The day that Mrs. Blitch stood in front of the classroom and told us that we were going to make apple butter, she may have just as well said, “We're going to make magic.” I can’t say that I actually remember the peeling and measuring and cooking and I can’t say what kind of apples she used or what other ingredients she added, but to this day I remember the end result, the feel of the tiny Dixie cup in my left hand and the plastic spoon in my right, the dipping down into the rich caramel colored surprise and finding that the food of which I had not been previously aware was delicious.
Third grade was my favorite year of elementary school. In addition to making apple butter, we went on a field trip to City Dairy, both the downtown processing plant, where the glass bottles rattled down a metal conveyor belt, and the farm on Banks Dairy Road, where we walked down the cement floors of the long barn and watched a cow being milked. That year we also learned to write in cursive and began memorizing the multiplication tables, but it was making apple butter and watching a cow being milked — tactile, visceral connections to the world — that captivated my already rich imagination, that remain with me all these years later.
My farmers have been busy the last week or so, cutting and plowing and turning and spraying. To be honest, the fields don’t look a lot different from the wide empty swathes of dirt that they were when the tractors were cranked for the first time. Nothing has been planted, nothing is growing. If I didn’t know, I wouldn’t know that the growing season has already started. If I hadn’t seen the preparations being made, I would think the fields were still napping.
Standing at the edge of the field and watching the dust rise behind the tractor, I considered that all preparation — whatever the endeavor — is like that. It goes unnoticed except by the one doing it.
I don’t know exactly where thoughts and memories lie in the brain, but the thought about preparation must have been hovering somewhere close to the memories of third grade because I could suddenly see Mrs. Blitch in her plaid shirtwaist and glasses that turned up at the corners like the petals of a tulip. I could see her hovering over the heat lamp under which we had placed another set of Dixie cups, these containing seeds dropped into dark brown dirt by our still chubby 8-year-old fingers. I could feel the joy that she brought into the classroom and the excitement that she shared with us.
And I realized that I had never once considered what it took to make that magic, what had been required of her in preparation. All the time she spent buying apples and seeds and Dixie cups. All the hours that she had put into getting us ready to fall in love with growing things. All of which amounted to a teacher’s breaking of land and spreading of fertilizer.
I feel certain that on the last day of third grade I told Mrs. Blitch thank you with all the sincerity that a third-grader can muster. I feel certain that she knew how much I loved having her as my teacher.
But I did not have the tools to understand what she had given me before I even walked through the door of her classroom. Not even in my vivid imagination could see that nearly 60 years later all that preparation would still be bearing fruit. I couldn’t possibly know that the apple butter was simply the harvest.