I have never been much of a gardener, nor someone who relishes yard work and the natural rhythms of planting and harvesting. This is probably because in the first decade of my adult life I moved five times—in four different countries. Occasionally my apartments might have hosted a few pathetic geraniums, but both physically and metaphorically, those years were not ones in which I was “putting down roots.” I was a traveler and a missionary, perpetually single, and free of family demands.
Free too, of the connection, rootedness and sanity that comes with being cared for within a family day in and day out.
One particularly lonely September I was teaching in Lithuania, feeling as forlorn and shriveled as the last brown leaves clinging to northern European trees I didn’t even know the names of, when a friend brought me a bag of apples from her family’s trees. She also brought me a jar of dark-colored honey, a small portion of a gift she’d received, more than she could eat on her own.
Putzing around my kitchen that weekend, I decided to see what I could cook with apples and honey. Finding a recipe for apple-honey cake on a webpage devoted to Jewish cooking, I discovered that apples and honey are traditionally eaten during the Jewish New Year. Together, they are meant to symbolize the hope of sweetness in the coming year. My friend had unknowingly brought me apples and honey mere days before the September High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Psalm 81 is a traditional Psalm of Rosh Hashanah, during which the shofar trumpets are blown and God reminds them: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.” Of all the things I expected from that coming year, I could not, in the particularly grey autumn of single almost-30, have believed that an apple-honey cake held any hope for sweetness ahead. Hope was running very thin, and after many years of missionary sacrifice and relational disappointments, I suspected that when God commanded that I open wide my mouth, I would be getting bland, dutiful manna, not honey.
Nevertheless, the end of Psalm 81 promises:“He would feed you with the finest of wheat, And with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.” Where a Protestant might just see ingredients, a Jew sees promises, so I baked my cake, invited friends over to share it, and tried to muster some belief that what lay ahead would be sweet.
But it wasn’t.
The grey, both within and without, got a lot greyer, and that northern European winter was colder than it had been in decades. I learned how to wear loneliness like a tattered coat. I moved back to the States before the next school year and took the least-missional job I could find. It was a difficult, wrenching, decidedly non-sweet year.
And so was the next. The year after that, thanks to counseling, sunshine and exercise, was a little bit better.
The year after that I got married. I moved into my husband’s house in Colorado and discovered that amongst the twenty trees on our lot—mostly locust, maple and aspen—there are two apple trees. They take some serious effort to maintain. They have to be pruned and shaped, watched for fire-blight. When overripe apples fall on the lawn, they rot and kill the grass. In September we spend several weekends on ladders, shoveling the bounty of apples into box after box, giving them away to friends, coworkers, neighbors, and whoever will take some of the abundance off our hands.
Each year, I’ve made the apple-honey cake again, in an old yellow Bundt pan. I grease the pan liberally so the sticky batter of apples, spices, honey and brewed coffee will come out clean and brown. Last weekend, I pulled one of the gallon-sized Ziplocs of sliced apples from my freezer and made the cake to take to friends who just had their second baby. As we ate it together, our son and their daughter chased each other around the kitchen.
I don’t quite know when I first felt these new roots taking hold. My personal story could have just as easily continued to be one of perpetual motion, but somehow instead, I’m living in the suburbs, learning how to care for fruit trees. Instead of feeling like a single, severed branch, I live in a rhythm of seasons. There is honey and sweetness. But I know it is, as the Psalm says, honey from a rock, sweetness that has been wrung from hardness. And sweeter for it.
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“Apples and Honey” was written by Jennifer Stewart Fueston. Jennifer writes in Longmont, Colorado where she lives with her husband and young son. She has taught writing at the University of Colorado, Boulder, as well as internationally in Hungary, Turkey, and Lithuania. She recently published a chapbook of poetry, Visitations, with Finishing Line Press. She blogs very sporadically at jenniferstewartfueston.com and has just realized she uses Twitter (@jenniferfueston) primarily during playoff football.