September 20, 2014

"The Fig Tree"

You know, there are so many things can bring joy to your life, whether it be sporting events, spending time with family, camping, cooking, being active in your church or some humanitarian activity. Those are some pretty grand things to bring a smile to your face.
But you know, little things can do the same thing. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a smile from a loved one or sleeping in on a lazy Saturday morning could be just the thing to make your entire day. For me, it's the little things that count the most. 
But my serious weakness, one thing that will always put a big smile on my face and remove the rumble from my gut, is food. Any food, I don't care... fast food, not so fast food, food I cook, food my wife cooks, food someone else cooks, which is the best food of all, spicy food, mild food, not so mild food and pizza. I've had sushi and shrimp and oysters, raw and in a po-boy, shark and rabbit, squid and calamari, I've eaten bear meat, (once... no more for me thank you) I've had alligator and rattlesnake, boiled crawfish and crabs, elk meat and buffalo, pheasant and quail, dove and venison, wild boar and head-on catfish in a Mexican border town, but I did not drink the water. But I have my limitations too. Do not set a dish in front of me that is made from an animal organ. Nope, just.can' wretch... Liver? hurl... Gut soup? I need an air bag, please and hurry, thank you... 
My wife is NOT as adventurous with her palate as I am, but overall we are serious amateur foodies and for the most part, we have the same desires in food. We watch every cooking show on television, we try to mimic the recipes they share and we have gone so far as to visit a few of the places that the spike-haired, bleach blonde California celebrity chef on the Cooking Channel has made wildly popular on his weekly show.
But all that aside, from time to time, I crave, seriously crave a nice, ripe, purple fig. Yep, I hate to disappoint you, but I'm not a graduate of Cardamum Blue and if I were in the food industry professionally, I'd prefer not to be called a chef. But yes, figs. Why figs you ask? Well, most of us form our likes and dislikes, habits, beliefs and personality early on in life, and generally between the ages of 9 and 14.
At the age of 12, I developed a love for those nice, ripe, giant, Texas figs. It began innocently enough on my walk after school to my families small engine repair shop. My brother and I would help out there after work and the walk home took us down a sleepy, narrow street. On that street was a massive old fig tree, with a big limb that hanged over the fence and into the street. It seemed as if it reached the sky. That may have been due to my relative close proximity to the ground and the tree's amazing height above the ground. Oh, and age. Have you noticed how things you remember as a child seem so much smaller in adulthood? Each day, my brother and I would stroll leisurely down that shady street, our gait slow because of the knowledge of what awaited us at the dirty, greasy and noisy shop... and figs.
We had been partaking in the sweet, juicy bounty of the figs for the better part of the season with never a problem. We'd only enjoy one or two on the way home after a long and arduous day at school, choosing to leave more of the fruit for the next days visit. The first time I heard her voice, I thought they were shooting a scene of "Attack of the Killer Banshees". "Get away from my figs you young hooligans!" were the first words I ever heard out of her mouth. She scowled those words with a level of anger that I'd never heard from an elderly woman, or man for that matter. The initial introduction scared me beyond belief. I dropped my handful of figs and sprinted down the sidewalk, not stopping until I had reached the safety of the family workshop. But those juicy, sweet orbs, that were just waiting to be devoured always drew me back to the scene of the feast.
After that day, my brother and I had to develop a strategy to get at the figs. She was always using a walking cane and neither of us wanted to be the first to see if she could actually fulfill her threat of "splitting our skull with this walker". Yeah, she had me convinced she could. We tried reasoning with her, saying that we were only taking the fruit that was on the limb that was hanging in the street. But no way was she going to reason. "Those are my figs, no matter where the limbs grow!" She would scream that same warning and message every day while she tried to keep from stepping in the level pile of rotting fruit that lay in her yard, under that tree. She didn't want them but she didn't want anyone else having them either.
So the strategy that my brother and I developed was this; while one of us tried, from a distance of course, to keep her occupied on one end of the block, the other would run down the sidewalk like we were leaving. While she made her way to the one that stayed behind on the other end of the block, absorbing her verbal abuse, the other would sneak back up the sidewalk and grab a double handful of the figs. The strategy worked like a charm. For weeks and weeks of each season, we'd enjoy the bounty that the tree had to offer. It seems like a hundred years away. But childhood, like time, passes way too quickly.
I had totally forgotten about those moments way back in my childhood. But a few weeks ago, neither my wife and I were up for cooking. So I jumped in the truck and headed to the local chicken place. I'm not sure why, but on the way back, I came a totally different way than I normally would have. As I headed West on Grand Street, I passed Cole Street, the street the old fig tree was on. Suddenly, like a flood, memories of the cranky old lady, the heavy-fruited fig tree hanging low over Cole Street, came rushing back to me. I remembered those times vividly... the heat in the air, the smell of the warm, sunny day and the rushing "swoosh" of vehicles and the whine of their tires on the highway, just two blocks away.
I slowed my truck down and moved over to the side of the street, ensuring the street was clear behind me. I made a U-turn, drove back down and took a left on Cole street. The road was more lit up than I remembered in my memory. Most of the low-hanging trees had gotten taller or were gone completely. The road was much narrower than I remembered too. Up ahead on the right, I saw the old, decorative wire fence that separated the cranky old lady from my brother and I as we walked, or ran, down the sidewalk.
But as I pulled up to the fence, I noticed that something was amiss, something wasn't right, something just wasn't normal. Suddenly it hit me. The fig tree, the old, cranky lady and her home, were all gone. An uneasy, melancholy sort of mood settled in over me, sort of like I'd been socked in the gut, or I had just seen the wind drop to calm and leave all traces from a ships sail. An important, yet to a degree unsettling part of my youth, was gone. All traces of it, nothing left but the fence and the sidewalk and the memory of a cranky old lady and a tree that brought so much satisfaction to the hunger of a young boy.
I drove slowly home, running those memories through my mind, over and over and over again. Why was that memory so important to me? Was a dirty old street with a not so special tree and a lady that ruled with iron fist over it, that important? Yes, in a way it was. Then I realized, it wasn't the memory of the tree and the joy it brought, or the old, cranky lady that I made life miserable for, a few minutes a day, during the fig season. The reason it hit me so hard was that I realized, things are here today and gone tomorrow. Just like life. One day someone you love is here and the next they're gone. One day a fig tree is here, the next it's gone.
Looking back, had I made an effort to befriend the old lady, I may have made a friend for life. But now, she and her tree are gone, forever, except for being tucked away neatly in my mind. At the time I thought they were bad memories, the reality is, that was part of making me who I am today.
So take it from me, never, ever look at something like it has no meaning or effect on your life at all. For me, a simple fig tree and the memories it holds, has had a profound effect on me and an indescribable joy that I didn't even realize until that day. As long as I'm blessed to live here on this earth, I will never quite look at a big, old purple Texas fig quite the same, ever again.