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Old trees, new pears

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Is it possible to receive a gift and go 10 years without opening it?

I am living proof.

A little over a decade ago, we moved into our home on half an acre in the country. At the time, on some level of my sleep-starved consciousness, I guess I was aware that the backyard included a small orchard of apple, peach and pear trees, all planted decades ago by an Englishman named Christopher who previously owned the home.

But on another level, I was a dad with a newborn, diapers to change and a daily commute from, well, nevermind. So, year after year, the deer, squirrels, birds and beetles all feasted on the fruit before we could pick it. And every year, I experienced a new wave of “Christopher guilt,” imagining what he would say if he were still alive and could see how shabbily I was caring for his trees.   

Then came COVID-19 lockdowns and slowdowns — and the groundbreaking on our first actual garden, a chicken coop, and yes, some more time to notice that — “sic transit gloria mundi” — only five of the seven pear trees remained.

There also was time, finally, on a glorious fall Saturday to get out the ladder and pick over 200 of Christopher’s pears. Worms had only burrowed into a few of them, and for once, I had beat the deer. The infant and toddler of a decade back now helped me with the harvest.   

As we picked the pears, we puzzled at the sizes and shapes. Most were mottled with spots and swaths of yellow, brown and russet. No two were remotely alike. Bulged, pinched, knotted, grizzled, so many looked — in comparison with grocery store perfection — misshapen.    

But during an hourslong dicing session on the back porch that packed a dozen large freezer bags, I finally opened the gift I had received a decade ago. The scent of freshly cut pears surrounded me. Our hens were soon pecking at my feet, feasting on the discarded cores. I no longer focused on the imperfections. Christopher’s gift was perfect. 

One of Christopher’s daughters lives next door, and I dispatched my 8-year-old son to surprise her with a bag of freshly diced pears.

“Daddy’s pears,” she exclaimed, and later told me by email that Christopher loved to stew the pears, cutting them into chunks and simmering them with cloves and sugar. “In English tradition,” she told me, “he would serve them with heavy cream.” She added, “Not whipped.”

Within days, we were experimenting with our own version of the stew as the scent of cinnamon, nutmeg and pear wafted from the kitchen. My Christopher guilt was replaced with gratitude — that I finally had stepped into a venerable tradition, that I finally had opened a two-hundredfold gift.   

A week after our harvest and several pear stews later, I realized just how quickly — with three ravenous teens — we were raiding the freezer for the pears.   

“How long do pear trees live?” I typed into Google with some urgency.

“50 years,” the search engine’s content summary told me in large black font.

“When did your father plant the pear trees?” I emailed Christopher’s daughter. “Probably the mid-1970s,” she replied.

Mid-1970s, I realized, would explain why we lost one of the pear trees just this year. I decided to cling to the hope that by “probably,” it was possible that the trees were in fact younger. She also suggested I re-read “A Treasure Hunt,” a children’s book that Christopher wrote about the inhabitants of a country called Leafland. I picked our copy off the shelf and opened to the last page. 

“By the time you are as old as I am,” an elderly man in the story tells a young boy, pointing to his orchard, “you will have a lot of fruit to give away.” Christopher concludes the book, “In the gardens of Leafland, the old trees and the young trees waved to each other in the breeze.” 

I looked out the back window at Christopher’s pear trees, so noble and stooped, their yellowing leaves taking flight in the wind. I said a prayer of thanksgiving: for the fruit and grace that has come, despite this year of such loss. For the beauty of the earth, knotted and grizzled, yet ever new. For all the trees with so much fruit to give away, and the young trees waving to them in the breeze.    

Johnson is co-founder, with his wife, Ever, of Trinity House Community (trinityhousecommunity.org). 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020