SASKATOON - Doris Lemke, a soft-spoken and soft-hearted woman of 57, hasn't had the easiest life.
The resident of Saskatoon lost her daughter to cancer at the age of 12, raised her two boys as a single mom on social assistance and is now watching her 22-year-old son battle illness as well.
She's taken a lot, but when anonymous thieves stripped her apple tree bare in the middle of the night, she could take no more.
"WHO STOLE MY APPLES?" she roared in a posting on Kijiji that has sparked outrage and a bushel of support from fellow citizens.
"My son has cancer, I am a single mom who had to quit work to care for him. Can hardly afford to buy food. We were looking forward to eating the apples from my tree for the winter.
"Does no one ask anymore? I know how to share. Who needed all 250 apples on my tree? That was so mean and selfish."
Before long, her post had been seen by more than 2,000 people. And not long after that, the seeds of public atonement were planted.
Lemke got a call from a farm woman who offered her a bunch of potatoes, carrots and tomatoes. Out of nowhere, a man dropped at her doorstep a gallon of fresh-squeezed apple juice, applesauce and canned preserves.
Another man gave her a gift certificate for groceries while others wrote back, offering suggestions for improving security or just commiserating with her situation.
Lemke had no idea her posting, typed out on a borrowed computer, would hit such a nerve.
"It wasn't a very nice letter," she admitted. "It was one of those letters you write to yourself and you throw in the garbage, but instead I went on Kijiji.
"I understand people who are suffering and I just really wish they would have come and asked me."
Suffering is, indeed, something that Lemke is far too familiar with. Her little girl, Erika, died in 2001 of a liver-related cancer.
For two years she stayed in Calgary while her daughter underwent treatment, first staying at a Ronald McDonald House and then managing to secure a temporary home with the help of a low-income housing organization.
It's telling that during her stay, Lemke helped raise money to build a park in that low-income housing community.
Her son, Richard, was first diagnosed with bowel cancer shortly before his sister died. Now 22, he is coping with thyroid cancer and growths on his adrenal glands and kidneys.
In part, it is his difficulty with food — soft foods are sometimes easiest for him to digest — that triggered his mother's anger over the purloined fruit, which she'd planned to turn into applesauce for Richard and her other son, Michael, 19.
Then there was her guilt. Lemke confessed ruefully that she'd had an offer of help to pick them the day before they vanished, but had asked the people to come back later.
"I felt so bad because I made my sons wait until that first frost, so (the apples) would get sweet," she said. "And then they ended up with none.
"But I've had so much bad news about my son lately that, you know, you have one extra thing and it kind of puts you over the edge."
Lemke is at a loss to explain what would have motivated the thieves, though she figures it wasn't some spur of the moment thing.
"They would have had to bring boxes and ladders," she said. "I really don't know how they could have done it without planning it out."
But she has a message for the culprits, saying their actions have not soured her view of humanity: "People are so kind."
How do you like them apples?
-- By Chris Purdy and Gwen Dambrofsky in Edmonton
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