This piece was also written for my food writing project. Enjoy.
I can’t remember a time when I was growing up that my tree didn’t have at least a little bit of fruit on its branches. We didn’t always get to eat that fruit since raccoons, people, and especially birds make excellent thieves. But every year during the hottest part of the arid Pasadena summer, the tree would fill with soft orange peaches. In the event that they were still there to get ripe and hadn’t been eaten by those thieving people and raccoons; we would walk down to the third and lowest level of our terraced backyard, pick them, carry them back up the stairs, take them inside, and wash them. Then, once we had made sure they didn’t have any bad spots we didn’t want, we would finally bite in and dare to eat a peach. We had to make sure to follow all of those steps every time because my dad always insisted on making sure everything was perfectly sanitary. Going outside by myself, grabbing a peach off the tree and eating it as I lay in the grass deciding what the clouds looked like was always exciting and a little bit surreptitious.
I loved that peach tree because out of all the plants, flowers, and trees in that big backyard, it was mine. It was planted to commemorate my birth, and well, I thought I was pretty great, and therefore so was the peach tree. We may have had a carrot-wood tree, my sister’s skinny apple (it bore little sour green things far inferior to my peaches), a juniper tree that dropped berries all over our redwood playhouse, a Japanese maple I liked to climb in, a flimsy pink-flowered mimosa tree, a blood-orange tree, a row of poplars my dad and I planted just outside our fence and even a jacaranda we got once the mimosa started showing off its fuzzy, decidedly not purple flowers. I loved that the peach tree had the tastiest fruit of all our trees, and was proud that it was the tree we made ice cream from at least once every summer in our hand-cranked 1950s ice cream churn. My younger sister Emily and I would take turns at the crank, asking Mom and Dad if we could eat the ice cream yet and complaining that it was too much work. But once that silky frozen mixture left the wooden ice cream churn, we were glad we did the strenuous work to eat the vibrantly flavored mixture coming out of the little metal container in the middle of the churn. We even invited our new neighbors over just for our homemade peach ice cream one year when the tree was so laden with fruit that one of its largest branches brushed the ground under the weight of its burden.
During the summer I would often go out into our backyard and watch the people across the little canyon separating us garden or barbecue in theirs while swinging or climbing the monkey bars on our play-set or going down the hill to grab an apple or a peach. One particularly idyllic day, as a hired Mexican garden hand cut back a bush covered in red flowers on the opposite hillside, I went down to the garden in jeans and a t-shirt and set out to find a perfect peach. I searched the tree intently to find the absolute softest peach that hadn’t been eaten by birds. I felt every peach I could reach carefully (which wasn’t very many, since I was about eight years old and was always short), squeezing just a little bit to find the one that was almost overripe.
Just as the prospects were looking bleak I found it. I had to go up on tiptoe to get to it, but it was perfect. The most beautiful peach I had ever seen. It had a painted sunset on its fuzzy surface and it gave just enough when I pushed down into it. This peach was the epitome of peachiness and demanded to be eaten right way. There would be no washing of a peach so radiant as this. No bringing it inside.
This was a peach that demanded to be consumed.
As I closed my eyes and bit into my summer treat, I cringed and drew back in surprise. That was not what a peach tasted like. Or felt like. Peaches were firm and wet, and smooth. They were bright and evoked the sun. Whatever I had just taken a hearty bite of was not sunny. In fact it wasn’t even sweet. That bite was even kind of slimy. All of this registered in a moment as I opened my eyes and gazed upon a fruit transformed. I found a little casing of the lovely orange flesh I had expected, but the majority of the fruit was full of shiny black bug larvae. They looked like caviar but had none of the salty magic. I spat the slimy baby bugs out and ran into the house to grab a glass of water, or a piece of bread, or chocolate or something to get the taste of bugs out of my mouth.
The peach tree is gone now. Mom decided to cut it down because it stopped bearing fruit entirely sometime around my junior year of high school. The peach leaf curl she had been spraying tree-medicine to fix for years was finally strong enough to kill my peach tree. There is a baby white nectarine in its place now. It hasn’t started bearing fruit yet and the figs, lemons, kumquat bush, tangerines, and guavas are a bit more interesting right now. Even Emily’s apple tree is still going strong. Just as I was about to leave home, my tree decided to leave with me.