There is a memory I have been trying to retrieve now for decades. It has
slid somewhere so dark inside me, though, I can barely make out its
edges. Even as it recedes farther in the distance, I still cannot keep
from straining to see the one-room schoolhouse that once stood at the
far corner of our farmland. Sometime during my early childhood and
without my knowing, my dad decided to raze it for the sake of giving his
crops a little more acreage. And though I will never likely be able to
coax this structure to ever come clear again behind my eyelids, I still
know the basic facts as I was told them. I know this small brick
building once rested beside an apple tree with its branches long and
knotted. I also know that by the time he had fallen deeply into middle
age, my dad recalled this tree and former schoolhouse with regret and
Could I remember the apple tree, even if the memory of the schoolhouse
had gone completely? My dad asked me this when I was almost ready to go
away to college, when he must have wanted to remind me of all the beauty
I was leaving, only to return home from now on every now and then. Even
if I could no longer conjure the image of the place where hundreds of
rural children had once gone to learn to read and solve basic math
problems, my dad hoped I could at least summon the taste of the apples
pulled from nearby branches, apples that had been sweeter than any
others to his knowledge. He looked away from me as he said this, in the
direction of where the tree and schoolhouse no longer existed.
No, I answered him honestly while wanting to lie and spare his feelings.
As far as I could recall, I had never tasted the apples that once had
fallen in his field of soybeans. Turning back to face me, he responded
to this only by saying they must have tasted better than those from the
Garden of Eden. They were that pure to his mind, that untainted.
Normally never susceptible to hyperbole, he looked away from me again,
perhaps embarrassed by his statement. Even in profile, however, his face
betrayed a longing that, reflecting back from this distance, I cannot
help but wonder if related to more than apples alone, whether his mind
had begun straying toward other associations he may have had with
paradise and its natural abundance.
Maybe the apples no longer growing at the corner of his field of
soybeans had reminded him of other species of sweetness that in his own
life were either absent or disappearing. By that period, my mom had
started sleeping in our guest bedroom on what soon became a permanent
basis. She said she could no longer stand his snoring, and by this time
she may well have also left him alone in other ways. His life as a
farmer included very little contact with other women. Apart from those
in his family, a whole week often elapsed without him seeing another
female body until church on Sunday morning. So if my dad’s mind happened
to shift from apples to something coming closer to eroticism, I can
hardly blame him. We all need memories prone to bleeding into fantasy,
memories bordering on illusion.
I shared some of this with a friend I recently met for coffee. I told
her about my dad’s bygone claim concerning apples that I could never
remember tasting. After drifting into a few other topics, she told me
how French peasants used to bury apples as penance for Eve’s surrender
to temptation, for her refusal to resist eating fruit promising
knowledge of evil and goodness. By these men and women deciding not to
eat all those apples growing freely in their gardens, even going so far
as to pluck and cover some of them with soil, they felt they were
atoning for Eve’s transgression.
When I looked at my friend, almost disbelieving, she laughed and told me
that she might be wrong about this, despite having lived for years in
Paris. As I questioned her more about the practice of burying apples,
she confessed she had no way of confirming what may be only legend.
Facts alone for me, though, have always been unimportant. What always
matters more is the impression that lingers long after the apple has
been eaten. What matters for me about any given person or object is the
feeling that floats about its edges long after the real thing has
My friend smiled at me and added that, in their willingness to perform
Eve’s penance, the French have also allowed the fruit to fall along with
the woman in other senses. Pomme de terre, translating to “apple of
the earth” in English, means “potato” in their own, potentially more
imaginative language. As the French culture developed, it seems some
apples dropped so far from their boughs that they eventually began to
grow from underground, forcing hungry peasants to dig beneath hard earth
rather than reach toward the softer air to taste them.
However fanciful an explanation for the name of another type of food
entirely, the fact remains that an apple can resemble a potato only if
you have gone too long without having tasted a real apple’s sweetness.
Deprivation underlies the pairing of two such different objects. A
potato becomes a kind of apple only if you have become disoriented by
longing, only if you have suffered from a sustained absence. I say this
conscious that, with access to as many apples as I could wish for at the
market, they still seem tasteless compared with those that have been
lost to me, those whose purity may and may not have rivaled those once
growing in Eden.
Maybe similarly blinded by yearning—not for apples but in his case for
women—Christopher Columbus once recorded in his diaries that mermaids
were ugly things, “not half as beautiful as they are painted.” According
to historians, Columbus in truth had spotted manatees in place of those
finned women for whom he lusted. Also known as sea cows for good
reason—when you come closer and their bulk becomes apparent, manatees
can only suggest the shape of human women when you have been at sea for
far too long a time, when no other females have accompanied you on your
voyage. Objects of allure are always subject to slipperiness, however.
Anything elusive that also promises fulfillment can fall from heights
even higher than apples from their branches. Columbus was hardly the
first to mistake manatees for something different.
Throughout the centuries, their shape has suggested something more
appealing for countless men who have found themselves at sea for months
on end, who begin to look with desire toward fins folded over their
torsos from a distance. The fact their name derives from the word for
“breast” in one indigenous Caribbean language can hardly be an accident.
And I would no more correct a sailor grown delirious with hunger for
another body, telling him his mermaids were only manatees, than I would
now confess to my dad that I had forgotten about the apple tree beside
the schoolhouse that once stood on our property, had I the option. Were
I only able to return to the day when we had this conversation, I would
lie and tell him those apples I never tasted were even better than those
Eve offered to Adam.