I like trees because they seem to be more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.
My great-grandfather, whom everyone called Pap, planted this dwarf peach tree in 1942. This was right before his son Charlie Will (my grandfather) had to pass up a second-round draft notice from the New York Giants and accept a first-round draft notice from the U.S. Army.
By the late 1950s, when my mother was old enough to remember her family’s yearly trips South from Michigan, the tree was bearing almost every year. Some years, the sheer weight of the peaches bent the branches nearly to the ground. Other years might yield a dozen peaches all summer long. Still other years brought nothing.
When Mom and her siblings arrived for summer vacation, Pap sliced fresh peaches for Great-Grandma Edith’s homemade peach ice cream. (If you’ve never tasted such ice cream, you’re missing one of life’s greatest experiences.) When Mom moved here in 1969, she stayed with Pap and Great-Grandma before getting her own apartment in town. That year, the little peach tree produced as many peaches as the three of them could eat—which was a lot.
In 1988, after stints in Atlanta and Birmingham, my mother returned to the old home place. By that time, the peach tree was just about dead. Sap ran from the peach-borer holes along its trunk. Ice storms had broken off half of the tree. The other half struggled to stay upright. The kindest thing to do, Mom reckoned, would be to just cut it down. No sense in letting it suffer. The tree had served its purpose, and now it was time to plant something new.
But the saw stayed in the shed, far from the beleaguered little peach tree. Mom couldn’t stand to cut it down when it was still half-alive, or even a quarter alive. “When it’s finally dead, I’ll cut it,” she kept saying. “We’ll mow around it in the meantime.”
And so we did. Mom mulched it, watered it, bug-sprayed it, pruned away dead and damaged branches. For a dying tree, this one was getting a lot of care.
Year after year, the little tree hung on. Every spring, the delicate pink blossoms appeared. By early summer, fuzzy green baby peaches the size of jelly beans dotted the branches. By July 4th, the baby peaches would be rotting on the ground, felled by fungus or insect predators.
On a spring day in 2003, Mom and Steve (my stepfather) were rebuilding the front porch. I stood nearby, useless with a hammer but still wanting to be part of the action. “Mom,” I said, “it’s about your peach tree.”
“I know, I know,” she sighed. “I’m giving it one more chance. If we still don’t get any peaches—” She sat down on the truck tailgate and stared at the tree. For a moment it seemed to hold its frilly, gaudy pink flowers just a little higher. “But—well, we’ll see what it does this year.”
As usual, within a few weeks the blossoms gave way to fuzzy green baby peaches.
The difference this time was that the baby peaches stayed on the tree, and grew, and ripened. And for the first time in nearly 40 years, we had peaches. All summer long, we had the best homemade peach ice cream and cobbler I have ever tasted. Mom put up the rest, a dozen quarts’ worth, and we enjoyed peach treats until we’d exhausted our supply in late March.
I felt badly for having hoped we could cut down the wizened little tree. I had doubted it, and it had come back. That’s what trees do. It suddenly bore half a bushel of peaches just because. No good reason, no particular logic. Just because.
The tree had had the benefit of good weather that season, but older fruit trees often work on their own schedule. In plenty of other relatively cool springs and summers with plenty of rain, the little tree had been unable to get even the first peach to ripen. But that summer, it summoned everything it had to produce like crazy.
It’s been nine years since that bounty, and the tree has struggled. Last year, a late frost and drought eliminated the young fruit by mid-June. This year, a late freeze followed unseasonably early warmth. We’ve seen little rain, and temperatures have hovered at or above 100° for several weeks now.
In spite of it all, though…
…Mom has picked seven large peaches from the tree. Yes, there are only three here. We had already eaten the others by the time I thought to get the camera.
And look how big they are—between baseball- and softball-sized:
This one was beautiful and delicious.
Still on the branches are dozens more green ones, about two inches long and doing their best to ripen.
But the summer is barely half over. We don’t know what else will happen. The tree probably doesn’t, either.
People pick up and move for a “fresh start” all the time. Unlike us, though, the little peach tree doesn’t have any choice but to accept what befalls it. It’s not as if it can dig itself up and move to another part of the yard, or down the road to where they have plentiful city water for thirsty roots. No, it remains here because that’s what trees do.
Bugs, spores, drought, flood, heat, ice, sharp rocks thrown by a passing the lawnmower, a runaway 2,500-pound Angus bull from the pasture next door—it endures. It has to stay here. It does the best it can with whatever comes its way. The tree can’t wish for another reality. This one is all it has. It just is, and it perseveres in the face of whatever surrounds it.
Peaches or no peaches, I am grateful to this 70-year-old tree for showing me what endurance and perseverance are all about.
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This post originally appeared on my former blog, Forgotten Plants & Places, on 11 April 2012. It appears here with revisions.