Under the apple trees

A Sunday morning in May, my husband out of town on business, it was just me and the dog. I took my cup of tea down to the patio. Gray clouds rolled over, creating a chill. Sweatshirt weather, we used to say up north, where I was raised.

The Honeycrisp tree was in full bloom. Not just the scent, but the petals’ curves and hint of pink, offer pleasure. I’d come out to garden, but once seated, didn’t budge. Anya, our young golden retriever, sniffed the perimeter, then returned for a hug.

I sipped my tea. No buzz around the apple blossoms. Though you hear less these days about colony collapse, I wonder if the bees are OK. We had plenty of fruit last summer on the Haralson, so I’m not too worried. It and the Honeycrisp bear voluptuously in alternate years, as if they’d worked this rhythm out between them.

I moved in with my husband in 1996, and it was in 1997 that we got the two apple trees. At Lyndale Gardens we said “apple tree, please” and the guy went out back and grabbed two. The name Haralson was vaguely familiar, the name Honeycrisp, back then, not at all familiar.

Our handyman planted them, one to the south of our patio, the other to the east, both too close to the house. The daintier limbed Honeycrisp filters the morning sun, and the denser Haralson shields us from the afternoon.

I want to say it was my husband’s idea to get the trees, but I can no longer remember for sure. They were small whips when we started. Their trunks are now bigger around then my ankles, and though I am tall, their branches reach way over my head. An apple tree stands as an appropriate symbol for beginning, which is what he and I were doing back then. It suggests Eden. And pie. The Haralsons are a little sharp on the tongue right off the tree, though in a pie they are heavenly.

The Honeycrisps are good eating, the best there is. I still shake my head to think that in the years before it began to bear fruit, I almost tore out that tree when it began to cast its shadow on the flower garden behind it. What stopped me was that my stepdaughter had claimed it as her tree, this just one of the many good effects she has had on me.

It is difficult to grow nice apples here because of the ubiquitous apple maggot. It doesn’t exist up north, apparently because it can’t survive the winters. What happens is the insect lays its eggs in your marble-sized apples, the eggs become worms which eat their way along, leaving the apples blemished and misshapen on the outside, and tracked brown on the inside.

You could spray, but I am an organic backyard farmer. Instead, I put a plastic sandwich bag on each one and twisty-tie it to the stem. The apples swell up just fine inside the bags. This is a labor-intensive solution, though, and I usually get only a few dozen apples bagged before the worms mess up the rest.

Each year we have a party in our backyard on July 4th. The week before is a whirlwind around our house, what with the cleaning and yard work. I used to try to get my garden beds nearly perfect for that one day, but I’ve mellowed some. The guests don’t seem to notice the gardens much, other than to comment on the dang plastic apple bags. “Are you conducting an experiment?” I am asked.

My husband has been diagnosed with cancer. The unruly Haralson is hard to prune. The diagrams in books look nothing like the tangle of branches before me. I’ve assessed our tree in every season, and from every angle. Once, when I did significantly prune it, it sent up suckers on its limbs and sulked for a year.

It’s not clear what will happen with my husband. His is what’s called an indolent lymphoma, a lazy, or slow growing, cancer; as a friend says, the lazier the better. We found ourselves responding to his diagnosis, and to the “C” word, just as we began trying to help our daughter choose the right college.

I’m sure we looked like any dorky, graying married couple, mowing the lawn, and driving our daughter to school. But emotions were roiling. I once said to 50ish bookstore clerk, who had a twinkle in her eye, “Isn’t middle-age wild? And what a well-kept secret.” She grinned.

At our house these days we are living vividly, and hoping for the best.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center. Her book of poems, “The Truth About Water,” was published last year.