It’s been so long I can’t remember the crime, but I’ll never forget the punishment: Dig up the fig tree in the backyard and plant it at Mumsy’s place in the country, where it would have room to stretch out and prosper. As I often did when sentenced to hard labor in the garden, I suspected this was my parents’ way of getting me to do their dirty work. Someone, or something, would have to pay for the injustice of it all.
Poor fig tree. It was a muggy morning in the subtropics, the air heavy as a wet wool sweater and thick with gnats; conditions were ideal for righteous indignation. With a pair of loppers, a pruning saw, and a shovel, I went at the tree, dismantling it branch by branch and limb by limb, until all that remained of the once-proud specimen was a sorry-looking stump of a thing, which – if you took off what was left of the roots – would have looked right at home in a fireplace.
“Gracious, son,” my father said when he saw what I’d done. “What did that tree ever do to you?”
“Nothing,” I grunted, my smug tone suggesting that if anyone was to blame for this, it wasn’t me. If Dad wanted to commute the remainder of my sentence right then, I’d consider calling it even. I had really put myself out, and this tree – if it could still be called a tree – was certainly done for, now that I’d “prepared” it for transplanting. I wasn’t proud of that; in fact, I was starting to feel rotten about it. But justice had its price.
“You left some taproot, at least,” my father said. “Go load up the truck.”
I was certain that what we were up to now was a mere formality – Dad making sure that I served my sentence to completion. On any other day, the ride to Mumsy’s would have occasioned convivial father-son talk about school or swim team, but today I fenced myself off: Staring sullenly out my window at the passing pines, I contented myself with the company of my grievances.
Then, at Mumsy’s, my father derailed my self-righteousness. Instead of sitting back to watch me work, he pitched in. It was a small gesture, but a critical one.
Indignation enjoys itself; it’s always looking for fuel on which to feed. But as my father and I took turns with the pick-ax and the shovel, I could feel it slipping away, making room for the uncomplicated satisfaction of working at my father’s side toward a common goal.
Once the hole was deep enough to accommodate the taproot, we set the trunk snug and level in the earth, tamped down the dirt, and formed a low berm around the transplanted tree to retain water.
“Well,” my father said when we were finished, “we’ve done what we can do.”
“You think there’s any chance?” I asked.
“It’s rich dirt. They say you can plant toenails in it and grow little kids.”
I never tried the toenail trick, but I did watch as, year by year, the stump settled in, took root, and began to flourish. Tentative bright-green sprigs grew into slender exploratory branches, which thickened and stretched to become big, brawny limbs, long and leafy and heavy with fruit.
Maybe this was no more than nature doing what nature does, but I was amazed and relieved when bowls of fat, juicy figs began to fill the fridge. We ate them for breakfast, we drizzled them with cream for dessert, and we shared them with neighbors. And always, my mother reserved a share for her incomparable fig preserves, which, after one spring’s fruiting was done, helped hold us over till the next.
In a perfectly just world I may not have merited this bounty. I had abused the tree for my own petty complaints. What right had I to the fruit?
Years later, on a visit home from college, I put this question to my father. Watching him slide a bowl of figs from the fridge one morning, I felt a sudden stab of shame for my boyhood insolence. Given what I’d done to the tree – I had to remind him – did he think I deserved the fruit?
My father plucked a plump fig from the bowl and, holding it out to me, said to think of the fruit as forgiveness.
“Everybody,” he said, “deserves some of that.”