An Orchard Upbringing

I once was too cool to eat cherries. In college—for an entire year—I scraped the maraschino off my grapefruit half and hid it in the corner of my cafeteria tray. Fresh sweet cherries didn’t tempt me. I ate all the LifeSavers but the red ones. It’s not that I didn’t think cherries tasted good—they did—it’s just to me they had become boring. Ordinary. I spent summers growing up on a cherry farm in Omena, and that plump little fruit was as everyday as, say, milk with dinner. But now that I find myself living a final summer in my family’s stone farmhouse before finding an apartment of my own, I feel a new sensation, a draw to that part of my history. I understand better my debt to the cherries and the branches that held them.

In the beginning, the orchard was a fourth playmate for my older brother, little sister and me. My brother foraged the rows for animal tracks. My sister and I spent hours tearing past the outskirts of the orchard on training wheels, singing Anne Murray’s “There’s A Hippo In My Bathtub” in vibrato soprano. We all loved watching the fruit turn from runty and green to fleshy and deep red or purple.

But come harvest our romping ground morphed into a muddy ravine. The growls of the tractors and shakers drowned out our tiny voices. We watched from the porch when the shaker’s mighty arms clamped around the tree’s trunk and shook it like a toy rattle. Strong boys pulled out the tarps to catch the harvested fruit. The earth quaked beneath us.

With these rites of harvest came rites of passage for us. The cherries taught us our first lesson in finance, what it meant to sweat for our pay. At 14, my brother joined those boys pulling tarp, waking at 5 a.m. each day to work the orchards. I think that first summer might have made him a man. He was ornery and filthy when he got home. His head was full of horrific allergies. It was full, too, of pride in his burly and newly acquired biceps. My mom pitched his work clothes at the end of the summer. “I’m sacrificing them to the cherry gods,” she said.

My younger sister and I also sought out lucrative possibilities in the orchard. After a treacherous windstorm one year, we went to all the fallen, fruit-heavy boughs and gathered quarts of cherries to sell. We set up our picnic table on M-22 just south of Northport and made a killing selling them for a dollar each. My 6-year-old sister was convinced that if we could sell tart cherries as well as the sweets she’d have enough in the end to buy a horse.

The orchard was my sanctuary too. Its thick trees and steep hills were the perfect camouflage for a runaway 9-year-old, Strawberry Shortcake suitcase in tow. I could watch the house without my parents seeing me, to see how long it took for them to miss me and begin crying to the cherry gods for my safe return.

When I turned 13 I joined the ranks of farm hands. My lesson that summer was in vanity, as in It Cannot Exist When Elbow-deep In Crates Of Black Sweet Cherries. The sun made my face a mess of freckles. The cherry juice stained my hands purple. I’d have been lavender-hued for months if my brother hadn’t demonstrated an ancient cherry farmer’s secret: to get rid of dark sweet cherry stains, crush a few tarts in your palms and let the acidic juices work their magic.

Farm work made me tough. Well, tougher, anyway. I stuck out 12-hour days in the rain and learned not to flinch when I saw a tree snake. Sure the harvest crew teased me about my bright turquoise lunch cooler—they called it “Queenie Pail” —but the jokes made me feel welcome as a farmer, too. At break time my brother and I would compare the lunches our mom packed. We’d laugh when we pulled out our carrots and then lovingly sealed Ziploc baggies full of fresh sweet cherries. “We’re in the middle of an orchard,” my brother would say. My mom called it eating like a farmer.

Yesterday I ate the cherry on my milkshake. I thought of all that fruit has meant to my life and couldn’t help appreciating its sweetness. I owe so much to the orchard in my backyard. It played with me, fed me, taught me and loved me. Its fruit is anything but ordinary.

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