88. Stories from Apple Hill

It is the season of giving thanks and remembering our blessings.

And while I have much to be thankful for at the cottage (new windows, new insulation, and lower gas bills) today I’m going to be thankful for those who built and took care of this little cottage before us.


Joe and Clara named the road and made the signs. Now it is officially called Apple Hill Rd. and it’s even on Google Maps…

My grandfather, Pa, built the cottage sometime in the thirties after he bought the orchard. It was just a little two-room house at the time; it was what is now the kitchen and the living room. My mother told stories about her brother’s friends spending the nights out there on an occasional weekend and scaring themselves with ghost stories. My dad told the story of Pa shooting his shotgun in the air to scare off teenagers who were stealing apples in the dark. (I’m not sure how he knew that one…)

Mom and Dad at Apple Hill, ca.1949

This is the first photograph I have of the cottage. It was taken either right before or right after my mom and dad were married. There are several things I love about this picture:

  • My mom is skinny. (She would love that!)
  • Their smiles.
  • My dad’s tie.
  • My mom’s hair style.
  • My dad holding a cigarette. (Oh the forties, when everyone smoked…)
  • The delphiniums (or foxgloves) blooming behind them.
  • They are so young…

Mom also told the story of The Accident. (Some details are sketchy because I heard this story when I was young and never thought to ask for specifics; now there’s no one to ask. There is a lesson here…)

She was a teenager, dressed up to go out on a date. Pa was working late out at the orchard — it was his second job, being a farmer. I don’t know why Mom was out on the farm in her “going out on a date” clothes, but that was the way she told it. Pa asked her to drive the tractor into the big barn while he rode on the back in the wagon. I imagine she wasn’t happy about driving the tractor in her good black and white plaid skirt. As she was driving, Pa reached down to do something with the connection between the two vehicles and his hand got caught. He screamed, but she couldn’t hear him in the noise of the tractor. Bleeding, they raced the four miles to the hospital in the truck–Mom driving– but Pa lost the top knuckle of his ring finger. Whenever we asked him about it, he would just shrug and say it was an accident. Mom was the one who told us how it happened.

IMG_3220Pa was a teacher, a principal, and he retired as the county superintendent of schools, but I remember him always dressed in his farming clothes. Dark green or gray matching shirt and pants — he wore the suit of manual labor as proudly as he wore his business suits. He let us kids ride in the back of the truck as he bounced around the orchard. And he built bleachers for the bushel baskets of apples around the large oak tree in the front yard. As kids, we used to run around the bleachers, jumping from level to level, listening to the zing of the boards as we landed.

Painting of Apple Hill Cottage, ca.1973

This is the way the cottage looked as I remember it as a kid.

Aunt Mary and Uncle Leslie lived in the cottage from sometime in the fifties until around 1973. Aunt Mary sold the apples from the bleachers in the front yard. Water problems always haunted the cottage — there was a well in the side yard with a hand pump where Aunt Mary got water for cooking and drinking, and there was a cistern in the other side yard for non-potable water. Aunt Mary was an Italian farm girl married to a Welsh miner. When my dad died I found her naturalization papers in his desk drawer.

Later, probably after their son Bob was born, they made a small kid’s room in the living room and added a split level basement with a large back bedroom over the foundation. It has hardwood floors and early sixties type trim around the doors. Neighbor Betty has told us the story of a young Bob who was playing with matches in his bedroom (or maybe smoking?) and set part of his room on fire. He was so afraid of getting in trouble, he ran away — all the way to the big apple barn down the road.  He was found later that day in the hay loft, where we were never allowed to go as kids. As we took off walls and plaster in the cottage living room, we thought we could see scorch marks on some of the ceiling joists. (Bob, if you’re out there reading this, please let us know your version.)

Cider barn and shed

The little barn has a refrigerated basement and that’s where the cider was stored.
Joe and Clara built the little garden shed. This spring it will get a facelift with a window box and new paint.

Mr. H.C.’s mom and dad, Joe and Clara bought the orchard in 1973 from my grandfather who wanted to retire–at the age of 81. Clara told the story of Joe coming home and announcing that he was thinking of buying the orchard, and how would she like to move? When they went to see the cottage, Aunt Mary was there and not particularly welcoming to the people who would be buying her house. She had lived there for thirty plus years and was now going to have to move to an apartment in town. Clara was moving from the house where she had lived for almost twenty years –the house they had built, the house where she had raised her family — to a humble cottage in the country that needed repairing. Two women, two stories; if these walls could talk….

Joe and Clara took out the little bedroom and made a larger living/dining room. They also made the garage into the garage bedroom and enclosed the apple stand to make what they called The Gazebo. They took up the bleachers and made shelves along the walls for Clara’s treasures. It was called the Treehouse Yard Sale.treehouseyardsale2
We found this sign inside the Gazebo hanging on the old door.office hours
It is totally Joe’s corny humor and we smile every time we read it.

And we found this on the back side of the step that goes down into the garage bedroom:IMG_3209We added our names next to theirs — with the date of Aug. 12, 2011.

Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told… —Wendell Berry in Jayber Crow.

