The Suitcase Lady


September 23, 2008, 9:44 pm

Japan wisely designates certain special citizens as living national treasures. If America ever becomes enlightened enough to emulate this practice, I know exactly who I would nominate. The apple lady would get my vote.

I met this amazing woman by default. Every fall I do a children’s program, “All About Apples”, which combines botany, folklore, nutrition and my own unabashed love for the fruit. I start the program by introducing the apple family – Mac, Milton, Jonathan, Paula Red, Granny Smith, Fuji, Ida Red and more choice specimens from the apple family tree.
In pursuit of as many apple varieties as possible, I head to the West Allis Farmers Market. One memorable year, I stopped at the sprawling stand of one of the biggest orchards and politely asked for one apple of each variety. The owner derisively replied, “Oh, you’re one of those”, meaning, of course, another grade school teacher wasting his time.
I left his display and found a small stand in a far corner of the market. A solitary older woman manned the stall, and her face looked exactly like that of an apple doll; browned, happy and weathered by many seasons in the sun.
She met my request with unparalleled enthusiasm and told me about her family’s orchard which is devoted to saving antique apples. I learned that America loses hundreds of apple varieties each year. I already knew that most kids think an apple is a rock hard, utterly tasteless, corporately grown Red Delicious.
She introduced me to her apple family – apples grown since the time of Thomas Jefferson, apples perfect for pie making, an apple called Alexander which was first cultivated in Russia in the 1700’s. And then she showed me an unassuming smallish Pink Pearl apple which wasn’t very pink at all; that is, until it’s cut open. The entire inside of the fruit is a delicate shade of pink. What kid, especially girls, can resist the charms of a pink apple?
“Come back next month,” the apple lady always says. “Wolf River and Spy will be ready then.” I’ll take her up on that.

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