05 September 2016

Midwest Autumn

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The cold leaves late and enters early in Wisconsin.

The winters are wet and cold, and colder because they are wet. To breathe the air freezes the nose hairs and sears the lungs. Shadows long, world a morality play of thigh-high pristine white and stark gray.

The summers are hot and wet, and hotter because of the wetness. We breathe as if through bathroom towels, smelling the heat of the clean moisture in the air and the saltiness on our arms, necks, and faces. And green — the green of corn ripening, of squash and carrot leaves sprouting, of weeds thriving, of forests drinking, of lawns that need no sprinklers.

And in the autumns the thick, wet heat relaxes into the sweet, cool spice of yellow leaves and red apples. Things don't yellow in Wisconsin. They are yellow. There's a difference. Even the leaves that fall still live.

As the temperature drops, we get our signal: it's time again.

As children we don't recognize the signal. But one day our mother bundles us up in our color-block '90s puff coats, loads us into the red diesel GMC van and drives the hour or so to the orchard.

Connell Orchard. Acres and acres, it seems, of apple trees. They bend under the weight of thousands of reddening orbs we can't fit our two hands around. The sun shines, but the air is wet, so it feels cooler than it is.

Out come the bags and buckets from the trunk. And off goes our mother, through the trees, and we trooping around her. I don't remember who picks apples, who watches the little kids, or how my mother manages to fill the buckets and bags while not losing sight of us. We can't reach most of the apples. And we're too young to be much help with watching each other. But we never get lost or left behind. We never get hurt. And the buckets and bags get filled. Filled with apples that crunch as sweet as the crisp Wisconsin air.

I don't know how long it takes. I am a child, running around in tights and saddle shoes, or reading a book in the van while I wait. It is hard to wait. I am hungry.

What seems like hours later, the trunk door opens, and my mother and the orchard hands heft the buckets and bags into the van. My mother herds us back into our seats, turns on the diesel engine and backs out of the orchard. We peek around and over the seat at the buckets and bags. So many apples! Apples for eating, apples for saucing, apples for pies ... and still there seem to be apples left over.

We drive past the reaping machines in the ripe cornfields, telephone line upon telephone line of corn. Drive through little towns with two-story establishments and past one-car-garage houses lining the highway behind their great trees.

Drive to a one-room shack just a little way off the road, from which my mother emerges with a single paper bag lumpy and with grease stains on the bottom. We bounce up and down in our seatbelts with excitement.

Our mother is amazing and never gets lost. I can never remember how to get from home to the orchard, from the orchard to the cheese shop, and from the cheese shop to the park. But our mother knows.

And we know when we see the massive yellow-red trees and the small wooden pavilion. We have arrived!

Our mother parks. While she walks to the trunk, we pile out of the red van into an ankle-deep carpet of oak leaves, yellow, orange, and red. They crunch all around as we jump in them, kick them at each other, and run through them. This isn't a park with toys. But we are not disappointed. Or bored. We only come here once a year. It means lunch and leaves.

Our mother brings a bag of apples and the paper bag and sets up her feeding station at the old-fashioned iron water pump. It stands the only attraction at the park, marmalade and cranberry leaves carpeting the stoic black base.

We all jostle and fight about who gets to pump the water out. Some of us lose interest as soon as our hands close over the handle, cold to the touch. Other of us don't have the muscle to persuade the heavy handle to make its upward and downward arc. But our mother does. The mechanisms creak awake as she lifts and lowers, lifts and lowers the heavy handle. And the water coughs, spurts, then splashes out of the pump's mouth.

Our mother fills an empty water bottle or two with the yieldings from the pump, then passes them around to us, along with slices of apple and the contents of the paper bag — finger-sized cheese curds of all shapes, white and squeaky between our teeth.

Those are sensations I still have not forgotten: the crisp, sweet crunch of fresh apples; the contrast of the soft, squeaky cheese; the sweet, ice-cold water that froze our hands and seared our throats as it passed down in tiny delicious sips. Too cold to gulp. And the thick, soft rustling of the leaves all around, red and gold and orange, as we chased each other around our mother.

Each year autumn rolls around in the Rocky Mountain desert. And I miss the bite of the water; the milky-curdiness of the cheese; the smart crunch of each apple bite and sweet juice that ran down our throats and dribbled down our chins; and the leaves, rubies and gold pieces lying thick like a pirate's dream come true. Hands and noses sticky and nipped with cold, smiles big and laughter loud. A day's outing with our mother, nestled safe around an old iron pump.

Simple pleasures. Wisconsin autumn.

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