8/28/2006

Gift of Plums

When summer days begin to wane toward Fall, it's hard to stay indoors. The sun's still warm, but the breezes begin to chill, lifting my hair with each gust. For the most part, I spend my life in front of the computer, rarely raising my head to look out the window and see the shift from deep green to golds. Ever had those kinds of days? Where you just forget the world, then all of a sudden you just stop and look, really look around, and you blink a bit, because it's bright and colorful, not hemmed in by software templates and pop-up reminders.

Then it's like learning to walk again, to stop moving so fast, to forget a destination, but to just /walk/ around, /seeing/ things. The grass brown from the lack of rain. The whisp of clouds on a sky too blue to be called blue. Maybe something fancier like Azure or Periwinkle or Cerulean. Because it's big, the sky, and for the first time again you see how it reaches from horizon to horizon, disappearing behind the rocky white Mount Baker peak to the rolling greeness of Lummi Island. Then maybe you'd notice the trees and how they shimmer in the wind, not quite ready to let their leaves go, but they're only holding on a bit longer and you know that soon the maples and oaks and birches will be shedding golden treasures at your feet.

It must have been that way for my dad those Sunday afternoons when he would turn our big blue Coronet 500 sedan out the church parking lot in the opposite direction of home. He and mom in the front in their shiny leather bucket seats, and me in the back, the seat all to myself. I was probably nine or so and if I stretched out and laid down on the seat, my head and feet would never touch the door, the seat was so wide. Dad would have the oldies station on the radio singing Elvis songs and Johnny Cash songs and Debbie Reynolds. Frank Sinatra was my favorite, with his smooth voice and jazzy tunes. Old Thumper as we called my dad's car didn't have air conditioning, so we'd roll down the windows and let the air billow in. Warm air that didn't so much cool, but moved the air around and made you feel a little bit better than the closeness of a car shut from the world.

When we hit the corner of Old 99 and 320th Dad would tap his wedding band on his left hand in counter point to the rhythm he tapped with his class ring on his right hand, and we'd wait for the light to change from red to green. I'd try to guess our destination from where he steered the car next - east meant Auburn and the search for fresh fruits and vegetables at old truck farms that dotted the valley. South meant visiting cousins in Tacoma while North usually meant visiting my mother's parent's in Seattle. Any direction, though, meant a long ride by my nine-year-old reckoning and I'd lay myself down on the seat and doze, listening to my parent's conversation weave in and out of songs on the radio.

It was a strange combination to fall asleep by - my parents speak Tagalog, a language I never learned except to know when I was in trouble, and it rose and fell around and through the strains of Strangers in Paradise and How Much is that Doggie in the Window. As I drifted to sleep their voices would mix with the drone of tires on pavement, turn hollow and distant, then melt into dreams of yellows and pinks and greens. Often I'd wake in time to hear my dad shut off the engine and the world would look blue to me, the brightness of waking up too much for me at first, and I'd blink as I sat up, peering up and out the window at the concrete steps leading to my grandparent's house.

Sometimes though I'd find us in front of a different house, a low slung craftsman with a simple porch and picture window facing the street. I'd get quieter inside myself, cautious in unfamiliar surroundings. My parents on the other hand would be excited and smiling, knocking carefully at the door, then opening it if it was unlocked. I'd follow them into a small foyer, then through the dining room of the darkened house. Like a closed up car, the room would feel hot and close, the dark wood furniture and the scent of mothballs giving the space an unlived-in feel. Then the voices would rise and fall again as my parents exchanged greetings with the owners of the house. I'd hear "Auntie Dora" and "How big you are!" and "Are you hungry?" and I my caution would turn to a feeling of boredom as I realized there were no other children in this house and it would be adults talking over and around me in a language I didn't speak.

But as dark as the house was inside, the terraced back yard would always be bright and sunny. A small kitchen garden was grown on the first level nearest the kitchen - peas and corn, tomatoes and squash, spinach and bok choy. Then down the next terrace were the trees, three plum trees and one apple tree, each bursting with fruit. Actually they weren't plum trees but Italian prune trees, which always confused me a bit because to my mind prunes were those oversized wrinkly raisins my mother complained about having to eat every so often because she felt "a bit stopped up." And come to think of it, Italian prunes...in the garden of a Filipino...so they were The Plums, oval and dusty purple, soft and sweet. Small too. I could eat one in two bites, being careful to avoid the seed for my mother's sake. When I got older, I would pop the entire plum in my mouth and chew carefully around the seed, before spitting it into my hand. And those plums... sweet, sun warmed, the juice filling my mouth and trickling down my throat. I couldn't get enough of them.

Uncle Sammy, Auntie Dora's husband would hand my father a white bucket and he'd trudge down the hill to fill it. They were better than candy to me or even cookies. You could get most candy and treats any old time from packages at the store, but these plums only came around once a year, and once the trees were done, you'd have to wait. So boredom behind me, I'd sit on a kitchen chair, feet dangling below as I ate plum after plum after purple sweet plum.

Years later after I had finished high school and gone off to college, I forgot about those plums. They were a distant memory that I compared all other plums to - the round ones were never quite the same in taste and texture - too tart, too smooth skinned, too cold from refrigerated grocery store cases. My life was defined by classes and dramatic relationships that never quite turned out the way I thought they should, especially when it came to my parents. Weeks would turn into months where we didn't speak to each other, the shift from a child-parent relationship to an adult-parent relationship too difficult to manage.

But the summer I married my husband my father calls and asks if we want some plums and even over the phone, I can tell he doesn't mean the round ones I'd seen at the store. I tell him I miss those oval shaped plums from when I was a kid, and he tells me that those aren't plums but Italian prunes and would I like some, he had a bumper crop. They're missing us, I can tell from the conversation and although it would make for a long weekend traveling the 300 miles that separated us, we make the trip and once again I'm sitting in the kitchen, feet dangling as I sit on a high bar stool, munching purple treasures, all sun warmed and sweet.

I learn then that Uncle Sammy and Auntie Dora were the ones who introduced my parents to each other. That Uncle Sammy had planted the trees at their house same as his buddy Uncle Fred. Mind you neither were actually uncles of either of my parents - Sammy was a cousin of my grandfathers and Fred was from his same hometown, but they were both old timers, school boys who'd come to the US when the Philippines was still a protectorate of the US. They'd made it good in America, and when my parents built their first house, they both came over with trees that had grown up around their own trees, children trees of cast off seeds, and planted them in my father's backyard. Neither lived to see the crop he offered us that year, but as I sat listening to their stories, I realized that growing things, Agriculture, is about hope for the future, of planting a small thing into good soil and hoping that it will grow up strong. It might be a something that grows quick and gives sustenance in one season, or it might be something that needs to grow and grow before it bears fruit.

A gardener never gives up on his plants, never gives up hope that something good will come of his hard work, the weeding, the watering, the pruning, the praying. Eating local means partaking of the hope of the land, the hope of your neighbors and friends, for a long life and long friendships.

When my husband and I bought our house in Sudden Valley my father brought over baby trees from his orchard, the second generation of Uncle Sammy's trees, and we all hope that one day our children will take the warm fruit from the tree in their hands, pop a purple treasure in their mouth and relish the sun and sweetness on their tongues.


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Word count: 1,681
Time: 1 hour

Better. Even better than better really, considering that tonight I felt more tired that I did yesterday, but as I wrote, I felt less tired. I tried to write looser tonight, more like I would perform the story. I still got a bit stilted so the voice it uneven, but I finished, got to the heart and found some spaces that will need more development if I decide to work it into a full memoir piece.

I'm grateful.

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