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Friday, November 8, 2013

Apples and Pumpkins

The other day my Lovely Bride and I went apple picking. We are fortunate to have a small apple orchard near our home. The operators are a very nice couple who grow various varieties of trees simply because they enjoy it. We are not talking simply Red and Golden Delicious, or Jonathan or MacIntosh here. No siree. Here there are such unusual varieties as Arkansas Black, Virginia Gold, Lady Apple, and Wolf River. Also, there are the wonderful classics; Northern Spy, Empire, and Winesap.  And, (in our opinion)  the gem of the orchard; the Esopus Spitzenburg; believed to be Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple.  The Apple Patch offers a size, shape, taste, texture and color for everyone.
While my Lovely Bride and the orchard owner braved the mud to pick apples, I remained by the apple shed sharing with the owner’s wife tales of Lake County history, grandchildren and, of course; apples. 
Standing in the clear, cool November sunshine, I found myself transported back in time to a similar Fall day. I am a youngster, enthralled with the mission of finding the biggest pumpkin in a neighboring farmer’s display.
Mr. Rivers was an elderly gentleman, (he must have been in his mid-fifties) when I was a child.  Not only was he the local source for pumpkins, squash, apples, and such; he was also my school bus driver, as well as the custodian at my elementary school.
I have no memories of getting pumpkins and the associated Autumn accruements prior to Mr. Rivers’ place. He had a nice parcel of property along S.O.M. Center Road in Mayfield Village. Situated directly across from the Metropolitan Park (this was before the days of “Metroparks”), he was assured there would never be a housing development or service station to contend with. 
He was of average height, average build, pleasant round face, glasses, and the ever-present pipe clamped in his teeth.  He always exuded the fragrance of tobacco. Perched atop his head would be an old, battered, weather beaten fedora. He was  a favorite of the children at our school, Mr. Rivers was always quick with a smile or a kind word. He was everyone’s favorite uncle and grand-dad rolled into one.
Beginning with Spring thaw, he could be seen putt-putting about his fields on his old Fordson tractor, turning the rich Northern Ohio soil in preparation for this year’s plantings.  On humid Summer evenings there he would be, cultivating rows of young plants well into dusk, the dim yellow beams of the machine’s headlights casting a feeble glow amidst the newly raised dust.
As Summer progressed, we would travel the mile or so down the road to his roadside stand for sweet corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, green-beans…and to cast an appraising gaze upon the Mother Lode; the pumpkin patch.
Hard, shiny green orbs nestled under the wide protecting leaves. We wanted to wander amongst the vines, but we knew such transgressions were strictly forbidden. Little feet could irreparably damage the tender plants, or squash an immature pumpkin. No one wanted to be accused of pumpkin-cide. We would stand at the edge of the patch; willing the tiny things to grow, and be quick about it.
Finally, the long awaited time would come. Our parents would ask “Who wants to pick out pumpkins?” a most rhetorical question if ever there were one.  Everyone, even my brother who is 9 years my senior, would pile into the car and down the two lane road we would go.
Somehow, Mr. Rivers’ modest little farm took on a carnival air during pumpkin season. Although we had visited him scores of times, Autumn was always magical. Perhaps it was the long shadows cast by the low angle sun in the shortened days. Maybe it was the bundles of corn shocks standing like sentries from Sleepy Hollow. It could have been the “skree-honk, skree-honk” of Canada geese settling into the pond within the park across from his home. Whatever it was, Pumpkin-time was special!
There would be not only friends from school, church, and the neighboring homes. There would be the Police Chief and his family. The Fire Chief would show up. Sometimes the policeman on patrol would pull the old Plymouth Interceptor over and thump some pumpkins in search of the right ones for his family. 
And the other people! Families from the next county over would be there! Kids we hadn’t seen since last Fall would exchange shy smiles with us. New parents would stop by, showing off their babies to Mr. and Mrs. Rivers.
The men would discuss local politics, high-school football teams, and the prospect of “the inner-state” coming through town. The ladies would exchange pie recipes, gossip about who was doing what to whom, and wondering if that “new highway” was coming through town.
There, under the multi-colored canopy of leaves, the problems of the world (well, maybe the Village) would be solved, the proper advice would be given, and most importantly; the Ultimate Pumpkin would be selected.
My journey through my memory took me to the time when my family moved from Mayfield Village shortly after my Mother passed away. Dad couldn’t be in the house she had left us in. We moved to Lyndhurst.
Even still, every fall, we would drive out to Mr. Rivers’ for our pumpkin. Oddly, my Step-Mom and her children had also gotten their pumpkins from Mr. Rivers! I was astounded to learn his reputation spread two towns to the west of Mayfield!
While he would always exclaim at my growth, to me he was ageless. The years had no effect upon him. Oh sure, he was a little thicker than a few years ago, and his round face had a couple more wrinkles from being in the sun and weather all the time. Other than that, he was the same.
Eventually, I went off to college. Still, every fall would find me stopping at Mr. Rivers’ to get our pumpkins. By this time, the task had been relegated to me, the youngest; and hence the sole child at home still.
In the Spring of 1973, I took Cindy to be my Lovely Bride; a position she has held ever since. Still, when we would return back to Eastern Ohio to visit, we would stop by Mr. Rivers to get at least a baby pumpkin for our daughters Char and Shannon.
Time passed, we moved back to within ten miles of where we each had grown up. And… each fall, Mr. Rivers marveled at how big our children had become.
He was moving a bit more slowly, his eyeglasses were a bit thicker now, and he sported a hearing aid in one ear; yet he was pretty much the same as I always remembered him.
Our children blessed us with grandchildren; and yes, they also got pumpkins at Mr. Rivers. Three generations, four if counting my parents, had all delighted in wandering through the leaves, feeling the sharp edge of an Autumn breeze as it carried the “skree-honk, skree-honk” of Canada geese from the pond across the way, while selecting the Perfect Pumpkin.
Then, one year it happened.
The fields had not been tilled. The timeless roadside tables were not set up along the now four-lane roadway. No baskets of apples lined the driveway.
An era had closed.
Mr. Rivers’ house is no longer there. The fields are now a community park and state-of-the art swimming pool, splash zone, play-ground, and picnic pavilion. The far edge of his former property, where it abutted Howard Schultz’ land, hosts the baseball diamonds.
On warm summer days, the laughter of children as they swim, splash, run and consume hotdogs and popsicles can be heard spreading over the land. To the west, one can make out the arrow-straight Inter-state highway, 10 lanes of humanity zipping north, south, and then east or west behind the tree line.
The “skree-honk” of geese can be heard as flocks wing overhead on their way to the now enlarged pond beside the Nature Education Center in the Metropark.
And…. If one looks in just the right direction, at just the right time, they just may see a man of average height and average build, wearing a beat up fedora, and a warm smile around the stem of a pipe clamped in his teeth.

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