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Essay

Hanging Jewels

All Over Southern California, They Grow, Ripen and Fall to the Ground. When Was the Last Time You Noticed?

June 08, 2003|Susan Straight | Susan Straight is the author of five novels, including "Highwire Moon" (Anchor Books), a National Book Award finalist in 2001.

The rough-barked branches of my apricot tree are heavy with green fruit this time of year. But the spring Santa Anas have done their job, fierce gusts dispersing seeds of date palm and oak. I stalk around the yard, gathering the potpourri of dead bougainvillea blossoms and picking up a few fallen baby apricots.

In the kitchen, I put the velvet-green apricots on the windowsill and notice the last pomegranate, shriveled and forgotten. I remember the late winter day we got it. On the street, stark black branches were naked from cold winds, but the red globes of pomegranates hung heavy. To the neighbor who brought us the bag, these fruits were nothing more than a bother. I sat on the porch with my youngest daughter, 6-year-old Rosette, holding it: dull, cracking, leathery-skinned. Like the earth in winter. But then I showed her how to pry open the tough covering, and she gasped. The ruby jewels glistened inside their waxy yellow compartments. I showed Rosette how to nudge the seeds from their companionable rows, and she popped one into her mouth. So did I. They burst tart and sweet, a tiny rivulet of juice that made us want more. We spit seeds into the dirt near the steps, where over many years, watermelon and nectarine and apricot seeds have sprouted volunteers.

When my husband and I bought this old farmhouse, in a neighborhood of wooden bungalows built on a former citrus grove, we knew nothing about the trees. But a few weeks later, the apricot tree outside our bedroom window began to flower, and then bud. By May, the dark-orange fruit lined each branch in almost military precision. An elderly woman next door told me that the former owner, who was 95, had put up 22 quarts of apricot preserves the previous year. I got out a bag and began to pick as she eyed me. I had a full-time teaching job, was pregnant, and didn't really want to climb a tree. But I had a Swiss mother with a big-time love for fruit and California. Almost every morning of my childhood, she greeted us with a quartered orange.

Rosette and I studied the mysteries and joys of the pomegranate until near dark, popping the kernels with our teeth and tongues. Neighbors noticed Rosette's crimson-stained fingers with fond remembrance. Nobody eats fruit like that anymore, someone said.

It's true. Our kids eat fruit snacks, jellied shapes of sharks and bears made with some fruit juice and lots of food coloring. They eat fruit roll-ups, cups of canned peaches, yogurt-covered raisins and Fig Newtons--all safely processed. The first time my eldest niece saw fruit on trees, she was stunned. She thought fruit magically collected itself in neat rows at the market: kiwi from New Zealand, mangoes from Brazil, red grapes from Chile all winter, Granny Smith apples from South Africa and Red Delicious from Washington state. She had never grabbed something off a branch and put it in her mouth. The art of eating fruit just picked--no alterations made in the kitchen, no dolling up with spices or mashing into cookies--is disappearing, especially among children.

Fifteen years ago, that first time I tasted the apricots from my tree, I was shocked. Densely sweet, tart and firm, they were not the paler, plumper versions in the store. Later that summer, with a new baby in the house, I watched blackbirds fight in the two ancient fig trees outside our daughter's room, one heavy with purplish Brown Turkey figs, the other with huge yellow-green Kadota figs. I ate a few, but I didn't know what to do with them. Then one hot afternoon, I heard two elderly neighbors who assumed I wasn't home talking in my backyard. They were picking figs, and I listened through my window screen as they marveled at the crop and belittled me for not using this valuable fruit. "That young girl probably doesn't know what to do with it--letting it all go to waste," one of them clucked.

I discovered that they dried some figs on backyard screens and preserved whole figs in clove-spiced syrup. I didn't like the taste of either of those, and the backyard began to smell like fermenting wine. Then Selma, the fig lady, knocked tentatively on my door.

She was Armenian. Her family had scattered to Lebanon and then relocated to a tiny house down my street. Selma had seen my fig tree from the sidewalk. She nearly cried over the figs' beauty, and I picked bags for her every year after that, while she brought me baklava and a salad made of parsley, tomatoes and olive oil. "Habiba," she would croon to my daughters, three of them by now, when she came in late summer for the harvest. "The fig lady!" they would shout.

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