on the table
apple tree branches
one lone blossom beginning to open
Republished from Apr 28, 2012
I wrote those words, a simple haiku, for my mother-in-law, Betty. The branches, taken from an apple tree on her farm, are arranged in a small glass vase. They have more open blossoms now, the petals soft white and green against the walls of her room at hospice. It is a room with a wide window framing a stand of trees, a small park behind the hospice center and a grassy field that stretches north out of view.
We didn’t know just how much the tree meant to her until last summer, when her grandson Matthew Wagar, who is a professional videographer, Shirley Ware, a photographer and Web journalist, and I interviewed her for a family keepsake DVD. She came to the story about the apple tree in a roundabout way, wandering the path her life has taken, the hard years growing up when money was scarce and men in the WPA worked on the road that ran past their farmhouse, the war years of rationing, her first job, and the months after the fighting ended, when the troops came home and she met her husband, John Totts, a returning serviceman, at a dance club.
She and John married and moved to Medina County. It was a farming community then, and even though their property sat on a main highway, there were more cows than cars to count in the 1950s. And if a small stream of traffic trickled past the house by day, a bright river of stars flowed above it at night.
They built their house on top of a gently sloping hill, hemmed in by the fields that John planned to fence and graze a few head of Hereford cattle, plow and plant.
Betty’s open kitchen window brought the scent of new lumber when the barn was built, the heady aroma of freshly cut hay, the pungent smell of manure after the cows arrived. When she looked across the yard to the west, it was the ancient apple tree she spied and grew to love in all its ragged glory.
It stood at the edge of an orchard gone wild, its raggedy branches clutching the clouds. Squat enough for small children to climb, it lured Jim, my husband, and his sisters into a leafy ship of childhood adventures as they scrambled upward to escape the poison ivy below. With fruit too small and wormy and sour for eating, it was good only for the deer drifting under the branches, dreaming among the blossoms.
As it aged, half of it refused to bloom, but despite — or maybe because of —its stubborn resilience, it became a touchstone for Betty. After John died in 2001, she remained on the farm, not willing to leave.
During the interview last summer, she said, “Whenever there’s a storm, I look at the apple tree after the storm has passed. If the tree is still standing, I know the storm wasn’t really that bad.”
When chronic illness began to take its toll, she moved in with her daughter Carole’s family, but she propped a photo of the tree between pictures of John, the children, grandchildren and Sophia, the first great-grandchild.
Now, with days spinning the last threads of her life, we wanted her to see the apple tree on the farm blossom one more time.
Jim brought home a fistful of branches cut from the tree. Never having forced tree branches to bloom out of season, I e-mailed Doug Oster for advice. I got to know Doug when he was photo editor for The Medina County Gazette and I worked as a features writer and editor. I figured if anyone knew how to coax apple blossoms out of their winter hibernation, it had to be Doug.
Following his instructions, I took the branches to the basement and laid them on the floor to hammer the cut ends. I found a tall vase, filled it with water and put the branches in. As I settled the vase into a laundry basket to keep the curious noses of our border collie and corgi at bay and put the whole arrangement in a cool spot, I said a prayer. In the days that followed, I asked everyone I knew to say a prayer.
My best friend Janet Griffing and her fiancé Steve LaBonne brought a jar of forsythia blossoms they forced for Betty as we waited to see if we could fool the apple tree branches into thinking it was spring.
Betty’s health continued to deteriorate and she moved to the hospice facility for a respite stay that lengthened into residency. I was beginning to think the apple branches might not have any spring left in them.
Still, I freshened the water every few days, peering at the nub ends of the branches, imagining that they might be budding. On the 28th of February, I snatched the vase out of the basket and brought it up to the kitchen table. One tiny green bud began to push out of its slumber.
It was painfully slow. But in a few days, another blossom joined the first, and another. The blossoms are five-petaled, echoing the star at the heart of an apple if you slice it crosswise instead of into pie slices.
We clipped away the twigs that held no buds, shortened the branches and arranged them in a smaller vase. I tied a ribbon around the glass, but it didn’t really need any embellishment.
Betty smiled when she saw the branches. Although she didn’t say much as we put them on her bedside table, I hope that when she turns in her bed and sees them, she will think of spring love, the scent of sweet hay, of children climbing up to touch clouds, branches dark with rain and threaded with pale stars that carry the promise of apples, the tree that survived another storm.