By Dave Jones

Late every autumn, my wife and I take her wheelchair-bound father, Rob, up to an apple orchard near South Haven, Michigan, to “pick” apples. Actually, “picking” may be the wrong word. Selecting is more like it. We walk around the farm amid large wooden bins full of fresh-picked apples set out on a hillside rising above the Overhiser family’s orchards and make our selections. There are lots of varieties of late season apples to choose from: Michigan Golden Delicious, Ida Reds, Jonagolds, Mutsus, Fujis, Red Delicious, and Golden Russets.

Golden Russets are Rob’s favorite – though hardly anyone else’s. They are gnarly, hard, “ugly” little golden-brown apples, most of them, and their looks certainly don’t betray the delicious sharp, tart tanginess and long-lasting freshness of texture and flavor that make them a big part of our annual apple collection. We always call ahead to the Overhiser family to make sure they will find and set out some bushels of the Russets for Rob to rummage through, because Rob is 92 and does most of his rummaging these days in a wheelchair.

While we’re at the orchard this year, Rob is more physically debilitated than he’s been in previous years. He can’t lean over the bins to reach in and pluck out his own “free samples” or gloat over the bounty of these “beautiful” apples that so many other people overlook. This year, besides the wheelchair, he’s been forced to wear diapers all the time, though he still fights the good fight (in his mind) against having to use them. Every hour or so, he wants to find a bathroom for me to wheel him in and let him try to pull the diapers down and urinate in a toilet. This isn’t so easy to accomplish out in an apple orchard on a muddy, windblown hillside in open country in rural southwestern Michigan.

Who knows how many more of these trips we’re going to be able to make with Rob, so I don’t gripe about having to wheel him around the barn, trying to find a restroom facility for him to use. But this isn’t one of those fancy, U-Pick-‘Em tourist orchards – this is a working farm: If Rob is going to go, we’re going to have to make it up a dirt road through a mazeway of abandoned bins and farm machinery to make use of one of the Port-o-Potties that the Overhiser family sets out in the trees for their farmhands to use.

This is quite an adventure, of course, wheeling off through the sandy, muddy lane on a blustery autumn afternoon, trying not to get the wheelchair stuck in mud and hoping to get the old man up onto an outdoor toilet seat before he starts soaking his diaper and further diminishes his manly pride. By the time we arrive at the Port-o-Potty, Rob is eager to “get going.” We still have to slog the chair through a mire of mud at the mouth of the doorway, wrenching it around for the proper angle of ingress and egress, and then wrestle to get Rob up out the chair and up a step into the cramped, dirty, smelly quarters of the modern-day outhouse. We are two large, ungainly men trying to wrestle an old man’s rigid body into place on the plastic-moulded toilet seat, and the Port-o-Potty creaks and rocks around us as we struggle to accomplish this seemingly herculean task. There are no “handicapped handles” to grab onto – only my shoulders for Rob to lean on as we fight to get his belt undone and diaper pulled down and his bottom positioned in place over the cold, black plastic seat.

The comic side of all this doesn’t escape us. If we aren’t the major tourist attraction in southwestern Michigan, we could be. Reality TV shows would have a field day with us. If we were an old Laurel & Hardy movie, I’m sure the director would have us rolling down the hill together in the Port-o-Potty, for all the bouncy and rumbling commotion we make getting Rob properly seated and peeing.

Still, it is a minor triumph to report that, as of the middle of a long afternoon of travel and activity, my aged father-in-law has still not soiled his diaper or stained his trousers. We emerge from the Port-o-Potty with at least some of his dignity intact, ready to roll him back down to the Golden Russet bin, where he can regale us all with a long lifetime of praises for the hidden beauties of these ugly little apples.

In a way, then, this is a kind of Golden Russet apple moment: It isn’t the first experience most people would pick off “the tree of life,” but it will stay crisp and fresh in my memory a lot longer than the prettier things that have all gone sour and mealy –and come the bitter, cold, dark winter months ahead, it will still have its uniquely zesty inner beauty, its tangy savor still deliciously firm and intact.

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