Apples Don’t Just Grow by Maida Parlow French. McClelland & Stewart, 1954.
The library has a local history shelf, and I picked up this book on a whim. My expectations weren’t great, as it was written more than half a century ago, and I expected it to be dated. I was surprised to find how well the book has aged. Maida French’s story is very engaging and I was sorry to reach the end of the book, having become an admirer of French and fond of her three sons.
Apples don’t just grow. They require a lot of care. Maida French learned the ins and outs of orchard maintenance and apple marketing when she moved to the family farm with her three young sons and set out to earn a living with the orchard. She had lived in Toronto with her husband, but when he died of an illness that used up all of their financial resources (pre-OHIP!), her options were limited. The Parlows owned a farm near Iroquois, located by the St. Lawrence river, which had been given to their United Empire Loyalist ancestors in 1784. However, the farmhouse had long stood empty and the orchard had been unattended for some years. In her book, French tells of the first 3 years on the farm as she, her sons and her Mom who comes out to help her, work to repair the house and return the orchard to health.
No year is given, but the story seems to begin about 1930, the beginning of the Great Depression. It is very much a tale of anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, with difficulties at every turn. Apple scab, inclement weather, shifty apple buyers and countless hours of hard physical labour are but a few of the challenges faced. However, French also conveys the great joy to be found in country life, the pleasure of keeping animals, growing your own garden vegetables, experiencing the coming and going of the seasons, listening to the birds.
What a wonderful childhood her sons experienced! Their young lives were filled with the freedom of the outdoors, exciting adventures, animals large and small, and the satisfaction of meaningful work. One of my favorite episodes tells of the Christmas Eve when the boys wanted to be in the barn at midnight, the hour when, legend has it, the animals can speak. They spend a warm, quiet time with the animals in the midnight barn, but when they are leaving, fearing the children are disappointed, their Mom says
“I’m sorry! It couldn’t happen, you know. That was just an old story, a legend George told you about animals talking.” ” But, Mummy!” They sprang around me. “They did talk. They talked. They were answering us all the time.” I stood there staring at them. David said, “You didn’t expect they’d speak English, did you?”
What had I expected? That was it. I had expected nothing. How could I understand? I had brought no gift. It was the children who had come with gifts. Love, and thoughtfullness, and belief, all they had, they had brought out to our stable on Christmas Eve.
When they arrived at the farm, the orchard was already there for them, planted by another. They decide that they should make a contribution to the future as well, give something back to the land, and to their busy lives add the chore of planting thousands of evergreen seedlings.
It was difficult to remember that French would have been of my grandparents’ generation, her voice feels so immediate and affecting. Her three sons would be of my parents’ generation. The book was published in 1954 and the closing chapter provides an update. The three boys all went off to fight in World War II and the oldest son didn’t return. At the time of writing, French expected their farm to be expropriated for the redevelopment of the town of Iroquois as it was moved to make room for the flooding of the St. Lawrence Seaway project. (See A Shopping Plaza Fit for a Queen) After finishing the book, I set out to locate the property. It appears that plans to move the town to that plot of land were changed, because Iroquois is west of the farm site. Parlow road is still there. There no longer seems to be much agricultural activity in the area and the road is lined with houses on large lots.
There was little sign of the farm or the orchard left. I didn’t see a house that matched the description given in the book and it seems to be gone. There was a small plantation of pine trees that might have been among the trees the family planted, and by this old barn stood an aged apple tree that might be a last remnant of the orchard.
Here is the view of the St. Lawrence river as seen from Parlow Road.
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