catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 20 :: 2011.11.11 — 2011.11.24


The time that is left to us

My father jabs the sharp end of the ancient vegetable peeler into the stem of the apple. The firm white flesh beneath crunches as he digs deeper, scooping out pips and core. He places the apple with two others in the mottled Pyrex dish, spoons sugar into the cavities, adds a bit of water to the base, and places the dish in the microwave. One apple for each of us — my dad, my mom and me — to warm the Pittsburgh dusk.

This is not how we used to bake apples, ages ago when I was a little girl. Then, my mother and I stuffed them with brown sugar and raisins and baked them slowly in a warm oven. The raisins inside the apples plumped with liquid. Those affixed to the outside burned black; they stuck in our teeth later as we chewed the otherwise soft flesh.

But my father can be forgiven the shortcuts. He is nearing 86, and the crisp October day brings memories of hot cider and a roast in the oven. The scent of the microwaved apples, turned nearly to applesauce, fills the small apartment and warms us despite the chill in the air outside.

Mom and dad, Pittsburgh natives, long today for the Arizona sun. They spent a decade in Phoenix early in their marriage, and returned there for a decade in retirement, reluctantly moving back to the north hills of western Pennsylvania only when they anticipated the need for additional care. On my visit to see them over this autumn weekend, the leaves have only just started to color and fall. The mums bloom in copper and gold, and frost has not yet killed the tender foliage of the summer hostas. I take long walks and revel in the cool wind billowing my cotton sweater and touching my still-warm skin. But for my parents, the threat of winter on the doorstep makes them long to pack their bags.

My husband, a Chicago native, and I have lived in Houston for eight years now. This summer we endured more than a month of triple digit temperatures. By October, nearly 4,000 acres had burned in the state, and in city parks loblolly pines and mature oak trees grew brown and brittle from the now year-long drought. We would rather not know firsthand that you can tell a tree has died when the leaves turn brown but do not fall.

Now that October has finally arrived and the high hovers in the mid-70s, I find myself longing for something colder still — for raindrops that sting my face as I walk the dogs, for earmuffs, and the scrape of shovel on pavement. I long to sit on the living room couch, wrapped in the old grey wool blanket, lost in a novel, waiting for the darkness. I long for homecoming bonfires, the smell of chestnuts in the city and frantic squirrels burying the last of the acorns. I want to let the cold embrace me. My parents, on the other hand, feeling the first bite of the Pennsylvania autumn that foretells the coming winter, think only of flight.

Can it be true that God gives only what we can endure, and no more? Perhaps a weeklong escape to Phoenix this winter will enable my parents to face the long months until the spring thaw, and the unknown number of future Pittsburgh winters they will have to endure in the time left to them.

As for me, I long to turn my face to the wind and push headlong into the coming winter. I will endure what I am given, sweltering heat and hurricanes, or tree limbs bowed low with snow. But in the time that I have left, I will claim as my heart’s home, the scent of wood smoke in the air, the first snowflake, the taste of roasted vegetables, and the night sky, filled with the brilliant stars of winter.

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