Cherry Picking on Afton Mountain


    In summers when I was a little girl, my grandmother began sorting through her cherry pie recipes.  This seasonal ritual told us it was time to load up the car and head to Mr. Coffey’s cherry orchard on Afton Mountain.  Grandpa went into the smoke house to collect his gathering baskets.  They were round, made of flat reeds, dyed red and green, reminding me of Christmas in June.  The baskets had wire handles running through long wooden beads to hold onto.  They were stacked, seven together, an odd number because I was little and was only expected to fill one of them. The adults each had to fill two.

     The ride to the orchard took us over steep, narrow, winding roads.  The car passed a set of rock steps that lead right from the road, straight up a steep hill to the front porch of a house that looked like it was hanging on the side of the mountain. It seemed to be leaning forward like someone waiting to hear a good story.  I wondered if the people who lived there  ever worried about the house letting loose in the middle of the night and rolling down to the Rockfish River at the foot of the mountain.  I imagined them waking up in the morning, looking out their kitchen window and finding themselves in Charlottesville or even Richmond if the water was up and the current was fast. The mother would say, “Oh dear, we’ve floated away and got us some new neighbors.”  I  giggled to myself thinking of them running out in their bathrobes, mouths open, staring at the tall office buildings in their new front yard.

    On the way to the orchard, we passed the Shell Gas Station with its Dr. Pepper, bottle cap sign, telling us to be thirsty at 10, 2 and 4,  but making me want a soda no matter what time it was.  Our car went under three railroad trestles and if we were lucky, the train might be thundering overhead, making me cover my ears and reminding  us that my Uncle Garnett might be the conductor that day  

     Three quarters the way up the mountain, where the road had been cut through, a wall of rock rose from the side ditch.  In the summer, sections of the rock were wet from water that seemed to materialize from nowhere.  Tiny clear streams trickled over and through the dark gray granite, making me want to stop and cup my hands to drink.  “That’s the best water there is to wet your whistle, Tump,” Grandpa said as we drove past the springs.

     Near the top of Afton, we veered to the right at a sign, hand-scrawled in red letters, on gray barn wood, Coffey’s Cherry Orchard, Pick Your Own.  The mountain flattened out into a plateau up there and cherry trees stood in neat rows, dotted with red ripe fruit, ready to pick.  Just the other side of the trees, the Rockfish valley spread out below like someone painted a picture and laid it on the ground.  Everything looked so small in the distance, cars, houses, ponds, barns, and cows.  I imagined myself a giant who could content herself picking up and rearranging all the pieces to a community play set.  I remember thinking that I needed to be very careful where I put my feet. I didn’t want my sneakers to squash anyone’s home or horses. I would pick up the Smith House and put it nearer the store so that when I visited Jenny, we could walk by ourselves to get a Baby Ruth.  I‘d gift Mr. Timberlake a new red tractor from the Farm Store because his kept breaking down and Grandpa had to go help him fix it.  “Man needs to get rid of that piece of junk,” Grandpa muttered every time he came home wiping grease from his hands on a rag.  

     “Tump, come on, cherries won’t pick themselves,” Grandpa called to me.  As I ran up to him, he handed me a basket and told me to stand on the ground and reach up into the tree to pick. Grandma was in charge of making sure I didn’t get on a ladder.  Grandpa and Mama climbed the ladders to pick the cherries up high in the tree.  I wanted and waited to get big enough to climb the ladder to pick cherries. I knew when I was big enough to climb the ladder, I’d be grown.

     Grandpa, Mama and Grandma ate as many cherries as they put in their basket while they were picking. Grandma said, “It’s the price Mr. Coffey pays for us picking our own.”   I never liked to eat the cherries.  They reminded me of Mr. Coffey.  He’d come out to meet us at the car each year.  He was a nice man, telling us it was good to see us again and shaking Grandpa’s hand.  That was when I noticed his arm.  He couldn’t shake hands like other people because his right arm and hand were bent and shriveled.  It just hung on him, boneless, and didn’t work.  It was like someone had taken him apart one time, and before they could get him put back together, something terrible happened to his arm,  like a dog chewed on it or it got caught under something heavy and was mashed flat and twisted. I didn’t like to look at it. It made my stomach turn flips.  If the cherries were baked in a pie I could eat them, but if they were raw, I saw Mr. Coffey’s arm. The only time my Grandpa ever shook hands easy or with his left hand was when he greeted Mr. Coffey.

     When our baskets and Grandma were full, we paid Mr. Coffey for our cherries and headed home to bake pies.  As we got closer to Rockfish Gap Country Store, Grandma poked me in the ribs.  That was my cue to ask Grandpa to stop.  He seemed to listen better to me than to Grandma, because when I asked, we always stopped.  Rockfish Gap Country Store had a wheel of “Rat Cheese” and cold cider bubbling in a big square machine.  Two dollars from Grandpa’s pocket,  bought us each a hunk of yellow cheese and a cup of chilled cider.  It was our reward for picking cherries all afternoon.

     Back in Grandma’s kitchen, she’d make pie crust while we got the cherries ready.  I sat at the table and pulled the stems off the cherries while Mama and Grandpa ran the fruit through the pitter, a cast iron machine with a handle.  The cherries went in round, shiny and whole. When they came out of the machine they were smashed, their skins ripped, and their insides spilled out. It mangled them, and their pits were gone.  The machine scared me. I remember thinking that maybe Mr. Coffey’s arm got caught in a big cherry pitter and it de-boned him.  I shuddered, thinking about it. I felt bad for him, but didn’t want to make his same mistake. I stayed well away from that pitter. Even when it was back in its spot on the shelf, sitting quietly, I didn’t get too close to it.


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One Response to “Cherry Picking on Afton Mountain”

  1. Rita Says:

    Trainwhistle, You are amazing! I read every word. Can hardly wait for more. xo

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