35. The attitude of gratitude : Hannah Coulter and I

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry has just shot up to the top of my Best Books I’ve Ever Read List. As a librarian, I’m asked a lot (mostly by kids) what my favorite book is. I always hedge. How can one pick a favorite book, when there are so many great reads, so many books, so little time…

But I hadn’t yet read Hannah Coulter.

Yes, yes, I know. This is supposed to be a blog about the cottage, but the subtitle is the circle of life; if anyone knows how to write about the circle of life, Wendell Berry does. His writing is lyrical, a pleasure to read and savor, yet so truthful as to bring pain… My fingertips ached with the beauty of his thoughts, transferred with such clarity into the thoughts of a woman, Hannah Coulter.

Hannah is in her seventies, a widow who has lost two husbands; she has lived her life on a farm in rural Kentucky, her children have grown up, gone to University, and gone from the farm. This is her memoir, but it is more. It is a mourning of the rural life, lost to modernity; it is a mourning of the loss of community that modernity brings; yet, it is also a celebration of love, faith, trust, and the hopes of the human heart.

I’ve been scraping the paint off the cottage this weekend, and that has given me time to ponder the circle of life. The paint was peeling terribly on this weather-beaten, sun-scorched side of the house, yet the warmth of the autumn sun made it lovely weather for scraping — scraping old paint from siding that was probably put on and painted originally by my grandfather. And then re-sided and rearranged by Michael’s dad, Joe. Yet they never knew that this place made by their hands would someday be also lovingly touched by their children’s and grandchildren’s hands… Here is what Hannah says about that…

“As I went about my work then as a young woman, and still now when I am old, Grandmam has been often close to me in my thoughts. And again I come to the difficulty of finding words. It is hard to say what it means to be at work and thinking of a person you loved and love still who did that same work before you and who taught you to do it. It is a comfort, ever and always, like hearing the rhyme come when you are singing a song.” Chapter 14, The Room of Love

I remember making applesauce with Nanny, my grandmother, in her kitchen. She was peeling the apples with a perfect stroke so that the peel dangled in one long piece from the apple. I was awkwardly scraping the apple and only getting little bits of peel to fall into the sink. “It’s all in learning how,” she told me gently. “I couldn’t do it when I was young either. You’ll be able to do it with practice.” I think about that every time I peel an apple in one piece.

Education was important in our family. My grandfather and his brother both left the family farm together to go college and become teachers. But Pa was always a farmer; even while working as a principal, and later, as the superintendent, he farmed. Cows first, then apples, then peaches. Here is what Hannah has to say about education…

“The big idea of education, from first to last, is the idea of a better place. Not a better place where you are, because you want it to be better and have been to school and learned to make it better, but a better place somewhere else. In order to move up, you have got to move on. I didn’t see this at first. And for awhile after I knew it, I pretended I didn’t. I didn’t want it to be true.” Chapter 15, A Better Chance

Yet most of us have gone from our home places to the Great Away, and we are inclined to think (or be taught) that it is just the nature of growing up and moving on. Life ever changes and if we are to get on in this world, that’s just the way of it. I know very few who stayed. And now that I am back in my home place, I envy the rootedness of those who stayed. I envy them their place in the community — not their standing or their accomplishments — but their place. Their membership. Here is what Hannah has to say about that…

This was our membership. Burley called it that. He loved to call it that… The work was freely given in exchange for work freely given. There was no bookkeeping, no accounting, no settling up. What you owed was considered paid when you had done what needed doing. Every account was paid in full by the understanding that when we were needed we would go, and when we had need the others, or enough of them, would come…The membership includes the dead… The members, I guess you could say, are born into it, they stay in it by choosing to stay, and they die in it. Or they leave it, as my children have done… And so an old woman, sitting by the fire, waiting for sleep, makes her reckoning, naming over the names of the dead and the living, which also are the names of her gratitude.” Chapter 11, The Membership

I have given up my membership once, twice, three times maybe, and now I am about to give it up again and move back where I started. A circle. A wandering circle. And though I will miss friendships and those left behind, there is also an excitement. And herein, I think, is part of the problem. We are always searching for the new, the exciting, the next big thing. Eve probably picked that first apple and gave it to Adam because she was bored with the same old grapes every day for breakfast. What we know, we know, and it has become the routine, the boring. What has become of steadfastness, neighborliness, rootedness to a place, community? Here is what Hannah has to say about that…

“The old neighborliness has about gone from it now. The old harvest crews and their talk and laughter at kitchen tables loaded with food have been replaced by machines, and by migrant laborers who eat at the store. The old thrift has been replaced by extravagance and waste. People are living as if they think they are in a movie. They are all looking in one direction, toward ‘a better place’ and what they see is no thicker than a screen. The houses in Port William and even on some of the farms are more and more being used as temporary lodgings by people who temporarily, as they think, can do no better.” Chapter 22, Next?

