On a crisp second-Saturday morning in October,
Neil has agreed to help me pick up apples.
Though I am nearly fifteen years older,
his hair shows even more gray than mine.
That difference in years has not kept us
from becoming good friends
and I am grateful for good help
and even better company.
Through a few miles
of the curves and hills of northeast Kansas,
we drive my small truck over to the orchard
and down the slight slope to my favorite trees.
Even though the branches are bare
I hope that there are still apples.
Thick fescue sagged by last night’s heavy frost
tangles beneath the hanging branches
of apple trees nearly the age of old men.
This year’s bounty lies hidden beneath the blades:
some already rotted,
some halfway there,
some matted into the soft dirt,
and yet some that are fit for table display.
For cider, it doesn’t much matter, anyway.
Apples that most people wouldn’t even touch
will yield juice that is golden and sweet
and so I tell Neil,
“Unless it’s got mold on it
or is so soft your finger goes through it
when you try to pick it up,
it’s good enough.”
In spite of the stinging nettle
and the stick-tights that make the back
of our gloved hands look like a porcupine’s topside,
we find plenty that are good enough for cider
and some I will save for pies and drying.
We fill our buckets, carry them to the truck,
and dump the apples into the bed.
In forty-five minutes,
we’ve gathered over five hundred pounds.
“Let’s do one more bucket and call that good enough.”
Carrying on the conversation that men carry on
when they think they are done with work,
we walk around the orchard and find one more tree
that has several apples still hanging on its branches.
We pick for a few minutes and I tell Neil we have enough
but he keeps picking for another bit.
He reaches for one last apple and says,
“This might be the one that makes a difference.”
I grin at that and think to myself,
“That’s a mighty good thing to hear
from a man who makes his living
teaching high school kids.”
It will take three hours for the washing,
disinfecting and rinsing,
and then several hours more
for the grinding and pressing
in a hundred-year-old hand-cranked mill.
It takes a lot of work
to turn what was left to rot
into something good and pleasant and sweet.
God’s own work reflected in the labor of our hands.