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Pawpaw Fruit

Big Bird the Pawpaw Tree

            In May, after reading my pawpaw essay out loud in a zoom, and then posting it on the blog, I continued to check on my pawpaw trees, as usual. I watched my pawpaw grove starting to leaf, the skinny little trees swarmed the area; their trunks ranged from a fingernail wide to the size of a dime, but they were there.

One tiny pawpaw tree starting to leaf

            And then I went over to the big, fourteen-year-old pawpaw tree that looms over the back yard, searching for sun and attention. It kind of reminds me of a Sesame Street creature, like a shaggy green version of Big Bird that prefers to stay in one place. As the big tree was starting to leaf, I noticed that there were some green clumps that weren’t growing into leaves; instead they looked suspiciously like tiny pawpaw fruits. That seemed so unlikely though, since we did nothing special to fertilize the pawpaw flowers this year, like moving the sticky pollen from one flower to another with a Q-tip, now that we only had one mature tree to work with.

Pawpaw fruit?

            But I kept watching, and at one point I counted eight clumps, some with only one green bump, and some with six or seven protrusions. As the pawpaw leaves grew bigger, the little fruit clumps became harder to see, but I could still count maybe five, and then maybe three; and I could still see that one big clump with what looked, now, like four or five green protrusions on it.

Pawpaw fruit or bird foot?

            I checked every few days, but especially after a storm or a visit from the gardeners, and by late June I could only find one fruit, not even a clump, just a single green bump on one of the lower branches of the tree. Mom reassured me that there were probably more on the higher branches, hidden by the now-enormous leaves, but I wasn’t convinced.

            Instead, I checked on my one pawpaw fruit every day – despite the old adage, revised a bit, that a watched pawpaw never grows. I watched it just to make sure it was still there, worried that a heavy rain, or a bird, or a visit from the gardeners would knock it down. And it kept growing – like a long thin balloon gradually filling up with air, growing a belly almost like a fat green banana.

Fat Green Banana Pawpaw

            And then, one day, when I went out to visit my one pawpaw fruit and take a picture to mark its growth – like a proud parent marking a child’s height against the kitchen door – I looked up and saw another pawpaw fruit. It was high up and half hidden by the leaves, but it was much, much bigger than the one on the lower branch, and instead of one pregnant belly it had two bellies, like a big green peanut. Even zooming in as close as my camera could get, every picture of the newly found pawpaw fruit was blurry and unconvincing, and I worried that it was just a trick of the light, but each day I found it again, with wonder.

Big Green Peanut Pawpaw hiding

            I’m sure I give too much metaphorical weight to these pawpaws – and therefore give them too much power to disappoint me – but the hope I feel when I see the new trees sprouting up, or now when I look at these slow growing pawpaw fruit, I think: good things are possible. I think: patience will be rewarded. I think: maybe the good stuff is just around the corner, and if I keep putting one foot in front of the other I will get there.

            The danger of the metaphor is that these two lone pawpaw fruits will die prematurely, or taste disgusting, or some other catastrophe will come along and convince me that my hope was misplaced and I should relax into my natural cynicism and just raise my dose of antidepressants and get on with survival. But the fact that I make these metaphors at all tells me something about my deeply ingrained hope – it’s there, and it will be there. My instincts will always lead me on a search for signs of possibility, for something to hope for. And if I can’t find it in the pawpaws, I’ll find it somewhere else.

After another storm, I went out to check on the pawpaw fruit, and the smaller one, the fat green banana, was gone. It was probably knocked loose by the rain and then carried off by one of the many animals that make our backyard their home (squirrels, birds, raccoons, voles, cats, and of course, Cricket and Ellie). But the big green peanut was still there, and, who knows, maybe there will be more pawpaw fruits hiding in the upper branches. Or maybe not. Either way, I’ll find my hope wherever I can get it.

“We didn’t eat the pawpaw. We prefer chicken.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Reading about Pawpaws

            A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to read one of my essays out loud to a Mutual Support Zoom for my synagogue. We’ve been doing these all year, as a way to keep each other company and to get to know our fellow congregants during Covid. We’re winding up the series now, since most of the regulars have been vaccinated and are returning, slowly, to in-person events, and this was my last chance to take a risk and add my voice to the mix.

“When do I get to talk?”

The theme of this particular Zoom was trees, probably the third or fourth on that theme, because with all of the time we’ve been spending at home for the past year nature has caught everyone’s attention more fully than before. People have been presenting photographs and quilts and poems on trees, and experts have been called in to speak about the science of trees and the care and feeding of trees. When I was asked if I had anything to contribute on the subject, I thought about my pawpaw trees. They have grown with me, and surprised me, and devastated me for a long time now, and I realized that this was something I wanted to share. It didn’t hurt that I had an essay ready to go, freshly rejected from various literary magazines.

