. That split-second when you get that prize or achieve that goal? It’s fleeting. Ephemeral. When you do fulfill your dream or acquire your heart’s desire you better be sure you still want it. You better be sure you know exactly what goal you want to fulfill next. You better be sure that’s treasure was worth it. It’s a lesson I’m presented with constantly, and I still haven’t mastered it. Just look at my shoe collection.

I still think about that apple, and catch myself looking for it when I visit the store. And I’m still not sure why. It was just a pretty. A jewel to look at and have and say it’s mine. Nothing more. But in a way it also represents the special relationship I had with my Pop-Pop. When you’re told “No” so often as a kid, it’s miraculous when you’re told yes. It’s something you remember always. He didn’t care why I wanted it. He didn’t need to know my purpose or motives. That didn’t matter. He just wanted to make me happy. And at that age, at any age, don’t we all need that sometimes?

**Check out the excerpt at the link. It’s a total hoot! And my first childhood experience with foodporn 😉

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