I lifted Elle up into a halo of leaves, her chubby arms outstretched towards the glassy red apple that hung like a small garnet bead from the boughs of this backyard apple tree.
“Apple!” She was delighted at the prize, firm and slick in her little palm, a duo of leaves still clinging to the stem. But as is the toddler way, the just-picked apple held her attention only until something else caught her eye – in this case, the nearby mound of dirt, piled into a neat heap by some backyard rodent.
Elle wriggled out of my arms and stomped away towards the pile, leaving her apple with me.
It had taken just a moment – lifting my little girl into this apple tree in my father’s backyard in La Veta, Colo.; this lopsided tree, whose branches had been broken over the years by the neighborhood bears in their hunt for easy snacks. I wouldn’t have thought much of it, raising Elle into the air to pick an apple, had my grandparents not been there to paint that moment with the more dazzling brushstrokes of reminiscence.
“I remember your grandfather lifting you up like that, into our old pear tree,” my grandmother said, just as Elle busily bustled away to go bury her fingers in the dirt. I knew just the moment she was recalling, because I also remember it vividly.
My grandfather, tall and gentle, lifting me up into a canopy of quietly fluttering leaves and towards the bright heat of the sun. Feeling at once the airy buoyancy of inhabiting a small body, one that could easily be hoisted into the sky to capture a faraway prize, in a world otherwise inhabited by strong grandfathers and tall fruit trees, and also the firm, wholesome wholeness of a fresh-picked pear, that has suddenly materialized in the palm of my little hand.
I wonder if my grandparents and I remember that moment more vividly than other moments because there is a washed-out photograph, somewhere, of two strong arms lifting a blonde-haired little girl towards a pear in a tree. For whatever reason, between sepia-toned photographs and storytelling, we’ve memorialized this moment of pear-picking above many of the rest of our memories. And so it returns to us at times like these, when I’m lifting Elle into an apple tree during a weekend visit with my family.
Elle is my grandparents’ first great-grandchild; I was their first grandchild. Two girls who like to play in the dirt, as my grandmother pointed out last weekend. I had been telling her about my vegetable garden this summer, and how we had eaten salads out of it nearly every night; how Elle loved the fresh broccoli we picked out of there, and that we grew one monster zucchini before everything froze.
I’m sure it was my grandparents’ enchanted gardens in Oklahoma, which I explored for hours when I was young, that inspired me to grow a garden for my daughter. I am still convinced that there was some kind of magic growing from that dark, loamy soil, sprouting up alongside curling pea vines and wispy carrot tops. I found snapping turtles in the strawberry patch and smelled the sweet-honey scent of jasmine. And, of course, that one exceptional pear tree.
If time didn’t have its meddlesome way of changing things, Elle would also have the chance to dig her fingernails into the soil of that lush, enchanted garden. But we may have to settle for plucking hail-pocked apples out of a rogue tree at my father’s house with her great-grandparents standing by, since time has indeed changed things.
My grandfather underwent bypass heart surgery a few years back, and last Thanksgiving my grandmother spent nearly a month in the hospital after undergoing two surgeries to fix an intestinal problem.
Their bodies have been bent by the vestiges of time, not unlike that lopsided apple tree with the broken branches that came with the La Veta fixer-upper my father and his wife purchased as a vacation home many years ago. My grandfather, who once escaped a sinking Navy ship then spent much of the rest of his life working ranches in Texas and New Mexico, now uses a walker. My grandmother, who grew vegetables and sewed clothing for her five children, has become thin and fights vertigo after standing in the kitchen too long. Time’s erosion is apparent, slowing them down significantly and causing them to pack many things away, including their green thumbs. Yet despite the physical limitations of their advanced age, they continue to cultivate the seeds that were planted decades ago, through the moments that live on through the stories they tell.
And so we make the trek across the state every fall to visit them at my father’s house in La Veta, where they spend a month or two. We eat meals together, we go for walks, but mostly we tell stories; from me, stories about Elle discovering things like our garden, and from them, stories of raising my father and caring for me when I was young.
Although they shouldn’t, many of the stories they tell bring with them a poignant stab, evoking a mix of gratitude and melancholy that grips my throat and makes it difficult to say everything I want to tell them. I want to go back to their garden and pick pears. I want my daughter to feel the incredible lightness of being lifted up into the air by the arms of her great-grandfather. I want to be there to take a photograph that someday we’ll show her daughter.
It is, I know, not healthy to wish to live in the past – even if it’s just to relive one bright moment. But I find myself wishing my grandparents could cheat time, at least for a little bit longer, so that Elle could tuck away a memory or two of them. She just might. I hope so.
I brought along a loaf of the zucchini bread I had made from my garden’s monster squash (it wasn’t good for much else). My grandparents claimed it was superb, showering me with compliments: Not only had I baked a loaf of zucchini bread to share for breakfast, I had also grown the zucchini!
Later, helping my grandmother with the breakfast dishes, she told me she was proud of me; proud that I was a mother who grew zucchini and baked bread.
Again, I couldn’t find the words to express my gratitude to her, the woman who helped me become the zucchini-growing bread-baking mother I am. So I just hugged her and tried not to cry, feeling this time no melancholy: Only a deep appreciation for the seeds she has planted and which my daughter will tend.