There are two pictures my father took of me when I was a kid. I’m sitting on the front step of my uncle’s house, barefoot with a bucket of apples. When I see them I remember the taste of freedom.
Uncle Barry lived in a little square box in the middle of a large meadow, a five-minute walk from the sea. It was one of those old houses you never see anymore, with a bed in the kitchen next to the wood stove. I think there was a bedroom, there must have been, but there was also a bed in the living room, opposite the dining room table. My grandparents raised three boys in that house.
Every summer my father and I drove from Quebec to Nova Scotia to visit. On our way into town we would get groceries and then stop at KFC for a bucket of chicken and some coleslaw. Barry never had much in the fridge beyond cold cuts and cheese.
The plumbing was rusty, which meant that when my father ran me a bath the water was orange. I don’t know if there was no hot water or not enough of it, but I know he would heat a few pots full on the stove and pour them into the tub to get it warm.
There was an attic full of cobwebs and delicate things that had belonged to my grandmother. A box with my father’s old ice skates. A baseball glove that smelled like the previous century. There was a TV with a knob that was never turned because all the baseball games were on the same channel. When the baseball and hockey seasons overlapped, it would click twice a day. There was a wall on one side of the kitchen with rows of colorful baseball caps, and out back there was a clothesline where giant white underpants flapped in the wind like bachelor flags.
Barry always had a stack of Sunday newspaper comics for me. Every week he would clip them out of the paper and keep them on the windowsill next to the kitchen bed for me to enjoy on our next visit. I remember jumping up on his lap and squeezing him. Thank you, thank you! I’d squeal, and he would gasp for air as if I were choking him. He’d show me his favorite Hagar or a particularly good Calvin and Hobbes, and I’d pore through the clippings as he and my dad caught up, my newspaper-blackened fingers a testament to my uncle’s love.
There was a family of raccoons that walked down the road every night. He fed them saltine crackers on the front steps and I thought it was the funniest thing.
Outside there was a big red barn that housed my grandfather’s old tractor, rusty scythes and hay sickles, and pitchforks with splintered wooden handles. I remember my father and Barry talking about the roof and how much it was going to cost.
I remember the pasture that had had cows at some point, before my grandfather died in 1941. I remember it because in the mid-summer it was full of wildflowers, waist-high for a little girl like me, and I would run up the hill and lay in the buttercups and bluebells. My dad and Barry would pretend to look for me as if I’d disappeared. I would giggle until they stopped calling my name, then I’d panic and jump up, and they would always be right there, laughing.
Those summers contain the purest childhood memories I have. Running around barefoot, scraping my knees on the dirt road, thorns catching in my hair on the shortcut to my great-aunt’s house through the woods, and playing for hours with a bucket, dirt, and a couple of sticks. I was a country princess, free to get dirty, chase bugs, climb trees and entertain a couple of fifty-something brothers with my antics.
There was a massive tree with a rope swing in front of the house, and next to it, a beautiful old sour apple tree. The apples on the ground usually had tiny brown pockmarks. If you poked them with a twig a worm might come out. The ones on the tree, though, were tiny and round and crisp, juicy and face-puckering. I would beg my dad to pick some for me and, since I had a tendency to eat them until I had a stomachache, he would grumble, but Barry would always sneak some extras into my bucket. I loved the way my cheeks would seize and tingle when I’d bite into a particularly tart one. My father would shake his head. Barry would laugh. Between my stack of comics and my bucket of sour apples, I was divinely happy.
Then one summer we stayed with an old friend of my dad’s. He had kids and a pool, so I didn’t think much of it. When we went to visit uncle Barry there was a woman at his house. All I remember is that the giant underpants were gone, and the hats had vanished from the wall. When Barry handed me an envelope filled with comics, she took it out of my hands and gave me a wrapped gift she claimed was more appropriate for a young lady: a badly-dressed, knock-off Barbie doll.
The barn roof had a gaping hole in it and I remember that my dad seemed as annoyed as I was that she was in there with us.
I think she made us lunch. I remember sitting at the table and being told to sit up straight. On the way out, when we turned onto the main road, my father pointed to an empty lot and said Barry would be building a brand new house there. I couldn’t see why.
