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Shake It Harder

by Miriam Axel-Lute on October 10, 2012


A couple weekends ago I went out to pick apples from a neighborhood tree with my six year old. We came armed with a seven-foot ladder and a cardboard box. Upon arriving we found the lower branches bare and the upper branches heavily laden. I couldn’t reach any, even from the ladder’s top step.

I left her sorting windfalls and scooted home for our homemade apple picker, but it didn’t do us much good. That contraption, made out of a paint roller handle, coat hangers, and a cut-away gallon vinegar bottle, is supposed to slide over the stem and let you twist the apple off, but ours has never worked as well as my father-in-law’s, and these apples were holding on tight.

An older neighbor stopped to chat about what we were up to. As we kibitzed, a middle-aged woman getting into an SUV across the road noticed us an came over to investigate. After a few minutes of observation, she decided my tedious approach was not good enough. In a heavily accented English, she told me urgently, “You need to shake the branches. No, no, no. Shake it. Like this.”

Coiffed and made-up though she was, she threw her cell phone and keys on the grass amidst the rotten apples, picked up a heavy stick and began aiming for the largest patch of apples, exhorting me to get back up on the ladder with my kludgy tool and use it in the same fashion. It took some brawn, but we started to get results. My kid darted gleefully through the falling apples collecting them and managing not to get beaned (which is better than I did).

Every time I tired, my compatriot urged me on, pointing out another spot we might try, and praising the deliciousness of the fruit and how wonderful it was to have apples with no pesticides. I found myself a little shy about the racket we were causing a few times, but she kept me on task. She said goodbye and went back to her car twice with armfuls of apples and then reappeared as if compelled, sure we could get more from that one really thick spot. It felt like a cross between having a co-conspirator and a scolding grandmother, and I loved every minute of it.

At one point a family of the Kareni refugees who live in my neighborhood walked by and the younger boy shouted “Apples!” My daughter and our companion each gave an apple to one of the children who smiled and munched as they walked away.

And then we lugged our booty home and the next day we made things out of apples.

Though none of them feel like the moral of the story, I find it is worth noting a few of things that didn’t happen in that afternoon: No one freaked out at me for letting my kid run around under falling apples or climb on a ladder. I didn’t throw a parental hissy fit when strangers not only talked to my kids, but one started giving her orders. No one was afraid we’d hidden razor blades in the unwrapped, unsterile food we shared with our neighbors. My daughter, in her buzz cut, let constantly being referred to as a boy go by without comment.

But none of that is why I came home wanting to recount the story to all and sundry. I wanted to share it because it made me happy and left me energized, and I think it’s a perfect example of why I love living in a diverse urban neighborhood. Not because it was a wildly Deep and Transformative Moment. It wasn’t really. I didn’t become fast friends with these new neighbors with whom I shared apples and apple picking, open each other’s eyes to some deep truth or different political perspective, or even walk away with their names and contact information. The apples, while crisp and gorgeous, were not that flavorful and called for Japanese Knotweed (see “If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Eat ‘Em,” July 9, 2009) in the apple crisp and crabapples in the sauce to give them a little kick. I haven’t made it back to the tree to perfect my technique and make enough applesauce for the whole winter, nor have I organized to make sure the rest of the fruit gets into the hands of those who really need it.

No. Sometimes, despite my penchant for zingy closing lines, calls to action, metaphor, and neat tying up of threads, sometimes we need to just tell stories, not knowing what larger arc they fit into or what meaning they might eventually have. Here’s to a fall of listening to each other’s stories.