The Lesson of the Apple Core

Rules.

Everyone knows them but only some choose to obey.

Every parenting book has a section on establishing a clear understanding of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors in children. Often there is a step-by-step guide for parents to follow for both teaching and disciplining.

 Growing up, we lived in a three-bedroom one bath mobile home with a raised kitchen area at one end. It was quite nice for a trailer house, and it served our family well for ten years. My brother and I each had our own bedroom that shared a wall. At night we had “knocking codes” to communicate and ultimately mess with my mom’s patience late at night! One knock = “Are you awake?” One knock back = “Yes!” From there it got more complicated!

My mom’s disciplinary rules always started with a question. For instance, “Are you two in there knocking on the wall?”

I always wondered why she would ask us that question when it was obviously she KNEW we were definitely wall knocking! It made no sense!

Mom ran an in-home daycare long before there were licenses required and food plans to follow. From before I started kindergarten until I was in fifth grade, we had extra children in our living spaces. Every square inch! It was crowded and loud, especially in the summers when everyone was out of school! And there were different rules established for when the daycare kids were there and when they weren’t. But no matter the rule, Mom still questioned us when we stepped out of line.

“Are we running in the house?”

 Of course we were running in the house! Why else would she have asked the question!

“We’re not throwing pillows are we?”

I’d stop throwing the sofa pillow and think, “No! ‘You’re’ not throwing anything but I am!” Obviously, the disciplinary tactic worked because I’d stop whatever action I’d been questioned about.

Both sets of grandparents lived on farms and both farms had different rules. In fact, my dad’s mom, Gram, had very few rules! We were allowed to experiment, participate, or attempt anything that came to mind as long as we felt it was safe! As a result, we often returned home with streaks of yellow Iodine on cuts and abrasions and waaay to much sugar in our blood to be healthy!

My Grandma K’s rules were more structured. She had “play stations” set up for us ions before such genius became popular in public education! She had boxes of dress up clothes complete with Poodle Skirts and black and white Stiletto shoes, a play store full of real canned goods with the bottoms cut out of the cans so they looked real on the shelves, child-sized desks for playing school, Barbies, baby dolls, and paper dolls! Whatever our heart desired was at our fingertips! (I’m sure Grandma had activities for the boys too, but honestly? I don’t’ remember what they were because I was so enthralled with my own activities!)

What I didn’t realize at the time was how these childhood experiences were forming me as a parent. The first time I caught myself asking a disciplinary question my son was three. I walked into the kitchen and caught him with an open refrigerator door sucking the chocolate syrup out of the big Hershey’s bottle.

In true parenting style I asked, “You’re not drinking the chocolate syrup are you?” His big blue eyes widened, and he nodded his head yes! Without speaking he took one last long drawl on the bottle, pushed the sticky little pop lid shut with his chubby little fingers. He put the bottle right back where it went, closed the door, and walked off with nothing but a glance over the shoulder to see if he was going to get in trouble. The question did the trick. I didn’t have to say another word, yet he knew that might not have been his best decision!  

As I grew older, my activities at both farms began to change. I learned to bake and sew at Gram’s house. While I sewed, Gram sewed. She’d make a seam then have me make one. While I baked, Gram instructed. Of course, she baked without measuring cups or spoons, which drove my mother insane! My mom was a perfectionist who leveled every cup of flour, packed every granular of brown sugar to a solid, and used exact liquid measurements.  Gram had a coffee cup that resembled one cup, give or take. And she used a teaspoon out of the utensil drawer to guesstimate for vanilla, baking powder and the like. It was rare for Gram to have a recipe written on a card. Mostly, her recipes were in her head, perfected over time by consistency and taste. Yet her breads, noodles, pies, and angel food cakes were always far and above that of any other cook I ever knew!

A side note on Gram’s baking lessons: While living out of state raising my own family, I called Gram to get her homemade noodle recipe. She rattled it off quickly then quizzed me on what I’d written down. I went to work right away making my first batch of noodles. The dough was familiar, and they dried overnight just like Gram told me they would. But her noodles were always yellow and mine were white. I called her back from the phone on the wall! I stood over my noodles on the kitchen counter and described them to her. She listened and then told me, “You only need the egg yolks, save the egg whites in the freezer for meringue when you make pie.”

What? I checked my notes. “You didn’t tell me that yesterday!” I protested.

“I didn’t think you’d really try it,” Gram answered laughing.

From then on, I double checked Gram’s “suggested” instructions for recipes with similar recipes to make sure she didn’t leave out  “important” suggestions!