“Harrumph.”

            I haven’t done a public reading of my work in a long time, and in the past, I have found them overwhelming. At the graduate reading for my MFA in Fiction I was so anxious that I started crying at the podium, which made it much harder to see the papers in front of me, though I made it through, eventually.

            This reading went a lot better than that one; maybe because it was a small group of familiar faces, or because in the intervening years I’ve had a lot of practice reading other people’s work out loud and teaching in front of a class. I don’t know. It was certainly helpful to have my pawpaw friends there to keep me company, in spirit. Whatever made the difference, this time I actually enjoyed reading my work to an audience. And I think I even did a good job of it (which, given my propensity to self-criticism is saying a lot).

            I don’t know where this leads me, but it felt like a big step forward, because it’s a sign that, maybe, despite all of my fears, I’m getting better at pursuing the things I love. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

“Yes!”

            So here’s the essay I read to those fifteen kind people. I hope you like it.

A Pawpaw Story

            Almost fourteen years ago now, I ordered a box of Pawpaws at a friend’s suggestion. They arrived in September, each fruit wrapped in newspaper because they are so fragile and easily bruised. Pawpaws are custardy sweet, and the flesh has to be eaten with a spoon, not peeled like an orange, or sliced like an apple, or bitten straight into like a strawberry. They are filled with a row of almond shaped seeds that you have to dig out, or suck on, to get the flesh that clings stubbornly to them. It’s work.  The Pawpaw season is very short and the fruit rots within days, so if you order a box (usually from Ohio) you need to eat them, or freeze them, fast.

             Some say pawpaws are too sweet, or too funny looking, or too smelly, but, I discovered, pawpaws are just right for me.

Pawpaw fruit (not my picture)

            We saved the seeds in the freezer, like the instructions said to do (pawpaw growers are, by their very nature, proselytizers), and at the end of the winter, Mom and I planted the seeds in big ceramic pots in the kitchen, next to the window sill, with the pots wrapped in scarves because there was still a bit of a chill left in the air. And then, like the Talmudic sages said the angels do for every blade of grass, I stood over the pots and whispered, “Grow, Grow.”

            And they did grow. The seedlings were tall, and full of personality, and five or six of them even survived long enough to be planted outdoors once the weather was warm enough. We kept them in their pots at first, though, so that they could come back inside if they needed to.

            Three, maybe four, survived the first year and grew into saplings, gradually growing taller, as their leaves extended out like shiny green fans. For years, their leaves paled to yellow in the fall, disappeared for the winter, and reappeared in the spring.

            We had to dig the three surviving trees up and replant them five years later, when we moved. And one suffered a horrible gardening accident when the maintenance men were working higher up on the retaining wall and tossing small trees downhill. But the other two Pawpaw trees survived, now carefully marked, and settled into their new surroundings. They continued to grow, year after year, getting taller, and healthier, but there was no fruit yet, not even a flower.

            We got impatient and ordered two new baby trees, because a Pawpaw expert told us we needed to have at least two trees in close proximity in order for fertilization to occur, and the two we had were too far apart. But the baby trees were crushed in the shipping process and never really recovered, though we watched over them hopefully for a season.

Finally, after eleven years, my two Pawpaw trees started to flower. The flowers were small, and a deep burgundy brown color, but pretty quickly they dried up and flew away, and the leaves turned yellow again and the trees went to sleep again for another winter.

            The following year, the flowers came back bigger and brighter, and there were more of them, and they were filled with enough powdery, sticky pollen that we were able to transfer it from the flowers of one tree to the flowers of the other, by Q-tip, and hope for fruit. A tiny cluster of baby fruit showed up a while later, and even though it only survived for a week, we were hopeful that maybe in another year, after another season of flowering, the trees would be ready to fruit for real.

A pawpaw flower

            Twelve years may seem too long to wait for a piece of fruit, but to me the wait was sort of the point.

            And then, about a month later, disaster struck, of the human kind. I was napping during the day, as I often do, and Mom was in the living room working on a quilt. Somehow she heard a sound over the thumping of the old sewing machine, maybe the crying out of a dying tree had a particular power. I heard a scream, and a door slam, and then my dogs came to get me, but they couldn’t tell me what was wrong. I waited, worried about that scream and the horror it foretold. I could only imagine the death and destruction, the multiple apocalyptic events held in that scream. When Mom finally returned, ringing the doorbell, because she’d forgotten her key, she told me that the new gardeners had killed one of the pawpaw trees, and she’d reached them just in time to save the second one.

