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September 2005
A Taste of the Sweet Apple
by Jo Anna Holt Watson

Questions and Answers with Jo Anna Holt Watson
provided by Sarabande Books

Q: You had never, until recently, worked as a writer. What inspired you to write this memoir?

Watson: I was never inspired to write a memoir. Two years ago, my recollections began as a letter to my 4-year-old grandson, Holt Watson. Holt and his parents make their home in New York—an entirely different environment from the Bluegrass region of Kentucky where my forebears have farmed and practiced medicine since 1820. I wrote in the hope that someday Holt might read about his idiosyncratic family; our love of the land; and my devotion to my friend and mentor, Joe Collins.

Our people left long ago, taking their opinions, curious antics, and a way of life with them. I felt it was incumbent upon me—my responsibility as a good steward—to introduce our family and the place I loved to young Holt, so I led him back in time to my own childhood. But the love letter I began was removed from my desk by a friend and then handed to a poet, who sent it to Sarabande. I can only assume the happy unexpected has struck once again in order to let a few people come to know Joe Collins and those of us who were in his care.

Q: Your title refers to a spicy-sweet Apple chewing tobacco. Out of all of your rich memories, what made you choose this as your title?

Watson: Many titles would have been far more descriptive of the contents of this book, but it never occurred to me to call my recollections anything but Sweet Apple. That early autumn day Joe Collins gave me my first chew of tobacco was a coming-of-age moment—“I received the communion of my first chew.”

He preferred Apple, so I preferred Apple. He chewed, so I chewed. He spit, and he taught me to out-spit him and several of his friends who were veteran tobacco chewers and spitters. Chewing is not for everybody and rarely for small girls, especially in my family. But I desperately wanted to emulate Joe’s ways and to achieve his patience, serenity, and compassion.

Q: Despite the racial strife that existed in 1942, one of the key friendships in this book is between you and Joe Collins, the foreman of Grassy Springs Farm. Could you describe the importance of this man to you? How did you come to terms with his hardships as a black man in a segregated culture?

Watson: When I wrote A Taste of the Sweet Apple, I dropped a plumbline to my life’s love of the land and of beauty found in things other than a Belgian tablecloth or a pretty face. Is it possible that beauty lies in everyday accomplishment, in grit and determination?

Sweet Apple is no agricultural idyll, only a glimpse of place and time, a history writ small. Life was not simpler and better. The good old days ... I think not. “White Only” signs hung above entrances to public restrooms and above the water fountain in front of the county courthouse. There was no signage at the Sweet Shoppe, the Rexall Drug Store, or on the wall at Butt’s Greyhound Bus Station; there was no need to hang a sign.

Eva Belle’s African Methodist Church and my St. John’s Episcopal were only a few short blocks apart, a half a mile at most, yet I never set foot in her church until one of the saddest days of my life, when I wept beside Joe Collins’ coffin. I was baptized and confirmed at St. John’s, served Sunday-night suppers, and sang alto in the choir, but Eva Belle and Joe never set foot in my church until the day I married.

Four o’clock. “Bong bong bong bong.” The harpist plucked her strings and hummed. Joe Collins, in his white jacket and black bowtie, opened the door and held out his hand. I looked him squarely in the face. “I’m not going to walk down that aisle,” I told him. “Good God Almighty, Pig,” he said, and I knew exactly what he meant. When I was 7, he told me to climb back in the saddle when my mean pony had thrown me to the ground again, and “Be glad they named you after your Grandmother Anna; she was the strong one.”

Joe Collins did not own his home or automobile; he wore my father’s tailored hand-me-down suits; he bathed in a six-foot tub in the laundry room. Joe Collins never said one word to me about the days of Jim Crow and the prejudice that held tightly around us, followed us where we went. Where did he go to get a hot bowl of chili or vegetable soup after standing all morning, and half the icy afternoon, on the concrete floor of Grower’s Tobacco Market? If he paid his 15 cents, he could sit in the back of the Lyric picture show, up in the stifling balcony, and watch a Technicolor film with an all-white cast in the leading romantic and heroic roles, while black men and women, outstanding actors of the time, were cast as fussy nursemaids, plantation laborers, tap dancers, butlers, and cooks. Joe couldn’t pay his dime, sit on the polished chrome stool with a red-leather seat at the Sweet Shoppe, and drink an Orange Crush.

As a small child, I had no way to go over the top, to bridge the racial divide. And so I dressed like Joe, wore dusty ankle boots like Joe, and chewed sweet Apple chewing tobacco like Joe. No way except to say I was named after Joe. And I could walk with him, ride with him, tag along behind him.

His exclusion was a riddle and my childhood heartache; the attack on his dignity brought on my rage. In hope of change, I went overboard, and at the age of 7, announced at the dinner table that I would follow Jesus. I was torn between the Baptists and the Catholics, where the church was full of gold and they had rosaries. The priest greeted me at the door. I expressed my desire to join his church and he told me to come back tomorrow and bring my family. The next day, I brought Joe Collins.

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