Life, Loss, and a Lemon Tree

In between picking up discarded toddler shoes and empty sippy cups, I glance out the backyard and see it: the lemon tree’s branches bowed down, heavy with creamy yellow lemons. 

I first watched the lemons ripen 8 years ago. We had just moved into our house, and we inherited the previous owners’ Meyer lemon tree and kumquat tree. That first fall, I didn’t think much about the lemon tree.  I was busy working full-time, unpacking, and preparing for the birth of our second daughter. 

Then one sunny November afternoon, our daughter, Molly, was born. Settled back at home after our hospital stay, I fell into a rhythm of newborn feedings and diaper changes. I spent most of my time on the living room couch, nursing her, and watching tv or staring out the window into the backyard. One day, I looked up and saw the lemons hanging from the tree branches. The bright yellow fruit stood out to say, cheerfully, here I am, having appeared out of nowhere, like a sweet new baby gift. Likewise, the kumquat tree had seemingly overnight been filled with miniature kumquats ripe for the picking.

As the lemons ripened in the backyard, in the front yard my Dad busied himself putting up a little “It’s a Girl!” sign. He had gone out to get the sign and then stapled it to a small stake, which he hammered into the ground. He was handy like that. He was also larger than life and didn’t care what anyone thought of him. So it came as no surprise when he plucked a kumquat off the kumquat tree and popped it in his mouth, skin and all. “Pretty bitter,” he said, as he popped another one in his mouth.  I cringed a little and said “yeah, Dad, I don’t think they’re really meant to be eaten whole like that. I’m not even sure you’re supposed to eat them.” (I later learned that you do eat them skin and all, as he said.)

Each year, right around Molly’s birthday, I look for the lemons to change color. Each year, without fail, they do so. And each year, I marvel at the fact that our lemon tree has stayed the same, while my daughters, and life inside my house, have changed so much.  

After two years of watching the fruit trees bloom, we welcomed home another baby girl. My Dad put up another little “it’s a girl!” sign. Then, after five seasons of lemons and kumquats, My Dad died unexpectedly. As I grieved him, life continued on while the kumquats sat uneaten on the tree. Later that same year, after I spent two months on bedrest staring out the window at the lemon tree, we joyfully welcomed our spontaneous triplet daughters.   

Today, our house is exponentially busier than that first fall when the lemon trees made their appearance.  Birthdays, Christmases, and other holidays have come and gone. My daughters have grown by feet and inches, and my older daughters are getting less and less interested in simply playing outside. We’ve rearranged our furniture countless times, and the toys have multiplied beyond measure. In short, nothing much is the same inside our house as it was eight years ago. 

Outside, though, the lemon tree continues its predictable pattern of growing beautiful yellow lemons year after year. To me, their predictability is both comforting and bittersweet. When all else is changing, the fruit trees remain the same—dutifully growing, changing, and repeating the pattern year after year. As life inside our house continues to shift and change, their consistency is reassuring. I find comfort in knowing that my world has no bearing on the lemon tree, and that it will continue to bear fruit, lose its leaves, and regenerate no matter what is happening with me. Yet that consistency is also bittersweet, because it reminds me life goes on, year after year, even if my Dad has died or I’ve just welcomed home new babies. 

This year, I had to fend the girls off the lemons until they turned from green to palest yellow.  When they finally did change color, I told Molly that she could pick some from the tree. I watched as she grabbed the low-hanging fruit with her three toddler sisters. The next time I looked up, they had dragged a stool outside to reach the higher fruit, and Molly was swatting away at it with a broom while perched precariously on the stool. They were having moderate success knocking off the high flung fruit. They came running in, each of the toddlers proudly carrying a lemon and grinning ear to ear. “We got them, Mommy! We got the lemons!” 

Molly gathered the lemons and hurried into the kitchen to make homemade lemonade. Her little sisters eagerly trailed behind her. Molly used a dull paring knife to cut the lemons, and she found the sugar in the cupboard by herself, too. Her sisters busied themselves dragging a table and chairs outside for their makeshift lemonade stand. “Taste it, Mom!” she said as she thrust a small glass of lemonade in my face on her way out the door. 

It’s really good, Molly.” And that was true—it was not too sweet, and it tasted like fresh lemons. I (temporarily) ignored the sticky, sugary mess she’d left all over the counter as I finished the rest of her lemonade. As I did, I wondered if she’d still want to make her lemonade next year. By then, would she have stopped caring that the lemons were ripe? Would she even notice? I would just have to wait and see. The lemons would be there waiting patiently next fall, either way.