A few years ago, I planted a peach tree in our yard. The white house on the canal had loads of fruit trees: there was a sweet cherry tree, its trunk bent by some long-ago catastrophe, so that the highest branches were only a few feet above the ground, a stooped old man of a tree, perpetually threatening to tumble forward. There was a giant black walnut, and a sour cherry tree, whose fruit only my Grand-Pa ever ate. There was a pear tree, two quince trees, a tree that produced tiny wild plums, and an enormous mess of blackberry canes, as tall as my dad and at least ten feet across, which produced thousands of purple berries.
We took it for granted, living in this lesser Eden. The fruit grew fat and sweet (everything except the quinces, which have a stinging, tart flavor), and if we wanted some, we picked it. If we didn't, it cankered and rotted and fell to the ground, or the birds got it. At the end of the season our backyard was heavy with the scent of spoiled, fermented pears.
Here in south Texas, Nature wields her life-sustaining powers -- rain, sunlight, wind, warmth -- like assault weapons. Our rain comes in droves, buckets flooding us, drowning us, or it doesn't come at all. Our sunlight bakes and burns. The wind uproots even very old trees, lashes us, terrifies us, and when it stills, when the rain and wind are spent, all that remains is heat, heat and a distressing, all-encompassing stickiness. We live inside a kangaroo's pouch. Fruit on the vine is not taken lightly here.
So it was a cruel blow when the squirrels discovered the peach tree.
If rats are the Deadheads of the rodent world, panhandling, free loving, communicable disease spreading petty criminals, squirrels are the cheerleading squad. They'll find a way to leave you frustrated, humiliated, and hopeless, but they're cute and peppy, and somehow it's always harder to fight cute and peppy than it is to fight, say, dirty and dreadlocked, or hunched and hung-over, or bleary and bearded. One afternoon, I had a few dozen peaches, mere hours from being ripe enough for harvesting. The next morning, nothing. Nothing except gnawed peach pits and one brazen, shameless thief who was more than happy to pose with her ill-gotten gain.
In three years, I have eaten exactly one quarter of one peach from that tree, a sweet and juicy morsel that one of the squirrels dropped while running from frenzied, broom-wielding me. Yes, I have shared fruit with a squirrel. Yes, I was careful not to nibble over into the parts that had obviously been Touched By A Squirrel. Yes, I spent several days worrying that I'd contracted lockjaw, or diptheria, or rabies, or whatever plague pom-pom swinging rodents happen to carry. Sometimes we do things we aren't proud of.
This doesn't really have anything to do with family history. I am sad about yesterday's entry, and I needed a break, something light to make the thinking stop.
Our love for our own, our deep desire for connection, for identity, blinds us sometimes. Grief often smothers perspective. Pride stifles shame. My friend Dan, who served an LDS mission in West Germany in the late 1970's, tells me that in home after home, aging mothers proudly displayed photos of smiling sons, posing in their Hitler Youth uniforms and in their German army gear, forever teenagers, their lives lost to one man's perfect vision. The mothers didn't mind the swastikas. They didn't mind that their precious ones were placed on that altar of that particular Motherland.
I am not ashamed of who I am, and of where I come from, but that doesn't mean I am proud of all of it. Luigi Barzini, the great Italian journalist, writes that in Europe, life is seen as a relay race: if you don't make it to the finish line, your son or your grandson or your great-grandson will. It is this mentality that enables men to plant olive trees that won't bear fruit for 70 years, confident that someone, one of their own, will be around to do the harvesting. Americans, says Barzini, are all running a one hundred yard dash, obsessed with winning, convinced they compete alone, no one behind them, no one yet to come. This is why we invented fast food, the half-hour sitcom, and mortgage-backed securities.
It is all a part of us, the past fused to the present, the future waiting its welding link. It's Robertson Davies's string of beads, or the chain in Anton Chekov's "The Student", both ends quivering with identity and memory. We are not running a sprint; we are in a marathon, all of us together, leaning on one another, carrying one another across generations, until it is finished.
I sit here, in this kangaroo pouch of a city, with my denuded peach tree and my gleefully marauding squirrels, and all I can think about is my angry Palatine ancestor, this "difficult man," standing in the swamp now known as "The Shades of Death," watching the butchery, hearing both the screams of terror and the devilish cries of delight, and I hope that he had the courage, the decency, to keep his knife sheathed.