About twenty years ago, Richard Deeley invited Tim and me to visit him at his home in Jamaica, and to bring a shovel – he wanted us to dig up a tree.
We knew Mr. Deeley from his visits to our Mom and Pop Doc Shop, where Tim cared for patients and I ran the practice. Mr. Deeley was in his nineties by the time I met him, and he arrived to his appointments in a well-brushed coat, creased pants, ironed shirt, and tie. His courtly manners matched his attire; his presence delighted us all.
On the appointed day, we drove out to Richard Deeley’s home, where he told to take any and as many trees as we wanted for the bare land around our recently built home.
There was one tree, in particular, that Mr. Deeley wanted us to have: a small apple, just over a stonewall and surrounded by saplings of second growth forest filling in an old pasture.
Set against the larger backdrop of a looming forest, the tree appeared tiny. Digging it up, however, proved otherwise. Once wrestled out of the ground, the tree filled the back of the pickup and hung over the tailgate by a good five feet. When we arrived home and dragged the tree to the hole we’d dug, however, it seemed to have shrunk again, to a pathetic, windblown specimen oddly out of place near the young sugar maples taking root at the edge of the lawn. We planted it anyway.
After about five years, the tree lost its windswept appearance and started to take on a pleasing shape. Each spring, it bloomed profusely – a magnet for our honeybees. After about ten years, it finally bore fruit. In good apple years, it still does.
The apples on Mr. Deeley’s trees ripen and drop all at once in August. They’re small, often misshapen – and delicious.
Last Sunday, we picked as many as we could process and made
applesauce and pie. If we have time before they rot, we’ll pick more; the rest we’ll feed to the chickens.
Every time the tree fruits we remember Mr. Deeley, who died almost twenty years ago, aged 99. The tree he claimed to have planted from the core of an apple he’d eaten now thrives.
That’s quite a legacy, for a tree.
It’s made me look around at all the trees we’ve planted – and all the trees that have planted themselves. I wonder what stories they’d tell, if only they could talk. I already see the beginning of the tale of summer’s end as the leaves hang blue-green in the humid air. And I think of the jars of applesauce lined up in my basement pantry, like so many stories we’ll hoard until winter. When at last we spoon the applesauce into our bowls, out will come the stories of Mr, Deeley and his apple tree – just as if the apple tree could talk.
An earlier version of this piece, called Mr. Deeley’s Apple Tree, was broadcast on the stations of Vermont Public Radio on September 23, 2008.