My Mother, the Apple Tree
"Kousa fruits are the size of small, round plums, bright red outside and orange flame within. Their texture is like a ripe persimmon and their flavor—when I close my eyes and swirl them in my mouth—brings to me a delicate hint of apple."
Tell me again, why did you buy this house?” my outspoken mother asked during her first visit.
In 1988, my husband and I had bought a house in Seattle with a panoramic view of the city. There was Elliott Bay to the southwest, Mt. Rainier glorious in the distance, and, six blocks away, the Space Needle soaring over it all. Breathtaking. Compared to the view, the house was uninspiring—a 1920s cottage with many grafted-on “updates,” most of which were good only for tearing out. We knew we had work to do.
Bad as the interior features were, the precariously steep backyard was hideous. No updates here. A laurel hedge grew at the eastern property line, a living monolith that had proliferated to mammoth proportions. Anyone who dared to visit the “garden” was greeted by a rubble mound covered with deadly nightshade. A once-lovely Cecile Brunner rose bush was subsumed into a crop of morning glory—not the good kind. At the southwest corner of the property, near a sagging chain-link fence, was a goldfish pond, now dry, with tentacles of blackberry tangled around the edges. A wide crack swept across its kidney-shaped concrete form, left to right, as though a marauding giant had lifted it from its loamy cavity and dropped it back into the earth.
One feature redeemed this outdoor mess. A wizened apple tree stood north of the pond, planted, perhaps, by the original home owners. Here, the grafts bore fruit. To some kind of root stock had been added Gravensteins and another unfamiliar variety. Over time, I came to love the apple tree and would sit long hours in its shade reading, dozing, meditating, while the rest of the flora threatened to overtake both the tree and me. I made feeble attempts at control, like having the top five feet of the laurel removed and pulling out the nightshade after my little dog, Pukkee, ate some and had a seizure.
Only once had Mother actually looked at my backyard. She certainly would not have set foot in it. And because she was terrified of heights, she never ventured out to the deck railing to peer down, except one time.
“Hold my hand, Sugar,” she said, and we stepped cautiously to the edge. Then, seeing the incomprehensible mess below, she cried, “Oh, my soul and body!” My mother never used swear words, but this was her phrase to declare that something or someone had gone over the brink.
For a long time I was too busy with career and family obligations to do anything about the yard. I just sat on the deck, looking over it at the Seattle skyline, pretending it was not there.
Our garden situation continued unabated until, in 1996, my mother died, leaving me enough money to transform this horror into a beautiful space—or several beautiful spaces—that even she, a fervent gardener, would have found charming. Now through my mother’s generous legacy, the plot of ground that was my backyard would be redeemed. It would serve as a memorial to her strength, maternal strength that had withstood the many challenges that life brought, among them brain surgery as a young matron, decades of my brother’s alcoholism, and, in her seventies, custody of her preschool granddaughter. Mostly, though, the garden was to be a fitting tribute to my mother’s joie de vivre, her love of flowers, and her devotion to me. I was unaware of the extent of that devotion until, long after my college years, I discovered that she had sold her beloved antique furniture to pay my tuition. All she said was, “Really, Sugar, it’s time for me to simplify.”
And so I began my garden. First to go was the laurel hedge, by now a tangled thicket too dense for songbirds, but wonderful for yellow jacket nests. The Cecile Brunner was released from its web of morning glory and transplanted to a place of honor beside the newly installed winding path. The rubble pile was leveled and incorporated into an upper terrace retained by a graceful stone wall. The fish pond was restored: its crack repaired, its blackberry fought off, its black liner installed, all made ready for new inhabitants. For the apple tree, I bought a cedar bench with a curved back and a carved medallion. And there I sat the day I received the inevitable news from Brian, the landscape designer.
“This apple tree has to go,” he said, with a murderous gaze at the tree.
“We have to remove it.”
“No. I love this tree. Design around it.”
“We talked about this, remember?”
“No. We didn’t,” I responded, listing sideways to grip the rail of the cedar bench, trying to hang on to my resolve.
“Yes, we did. You agreed that I would call the arborist. She came and examined the tree. She confirmed that it is diseased and dying. It will never again bear fruit worth eating.”
“When was the last time you ate an apple from this tree?” he demanded.
As my bottom lip began to tremble, his voice softened. “Really, Susan, it’s time to let it go. You’re spiritual. Think of it this way: The tree is suffering.”
His argument reminded me of the hospice physician as we prepared to remove Mother’s feeding tube: “Are you ready?” he’d asked.
Ready? I thought. Willing to carry out her wishes, yes, but ready?
And here I was again, a life-and-death decision in my hands, and the power to end the suffering. Just like when Mother and I stood together at her mother’s bedside where my grandmother had lain for endless months unable to care for herself in any way, not knowing what was going on around her or what was being done to her or for her. And my mother dug her nails into my arm and said, “Don’t you ever let me get like that.”
“Fine,” I said to Brian, and hesitated because I could say no more.
“I have a crew scheduled to come this afternoon. Is that OK?” Brian asked gently.
“I said fine!” And I had to turn my back on him and flee, leaving the apple tree in his hands.
I returned at 5:00 o’clock that afternoon, expecting the landscaper to be gone and his cruel work finished. But he was still there, toiling with two other men and a chain saw. The tree, or what was left of it, lay like a bone pile all around him.
“What happened?” I asked, choking back the pain of seeing the wreckage.
“Broke my damn saw. Twice.”
Over the years, perhaps to seal out bugs or rot, someone had poured concrete into the trunk of the tree and one of its limbs. The tree had grown around the concrete, forming a rock-like core. When the saw bit into the wood and met the concrete, it broke the chain and shattered the saw. A replacement fared no better. The crew had just come to the end of the job, much of which had to be completed by hand.
“Never had that happen before,” Brian said.
“I told you not to cut that tree down,” I replied. And then added under my breath, “Meet my mother.”
Now, years later, my mother lives on in this garden. She lives in the Cecile Brunner rose’s peppery, sweet fragrance, which follows me as I walk down the garden path. She lives in the quiet waterfall of the pond where three dozen variegated goldfish sport, spawn of the original six brought in. She sits with me on the smooth, silvered surface of the cedar bench in the shade of a Kousa dogwood tree, planted in place of the apple, chosen because this variety brings with its heavenly array of star-like blooms a resistance to disease, a toughness that is needed to flourish in urban areas. Kousa fruits are the size of small, round plums, bright red outside and orange flame within. Their texture is like a ripe persimmon and their flavor—when I close my eyes and swirl them in my mouth—brings to me a delicate hint of apple.
Susan Little left the business world to become a spiritual counselor, sacred dancer, and writer. Her book, Disciple: A Novel of Mary Magdalene, was published in 2010. Her other work has appeared in Tikkun Daily, About Place Journal, Secret Histories, Goddesses in World Culture, and Memoirs in the Light of Day.