Salt Magazine invited me to submit an original storytelling image which would be shared with a contributing writer who would use their beautiful imagination to craft a story without knowing anything about the background of the image! My ambrotype ‘Apple’ from my series How Far We Went was given to writer Virginia Holman who knocked it out of the park with her story ‘Black Limbertwig’. Sharing images like this is something I love doing. It’s fascinating to see how your photographs can inspire others.
Story by Virginia Holman • Photograph by Andrew Sherman
Each Sunday, Great Grandmother Zelia, propped in her wingback chair, declared she wished to see one place before she died, her old farm. No one could bear to tell her it was gone, sold by her great nephew soon after she’d moved to assisted living. Her facility was good and the staff generous, but it took a lifetime’s assets and her monthly Social Security check to secure good care. Mother politely entertained the notion of a trip to the farm, so as not to crush Zelia’s spirit, but not for too long, because that would raise her hopes. Zelia was easily distracted, so in that way, the conversation was deferred.
Two years before Zelia died, she offered me her sturdy 1971 Buick Estate station wagon as a sixteenth birthday present. For two decades she’d driven it to the holy trinity: Safeway, the post office, and the Caledonia Methodist Church. 23,000 miles. Mint, except for some rust, and free, or so I thought.
Soon, I was called upon to run small errands. In time, my duties grew. One morning, I was summoned to take Zelia to her cardiology appointment. Patsy, her nurse at assisted living, wheeled her to the wagon, and tucked her into the passenger’s seat.
“See you at supper, Mrs. Woods,” she said and patted her hand flat against the window to say good-bye.
Patsy had sprayed Zelia’s hair a bit, which looked odd, like a fluff of cotton candy. Usually, Zelia wore it parted simply on the side with a tidy row of bangs. Teased up like this, her scalp shone through, pink and alive.
“Thank you for taking me to the farm, dear,” Zelia said with a sigh.
“The farm?” I said. Sly old Zelia. Her face was mapped with creases so deep you had to study her features to see what she used to look like. Her eyes were the color of new leaves. I tapped my fingers on the steering wheel. Zelia and I were now both too old for my mother’s scoldings. I’d languished that summer, bored to a stupor. I earned some money babysitting for women in Forest View who dressed in silk shantung to play bridge and drink with one another. Absurd. The world was absurd, my new favorite word, and I pronounced the s like a z, which I’d picked up from plump Mrs. Sterling, who’d once lived in Stockholm for an entire year, and seemed impossibly sophisticated.
“All right, Zelia,” I said. What were forty miles and a missed appointment?
As a child, the farm seemed remote, an interminable journey from rolling green field to rolling green field. Now it was traffic and stores and fumes. The farms were gone, subdivided and replaced with houses so close together you could almost pass the sugar from one kitchen window to another.
Along the way to her old farm, Zelia told me of her marriage to Henry Woods, and of their glorious month-long honeymoon across the Southeast. Henry had arranged to stop at successful farms along the way to learn from more experienced farmers. Some gave him seeds, which he labeled and placed in coffee cans. At the end of the final visit, an old farmer and his wife dug up a sapling from their orchard as a wedding gift, a Black Limbertwig apple tree.
Henry, she said, tended that tree as if his success as a farmer depended upon it. He picked a spot somewhat sheltered from the wind, dug the hole, softened the soil, then gently flayed the roots with his thumbnail. Their soil wasn’t rich, so when the limbs seemed to droop as it grew Zelia was concerned, but not Henry. By the second winter, it had fruit buds. The third summer, it fruited. That fall he took a photo: his lovely Zelia with a perfect Black Limbertwig apple, the first ever in Caledonia. Eight months later their first girl, Rose, was born.
I started to tremble as Zelia and I got closer to the old Woods’ farm, until I understood that my mother’s persistent refusals were generous. What good could come from replacing Zelia’s cherished memories with the terrible fact of its ruin? I pretended to be lost, killing time until I became so turned around I had to stop for directions at a small, two-pump general store on the outskirts of town. Beside the store was a field that needed bush-hogging. Orange daylilies ran wild in the ditches. There was a derelict barn, and beyond it, like a blessing, a small orchard, the trees gnarled and blighted, but still fruiting.
“Look, Zelia,” I said. “Limbertwigs.” I couldn’t walk her to the trees, so she waited in the wagon as I trudged through the field, trespassing. I picked as many apples as I could carry in the front of my untucked shirt. Her old Estate smelled of cider the whole drive back.
When I returned to assisted living with Zelia, my mother was waiting outside beside Patsy. She flew out to the parking lot in a purple-lipped fit, but when she saw Zelia dozing with the unripe apples in her lap, she quietly opened the back door and slid in behind me. We shared one of those tart, rough-skinned apples right there, while Zelia snored and the engine ticked in the heat. Tears poured down my mother’s face. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of them.
I saved those seeds and used them over the years to start three separate orchards. Are they Henry’s Black Limbertwigs? Why, they must be, for when I gather those apples and close my eyes, there’s my mother and there’s Zelia — conjured clearer than any memory — almost close enough to touch.