Christmas Letter 2011: Reaping the Fruit of the Village
It is the first weekend in July 2011. Johnny, Gabriel’s father, has been gone six months now, but Lionel, Gabriel’s longtime business mentor and friend, is still cracking jokes in the days before his last birthday. In Ireland, two new additions to the McKeagney clan are about to make an auspicious entrance to the world. Ronan’s broken wrist of springtime has healed perfectly, and the thrill of Brian’s first AYSO goal of autumn is still ahead of us.
The early southern California morning is monotonously glorious. Three colors dominate: eager blue sky, bold green leaves, streaking saffron sunshine. Gabriel awakens first to begin methodical preparations. He lugs out our big blue tubs filled with water and drops in sterilization tablets. He readies the long folding tables with cutting boards and essential equipment. He rigs the pneumatic drill to the masher, another invention of his own genius. Brian and I arise about the same time. As I begin my early-morning kitchen rustlings, Brian helps his dad gather orange Home Depot buckets. Sleepyheads Ronan and finally Therese reluctantly emerge, and I have to admonish Ronan, his finger poised before the TV power button, to get out there and help the family.
Today is Cidering Saturday. And we are all called to serve.
In typical McKeagney fashion, the first order of business is to commandeer help. The children scatter into the neighborhood and return within minutes with a gaggle of Country Hills Road’s finest – Tabitha, Aimee, Morgan, and Emmett – with ready hands and nimble fingers. The shaggy-haired, bronzed-skinned recruits appear in summer uniform: wrinkled shorts and yesterday’s t-shirts, shoes optional.
The troops are ready, and Gabriel positions them at stations according to age and ability. The under-eights scour the garden for recently fallen apples, the girls begin at the chopping station, inspecting for worms and rot, and the pre-teens help Gabriel take the scrutinized chunks and begin the mashing. An ordered chaos – a state perfected by the McKeagney family – ensues.
Over the next hour, the back patio begins its transformation into a slushy diaspora, as bushels of apples are relentlessly converted into three stages of matter, and lesser bits of core, seed, and peel guilefully escape their fate. The troops slog through bucket after bucket of shiny red and yellow apples, slicing, chopping, plopping, scraping, mashing, scooping, piling, pressing, dumping, and soon we see the chalice of our labor begin to fill. A precious amber liquid seeps reservedly from the press into smaller buckets, as pure and sweet as the summer morning itself.
Predictably, the session only lasts as long as the attention spans of the under-twelves in our coerced labor force. Soon, adult reinforcements arrive: Sean, Victor, Robert, Clay, Rick, Robert & Jonathan, Trent & Joey. And now the serious mass production begins. The children have vanished, degraded into summer uselessness, and cidering becomes solemn manwork. Over the next five hours, the warriors obliterate well over 1,000 apples, chopping madly, mashing violently, pressing with divine vengeance. Bucket after bucket fills with golden ambrosia. The craic is mighty, the foreheads sweaty, and the floor sludge indescribable. Lunch is served and discarded somewhere around midday, and forgotten mugs of tea are littered along the periphery.
During the afternoon sun’s languid descent, the warriors finish their day’s toil. They plop down in plastic patio chairs to admire their work: a row of gleaming five-gallon carboys filled to brimming. In a few days, Gabriel and Victor will experiment with fermentation techniques; and a few weeks later, they will carbonate and cap the golden liquid into over 150 bottles. In a month’s time, Ev and family will visit to design labels and test sugar levels. And finally, the cider will be ready to share, about six months later, on Christmas Day.
It takes a village … to do anything. My children, my home, my life are all products of this Village. I don’t know who planted the apple trees in my garden, on what day, with what sized hands, in what weather. I do know that the trees grew and flourished there over 30 years by the grace of God. I don’t know what the next six months will bring in tones of tragedy or victory, but I do know that the Village will be there to sympathize or cheer, to babysit my children, to bring their histories to my table and their music to my living room, and to share a glass of homemade cider.
The Village is born in rich soil, blossoms steadily, stretches readily, reaches outward and upward, wraps its branches around us, and becomes the source of breath and life and love. This winter, this holiday season, we truly reap the fruit of the Village. For this, we are blessed; we are humbled. We give thanks to God’s grace.
We thank you all, beloved residents of our Village, for sharing this past year with us. We wish you all the joy of these present Holy Days, and the joy of what, yet unknown, lies beyond. We’ll be there together.