It’s not news to anyone: spring’s long long gone, not even a whisper of memory anymore. The rabbit’s-foot curves that were the leaves of the fig tree at the side of the house in April are now completely unclenched; as early as June they’d become hands with broad, spatulate fingers.
I stand on tiptoe, push the leaves back with both hands, searching for fruit, greedy.
A cicada insists: hot, hot, hot. A mockingbird patrols the sag of the phone line. Who would think it’s September? Not I, trills the bird mockingly, over my head. The figs I find weep milk and crystalline sugar. They’re purplish, ripe, completely unlovely. Borne of plants put into the ground a generation ago, when this neighborhood was bars-on-the-windows and frugality handed down.
Now we live in such plenty: nobody eats them.
Me, though, I might be a scavenger born and bred, the offspring of hippies who scoured their neighbors’ Madison, Wisconsin lawns for dandelion greens, a copy of Stalking the Wild Asparagus open to the leafy greens chapter. I’ve been known to … well, let’s put it this way: one summer, when Elder Girleen was still young enough to sit in a stroller, I filched handfuls from the back yard of a vacant house and carried them home in an emptied sippy cup. And the boughs draped over our backyard privacy fence from the neighbor’s yard: if I can reach the drooping figs, I can consider them fair game.
They’re wonderful with goat cheese and arugula. One summer I made them into ice cream. I don’t know when I started to like them. When I was little, I equated them with the gardens of elderly women: on a par with swept dirt yards , cracked tire planters, whitewashed trunks of pecan trees. Inside the sorts of houses that fig trees belonged to, there were sure to be dirty kitchen drawers lined with yellow, curling shelf-paper. Sure to be window sills displaying mason jars with screw-top lids full of miscellaneous screws, and balls made from old rubber bands saved for decades.
In Texas, my grandmother had a fig tree in her yard. We visited every summer; every morning I watched her breakfast on figs ripe from her tree, sliced and swimming in bowls of half-and-half. I turned up my nose.
But I would sit cross-legged in the dappled, rustling shade underneath the tree, reading books I found in the old glass-front bookcases; musty-smelling books I never would have dreamed of reading at home, where I had access to friends, television, the library: Anne of Green Gables, Return of the Native. Whose names were inscribed on the end-papers of those books? Ancestors, I supposed. I didn’t know them.
Now, here I am, forty-three: when I reach for the figs on the trees outside my dining room window, maybe all that history is still within my grasp. I part the leaves, I reach for summer with both hands. The Girleens like them with Greek yogurt and honey.
We get two or three at a time. They’re certainly not anything you could live on, but when I check for ripe ones while the Girleens are at school I feel like … like what? A good provider? Inside the house are lists to be made, emails to answer. I am procrastinating. I am outside in the yard, picking figs.
Lists. I make them, I change them. In two weeks, I leave for a two-week residency here. I did this sort of thing before, but all that was in another life, one before children. Now I have two kids, and I find that I’m preparing for being away from them (and it’s not even two weeks, it’s ten days) the way a mother bear eats berries in preparation for winter. My lists — what time people have to be at school, how many snacks have to be packed to go with them, when they have to be picked up, when and where piano lessons are, the telephone numbers of neighborhood mothers whose help has been pro-offered and gratefully accepted — have become so elaborate: I may have to give the Husband and the Grandmother, who is coming to stay, a Powerpoint presentation before I get in the car loaded up with files and research books and computer and printer and drive off to the mountains!
For ten days, I will be responsible for no one but myself, and this feels both seductive and frightening.
I imagine that driving-away, and it feels like it’s for so long, and to such a far-away place. I remind myself it’s not rocket-science, this mothering I spend so much of the day-to-day engaged in. Everybody will be fine! Children learn good things from seeing their mothers engaged in work. They learn good things from going to school with hair uncombed every once in a while (this being one of my predictions)! So what if they eat too much pizza for dinner!
I will learn good things. I will have the chance to replenish, to write, to rub shoulders, to talk shop.
But if people can get along without you, then they can get along without you. And that is complicated stuff.
So what do I do to combat my anxieties?
I pick figs, as if that would be enough to keep anyone from being hungry. The house is better stocked with food than it usually is, no matter that I’ve done it so far in advance my stockpile while be long-gone by the time I drive off. I do load after load of laundry, as if that will keep people from running out of clean clothes two weeks from now.