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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?