I prepared myself to scramble up the tall, rickety wooden ladder. It’s been leaning against the ancient, grand fig tree since last summer. Fred left it there at the ready in order to gather the figs before the birds could steal them and the bugs could eat them from the inside-out. Fred, my old friend, the angel of our neighborhood, died this past February. Now, he’s back in the stars, but this is still his fig tree, still his garden – almost a mini urban farm – and Fred will always dwell here. For the past six summers, Fred has offered me figs from his tree; this summer, I will carry on his sweet fig-giving custom. And I will serve as caretaker of Fred’s garden.
I discovered the first ripe fig of this summer last night because I bopped into it as I was heading into the garden to water. The fig was dangling, bulbous and green, a lovely ornament. I was caught very much surprised by the ripe fig, as last I’d checked, on the previous Sunday, the figs were seemingly days away – weeks, even – from ripening; the tree was covered with many small, rock-hard dark green tear drops!).
So, last night when I discovered the ripe fig, or, maybe the ripe fig discovered me, I wondered if perhaps there were more – how could there be only one ripe fig? – I decided to ascend Fred’s ladder high into the lush uppermost branches so as to look down upon and from within the tree and survey it for potentially ripe fruits. Lucky me—I found two more!
I also acquired a wholly new view of Fred’s garden: to the lower left, through the layers of lush leaves and branches, the rows and rows of heirloom tomatoes (after Fred died and we were making early preparations for this year’s garden, Joanne, Fred’s daughter, and I found plant tags in the greenhouse. On the tags Fred had written in black marker “a-i-r l-o-o-m” for use in indicating which seedlings were collected from last season’s crop of round, gorgeously purple Russian heirloom tomatoes.). Glancing diagonally toward the middle of the garden, being careful not to fall off the ladder, I saw the island of raspberry bushes, now finished fruiting; the new potato patch, ready to be excavated with a pitchfork; the ancient apple trees who no longer offer fruit. Rising up on the near horizon at the garden’s edge, the pole beans, vines stretching in all directions—small purple buds – future beans! To the right – opportunistic weeds, asparagus stalks gone-amok, misbehaving roses, and colonizing grape vines.
As I perched in the fig tree, so far above the ground below (where there was garlic planted until we pulled it up for curing last week), I had many memories, visiting from near and far, flash through my mind. I was a major tree climber as a girl, and I closed my eyes momentarily and asked myself this question: What age do I feel right now, tangled in the arms of Fred’s fig tree?
I also had a strong, visceral remembrance of visiting my dear friends Sara and Herb the year before Sara died of the cancer that colonized her body, at the house on the west bank of the Willamette River, just north of the Sellwood Bridge; they’d invited Isobel and I over to help pick ripe figs. Herb, my elder colleague, and his wife Sara, my mentor and co-conspirator, enjoyed only a couple of years at most in that house on the river – they’d just gotten the interior walls tinted the colors Sara saw in her imagination, planted some new plants in the well-established garden, hosted a fantastic Passover Seder for which Isobel and I made homemade kosher chicken soup with two kinds of matzoth balls: the small dense kind that sink, and the large fluffy kind that float!
I’ll never forget that charming, hilarious experience helping them pick figs on a late summer afternoon at their final home as a couple. Herb on a rickety, ancient ladder propped against the old, lush fig tree; Sara watching from an upstairs window (we broke the screen as we tried to open it widely enough for her to lean out and see Herb), alternating between begging him to be careful and bossing him about where the best figs were and the proper technique for picking them (in response to which Herb sweetly sang songs to Sara promising to be careful, reminding her that he was an old man with many years of ladder-climbing experiences to call upon.). Izzy and I stood on the deck below the tree with bushel baskets – I attempted to catch the figs as Herb tossed them down to me, and then I handed the figs to Izzy, who placed them in the baskets for safe-keeping, occasionally eating a fig that was too ripe to carry back to our house on our bicycles.
Now as I eat figs too ripe to carry across the street from Fred’s garden to my house, I think about the legacy Fred continues to give me, though our relationship exists in a different dimension now that he’s no longer living. To be trusted with the caring for Fred’s garden, a garden that has grown perpetually for 85 years, tending the plants, cultivating the land, allows me to continue my relationship with him. To spend Sunday afternoons with his adult children pulling weeds and gathering the harvest allows me to expand my relationship with Fred, to learn new things about him, about his people.
I’ve even adopted some of Fred's habits-of-speech. I hear myself asking a friend, “Could you use some figs?” I take delight in watching my friend break open the green flesh to discover the sweet purple insides of one of Fred’s figs.