That fall, Ida drove Charles and Robert to “the secret farm.” She headed toward Rainsville. North of where the road made a bend, a farm had once stood. Nature had reclaimed the site. The buildings had long ago rotted into oblivion, leaving no trace above ground. Even the wagon tracks that had led from the location of the barn out to the road had vanished, except for two ruts that could barely be seen amid the tangled growth on the north face of a low hill. Somehow, Ida knew how to weave through islands of blackberry vines and not get scratched. The boys followed her exactly, so that they would not get scratched either. All three carried buckets.
In the vicinity of where the buildings had stood far back from the highway, Ida strode up to “her” crab apple tree. The bright red fruit was two inches in diameter. The tree had set on heavily that year. She helped the boys fill their buckets with crab apples, which she would later slice and boil to make a clear orange jelly that was Robert’s favorite of all the jellies his mother ever made.
“Look,” she said, holding a crab apple in one hand and cutting it open with a paring knife that she had brought in the pocket of her dark blue jacket, “what color are the seeds?”
“They’re brown,” Charles said.
“That’s how you know the crab apples are ready to be gathered,” Ida explained. “If the seeds were not yet dark brown, we’d leave them on the tree a little longer. See how white the apple is on the inside? That’s another indication that they’re ready.”
With buckets full of crab apples, the three made their way back to the car. They emptied the buckets into two bushel baskets in the trunk. Then they returned to the tree to get more of the red fruit. Robert noticed that the skins of the apples were a darker red where the sunlight bathed them.
They made two more trips to the car. By then, the baskets were almost full.
Next, Ida guided her sons to a slope to the north of the crab apple tree. There, she located “her” pawpaw tree.
“What’s a pawpaw?” Robert asked.
“I’m going to show you,” Ida replied. She reached up to loosen a brownish green fruit from the branch. She held it in front of Robert and teased it open with her paring knife.
“The inside is like a mushy banana,” she said.
“Can I eat it?” Robert asked.
“I don’t think you’d like it raw,” Ida cautioned. “The pawpaws might need to be a little sweeter for you. I’m going to put them in Jell-O.”
The small tree had only a few pawpaws, but they had reached the ideal ripeness. Ida carefully laid them in the bottoms of the buckets so that they would not bruise.
“How did you know the pawpaws were ready?” Charles asked.
“It’s just the time of year for them,” Ida said. “Now, you can look at them to see if they are just beginning to turn a little brown. That’s when they’re at their best. If they’re too brown, they’re past their peak and could be rotten.”
Soon, the family was headed home. Ida said, “I sure hope nobody else ever finds my farm.”
Ida was a skilled forager. When March winds gradually straightened the curls of her permanent, she could be found bent over in the yard while harvesting spring greens. She collected the mustard called “bittercress.” She made sure she had plenty of dandelions. Into her bowl went chickweed, the tiniest leaves of the early dock, and a few leaves of the broadleaf plantain. Many of these plants entered into her fresh salads while others were cooked and served steaming hot and generously peppered.
In the spring of the year when the crab apples had been so numerous, Ida would take Robert, Charles, and a friend back to the abandoned farm to collect a few sassafras roots to make tea.
The boys would use shovels to dig just below the surface of the rich soil to expose the thin roots of the shrub with its three distinctively different shapes of leaf, one of them like a mitten. Their mother and her friend then would kneel on an old blanket and gently cut sections from a few of the roots. These she would bundle together to bring home.
“There was an article in the paper not long ago that said sassafras has been banned because the chemicals in it can be harmful, but one not-very-strong cup should be good for us anyway. It’s a tonic that purifies the blood, which has been too lethargic during this long winter,” Ida would say.
At home that evening, Ida would steep the sassafras roots for a minute or two—until each of the four teacups contained a bright amber liquid. She would add honey, and the tea would be ready to drink. Robert would enjoy the flavor so much that he would wish he could have more of the tea.
“The roots are good for tea for only a few weeks, aren’t they?” Joe would ask. Ida would nod. “I wonder,” Joe would continue, “if the government studies were conducted with roots that were past the time when they could be boiled for tea. Maybe the properties change in the other months of the year.”
On another occasion that spring, Ida would take the boys and her friend mushroom hunting at the old farm. She would collect only the morels, which she would dredge in flour and fry in butter.
Back in that same autumn when the crab apples were so numerous, Mrs. Bowen, one of Ida’s best friends, was visiting with Ida over a late afternoon cup of coffee in Ida’s kitchen, and the topic turned to mushroom hunting. Mrs. Bowen’s name was Irene, but Ida always called her “Mrs. Bowen.”
Mrs. Bowen said, “I’ve been giving some thought to that old neglected farm out there by Rainsville. I’d bet you there might be mushrooms back in there.”
Ida gulped. She opened her mouth to say, “No, there aren’t any. I’ve been back there, and you’d be wasting your time.” She hesitated, instead.
Mrs. Bowen’s sharp features sharpened further. She peered into Ida’s soul. “I do believe you were about to say something,” Mrs. Bowen said, meaningfully.
“Oh,” Ida sighed. “I want to let you in on a little secret. Yes, that old place is where I find my morels. It’s also where I get my blackberries, my crab apples, and my pawpaws.”
“Your secret’s safe with me,” Mrs. Bowen said, setting down her coffee cup with a loud bump on the table, as if she were a queen affixing her seal to a court document. “Just make sure you come get me every time you go out there!”
“I will,” Ida said. … and, as already implied, Ida would be true to her word, taking her friend with her to “their farm.”