I didn’t understand. The pawpaw trees were over fifteen feet tall by then, and no longer wearing the blue tape they’d worn years earlier to mark them as special, because after seven years on the property they didn’t seem at risk anymore. Mom said she’d had to drag the murdered Pawpaw tree into the woods herself, for burial. But, why? The gardeners told her that they’d had to cut everything back in order to mow the lawn in straight lines. But not a tree, she’d screamed at them, you could have trimmed some of the branches if they were in your way, but who cuts down a tree in order to mow a lawn?

            The violence of it felt real to me, not metaphorical. When I finally went outside, the stump of the dead tree stuck up out of the retaining wall, looking wet, almost bloody. Obscene.

            Within minutes, Mom was googling for advice. She wondered if we could re-plant the amputated branches, or order pollen from another pawpaw tree to be sent to us each year, in order to fertilize our lone tree and maybe, finally, produce fruit.

            But I sat still, undone, convinced that you can’t un-chop a tree.

            Weeks passed. We dressed the lone pawpaw tree in a colorful bowtie, to protect it from future gardeners, and I whispered to it daily, to keep it from dying of loneliness.

            And then Mom called me to look at something in the retaining wall, in the area of the dead tree stump. I thought maybe she would show me more of her re-growth experiments, expecting me to be excited and invested, when all I could feel was the deadness of everything. Instead, she showed me pawpaw leaves, living and breathing on two long stalks, half green and half brown, and wobbly from very recent growth, growing out of the dirt two feet from the dead stump. We had not planted new Pawpaw seeds, or even noticed any random Pawpaw trees planting themselves under the mass of other trees and bushes in the retaining wall, but there they were. It just seemed so unlikely, to me, that Pawpaw trees could have created themselves, without any help, just when we needed them most.

            I picked one of the leaves to bring over to the big Pawpaw tree to compare. But I still felt skeptical, because that’s my automatic response to most things. It can’t be true, especially if I want it to be true. Mom pointed out the unique quilting design on the leaves, unlike any other leaves nearby, and the shine on the baby leaves, which I’d seen many times myself when our Pawpaws came back to life each spring.

            A few days later, Mom went back to the same spot, to make sure the Pawpaw stalks were still there, and not just a mirage made out of grief, and she found another, much smaller, Pawpaw sapling, maybe just a few weeks old. And she kept going back, and searching more carefully, and finding more Pawpaws, sprouting everywhere like a tiny village growing from the roots of the seemingly, but not really, dead tree.

            And I had to accept that my skepticism, my pessimism, was wrong. Sometimes the things we want most really do happen; sometimes trees can re-create themselves. From the beginning, I thought that Mom and I would put in endless years of effort for no real reward, because that’s just the way of things. But there they were, a forest of pawpaws coming to life all around me, trying to tell me that trees are living things, and deep in their roots they are desperate to survive, just like us. And sometimes, despite everything, we grow.

The pawpaw tree in autumn.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

A Pawpaw Forest

 

Earlier this summer I wrote about my excitement when my two twelve-year-old Pawpaw trees flowered and seemed ready to fruit, and then I wrote about my grief when one of the Pawpaw trees was cut down by the co-op’s hired gardeners. Well, recently, when Mom was examining the stump of the dead Pawpaw tree, where she had set up one of her experiments to encourage new growth, she happened to look two feet further along the retaining wall and saw what looked like Pawpaw leaves dangling over the side. She examined them closely, comparing the leaves to the healthy Pawpaw leaves on the surviving tree about fifty feet away, and they looked very much the same. How odd!

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The possible Pawpaw leaves were hanging from two stand-alone stems, half green and half brown, and wobbly from very recent growth. We had not planted new Pawpaw seeds, or even noticed any random Pawpaw trees planting themselves under the mass of other trees and bushes in the retaining wall, but there they were, as tall as the two year old trees that we’d had shipped to us a few years ago (unsuccessfully). But it just seemed so unlikely, to me, that new Pawpaw trees could have planted themselves right there, without any help, and just when we really needed them.

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Mom brought me outside to examine the leaves for myself, and even let me pick one of the leaves to bring over to the big Pawpaw tree to compare. But I still felt skeptical, because that’s my automatic response to most things. It can’t be true, especially if I want it to be true. Mom was, and is always, more trusting. She pointed out the unique quilting design on the leaves, unlike any other leaves nearby, and the shine on the baby leaves, which I’d seen many times myself when our Pawpaws came back to life each spring.

