Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Strawberry Tree

I was terrified of having a baby. All of it - the pregnancy, the birth, breastfeeding, caring for another human being, the enormous responsibility, the lifelong commitment. It petrified me because I'd thus far killed everything I wanted to keep alive, except maybe my cat but in all honesty, she kept herself alive a lot of the time thanks to the open toilet and the abundance of lizards we have here in Florida. I like to justify this by saying that cats need to hunt and that lizards obviously taste much better than the Cat Naturals I have been known to forget on occasion.

Plants though? I don't even want to get into that. Two years in a row my New Year's Resolution was to just try to keep a potted rosemary alive and both years it was dead by MLK Day. I was the Ted Bundy of gardening.

To me this meant that I should never, ever, ever be entrusted with the care of a helpless, tiny human and when I found myself pregnant I panicked completely.

Back then we lived in a small apartment and we had no yard for me to wreak havoc upon. We'd needed more room for a long time and with a baby coming, buying a house was imperative. Well, we found one: a charming beach cottage. Yeah right. On paper maybe. In real life it was infested with bugs, filthy and run down from years of transient rentals and in disrepair because the landlord could no longer afford its upkeep. Soon after the closing we found that the house was overrun with toxic black mold and would need a total gutting. I was seven months pregnant and we had nowhere to go and I swear, one day I will write a memoir about this lovely experience.

I don't even want to talk about the yard. It made the jungles of Vietnam look like wide open prairies. I mean technically, there was a yard, as in the house was on some property, but it was so overgrown with ficus, weeds and horrifying tropical vegetation that had become the home for every bug and rodent that I am scared shitless of, that you really couldn't get more than a few inches out the back door. I took one look at it and wanted to weep. Agent Orange, I thought. That was the only thing that could possibly make a dent in this impossibly tangled knot of runners, vines and leaves. No mere human could cut through it.

My new house was a disaster. It was just like that movie "The Money Pit" with Tom Hanks. I half expected my husband to fall through a hole in the floor and get stuck that way for hours. Actually no, I expected that would happen to me. Because I was totally screwed. Pregnant, homeless and in over my head in a crappy real estate deal. Could life get worse? I didn't think so.

The South Asian jungle of our backyard didn't intimidate or deter my husband in the slightest. With a hacksaw and a machete, he'd spend hours trying to cut a clear space into the backyard. He had a vision that one day it would be a beautiful, magical place for our daughter to play, but I thought he was nuts. I couldn't see it and it seemed like the more he chopped away back there, the worse it got. We'd purchased the Hydra of yards. Chop one tree down and seven more spring up in its place. My despair knew no bounds. My husband reminded me of the prince forging through a hundred years' worth of briars to rescue Sleeping Beauty, except I can hardly compare myself to a fairytale princess and I wasn't sleeping because I had heartburn that was positively volcanic. My esophagus was molten.

Then one day my husband went truly certifiably insane. He went out to run some errands, to get some "gardening" supplies, but gardening, I thought? Really? What we had could hardly be called a garden. It was a hell pit of death plants, choking the life and light out of everything. The fool came home with a tree. Like we needed another tree for God's sakes. Weren't we trying to get rid of trees and not create more?

"Look," he said, "I had to get it. It's a strawberry tree."

A strawberry tree does not produce strawberries. It gets its name from its blossoms which look like strawberry blossoms. Its real name is muntingia calabura, which sounds like a disease, which by that point I was pretty sure I had and the baby had and we were all going to die of it. The tree is also called Jamaican Cherry, Panama Cherry and the Cotton Candy Berry. Everyone calls it something different.

A few years earlier when life was good and I wasn't pregnant or homeless or sunk into crappy real estate, we had gone on a carefree date to Miami's Fruit and Spice Park. If you ever visit South Florida, this place is a must see. At Fruit and Spice, I became enamored with the strawberry tree which produces lovely pearly pink berries that taste, I swear to God, exactly like cotton candy.

"One day I have GOT to get one of these," I said.

The tour guide said they were extremely rare, though I couldn't imagine why because they were fantastic!

I'd kind of forgotten about the strawberry tree, but my husband remembered and now here one was, but where on earth were we going to put the damned thing? We settled on the side yard because that was mostly cleared and there was some space there. The tree was barely more than a stick, and a sickly looking stick at that, so we figured it would have more than enough room, if it even made it. I didn't think it would because at that point in my life I pretty much didn't think anything could survive, mostly me.

We planted the tree ceremoniously. It was for the baby. It would be her special tree and it would grow with her. Maybe every year we could take pictures of her with it and she could eat the delicious berries as a healthy alternative to candy. What child wouldn't want her own tree that made magical pink berries that tasted like cotton candy?

And so I felt a little teensy bit hopeful and the tree gave me a very small vision of a positive future, though it was a fogged up and distant vision and hard to see.

By some miracle, we moved into the house a week before the baby was born and it was raw and unfinished in spots and the yard still looked like gorillas could hide out comfortably in it, but we kept on because we had no choice.

I'm not going to mince words here. I was seriously depressed and wracked with anxiety. I was sleep deprived and overwhelmed by the task of caring for a baby and convinced that I wouldn't be able to keep her alive. She was so tiny and so yellow when she was born. She didn't nurse well. I swore I had no milk. She cried. I cried. It was awful. Instead of gaining weight and getting bigger, those first few weeks she got smaller, which was proof that I couldn't sustain her. But then she got a little better and I could take her outside a little, which was very scary, but I wanted to show her her tree.

