How Apples, Russians, and Middle Eastern Families Shape Mine

Salted caramel cream coffee sits sweet on my lips on a quiet Saturday. Snow rests on the drooping pumpkin family out front, and blue jays creep cautious to the seeds in the snow.

Two families come to mind, three, actually. The first family’s farm is forty-five minutes away. Winding through tiny towns and wind-swept corn fields, my car crunched and crackled as I  pulled off the dirt driveway into home-made parking spots on their lawn. Evergreen branches bristled at my grey Hyundai’s intimacy. The Miller family spread wide their lives and their apple orchards to carloads of people each weekend, including my son Daniel and I, pulling up beside my Mom and her housemate Elisabeth’s dusty white car.

“Welcome, help yourselves to squash,” Grandpa Miller boomed, pointing to four boxes full of coral-colored butternut, bulbous yellow spaghetti squash, and mysterious orange and green striped oblongs. “The spaghetti squash are so healthy for you, full of…” Grandpa Doctor Miller rattled off nutritional details along with cooking instructions.

“Ready for a wagon ride to the apples?” he yelled, and we piled on, multiple families. Spanish storytelling and conversations sang around me, and I smiled at the beauty of it, trying to remember my high school Spanish. My greetings were rusty and short but brought bright smiles. Bumping and jostling on the wagon ride, we passed an orchard already well-picked by now, and Grandpa Miller rounded the corner to another orchard, heavy with yellow and red fruits.

“Thank you for sharing your apples with us,” I gushed to Daniel Miller, Grandpa Miller’s adult son, as he handed out long apple basket hook pickers. He deftly maneuvered a tractor rooftop to hoist teenagers up to reach the apples higher in the trees.

“We’re happy the apples can be used,” he said, a wide smile spilling across his face. “Otherwise, we just have to bulldoze fallen apples into the swamp,” he motioned away in the distance. Daniel Miller loped away to help some Guatemalan and Mexican families load their heavy crates of apples onto the trailer.

Elisabeth and my twelve year old Daniel climbed high onto the tractor roof and snaked apple basket-pickers into the boughs, twisting and catching giant yellow apples.

“They’re delicious!” my mom exclaimed. “This is my second already. The red tree over there has lots of apples on the ground that are still good.” She walked away, a blue canvas bag under her arm.

We picked for over an hour. Our bags ran out before the apples did. The Miller men graciously stayed outside with us, driving families and their bulging bags back to the cars, urging people to grab more decorative pumpkins and squash, and then taking the twenty-five or so of us on a long thirty-minute wagon ride winding in and out of their trees and fields. Daniel, my mom and I, and Elisabeth oohed and ahhed, exclaimed over wild turkeys and deer sightings, and reveled in God’s beautiful world. The Millers’ generosity of time and resources astounded me.

Arriving back at the cars, barn, and house, Grandpa Miller pointed to a crackling bonfire, multiple decorated tables, and several steaming crockpots full of food. “Join us for lunch?” he invited. “We have hot dogs, chips, s’mores, and baked beans.”

Daniel and I demurred, but the Millers’ generous hospitality inspired me. Loading four monstrous bags of apples into my car along with multiple squash and tiny pumpkins, Daniel and I jumped in and drove away, crunching sweet crisp apples. Juice splattered my lips and cheek, and I wiped my face, grinning.

Weeks later, I still think of them: the Miller-Apple-Orchard-Doctor family. We’ve copied them, handing out bags of yellow apples to neighbors.

Two other families God brings to my mind often, and I pray. Driving past their blue grey house, I wave to dark windows and wonder how they are, these new Russian neighbors. They drove up in a summer of pandemic and unpacked boxes in a season of masks and quarantine. Nonetheless, they shook hands briskly, moving in for close-faced warm greetings, and they invited the whole neighborhood to an outdoor party this summer. On a hot July weekday night newly into the coronavirus, I worried that pandemic fears would kill the party. Donning masks and planning to safely social-distance, my family and I strode down the street, wanting to welcome them, no matter what. From behind tables packed with Russian potato salads and delicious bacon pasta dishes, my gracious Russian neighbors Vlad and Jane boomed greetings, filled and refilled our plates, urging us to eat more. Trickles of shy neighbors widened, and the party lasted until dark, people unfolding lawn chairs and introducing themselves to still more people. One of the highlights of my summer, Jane and Vlad’s warm hospitality blew wide my ideas of community and neighborhood possibilities.

Driving past them now, though, in the months that follow, I realize I haven’t seen Jane in months, and I pray, and write, and drop off a card with her father at their door. He doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Russian, but we smile and nod and pass on warm greetings.

On my daily commute, I pass a third family that God brings often to mind. Five lanky evergreens stand tall in his backyard, their trunks bare, long, and naked, like a middle schooler’s too short pants on thin ankles. I peer under the trees as my car passes and pray for them. Newly-moved to Minnesota, this Middle Eastern gentleman awaits his family to join him from the border of the country. My friend sold the house to him and had called me.

“Please reach out and welcome them?” she asked. Walking through her home with the new buyer, she had been struck and saddened by how many times he had asked: “Is it safe here?” Do you feel safe?”

Wrapping yellow apples in small plastic, with an accompanying photo card introducing my family, I welcomed him to the neighborhood, and left it at his door. He emailed back in warmth, and I look forward to meeting his wife and showing her around the neighborhoods some day. In the meantime, I tell him I’m praying that God will help them be able to enter our country.

Buttery apple crisp careens and wobbles on my fork. Sweet crumbles dissolve on my tongue, and I see it. Rippling out from yellow orchards, Russian picnic spreads, and Middle Eastern friendship possibilities, this Midwestern Mama is copying them in wide-eyed wonder and delight, seeing my God’s abundant generous heart everywhere.

Hi friend. How are you finding ways to connect with God’s people around you? Join the conversation here

[Unrelated Side Note: My husband Mark and I co-taught a sermon at our church on marriage, from a series that our Lead Pastor was doing in Ephesians. We got to tackle the tough section on marriage in Ephesians 5. Feel free to grab a coffee and tea and watch along, smiling at us as we work through these passages, opening up our lives. Join the conversation here on what struck you in this marriage video sermon.]

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