My mom and I would sit side by side on the small square concrete porch in the back yard on hot summer evenings in Kansas. Our small house had no central air conditioning and there was nowhere else to go to escape the humid heat of the day. We would just sit together and watch the day slowly disappear as we told each other our dreams. My 10-year-old self talked about castles, princesses, movies, music, poems, and Donny Osmond. I would weave complicated future lives for myself of success and fortune. My mother would just listen. She never took a side. She didn’t encourage nor discourage my dreams. She would take a neutral position believing that would keep us both safe.
My mother was a woman of simple dreams. She didn’t wish for large houses or fancy cars. She didn’t want stylish clothes or expensive jewelry. That summer, the only thing my mother dreamed of was an apple tree.
My mother sat on the porch one lazy evening. In the glow of the setting sun, she stared out at our large fenced-in backyard. I followed her gaze but couldn’t figure out what was so fascinating about the brown grass that was slowly decaying under the pressure of the hot summer sun. I looked at the patches of dry, dusty, balding earth that pushed up sporadically through the grass. My father had continually screamed at his four children to stop running, sliding, playing, and wrestling on the lawn. But without video games, DVD players, cell phones, and stereos, there was really nothing more to do. My siblings and I continually played outdoors. One of our favorite games was to chase each other up the high hill that was part of our backyard. We would tackle and then drag each other down the hill by the arm or the leg. It was always more fun after a rainstorm. We would pull and push each other down the hill and into the small puddles of mud that formed on the flat land that lead up to our back porch.
My mother’s eyes, however, saw something completely different as she stared into the distance. “I want an apple tree,” my mother stated in the strongest, most determined voice I had ever heard her use. “I want an apple tree to plant in this back yard. Wouldn’t it be amazing, Jamie?” she asked, trying to draw me into her fantasy. “Can you imagine just walking out our back door and pulling apples right off of our very own tree in our very own backyard?” Her voice grew lighter as her eyes sparkled. “I can make fresh apple pies for us. I can make apple fritters and turnovers. We would be cooler, too. We could sit under the shade of the tree and get out of the heat for a while.”
I just smiled at my mother and didn’t say a word. I was just a child and couldn’t see her vision. I just saw a dry, dusty yard; the earth cracking apart from the heat. My mother’s apple tree dream didn’t inspire me.
But Mom was determined. The next day, she searched through the plants, flowers, and trees in the garden shop at our local K-mart. This isn’t the first time Mom had browsed through the garden section. Mom loved plants and had been successful with small gardens she had created in the back yard. She grew roses, marigolds, tomatoes, and green beans. Why not an apple tree, too?
Mom carefully looked through all of the trees and finally held one up triumphantly. “Look at this one, Jamie,” she shrilled. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
I silently stared at the 3-foot stick Mom held in front of her. That’s all it was. It was just a long stick with the far end encased in a plastic-wrapped wad of soil. Mom lovingly placed the apple stick in her basket and carefully pushed it over to the check-out.
I watched as Mom opened up her small wallet and warily counted out four dollars. She hesitated for just a moment as she held the money tightly in her hands. She looked at the stick for a moment and then down at her money. She glanced back at the stick and then down at me. Then she slowly handed the money over to the cashier. Even at a young age, I knew how much my mother had to scrimp and save just to have those four dollars. She rarely spent any money on herself.
“We’ll have fresh apples, Jamie. The whole family will enjoy the fruit from this tree. We’ll make all kinds of pies and tarts. This is going to be a great investment.” On the way home, Mom talked on as she tried hard to justify her purchase. I think part of her felt guilty about spending the money on something she really wanted. Thinking she could share it with her children and that the family would benefit was the only way Mom could ever spend money on herself.
When we got back home, Mom proudly carried the apple stick out to the back yard. At the base of the hill on the right side of the yard, my mother dug a hole about two feet deep. She carefully stuck the now-unwrapped soiled end of the stick down into the hole. She quickly maneuvered the dirt around the base. Mom smiled then as she slowly backed away. Suddenly she jumped forward quickly as the apple stick began to tilt to the left. Mom quickly righted the stick and packed the dirt a little tighter on the left side. My mother then sat back on the ground and smiled. She lay back on the grass just staring up at the stick for a few minutes. I’m sure she was seeing the tree as if it were already full grown and looming over the backyard. I’m sure she was imaging the tree blooming, the apples growing, and the shadow of the tree hiding her from the sun.
Over the next several days, my mother tended loving to her apple stick. It wasn’t an easy task with four energetic, rambunctious children, who had nothing to do on a lonely summer day, running around. My siblings and I continued to play in the back yard. Mom would run out of the back door every few minutes as she saw her beloved tree tilting dangerously to one side. “Be careful,” she would scream to us. “Watch out for a tree!” All four of us would stare at Mom in surprise. A tree would be easy to see and avoid. It proved to be a little more difficult to sidestep a stick. My siblings and I continually and accidentally ran and stumbled over Mom’s apple tree.
My mother kept a close eye on her tree over the next few days. She constantly shouted to her children to be carefully when we were running, playing, and dragging each other around. Over time, we became use to the tree sticking straight up from the ground. However, the stick was hard to see in the dark.
One hot June night, with her children and a few neighbor kids playing tag in the backyard, Mom finally allowed herself to join in the fun. In the dark, she whooped and cheered and laughed as she chased the kids around the yard. Mom was having so much fun being a child again, she wasn’t paying any attention to where she was going. Suddenly, all of the kids froze as we heard a crack, snap, and then a sad anguished cry.
My brother ran into the house and flipped on the back porch lit. Now, the yellowish glow revealed the source of the strange noises. My mother sat sprawled on the ground. Her beautiful apple tree was now lying across her legs. My mother reached down and picked up the stick. The single stick of my mother’s apple tree had cracked and split right off at the roots. I just remember the sadness in my mother’s eyes as she looked up at me. Anguish creased her face as she struggled to hold back the tears.
“Momma…” I said slowly.
“It’s okay,” she answered as she brushed her hands over her face. She pulled herself slowly up from the ground, still holding her apple tree in her hands. “It’s okay,” she said. Then she chuckled sarcastically, “I did it myself. I killed the tree myself.”
Mom then slowly walked toward the house as her kids followed her like little ducklings. We were all silent as we climbed into bed and went to sleep.
My mother was in the back yard early the next morning. I watched through the bedroom window as she slowly dug up the ground and pulled out the last remnants of her destroyed dream. I watched my mother refill the hole with dirty as tears rolled down her face. My mother’s tree was gone. My mother’s dreams were gone. I’m sure she grieved, too, over her hard-earned money. She had felt so guilty spending on herself in the first place. Now, it felt like such a waste when she could have used the money for her children. I watched my mother carry the roots of the tree over to the trash. She paused before she dumped the bundle inside the large garbage can. I swear I saw her pray over the tree before she let the roots drop from her hands. She looked down at her dirty palms as tears again rolled down her face. Then, she wiped her hands in the grass, took a deep breath, and smiled as she walked in the house to awake her children for the morning.
My mother kept her dreams private after that. She never asked for anything more. We would sit together on the back porch on summer evenings. We were silent as we would sit side by side and watch the sun go down.