Great Grandma arrived on an early autumn Sunday. She traveled from Brooklyn in the backseat of Uncle Tony’s black Buick sedan. Despite her 87 years, she swung the back door open and pulled herself out just as the car came to a full stop. Barely five feet tall, the powerful matriarch stood buttoned in a black wool coat from neck to ankles. Her grey-green kerchief framed a narrow face that was smooth from a lifetime of reacting rather than worrying.
My sisters, brother and I rushed out the front door. Great Grandma grabbed and shook each of us by the gangly shoulders to confirm our sturdiness. Her deep set eyes were at my 11-year-old eye level. After a shake and toothless kiss on a cheek, she cackled her approval in Sicilian and patted our curly heads with her bony hand.
Being the oldest of the five (or the slowest), she grabbed my hand, tucked my arm to her side, and towed me to the backyard. She headed for the sad fig tree she had planted with my mother the previous spring.
“Ora, Cara! Ora!” she ordered to my mother. My sisters and brother scattered, abandoning me to the upcoming reprimands. My mother obediently caught up.
Great Grandma pulled me along ranting into the sea wind about the sun’s direction, the soil…I wasn’t sure. I understood very little Sicilian. But I could tell she was not happy. She held little love for ornamental bushes or the palate of perennial color my mother coaxed into syncopated blooms.
Great Grandma gasped at the sight of the small fig tree. It had barely grown during the summer. Only wide fingered leaves adorned its thin trunk. She pulled me to her face (reminding me of the nuns from Wednesday night catechism who needed only to stare at their publicly schooled students into genuflection). She continued her rant while directing her free hand to the barren fig tree. Her pitch increased with each punctuated gesture.
My mother explained, in English, that the winds from the bay battled the frail tree. It sprayed a salty mist and battered the delicate limbs. The little tree struggled just to keep its leaves green. Great Grandma nodded as she stroked a leaf and bent down digging her fingers into the soil. She understood English perfectly; she simply refused to speak it.
Finally, she freed me to slap the dirt from her hands. I rubbed my numb fingers while I followed my mother and Great Grandma through the vegetable garden. Great Grandma cackled and nodded approvingly over the late ripening tomatoes and eggplant. She smelled leaves, pinched stems, and readjusted a few stakes before leaving the garden sucking on a swiss chard leaf.
Finally, indoors, Great Grandma removed her kerchief revealing the severely pulled white-grey bun on the top of her head. Great Grandma pulled a napkin from her coat pocket and ordered us children to her side. Inside the napkin was one fig; a plump tear drop fig with long golden and black velvet stripes. She picked it early that morning from her favored fig tree that grew in her crowed Brooklyn plot of earth. Great Grandma pointed and chattered breathlessly. All my mother could say was “I know… yes…ok…OK!”
Great Grandma sighed in exhaustion. She held the fig to our noses. Each of us gave an obedient sniff with a solemn nod. Even my little brother knew the communion routine and did not touch it. She sliced into the fig’s skin revealing a crowd of immature flower buds trapped in the deep purple meat. She cut five slices and passed the purple wafer to each of us. My mother took my brother’s slice after he nibbled and quickly wiped it from his tongue (at the time he was sustaining his five-year-old body on Wonder bread and Oreo cookies).
But the fig ….oh so sweet! A light crunch of the flower buds burst concentrated sugar from the skin, and the smooth gel that spread onto the palate lingered as it was sucked down. This was better than any Fig Newton cookie. My mother nodded, “Ok, we’ll move the fig tree.”
Over the years, my mother had half-hearted success growing a productive fig tree. Leaves always abound, but plump figs were rare. She blamed the salty air, the relentless wind, and frigid winters. In her last bid of rebellion from her past, she eventually abandoned the fig trees. Instead, she learned to work with the elements and mastered beautifully coordinated gardens that trimmed the yard and brought incredible color to her seaside home.
Some 40 plus years after that memorable fig visit, I find myself in a newly built home with a vast yard to tend. Always in search of approval, even from the ghosts of my past, I planted a fig tree in the sunniest corner of my virgin yard. It stands with a fresh layer of compost surrounding its roots, coaxing life to renew. The thin limbs already sport leaf buds and fig goblets.
As I slap the soil from my gloved hands, I remember my numb fingers and the fig Great Grandma brought in a napkin that autumn day. Perhaps she will smile down and find my skills and plot of earth worthy to allow the gems to grow plump and sweet.