A home with roots

A home with roots

Editor’s Note: We at Topology are currently on our annual publishing break. In the meantime, enjoy this bonus essay on the July theme of Roots!

My father’s garden began migrating into our suburban New Jersey house slowly. At first, there were just a few small tomato vines raised in flimsy plastic containers in the basement until they were big enough, strong enough, to be transplanted outdoors in the spring after the frost had melted. As time went on, though, more and more plants began finding their way into our home, the way one and then two stray cats somehow nestle their way into animal lovers’ homes. No longer relegated to the dank basement, the plants moved into our family room and soon our kitchen. They indeed became just like pets, unintelligible but beloved members of the family. Personified, each plant took on a different character. It wasn’t long before my dad had moved not just a few delicate flowers into the house but an entire tree.

My father grew tomatoes and cucumbers, daffodils and roses, but the true gem of his garden was the lemon tree. Brought home from the nursery when she was still young, the lemon tree thrived under my dad’s constant care. She grew wildly, producing sweet-smelling blossoms and beautiful lemons. In the summer she bathed all day in the hot sun. Paparazzi-like bumblebees paid homage to her as she grew accustomed to and demanded the superstar treatment my father gave her. At the slightest nip of wind that hinted that autumn was approaching, she required a change in scenery. With herculean strength my father escorted the full-grown tree from the poolside to the cozy interior of our family room.

All winter long the lemon tree took up residence by the saltwater fish tanks. A gardenia with an intoxicatingly amorous fragrance bowed at her roots. The room looked like a tropical paradise, replete with rainbow-colored fish and luscious greenery. To my father, who most waking hours of the day was rooted in a drab office, it was paradise.

I was never one to really marvel over plants—from early on I spent treacherously long hours waiting for my father to sort through shrubs and flowers and fertilizer and shovels at gardening shops on Saturday afternoons, when the only thing even remotely plant-related I cared about were Cabbage Patch Kids—but even I was amazed by the lemon tree. Seeing those bright yellow bulbs peeking out from among the waxy, green leaves was enough to brighten anyone’s mood.

My mother proudly introduced the lemon tree to anyone who stopped by the house.  If a meal incorporated lemon juice, as is the case with many Mediterranean dishes, she bragged that the lemons had come from our own tree. As residents of the Mid-Atlantic, most of us had only seen citrus piled in stands at the grocery store or squeezed into juice boxes. A tree with actual lemons growing on it was something of a myth—surreal to behold with one’s own eyes.

As much as we all loved the lemon tree, my father had even higher aspirations. He had grown up on a farm in the Peloponnese, in Greece, where chickens darted in between vegetables that grew close to the earth, olive trees raised their branches up into the ocean breeze, and magnificent clusters of grapes hung overhead, shielding the wrinkled women who gossiped over gooey morsels of baklava. He longed to retire from commuting in and out of frenetic New York City and return home to the Old World.

As soon as his youngest child had graduated from high school, my father decided his responsibility here in America was done. He’d provided the best education and opportunities he could to his children, and now he was free to move, with my non-Greek mother in tow, back to the Greek village of his youth. The house I’d grown up in—the bedroom where I’d languished in bed reading novels and writing in my diary in elementary school, the basement where I’d had sleepovers in middle school, the blue bathroom where at 16 I’d dyed my hair every color from burgundy to jet black, the dining room where my melting-pot family of Greeks and Midwesterners had gathered over moussaka and ambrosia salad at Christmas—sold, along with the promise that we’d always live close to each other. The move forever changed the course of my family: parents on one side of the ocean and children on the other.

A lifetime of memories and possessions had to be sorted through, packed, or thrown out. It was easy to donate now-unfashionable clothes, shred decades of old paperwork, and toss retro technology like my brother’s Nintendo Game Boy and my sister’s MC Hammer cassette tapes, but my family obsessed over what to do with the lemon tree. It was as if the lemon tree stood in for all our fears and hopes. If we could find a home for the lemon tree, it would assure us that the rest of us would be okay. We couldn’t just leave the lemon tree in the backyard to fend for herself as if she were a common crab apple tree—that would be plant cruelty. We had to entrust her to someone who recognized her sensitivity and would take special care of her. We didn’t know the people buying the house well enough to know if they might just use her for kindling in the fireplace. It had to be someone we knew. Someone with a nurturing spirit. We talked to several people, and in the end a woman from our church who worked as a substitute teacher adopted the tree. Even a decade later, my father remembered she “had a glass-room addition on a sunny corner of her house.”  The lemon tree would be happy there.

Today, my father delights day and night in his fully functioning garden in Greece.  As if the Greek goddess of agriculture, Demeter, has blessed the land herself, my father brags that there are “about 115 fruit trees of all kind” and a large organic vegetable garden. “I do have a big lemon tree making hundreds of lemons all year round,” he says, but there are so many plants that he does not have time to devote his energy to just one special plant. One summer I visited my parents, my father had saved me the last pear to pluck straight from the branch. The last time I visited, my father had me pick strawberries fresh from the garden. There were so many plump ruby jewels we couldn’t eat them all. It was just my parents and me. With my sister enjoying living in various countries across the world, my brother finding home in the South, and me remaining close to where I grew up, to where I have friends I’ve known since first grade who are family to me when I need somewhere to spend a holiday, it’s difficult to coordinate vacation schedules. The last time the five of us were all together was when my sister got married. I wonder if it will take another marriage, another grafting to the family tree, for my family to all be in the same room together.