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A few days later, Mom went back to the same spot, to make sure the Pawpaw plants were still there, and not just a mirage made out of grief, and she found another, much smaller, Pawpaw sapling, maybe just a few weeks old. And she kept going back, and searching more carefully, and finding more Pawpaws. I still wasn’t convinced though. It seemed too much like the universe looking out for me.

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It never occurred to me that my trees would try to re-create themselves. I thought, actually, that Mom and I would put in endless years of effort for no real reward, because that’s how my life has always seemed to me. But I think I might be wrong this time. We still have new-growth devices on three branches of the existing Pawpaw tree, and the makeshift device on the Pawpaw stump, and if these previously hidden little trees are real Pawpaws, then we are on our way to having a Pawpaw forest in the yard to replace the one tree that was cut down by the gardeners. And we still have a Pawpaw tree coming next spring, as a peace offering form the gardening company.

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The Papa Pawpaw

We’ll have to replant the saplings in different parts of the yard, where they will each have sunlight and space to spread out, to give them a real chance to survive. But it seems miraculous already, that they even exist. There’s a metaphor in all of this, or too many metaphors to count, but here’s hoping the hidden Pawpaws are a sign of good things to come in the next year.

 

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Ellie’s ready for some gardening!

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Cricket is already digging!

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

I Had Two Pawpaw Trees

 

I had two pawpaw trees, but now I only have one. The new gardeners decided that the trees were in their way; they had already cut down the first pawpaw tree when Mom looked out the window of her bedroom and screamed.

I had no idea what was going on, because I was still sleeping (afternoon naps are a thing). I heard the small scream and then the dogs barking like crazy so I got up. The first thing I saw was a puddle of pee on my exercise mat. I assume Ellie did that when she heard Grandma scream, but it could have been sitting there for a few minutes. I had to focus on cleaning up the pee, so I couldn’t ask Cricket why she was standing at our apartment door barking her head off.

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“Where did Grandma go!”

E pre groom

Loud noises make me pee, Mommy.

Then the doorbell rang, and it was Mom, because she’d run outside so quickly that she forgot her key to the building. That’s when I found out what had happened. Between the scream and the doorbell, Mom had been running across the lawn to convince the gardeners to leave the second Pawpaw tree alone, and then dragging the murdered tree out to the woods, to prepare it for a proper burial.

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Pawpaw branches awaiting burial

I wasn’t taking the information in. I looked out the front door of our building and the bigger pawpaw tree was still there, but fifty feet closer to me, there was a hole. Who cuts down the trunk of a tree like it’s the errant limb of a Forsythia?

The pawpaw trees were both twelve years old and just beginning to flower. My hope was that, very soon, the flowers would lead to fruiting. Actually, we had the tiny beginnings of pawpaw fruit earlier in the summer; a little clump of four pawpaws. I didn’t want to write about it until I knew if the fruit would survive, and within a week, they were gone. We thought they must have been wiped out by heavy rains, but it turns out that the gardeners had knocked down the fragile baby fruit when they were mowing the lawn, and that’s when they decided that the overhanging bushes and trees would have to go. Except, no one mentioned this to us.

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Pawpaw flowers

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clump of baby pawpaws

I was angry, and ranting, and running around like a chicken with my head cut off, but there was nothing I could do.

The powerlessness is what overwhelms me. My mother is the president of our co-op board and no one even told her that the trees were in danger, let alone asked her opinion, or her permission, to take them down. Up until this year we had two maintenance men who knew the trees and knew who to ask when there was a problem with them. They figured this out early, because they’d accidentally knocked down our third pawpaw tree soon after it had been planted in place. But one of the maintenance men retired recently, and the co-op hired a gardening company to come in once a week to make life easier for the remaining maintenance man. The first time they came, Mom told them to stay away from the pawpaw trees, but they seem to have forgotten.

The trees should have had a ribbon around them. Both trees used to be marked, after the incident with the third tree way back when, but we forgot all about it. The trees were so solid, and so tall, that it didn’t occur to us that someone would try to cut them down.

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Pawpaw standing tall

Within minutes, Mom was calling around for advice on how to fertilize a lone tree; and if there was a way to save any part of the murdered tree; or if you could buy a five or six year old pawpaw tree instead of one of the two year olds, to cut down on the long wait for maturity; or, maybe we could borrow pollen from someone else’s pawpaw tree to fertilize the one tree we have left, next year?

The trees were born a few months before Cricket, and they lived in the kitchen until they were toddlers and ready to live outside, still in their pots. When the trees were planted in our new yard, seven years ago, they took root and decided to stay.

pawpaw new home 007

Pawpaw toddler getting ready to go outside

puppy in October 034

Cricket, same age

That tree was loved, that’s all I can say.

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If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel called to write a review of the book on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. Izzy’s father then sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?