My family tree includes an actual tree. I call it Abe. Abe is an apricot tree. For 30 years he’s been strong and protective and always there when I need him, so I think of him as my third grandfather. We’re very close; he lives outside my bedroom window. I’m looking at him right now. I’m still in bed, feeling miserable, because last night my husband and I had a heated discussion, the same one we’ve had for the last month.
He wants to chop Abe down because he’s sick.
But small white blossoms have appeared on Abe’s gnarled limbs, the first sign of spring. Apricot trees love Orange County’s coastal climate and thrive on May Gray and June Gloom. Soon Abe’s branches will form a leafy umbrella that will shade half my Huntington Beach back yard. As the scent of apricot blossoms drifts into our bedroom, I breathe in more than their sweet perfume. I breathe in memories.
Abe is huge for an apricot tree, and leans to the southwest, following the prevailing ocean breeze. He is so big it feels as if he’s always been here, as if the house had been built around him. Neglected by the previous owners, the water-starved tree had sent up hundreds of suckers—tiny treelets—that sapped his strength and checked any new fruit. After we moved in, the first thing I did was clear away the suckers. Abe thanked me with a lovely crop of sweet apricots. In all the time we’ve lived here, only once has he failed to produce: An unusually windy spring blew the blossoms off his branches before the bees could pollinate.
Apricot season is short—two, three weeks tops. Every June I look forward to eating juicy fruit plucked right off the tree until my fingers are stained orange and my stomach can’t hold another. Each year I can’t wait to go into Mother Earth mode, putting on my apron and making jam. Gallons of jam. I’m the sole supplier to dozens of people who depend on me for their yearly fix.
I know it’s canning time when, in bed late at night, I hear the first splat—an apricot falling onto the brick patio. That’s my cue to start picking. Time to get down the canning pots and jars, to buy pectin and sugar. The amount of sugar needed is obscene, but when I think of low-sugar and sugarless recipes, I think, “Why bother?”
Recently, Abe was invaded by termites. My husband insists he must go. His argument is logical; he doesn’t want termites munching on our expensive new roof. My argument is—admittedly—emotional, irrational, and sentimental, but to me no less valid. We’ve reached an impasse.
I try to explain that chopping down Abe just because he’s sick seems like a betrayal. His limbs may be old and twisted, but he’s still productive, still has a lot of life left in him. I contend that we should call the tree doctor and simply cut out the bad part, like my doctor did with me.
Pain-killers and back-support braces were a part of my life for years, but nothing got to the source of my pain until an astute doctor imaged my entire back, not just where it hurt. The MRI showed an invader—a spinal tumor—that had to be removed surgically.
My recovery was slow. The expected one-month convalescence stretched to nearly six. Many days all I did was lie in bed and look out at my tree. Watching this life outside my window kept my mind off the pain. I imagined the barren tree’s branches silhouetted against a dove-gray January sky as ancient fingers reaching out for a grandchild. This thought comforted me.
Though at first Abe appeared dormant, much like I did at the time, by February delicate white blossoms appeared, pushing their way out to find the sun, signaling a change of season, the renewal of life. It gave me hope. By the end of the month he sprouted bright-green leaves, as vivid as a Peter Max poster. As more foliage appeared, I found I could walk for more than 10 minutes without needing to rest.
By March, tiny green apricots peeked out from the leaves. I could now tie my shoelaces, and slowly—very slowly—retrieve something I’d dropped on the floor. The leaves spread until the tree formed a canopy, protecting me from the sun when I was able to sit outside. Through April and May, still in bed for most of the day, I watched the apricots plump and ripen.
By June I felt steady on my feet again, and Abe rewarded me with a bumper crop. I made apricot jam for toast, apricot syrup for pancakes, apricot-curry barbecue sauce, apricot tarts, chocolate apricot cake. I ate or canned every one of them, except for the few at the very top, which the jays and sparrows enjoyed.
My husband still doesn’t understand how watching my tree change from winter to summer got me through my illness. But it was always there for me, reminding me that, like the seasons, my pain would pass. My tree needs delicate surgery as I did, not a chainsaw. Saving Abe will be expensive, I know, but damn the cost.
Nothing is more important than family.
Pam Tallman’s most recent essay for Orange Coast was “Holding the Bag” [February 2011].
Illustration by Megan Berkheiser and Mike Caldwell
This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue.