Penny and Rose each had five siblings. Together, they had four children, who then collectively brought eleven grandchildren into the world. To an outsider, our family tree had reached capacity. But where others saw a full house, Rose saw an open door. The farm became a playground for visiting friends, a place of reunion for relatives passing through, and a haven for countless babies she fostered over the years. Every single person felt as if they captured her undivided attention. She was the soul of the farm, the spirit emanating from its walls and tapping at its floorboards, the song that sung when not a single note was played. And she could take any sour situation and make it sweet.
There were two cribs in my parent’s bedroom and two cribs in the guest room. Despite the likelihood of being woken in the middle of the night by a crying baby, I think we all considered it a great honor to share the night with such helpless little humans near our bedside. It was a joy to place them in their cribs and watch as they laughed at my funny faces before slowly closing their eyes to sleep. I took to the foster babies almost as fast as my mother did, and I especially loved feeding them. When spoons became airplanes and trains soaring toward their open mouths, they’d giggle in unison, drool forming at their lips.
Rose with foster baby Tony - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette October 11, 1966
Penny & Rose with foster babies - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette March 24, 1966
But the one thing the babies loved more than anything was Rose’s homemade applesauce. When the large pots were on the countertop, ready for the stove, she’d send one or two of us out to fetch apples from the apple tree behind the house. The smaller kids had already picked most of the apples off the low-hanging branches, so this time, she sent me. I was about 14-years-old at the time and tall enough to climb the tree and reach the untainted apples high up in the branches. I grabbed a pail and off I went, my chest puffed with confidence. This was no job for a child; this was a job for a man!
It had rained the night before. When I arrived at the tree, the grass at its roots was thick with mud and I had to tighten my grip on the slippery bark of the trunk to hoist myself up. From the lowest branch, I looked up to see several groups of glistening red apples nestled within the leaves high up above. With my pail dangling from one arm, I made my way upward, my sneakers tracking mud with every step. By the seventh branch, I had more apples than my pail could hold and more than enough for a pot or two of Rose’s homemade applesauce. But another cluster, dangling from the very end of a long branch of apples caught my eye. The apples taunted me, daring me to take another step. My eyes were locked. Those apples were mine! I steadied the pail on the crook of a branch and inched closer.
A little more...
A little more….
My arm stretched to capacity. My fingers shook, straining their reach. I leaned on my right foot ever so slightly and watched as my middle finger graced the glistening red skin of a single apple. With one daring move, I grasped the apple in my hand and pulled it from its branch.
I had it!
But in my confidence, I had lost my footing. The weight of my grasp had pulled the apple from its branch and was taking me down with it. The mud of my shoe slipped from the thicker branch below me and before I had a second to think, I was falling. My body hit the ground, and the apple I had so daringly captured rolled from my fingers.
“Help!” I screamed, writhing in pain. I screamed only twice before Rose heard me from inside the house. She and my Aunt Gen came running to my side, kicking mud onto the hem of their skirts as they ran. They gasped when they saw me. My bone was sticking clear out from my elbow, though I didn’t know it at the time, and Rose and Aunt Gen had never seen anything so gruesome. It was a Tuesday, so Penny had our car with him at the mill 100 miles away. With no car and no telephone, Rose didn’t know what to do. The nearest home was at least two miles away, and the hospital was even farther.
“What about Goldie?” Aunt Gen asked.
“Goldie? What about her?” Rose questioned.
“Ride her to the nearest house for help. Surely someone around here has a car we can use to get Wayne to the hospital,” Gen reasoned.
Rose thought for a moment, glanced at my arm, and realized there was no way they were getting me on Goldie, especially without stirrups and saddle.
“You’ll have to go,” she decided. “And hurry.” Rose kneeled in the wet grass and mud to comfort me while Aunt Gen raced to the barn for Goldie.