It was now as tall as me. In six weeks the tree had gone from being a knee high stick, to three sticks as high as my head. My goodness, I thought.

The baby grew and the tree grew. The tree blossomed and the baby smiled. She wasn't yellow anymore. I grew too, though I didn't realize it.

But I was utterly broken that year. Family tragedies and dramas made it worse. My marriage fell apart in ways I never dreamed possible. Motherhood destroyed me entirely and I didn't know it did that or that after it does that it builds you back up again. I know now, but I was so lost in the mess of things back then. I thought nothing could ever get better.

All I had was the strawberry tree and the baby. In spite of everything, they both kept growing. Thriving. Blooming. Living. Some days the only good thing I could find was the tree full of flowers with the honeybees jitterbugging all around it. Some days the only pleasure I got was picking a berry, lipstick bright, and popping it in my mouth. That a berry can taste like candy never gets old for me.

The strawberry tree has been called the fastest growing tree in the world. I'm convinced this is true. I thought it would take twenty years to reach the top of the house. It took six months. And it's a real tree, like the "Up North" trees I miss so much down here in Florida. It has a fat trunk and wide leafy branches and it makes about a million berries at a time. Birds made nests in the tree. Butterflies adore it. The thing is a miracle. I can even climb it!

Our yard, almost two years later, is the paradise I couldn't imagine. The jungle has been cleared; sod has been laid. The baby has a vast carpet of green grass to run and play on all day. My happiest times are in that yard.

My return to happiness started with a rare, strange tropical tree. The tree and the baby seemed to grow at the same rate with the same sort of wild abandon. Who knew that a stick could so quickly become a tree to climb or that a tiny yellow baby could become a running, chattering, berry eating toddler in such a short time?

Let's plant more things, we decided. My husband and I had a dream that our yard could be filled with delicious things for our daughter to eat. We wanted her to be able to play safely with nothing poisonous and everything yummy and edible and we wanted her to see where her food came from. We planted more fruit trees. And then some more. We planted herbs and tomatoes, peppers and spices and everything is alive! Everything is growing and thriving. We harvest and delight in our garden and our daughter does too. We love imagining ways to expand it and make it even better. What else can we grow?

Every day, the baby stands at the gate and yells for me to pick her berries from the strawberry tree and every day I find her some and we share them. Every day we keep on growing.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful prose. Please submit this to a magazine ASAP.


Hilary said...

So symbolic and lovely.

We planted trees when our sons were each born also. I don't know how I'm ever going to move from here..

Cie said...

I would love to see a picture of your tree. It sounds beautiful.

skip 2 colorado said...

What a wonderful story. Baby Lawns will surely have many sweet memories of the yard, and the Strawberry Tree. This time passes so quickly. I swear, it was just a few weeks ago that I had a couple of babies- but they're real-honest-to-goodness-grown-up men now. I'm not sure how that happened, but when I read about your journey (both the struggles and the joy) I get a little wistful. 30 years later, I still marvel at the idea of parenthood- and feel profound appreciation. Thanks for allowing me to see with fresh eyes...

Dawn said...

Very sweet. The days go slowly but the years go quickly.

Diary of Why said...

I love this.

kerry said...

That's beautiful.

Caelaeno said...

This is so wonderful to hear. I'm glad you're in a growing place.

Head Ant said...

Please come back to IndieInk!

Anonymous said...


Do you have a kumquat tree? I had one when we moved to Los Angeles and it was a miracle. I miss it.

Jean_Phx said...

I'm sorry I haven't logged in for awhile - access - I am so glad that you are back and writing for us (odd, it feels like it is for us :-) but your writing makes me feel good. thank you, Jean_Phx

Jean_Phx said...

I just wanted to say that I don't always have the opportunity to comment - but, love that I get the chance to read you lovely posts. Thank you, Jean Reilly_Phx

Alison said...

It's 2 AM and I'm reading this with tears in my eyes. I don't even know what to say except, simply beautiful. I agree with everyone who is saying submit!

Submit, submit! This may be my favorite post of yours ever.

Melanie said...

My husband and I raised our 2 kids on an acre of land that was out in the country, at the end of a dead end road. My husband loved planting a garden every year, and planting fruit trees, so that we could eat of the abundance of our land. But one of the best traditions we had involved Christmas. Each year we bought a potted evergreen tree -- any kind of evergreen tree you could imagine -- magnolia, cedar, live oak, holly, arborvitae, pine, etc. After Christmas was over, we transplanted the tree into the yard. Thank goodness we had plenty of room in that yard, because that tradition has lasted for decades now. Good luck to you and Baby Lawns and the Strawberry Tree as you all grow together!

Yasmine said...

Such a beautiful and bittersweet post. I'm in California, and wondering if I could find a stawberry tree here...

My childhood was spent in a little home on a half-acre lot. My parents planted so many fruit trees -- cherry, pomegranate, fig, plum, orange, lemon, persimmon, pear -- and picking all that fruit and eating it throughout my childhood makes for some of my happiest memories. I have no doubt your daughter will feel the same way =)

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