Monday, September 22, 2008
Appreciating family and recalling tree-climbing days - all because of avocados
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 22, 2008)
If Timmy were here, he would have shimmied up the avocado tree in Paul and Jean Hays' backyard like a monkey.
My limber son has no compunctions about scaling tall trees without lower limbs. He would have climbed up into the high branches where clusters of the green-skinned fruit hung, plucked those dangling delicacies and plunked them to the ground. That's what he did last year, and Paul and Jean were appreciative.
"He reached all the avocados we couldn't reach," said Paul, a retired Quaker Oats employee who moved to Royal Highlands with Jean 11 years ago. "He must have helped us collect hundreds of avocados."
But my 26-year-old son isn't here this year. About six months ago, he moved to Seattle to help his 91-year-old grandmother with her own set of gardening, household and yard chores. His departure left behind a cadre of friends like the Hayses, people who had come to appreciate and depend upon Timmy's generous, gentle and quirky nature.
In lieu of my son's assistance, Paul e-mailed me last week, hoping that my husband might share Timmy's tree-climbing ability.
"I will be calling you regarding the avocados soon, if Ralph is still willing to get the big ones from the top," he wrote.
Recently, I stopped by their south Leesburg home to scope out the situation.
"Goodness," I told Jean and Paul, as I looked at the tall avocado tree in their well-manicured backyard. "Timmy climbed that without a ladder?"
Paul assured me he did, and knowing my son, I can picture it. Think Tarzan -- a young man wrapping his legs around the trunk as he maneuvered upward. Timmy's that kind of guy. Just after turning 18, he spent four months hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. Given the choice of tree limb or lawn chair to sit upon, Timmy would choose the tree every time.
"I'll have to come back," I explained to the Hayses after picking a couple dozen avocados that could be reached from a 6-foot ladder. "I'll bring Ralph or my daughter with me next time. Either of them could climb up and get the ones on top, but I'm afraid I can't do it."
My visit to the Hayses' house made me realize that my tree-climbing days are a thing of the past. I used to be like Timmy. There was a time -- granted, it was a LONG time ago -- when I, too, shimmied up bark-covered tree trunks to perch upon branches hidden by leaves. There were no avocado trees in Pennsylvania, but we had plenty of oaks, sycamores, willows and crab-apple trees. I remember perching in the crab-apple tree in our backyard to gather pocketfuls of the small, tart fruit.
Crab-apple trees are prolific bearers, and so are avocados. One mature avocado tree will provide a family with all the fruit they can eat, plus plenty to give away. The avocado Timmy's friends have is a Hass avocado, a type predominantly grown in California. The Hass fruit is much smaller than Florida varieties, and it has a thick, bumpy skin that's dark green.
Florida varieties have a thinner skin that is smooth and a much brighter, lighter green. But no matter which kind is grown, avocados seldom ripen on the tree. They need to be handpicked after reaching an appropriate size and then ripened inside on a windowsill or pantry shelf.
Jean and Paul received their tree as a gift shortly after they moved to Royal Highlands. It was only a few feet tall when their friend gave it to them, but now it's about 20 feet tall and quite broad.
"It took a couple years before we got any fruit at all," recalled Jean. "But now, it yields more fruit than we could possibly use."
If Timmy were here, he'd not only help Jean and Paul by reaching into the uppermost branches of their tree, collecting the fruit and distributing it to friends. He'd whip up a large batch of guacamole to share with everyone, too. My tree-shimmying days may be a thing of the past, but I can still cook. As soon as my daughter or husband takes over Timmy's job and picks the rest of the Hayses' fruit, I'll get busy in the kitchen. One large bowl of guacamole coming up.