I became a teenager and my father got cancer. We missed a summer, I think.
The next time we were in Nova Scotia, other people lived in the little white house with the sour apple tree. My father said we couldn’t go, but he drove up the back road so that we could look across the meadow. They had mowed it. The barn was gone.
We stayed in the new house with Barry and his now wife. Instead of orange water in the bath tub there was a frosted glass shower door, a toilet seat cover, and plush towels. Barry built a gazebo out back and had it screened-in so that we could sit outside and not get devoured by mosquitoes. Sometimes during the day I’d sneak off to pick wildflowers. If I’d managed to steal a cigarette from cousin Freddie’s pack, I would sneak up the back road and smoke it while staring at the little white house, waiting for someone to come out.
We missed another summer. Chemotherapy.
The summer I was sixteen I returned to Nova Scotia with my mother. My father was in the back seat, ashes in a six-pound box. There was a funeral service and I wore my favorite t-shirt because my dad had said I could.
My great-aunt invited everyone over after the service, but Barry insisted that my mother and I go to his house for lunch. His wife had made biscuits, he said. My great-aunt’s house was big enough for all of us. Bring the biscuits, I said.
They never came. Eventually I walked down the road and knocked on their front door. He opened and invited me in, but I said I couldn’t stay. There were dozens of people down the road and I had told them I’d be right back. She sat in the kitchen with her hands folded and her lips pursed. He became loud, told me that I was rude and inappropriately dressed. She nodded her head. He told me that my father would be ashamed of me.
That’s when I stood up straight and backed off his front steps. It’s you he’d be ashamed of, I said.
I ran back to my great-aunt’s in tears. I tripped going up her front lawn and scraped my knee. So many people came out to help me that I can’t even remember who they were.
Barry and I never spoke again.
There were times over the years when I wanted to reach out to him. When I married a tattoo artist from California and took him to Nova Scotia for the first time, I got talked out of calling my uncle by just about everybody. He was the adult, they said. He was the one that was wrong, they said. If I went there, I’d only get grief. Perhaps they were right.
My husband and I drove down the road to the little white house one day. We knocked on the door. A friendly woman opened with a curious look on her face and, when I explained who I was, she showed us around. We put in a new hot water heater, she said. Her husband was sitting in front of a new TV, watching tennis.
We didn’t stay long. I remember thinking of the sour apple tree too late, once we were back on the main road.
Life continued in California, far away from those childhood summers. One day my cousin called with news that uncle Barry was in the hospital with the same cancer that killed my father. I just thought you should know, he said.
I wondered out loud if I should call him, but no one would tell me what to do. People don’t change, they said. He’s the one who should apologize, they said. Stubborn runs in our family, they said. I wondered whether I could break the cycle. Whether I should.
I imagined what I would tell him. I’m sorry? That wasn’t right. I wasn’t sorry for anything I’d done, only for the years that had slipped away. I love you? That sounded truer, but I hesitated on that one, too. Was it Barry that I loved, or the memory of him?
Thank you for the Sunday comics? It seemed so insufficient. I went for a drive to clear my head, and bought a newspaper. I flipped it to the comics page, looked at the newspaper ink on my fingers. Weeks passed by.
One morning, as my husband and I were packing up to go to a tattoo convention for the weekend, the phone rang. It was my cousin calling to tell me Barry was dead.
That afternoon is one of the only times I’ve ever gotten a spontaneous tattoo. I asked my husband, who was between clients, to put an apple on my wrist. I shared with him the story of the apple tree at uncle Barry’s. I wanted to remember the good times, I said to him.
He’s the one who pointed out the symbolism of bad apples. They weren’t bad, I said, just sour. They tasted like happiness, and too much of that made your tummy hurt.
I have a lot of tattoos today. Most of them don’t mean a thing but a few do, and the apple on my left wrist is one of them. It reminds me to make that phone call. To say the things that may seem insufficient.
It reminds me to play in the sunshine, barefoot, and to look for love in newspaper clippings. To forgive the infinity of childhood and the finiteness of adulthood.
To forget that my cheeks are still tingling from bitterness, and to say the words:
I love you.