NOTE: The photo shows my grandmother, Naomi Kimball Harris, as a child; she’s standing next to her beloved mulberry tree. I’m hoping to submit this piece to the Poetica Grandmatica anthology this year since it’s a publication dedicated to works by and about grandmothers. Please let me know if you have any suggestions for it!
The mulberry tree in back of my grandmother Naomi’s childhood home meant many things to her: a shady place to read her favorite Tarzan books; a supplier of plump white berries to supplement her scanty Depression rations; a source of sturdy branches that could, with a bit of imagination, easily become horses. (She spent many a happy hour bouncing frantically on her branch, racing against the brothers bouncing frantically on theirs. Her branch was, of course, invariably the winner.)
She was, therefore, surprised by the aghast expressions on the neighbor children’s faces when she waded through the weeds around its base and shinnied up. “Aren’t you coming?” she asked, puzzled, as the two Muller children stared at her in frozen horror.
“Are you kidding? That’s poison ivy you just walked through!”
Naomi regarded her unblemished legs incredulously and tried to convince the Mullers that the poison ivy was harmless, but they remained at a prudent distance. Thus the mulberry tree remained the sole haven of the ivy-immune Kimballs.
The tree was one of the few constant presences in a life too full of tragic losses. When Naomi’s twin sister Ruth died of diphtheria at age eight, the tree remained. When her father left the family for good shortly thereafter, the tree remained. When her mother faded away in her early fifties—“worn down by life,” my grandmother explained—the tree remained. And when, the year after their mother’s death, Naomi and her brothers sold the house and wandered off to meet their separate destinies, the tree remained.
I’d heard stories about the mulberry tree and its white berries all my life—although the bit about the immunity to poison ivy was new to me—so her stories on the phone one night were like old friends. Suddenly, I was inspired: She’d left her tree in New Jersey all those years ago, but we could have new ones! I raced around the house, pawing through seed catalogues, trying to find mulberry trees. I found peaches and apples, pears and grapes, blueberries and raspberries, but not one had a mulberry tree. I remembered the Miller Nurseries catalogue, which seemed to be my best hope since they specialize in fruit. I tore around looking for it, but it was no use; in a rare burst of de-cluttering, I must have gotten rid of it. I was about to report my failure to my grandmother, who was waiting bemused on the other end of the line, when I saw the pile of mail that had arrived earlier in the day. There, sitting atop it, was a new edition of the catalogue I’d been so desperately seeking and there, within its pages, was a single mulberry tree—a tree with white berries.
Excited, I told my grandmother about my find, and she too was enthusiastic about having a new mulberry tree. “We’ll plant one at your house,” I told her, “and we’ll ring it with zinnias” (which I’d just learned are her favorite flower), “and I’ll plant another one at my house. We’ll both be eating white mulberries soon!”
I might have been a little too optimistic; the trees, when they arrive, will be scrawny twigs with several years of growth to put on before they even think about fruiting. But my great hope is that no matter what happens to my grandmother’s house, a tree with white mulberries will always mark her presence there, and that my own son will, like his “Grandma Great,” read in our tree’s shade, bounce on its branches, and feast on its fruit. He’ll eventually grow up and do some wandering of his own and, while I’d like to spend the rest of my life in this beautiful country landscape, Fate may have other plans. But it’s comforting to think that no matter what happens, no matter where I go, at my house and at my grandmother’s, the white-berried trees will remain.