Pecans, picture books, tradition, and memories of my mother
I have a friend with some tangelo trees and pecan trees. I envy her. Her property has irrigation, which is really needed to grow strong, large, healthy, productive trees in the desert. We have two citrus trees which are nowhere near as nice; they were neglected by the previous owner. Actually, we had three trees, but one died (it was 95% dead when we moved here in July, and to my distress, we couldn’t rescue it; it kept declining until its death). One other tree is stunted and didn’t produce anything; I don’t even know what kind of citrus it is supposed to bear. The other tree is a medium-sized navel orange tree. Its fruit is delicious (though hard to peel), but the whole tree produced about 30 oranges*. I’m thankful for those 30 oranges, but I’m definitely going to make sure that the tree is well-watered and fertilized so that it produces MANY MORE oranges, next winter. Thanks to the expert knowledge of my local, small nursery, I already learned that, in Phoenix, citrus needs to be fertilized on February 14, then again in mid-July, and once more in mid-September.
That makes me consider the valuable lesson of delayed gratification taught by growing one’s own food. I think our society would be much more balanced in our perspectives if we all grew things to eat.
But, I digress.
In mid-December, my 13-year-old son Grant and I took my friend Jeannie up on her offer and picked probably 30+ pounds of tangelos (which are very tart, quite sweet, with easy-peel rinds) and about 10 lbs of pecans from her property. Jeannie wasn’t at home, but her husband and I had a great conversation about homeschooling, parenting boys, and about land and growing things as we harvested.
The next day, before the children were awake, I sat at the island and started to shell the pecans. As the kids trickled sleepily out of their rooms, there was a universal response of, “Wha…??” as they walked into the kitchen. As in, “Why would you want to be doing that at 7:30 a.m.????” But, each sat down at a stool to try their hand. Soon, all five children were happily cracking away, breakfast delayed, perfect half or even whole nuts held up as a trophy of new found shelling-skill. We exclaimed over eachother’s successes, and groaned over the occasional rotted nut or slipped nutcracker that resulted in a barrage of shell and nut bits broadcast over the table.
Quickly, in front of me, piled up the outcasts. When one child didn’t crack the nut quite right, or the nutmeat was just plain stuck, rather than persisting (which is no fun, and can be hard on the fingertips!), they’d pass the nut to me.
It was all right. It just meant that I was a whole lot slower than even my four year old, Fiala. I worked at rescuing the stuck bits, buried in each shell. It felt worthwhile, and I just couldn’t bring myself to throw away even the smallest nutmeat that could possibly be redeemed.
It became one of those unexpected moments where I found myself profoundly missing my mother.
I had a flashback to one of my mom’s favorite winter pastimes: Shelling nuts in the family room, fireplace blazing, happily chatting around the family room coffee table, eating more than we shelled. AND…. passing onto my mother our own tough nuts: the ones we couldn’t best. She redeemed them all.
I realized, as I worked on the bits of stuck pecans that December morning with my own children, that I thought my mother enjoyed the challenge of picking out the trapped bits of nutmeat. Maybe she did. She was like that.
But, maybe it was one of those things similar to how I thought she liked burnt toast, because she always ate it. It wasn’t until my adulthood that I discovered that her burnt toast-eating was sacrificial: She knew that we four children didn’t like burnt toast, but she didn’t want it to go to waste, so she ate it.
I thought she liked eating leftovers for lunch.
I thought she liked hand-me-downs.
And so on.
I thought she liked picking out those stubborn, stuck bits of walnut and pecan.
I would have liked to ask her. I felt compelled, multiple times, to go pick up the phone to call her. I had to remind myself that I could not.
I also would have liked to tell her that I was passing down what I didn’t realize — until that morning — had been a family tradition.
I have often lamented that tradition was in short supply in my childhood. But, the longer my perspective is on my younger years, the more I realize that there were traditions tucked here and there… And every time I can pass one on, or share a joy with my children that I experienced as a child, there is such warmth in that, now more poignant than ever.
My mom passed on in October. In general, I haven’t lamented her death. She was long ill, and eager to go home to be with Jesus after years of fighting and staying strong. It was her time, and as much as sad things can be, it felt very right.
I had an inkling, though, that there would be many days like these: Where I would so love to call her and tell her something funny or tender or joyous… And I just couldn’t. And THEN I would miss her and deeply regret her passing.
So it was, with the pecan-shelling morning: All five children happily chattering and squabbling over the nutcracker; we only have one. However, one of my children discovered that the garlic press worked wonders! Ha!! I had to implement a rule — which had echoes of familiarity — that each child can eat as many pecans as they cared to, as long as they were the one who shelled that pecan; they can’t reach into the community jar and take a handful of others’ efforts. “Did my mom say that, too??” I wondered silently. I also remembered — and expressed to my children — how our pecan-shelling party reminded me of one of our most treasured picture books, Blueberries for Sal. Sal’s mother had to tell her to go pick her own blueberries, and not take those her mother had picked; her mother’s were for canning. Similarly, the community pecans were going to go into Christmas baking and weren’t for general snacking.** Again, the memories hearkened back to my mother, as she had first read the book to me, as a child.
Over the course of two mornings, we shelled about nine cups of pecans. Then, our fingertips gave out, too sore to continue. Still, nine cups was way more than I could have done on my own, despite how many pecans ended up in one small mouth or another!!
Pecans: One of my happiest and saddest memories of this past month.
*It would have been about 40 oranges, but I discovered about ten of them with small plastic pellets lodged at various depths in the rind and fruit, and I had to lay down the law about NOT using oranges for airsoft gun target practice. How could they???? Aargh.
*And, oh, how that added to our enjoyment of each baked good!! Each child would say, “I shelled some of the pecans that went into this Cranberry Orange Pecan Bread!!” Many items, we gave as gifts, and it really lent to the feeling of family, of community, of ownership, of pride in what we gave to others.