VERNON COUNTY - Waking up with my nose practically touching the ceiling and my eyes still closed to the day, I remembered that it was my first Pie Day—and in my eagerness, I sat up too quickly and bumped my head. I decided to drop and roll.
I was living on Pa’s Road, near Bloomingdale, Wisconsin, in an off-grid, postage-stamp-sized cabin. Each evening, I climbed a ladder to my sleeping bag in a loft that didn’t allow me the space to sit up, let alone stand. I was working part-time as a fitness instructor at the Heart Center in Viroqua, but I was about to start making pies for Ruth at Fleming’s Orchard in Gays Mills one day a week. “Pie Day” was my affectionate name for the Fridays I would spend there.
When I had met Ruth earlier in the year, she was cranky and crabby, having just stopped smoking after about a thousand years. She showed up one morning for a consultation because she thought she needed to start an exercise program, but seeing people using treadmills and lifting weights caused her to chuckle. After all, she had been caring for her home and her beloved apple orchard and store for years, doing good old-fashioned manual labor—outside, where, she said, exercise should take place. I agreed with her.
Having taken advantage of the Heart Center’s warm running water that morning, I was squeaky clean and ready to do battle with her about why a scheduled exercise program might still be a good idea for her. I liked her instantly for her spunk and quick wit. I don’t believe the feeling was mutual since I was the one who wanted to get her on those “crazy exercise contraptions.”
Maybe it was the smell of wood smoke on my clothes that finally won her over, but somewhere along the way, as I enticed her to try different exercises and explained how they could help her with her demanding job, Ruth started telling me about her life. She had been widowed twice and now she and her son ran the orchard. Before she left the Heart Center that day, I’d been offered a Friday job making apple pies. I worried about the hour-long drive, thinking I could easily run out of gas before getting there or have my car break down. Both were common occurrences in those days.
On that first Pie Day morning, after rolling over to the area where I could sit fairly comfortably, I inched out of my sleeping bag and put my socks on. Creeping down the ladder backwards, taking care to put my foot on each step, afraid of tumbling down, I could feel my excitement mounting at the prospect of starting my new job with Ruth.
The drive from Bloomingdale to Gays Mills was gorgeous—and long! I started to think an overnight bag might be useful.
Ruth showed me the kitchen that would be all mine, complete with everything a real house would have and that my cabin didn’t. I caressed the refrigerator as I gazed longingly at the stove and microwave oven. I managed to refrain from flicking the light switches on and off. After the tour of the kitchen, Ruth gave me her secret recipe card and was about to turn me loose for my first day of pie making.
“Wait a minute, Ruth,” I blurted. “Am I supposed to just start making these pies?”
Ruth looked at me, raising an eyebrow. “That’s what you’re here for.”
“But I’ve never made a pie from scratch before.”
Ruth’s reply went something like this: “You darn kid, that’s what you’re here for. Follow the recipe!” Off she went, leaving me to figure things out.
The apple peeler seemed to have a mind of its own, peeling more than the skin no matter when I stopped cranking the handle. Every time I picked up my hunk of dough, one end would drop or my fingers would poke through. I ended up covered from head to toe in flour, and the kitchen looked like a bomb had hit it.
Slowly, with the grace of God—or Ruth’s alter ego—watching over me, I learned to make one darn good apple pie.
I’m proud to say I still hold the record for making and baking 20 pies on one of my shifts! Even better than making those pies was selling them to the hordes of customers who would come to buy apples from Ruth’s store. I cut the pieces larger than I should have and told anyone who ordered a slice, “I made this here pie myself!”
Snacking on all those apple chunks between peeling them and putting them in the pie shell kept my hungry belly full. I never did tell Ruth about the snacking, but I’ll bet she knew and figured it was part of the deal.
Pie Day was a huge blessing for me. It gave me much-needed income during a challenging time in my life, and Ruth became a lifetime friend. It turned out that she wasn’t nearly as cranky or crabby as I’d originally thought!