At Grandma K’s house, the library changed from Little Golden Books to chapter books for my perusal. While I would read on the sleeping porch, she would read in her rocking chair next to the open window. When I would take a break we’d talk about the story and my favorite parts. I learned that she’d read every book she ever put on her shelf for us kids! She did that so she could converse with us, develop conversation, and ultimately, I learned to read for content and found great joy in a long book discussions with Grandma. We shared the love of common books until her dying day!

My grandfathers had other rules. But the ones I remember most are the ones my Grandpa K taught me without saying a word. A man of few words, Grandpa led by example, just as my grandmother’s did. We learned without knowing we were being taught. My greatest fear growing up was disappointing my grandparents. I didn’t want to do anything that would cause them embarrassment. I wanted to make them proud!

One lesson in particular still speaks.

We’d been to Aunt Mae’s farm to get eggs and were headed back to my grandparent’s farm. Right before climbing into the backseat, Grandpa picked me a big juicy Jonathan apple from the orchard. He rubbed it on his overalls to a high shine and handed it to me after I got in the car. As soon as we were moving, I sunk my teeth into that apple! So crisp and refreshing on a hot summer afternoon! By the time we reached the familiar little gravel road that took us past the cemetery, I’d eaten everything but the core. It was sticky and running down my arm. I weighed my options.  All of the windows were down for “air conditioning” and clouds of dust were rolling behind us. The longer I held that apple core, the stickier I became and the dust from the road was beginning to tarnish the core in my hand. I made my choice and chucked that apple core right out my window!

In an instant my Grandpa hit the brakes. He brought that old Ford to a stop in a cloud of dust and started to back up. He parked alongside the road under the railroad crossing sign. He didn’t speak a word as he opened his car door and climbed out. I watched him disappear into the overgrown ditch weeds. I asked Grandma what he was doing.

“He’s looking for your apple core,” she answered without taking her eyes off of him.

“Why is he doing that?” I peered out my window watching him step high to clear the weeds and grasses.

“Because we should never throw something out the window of the car.”

I thought for a minute. “But it was an apple core,” I said. “It will go back into the earth.”

Grandpa leaned way down so I couldn’t see him, then reappeared holding something in his right hand. He walked up to the open window and handed me the sticky, now disgustingly dusty apple core.

“Hold that til we get home.” He spoke softly but with authority.

I took the apple core without asking any more questions.

Back at the farm, I threw the core away in the green kitchen trash can with the white lid that flapped. Grandma turned on the water in the kitchen sink and let me wash my hands and arms there instead of going to the little bathroom in the hallway. (Quite honestly, Grandma probably turned on the water in the kitchen so I wouldn’t get doorknobs and sink handles sticky on my way to the little bathroom!)

“Grandpa picked up your apple core so you would know not to throw anything out of the car window. Even if it would go back to the earth, you should still wait and throw it away properly.” Grandma handed me a towel and hugged my shoulders.

I’d disappointed my Grandpa when he saw me throw that core out the window. The fact that he stopped the car and traipsed down into that ditch to prove a point without reprimanding me taught me one of the most valuable lessons of leading by example.

Show them. Don’t simply tell them.

Do it yourself, even if it’s uncomfortable or dirty. They will learn.

Use words when necessary. Otherwise let your actions be your words.

A life lesson from the apple core has stuck with me all these years.

I drove pass that railroad sign a few weeks back and stopped my car. The sign still stood. The tracks were still there. The grass was still overgrown and dusty from the gravel road. That lesson from over forty years ago came back to me crystal clear.

Act before speaking.

Show them the way that is everlasting, and they will walk in the ways of the Lord forever.

Published by Judith Kay Writes

Judith Kay has spent her life observing, listening, questioning, accepting, challenging, and wrestling with life’s toughest questions. Her writings reveal the answers, enmeshed in the tangled, sometimes messy analogies from everyday living. Judith Kay’s rural Iowa upbringing planted deep roots in core family values, a solid work ethic, and a humble spirit. These traits are personified in characters with deep convictions and heartfelt struggles. No stranger herself to disappointment, struggles, and grief, JK presents characters that wield their way into your heart, inviting you to seek your own answers along their journeys! Moving fluently between works of fiction and non-fiction, life-changing implications draw you into Judith Kay’s stories—sometimes challenging, other times affirming. Her quick wit and keen sense of authenticity keep you engaged. Her characters stay with you long after the story has ended. Her stories speak into your own life and resurface in your personal experiences.

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