When I was finished scraping the paint from one small section, I found an old brush and began to paint primer over the bare wood. As I was covering over the ugly, patchy, half-scraped wood, I wondered what are the differences between those of us who leave and those of us who stay?
Mr. Berry believes that to our detriment, and perhaps our demise, rural life has never been seen as desirable in society, in education, in culture. Indeed, when one of my good city friends discovered I was originally from Greene County, she shouted, “You’re a Hoopie!” Indeed, when I was in high school, the ultimate insult was to call someone a Farmer. Indeed, when my kids were in high school they shook their heads (as did I) over the kids who were choosing to stay. Here is what Hannah has to say about that…

Oftentimes after it no longer matters whether things are clear or not, they become clear. After not liking school at all, Caleb had got to liking it too much… He liked knowing the things he was learning… He was, maybe you could say, tempted by it. And I know, I can almost hear, the voices that were speaking to him, voices of people he had learned to respect, and they were saying, ‘Caleb, you’re too bright to be a farmer.’ They were saying, ‘Caleb, there’s no future for you in farming.’ They were saying, ‘Caleb, why should you be a farmer yourself when you can do so much for farmers?’… These were the voices of farm-raised people who were saying, ‘Caleb, why go home and work your ass off for what you’ll earn? Things are going to get worse for farmers.’ And they were true prophets.” Chapter 17, Caleb.

We leave for so many reasons — a new chance, new friends, a better job, a better place, marriage, escape — for good reasons and for bad ones. But sometimes we expect that someplace else will be better or different, when we really just need to see in a new way. Expectations, Hannah says, are most often a bucket of smoke…

Life may surprise us, it may not turn out how we expect, but always we are asked to see what is and call it good. And until we stop breathing, there will always be surprises. Here is what Hannah says about that…

“Life without expectations was still life, and life was still good…The world that so often had disappointed us and made us sorrowful sometimes made us happy by surprise. You think winter will never end, and then, when you don’t expect it, when you have almost forgotten it, warmth comes and a different light. Under the bare trees the wildflowers bloom so thick you can’t walk without stepping on them. The pastures turn green and the leaves come.” Chapter 19, The Branches.

And as I was scraping away years of dried paint, I was thinking how can I write these things without those who know me thinking that I am being regretful, or feeling guilty, or making them feel guilty? But there is no guilt — just thankful thoughts about what was and what is. And here is what Hannah says about that:

“The chance you had is the life you’ve got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people’s lives, even about your children being gone, but you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else. What you must do is this: ‘Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks.’ I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.” Chapter 15, A Better Chance.

Yes, indeed, those are the right instructions…


27. Door # 1 : The Price is Right

When Joe and Clara remodeled the cottage in the 70s (see 1. The Story of Apple Hill Cottage) they put in 5 (five!) sets of sliding glass doors — one at every entrance except the basement — and 2 (two!) opening into the kitchen. Correction:  there were 2 (two!) going into the kitchen; now there are 0 (none!)

It was a very gratifying weekend. We had spent months dithering about the front entrance door. There is one good point to sliding glass doors and that is: glass. They let in light. This is a very good attribute if the room is dark and has only one other window. We didn’t want to lose the light; and there were 4 (four!) giant panels of glass to turn into real doors.

A door such as this would be lovely. Yes? This door is on clearance from Door Emporium; the clearance price is $1995 plus shipping of $150.

Entry doors tell the story of your house in ten words or less. Grand or simple, painted or wood, leaded glass or rough hewn, windowless or all glass, they are the topic sentence in Chapter One.  Everyone who comes into your house goes through those doors, and most will form an opinion of their character as they walk through. Are they ostentatious (Faulkner) or humble (Emily Dickinson)? Do they have style (T.S. Eliot)? Can you see through into the bright, cheery house (Alcott), or is the door stark and unfriendly (Poe)?

I wanted a good, old-fashioned, Wendell Berry kind of door. But those old farmhouse doors don’t let in much light, plus we had a six-foot doorway to fill. I kept finding all these lovely old doors at the Restore places, and Michael kept telling me they were interior doors. “But can’t we use them as exterior doors???” I would ask. The short answer was No. Michael’s concern was for the seal. Keep out winter. Keep out water. Keep out critters.

New entry doors are pricey. Very pricey. Pella wouldn’t even sell us a wood entry door unless we were installing it with six feet of protective porch and a roof. (Not to mention that their wood doors are in the Three Thousand Dollar range…) So when Michael called from the Restore saying he had found an entry door, I said, “Send me a picture…”

But before he sent me the picture, he told me the price: $189 + tax. Free delivery. (That would be us wearing delivery hats.) So, I can compromise. It is a metal door; but it has lots of windows and not so much metal. And it can be painted. Sold.

Yep, free delivery. Did I mention heavy?

The old (the doors, not Henry) …

and the new!

The sun was beginning to set by the time the lock and handles were in place. We were delighted just to be able to turn the knob (the knob is on the inside) and open the door!

And when we left on Monday, we locked the door just as if we lived in a real house. Those Price is Right contestants don’t have any thing on us — such excitement behind Door # 1! We were so excited on Sunday night that we ripped out the other sliding glass door that goes into the kitchen as well.

On to Door # 2…


Post Script: As I was publishing this post, my wonderful husband came back from Home Depot with perfect matching trim for adding horizontal muntins to the plain sidelights of the door.  Add $5 to the cost of the door; but the new look of it? Priceless!