Julia Alvarez is the author of Yo!, In the Time of the Butterflies, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, and a book of essays, Something to Declare. She teaches part-time at Middlebury College.
I never knew that one of the painful things about living in a small town is that death is hardly ever anonymous. As you become attached to people who are of no relation to you, their absence is a hole in the fabric of your daily life. After ten years living in Middlebury, I sometimes feel as if my life has been attacked by moths, little holes, but they add up. This, of course, is what it is to be alive the losses keep piling up and a small town never lets you forget this bracing fact.
Dr. Collier represented for me what living in a small town is all about: we don't just make quick, specialized appearances in each other's lives.
In the big world I lived in before coming to Middlebury mobile, fast-paced, often urban people died around me daily and all I knew about it was that the next door condo was up for sale or the parking lot was filled with cars that had no business being there.
But in a small town, death is personal, even when you are not a close friend or family of the person whose death you mourn. Often these acquaintances added to the richness of your own as well as your community's life with their presence.
These ten years in Middlebury I have lost some dear acquaintances. Maybe because the autumn season always brings a pang to my heart, a feeling of mortality, a realization of the precious quickness of what it is to be here on this earth, I remember these losses with such poignance that I find myself wanting to bring them back in the only way I know how: by writing about them....
Most recently and most poignantly I mourn for Dr. Collier with his apple orchard in Cornwall and his practice at Porter Hospital. I knew him first as Ted Collier of the apple orchard. Every autumn for two weekends in a row in mid-September, Ted opened his orchard to his doctor colleagues and their families. It was a wonderful, generous way to share his avocation with members of the community.
For me, those Collier apple-picking weekends always signified fall: we headed out to Cornwall on a crisp, bright afternoon with two boxes in the trunk and a bag of Dominican coffee or raspberry jam for Ted and Joan. I would spot Ted in his baseball cap, making cider in the barn or propping up a ladder against the side of a tree. Somehow he always had a minute to say hello and give us the latest apple-harvest bulletin. It was Ted who introduced me to what has become my favorite apple, actually my favorite fruit: the Russet apple.
We were invited to pick only Macs and Cortlands, but Ted allowed us to collect drops from any other trees. One time I found a small, brownish apple under a tree, and when I bit into it, my mouth filled with a tart, sweet flavor that took me all the way back to my childhood in the Domincan Republic. It was the taste of a certain kind of firm, flavorful guava which had been my favorite fruit as a child, and which I could not get in Vermont. I asked Ted about the apple, and it turned out to be a Russet. He had several trees that he had planted in the orchard, for they were his wife Joan's favorite apple.
I hope you don't mind if I pick the drops? I asked.
They're all yours, he said, every one.
And so, every year, when we arrived at the orchard, I headed toward those trees, hoping that the night before there had been a strong wind to increase those apple drops.
"Get any Russets? Ted would ask me as I climbed the small rise toward where our car was parked. Every year, he'd give me a taste of a new find, a Pound Sweet or a Gravenstein or a Northern Spy he thought I might like as much as a Russet. I always savored and complimented, but in the end, I'd shake my head and say, I still agree with Joan. Russets are the best.
One time I was visiting my mother-in-law in the hospital and I caught sight of Ted Collier walking down the hospital hall. What are you doing here? I asked him after we had exchanged hellos.
He looked at me, pulling his head back as if to gauge if I was joking. That's when I noticed that he had a stethoscope around his neck and a clipboard in his hand and he was not wearing his familiar baseball cap. Of course! The man I knew as the kind apple farmer was also a doctor. I laughed, and then moved on to our fall-back topic. How are the Russets doing this year?
Dr. Collier represented for me what living in a small town is all about: we don't just make quick, specialized appearances in each other's lives. For better or worse, we get to know people in a fuller way. The owner of the orchard where we pick apples is also our doctor, and the local bartender fixes our bicycle chain when it slips out on a country road. This is good for all our characters, I think, for the flawed person we see in one situation can suddenly surprise us by a small act of kindness or thoughtfulness in another encounter. Small towns give us second chances, and third and fourth ones, too.
And so, the shock and loss this year when nine days into his retirement from his medical practice, at the start of the apple season, Ted Collier collapsed as he was climbing the small rise from the orchard to his barn, carting a bushel of apples.
When I heard the news, the first thing I felt was pain at the thought of the loss to his family, and then pain at the irony that he had only nine days to enjoy his full retirement. Finally, gratitude, yes, that he had died doing something he loved to do.
I told myself that I would drive by the orchard and say good-bye from the car. But I still haven't been able to do it. I suppose now, after a decade in this small town, I have enough ghosts that any new loss somehow triggers the other losses. Often on bright autumn weekends, I think about how much Ill miss Ted and how much I will miss those Russets. If my grief sounds self-interested let me say in my defense that one thing I've learned from all of these losses is that we miss people in the details. Those small, poignant acts of generosity and intimacy that bind us to them with hoops of steel. That's why our throats tighten when we look ahead and the road is empty of an old woman carting a netted bag or when a car goes by and no hand rises in a wave.
My mother-in-law has confessed that she, too, will miss Ted Collier in a small, significant detail. Years ago, she complained to him that her favorite apple from Nebraska, the Jonathan, did not seem to do well in Vermont. She couldn't buy it anywhere. And so, Ted Collier ordered a Jonathan tree and grew Jonathans for my mother-in-law. Every year she stopped at the orchard and picked the only kind of apple that would do for her apple pie.
And it was because of Ted Collier that I got to enjoy a Russet this fall. When we were planting our own small orchard, my husband got the address from Ted Collier of the place where we could order some Russet trees. Last year we had our first harvest, eleven lovely, tasty, golden-brown Russets from our two young trees. This year, with the rainy weather and lots of pest damage, we only had four, or probably only two once I cut away the wormy parts.
One afternoon, I came down from my study into the kitchen and reached for the best Russet in the bowl. I felt its rough skin with my lips, then bit into it. As my mouth filled with that tart, smokey flavor I thought, not of the guavas of my childhood, but of Dr. Collier with his baseball cap and stethoscope and his orchard full of windfalls.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 1999 issue of Vermont Magazine. Reprinted by kind permission of David Sleeper, Editor and Publisher.