His tree bore the fruit of generosity

By

'Hi, Candy," Mr. Glushenko called out. "Hi," I said, waving from my bike.

"I have some things for you," he said, while laying a pair of hand clippers on the wide rail along the back of his white picket fence. Excited about getting some goodies, I squeezed the hand brake on my bike and met him at the gate. I walked my bike into his front yard and laid it on the grass.

"Follow me," he said, heading toward the side of the house.

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Mr. Glushenko, who was about 90, had lived on our street longer than anyone else. The Redondo Beach he originally knew was a grassy hill covered with more buttercups than houses. Decades later, neighbors viewed those same buttercups as weeds, pulling them from their lawns every spring.

"Candy, you've come at the right time. This fig tree is heavy with fruit. I've got to pick them before they all go bad."

My ears strained to hear his soft voice swaddled in its thick accent. Mr. Glushenko was one of the many Russian Jews who left the Soviet Union in the early 1920s after the revolution. I didn't know if he had any family, but he lived alone.

"Here," he said, handing me some of the soft purple figs.

"Thank you," I said politely, not really sure what to do with them. My family had never eaten figs before, not even fig bars. I didn't know the first thing about how to eat them. Did the skin have to be peeled? Was there some part inside that shouldn't be eaten? Did it need to be cooked first?

I didn't think to ask Mr. Glushenko these questions, and I can remember feeling a little embarrassed that I didn't already know the answers.

"I have some more things for you inside, too," he told me.

We climbed up the porch stairs, and once inside, made a right turn into his small kitchen. After loading me down with a package of cream-filled cookies and a half-gallon can of honey, Mr. Glushenko sent me on my way. I left his house, pushing my bike with one hand and holding a paper bag full of Mr. Glushenko's generosity with the other.

The figs, I'm ashamed to admit, never made it out of the bag. And for some inexplicable reason, I've never been able to forget this.

Now, more than 20 years later, Redondo Beach is full of million-dollar mansions. Professional gardeners drive from inland to mow and blow, and the buttercups have retreated to humbler locations. One of the mansions fills almost the entire lot where Mr. Glushenko's house and garden once stood. He has been gone for 20 years, and his fig trees for more than 10.

But in my valley home far from the beach, a stubborn fig tree grows in my backyard, three times the size of Mr. Glushenko's. I've been trying to coax it into bearing edible fruit, but when torn open, the figs reveal a dry flesh that even my dogs won't touch. One of my neighbors, who tasted the figs years before I moved in, told me that the tree has never borne good fruit.

And so today, I'm left with a shade tree that bears beautiful purple, gumdrop-shaped ornaments. I sometimes wonder what Mr. Glushenko could do for my tree if he were here, wearing his straw hat, clipping there, trimming here, weeding quietly on a Sunday afternoon, and watering Monday morning at sunrise.

Alas, the only fruit borne of my tree is that of conversation and gardening wisdom as I put questions to other gardeners: "Am I watering it too much or too little? Should I prune it hard or moderately? Are there any special amendments I could add to the soil?"

With Mr. Glushenko and his garden gone, I feel I may be all that's left of his fig legacy. Having grown into a connoisseur of organic fig bars and an eager browser of fig-filled baskets at the market during the harvest season, I can't pass a fig without thinking about him.

I am passing this legacy on to my son, whose eyes twinkle as he watches me eat fig bars for breakfast. His first two teeth are now peeking up through his gums, and I imagine what it will be like when he enjoys the sweetness of his first fig bar. I'll tell him the story of a hill in Redondo, buttercups, and a very kind man who shared his figs, and more.

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