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Harvesting the memories

Published December 17. 2011 09:01AM

It's Oct. 29, snow is falling, and I'm sitting at the dining room table, drinking a steaming mug of French vanilla coffee as I lose myself in a Jonathan Kellerman mystery.

Just as the puzzle pieces begin to click together for detective Milo Sturgis and his psychologist friend, Alex Delaware, a loud CRACK! shatters the silence.

Quickly blotting up the puddle of spilled coffee, I look out through a window to see our sole surviving apple tree, one of many planted when our home was built in 1910, slowly topple to the ground.

The tree bore tender, juicy, Fallawater apples. When my girls were small, we'd pick them in late fall and fill the house with the scent of the simmering fruit. I would scoop the soft, hot apple slices into our trusty Foley Food Mill, and we'd take turns cranking the handle until it scraped the bottom. The smooth, thick sauce was heated some more, and quickly funneled into hot canning jars enough to last until the air grew sweet again with the fragrance of apple blossoms.

Other trees in the orchard included the rich, sweet, sheepnose, and a mild but flavorful yellow variety whose name escapes me. Some were good for pies, others for eating out-of-hand, and all were uniquely flavorful.

Each season brought its own flavors: The apple trees could be counted on to produce each fall. In the spring, tiny wild strawberries dotted the hillsides, and we'd spend hours filling large bowls with them, to be made into jam that whose intense flavor brought memories of warm sunshine and butterflies to the coldest, most dreary winter mornings.

Each January, we'd pore over seed catalogs, choosing which varieties of tomato, corn and peppers to plant. Our nearest neighbor, Pet Haas, shared her varieties of beans, including the purple ones that delighted my daughters.

In February, we'd plant tomato and pepper seeds in shallow wooden flats, nurturing them til spring, when we'd turn the garden and rake it smooth. Weeks of hoeing, watering and weeding later, we'd be rewarded with red, ripe tomatoes, thin-skinned and bursting with flavor, with crisp peppers and tender sweet corn.

Oh, how fortunate we were to be able to enjoy such vibrant tastes!

Now, my girls are grown, and yet I somehow cannot find the time to can applesauce, make jam or plant a large garden. Again, though, we are fortunate: The local family who farms our land is generous, gifting us with boxes and baskets of fresh produce corn, potatoes, beans, tomatoes, turnips, cabbage enough to put by for many a winter meal.

Memories of the flavors of old-time fruits and vegetables still call to me. Each December, I look for the thick Burpee catalog to arrive in the mail. I leaf through it, dreaming of tucking tiny, heirloom beefsteak tomato seeds under a layer of rich soil in a flat. I research heirloom apple trees, pondering which varieties I want my grandsons and great-grandchildren to crunch into on a crisp, fall day.

This year, as December becomes January, and January brings us another month closer to February and the promise of spring, I plan to turn those dreams back into reality.

While the icy wind howls and the snow sifts down, I'll be ordering apple seedlings and watching over tiny tomato and pepper plants, waiting to do my part to keep old-time flavor alive.

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