The horse galloped with lightning speed with Gen at the helm riding bareback. It was a little over two miles to the nearest house, and when Gen arrived, she was panting as if she had sprinted the two miles herself. She started rattling off every detail of the story, from the foster babies to the applesauce, and by the time Gen mentioned a boy in an apple tree, the neighbor had her car keys in hand, ready to go. With three boys of her own, she knew the end of the story without hearing it.
Rose and Goldie
“Watch your little brothers!” she hollered at her oldest, and off she went to pick my mother and I up at the farm and drive us to the hospital. Rose tried to keep my arm steady during the ride, but the backroads of Western Pennsylvania were unforgiving, and I nearly bit my lip off trying to hold back tears.
We were seen almost immediately at the hospital. It wasn’t everyday someone walked through their doors with a bone sticking clear out from the elbow. The doctor on call examined my arm, and without too much analysis, declared that it needed to be amputated.
“What!” Rose pleaded, “Isn’t there anything else you can do?”
A young resident doctor had been standing nearby. He saw the agonizing grief on Rose’s face and saw his own mother in her. Fueled by sympathy, his wheels began to turn. He had recently learned of a new procedure that took skin from one part of the body and transplanted it to an injured part of the body. If done right, it could save the patient’s arm from amputation.
“I think there may be another way,” the resident spoke up. Though the young doctor looked no older than her 14-year-old son, Rose’s eyes lit up when he explained the procedure. It was a risk we were all willing to take. I am forever indebted to that resident doctor and to my mother, Rose for speaking up. Their intuition was right. Though I was unable to hang from the diving board or cast a long line from the dock, I eventually regained full use of my arm.
After a week in the hospital, I was ready to go home. Penny picked me up on his way back to the farm from the mill in Glassport. I was so excited to see him but sad that I couldn’t wrap both arms around him. We rolled the wagon windows down and let the early autumn air sweep through our hair. The backroads of Western Pennsylvania were kinder than they had been a week before, and the pain in my arm was greatly subdued. Penny told me all about his week at the mill and the latest news from Glassport, but to be honest, I only caught some of what he said. I was waiting patiently for a pause so that I could ask him about the farm, the applesauce, and the foster babies. Who was at the farm for the weekend? Was there any applesauce left? Were the babies still there? He told me which uncles and aunts and cousins were already at the farm waiting for us and that he didn’t think Rose had made the applesauce after all.
“What about the babies?” I asked.
“Oh, they’re doing just fine,” Penny said.
“Do you think I’ll still get to hold them?” I frowned, knowing the answer to this question already.
Penny glanced at me and smiled. “I’m not sure, son,” he said and patted my knee for good measure.
When we pulled into the farm, Rose had the babies’ highchairs out on the front yard. Their little legs dangled from their seats and danced back and forth. It was unseasonably hot, and family and friends visiting for the weekend lounged in lawn chairs sipping ice cold lemonade that Rose had made fresh that morning. I’d later discover my pail of apples, now rotten or gnawed on by squirrels, still nestled in the branches of the apple tree. Rose met me and Penny at the car with a glass in each hand. I’ll tell you, lemonade had never tasted so good, and the hope of homemade applesauce became a distant memory. But that was Rose; she always found a way to turn lemons into lemonade.
Wayne recovering at the farm
Wayne healed and all grown up
Today, I rock my newborn granddaughter to sleep, cradled in the arm I almost lost when I was a teen. I tell her of a horse named Goldie and an apple tree as tall as a skyscraper. She reminds me of the foster babies we used to care for on the farm, so innocent and helpless in my care. As she closes her eyes to the whisper of my voice and the warmth of the evening sun, I start to think of that apple dangling at the end of a long branch, the one I just needed to have. I laugh at the memory as my granddaughter’s chest rises and falls. My eyes are locked, and I realize she’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
“Sweet dreams, my little apple,” I sigh, as I reach for the glass of lemonade resting on the arm of my lawn chair.
A horse named Goldie
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