We never knew whether the cherry tree was a blessing or a curse. When my elderly parents moved into their home on Maple Lane, the neighbors warned them about noisy birds and children that appeared with the first ripening cherries. The tree dominated the front yard, spreading its branches over the sidewalk; the tree was one of the few left from the cherry orchard that once covered the Provo foothills where the houses now stand.
According to the season, my father raked and gathered the scattered blossoms, twigs, the ripened fruit, and finally the fallen leaves. His back ached from too much bending, and he grumbled when twigs hidden in the grass entangled themselves in the lawn mower. But the tree was a focal point for neighborhood gatherings. Passersby stopped to talk to my father, and with them he would deliberate as a farmer would over whether a late frost would kill the blossoms, whether it was too cold for the bees to pollinate, or whether the tree would be as loaded this year as last.
My mother waited eagerly for the right stage when the cherries were fat enough and dark enough to provide the sweet, juicy flesh that Utah Bings are famous for. Mother suffered from diabetes that struck late in her life, and the cherries invariably upset her health. But she could not resist and savored their sweetness as she savored sweet memories conjured by their familiar taste and smell.
When the tree bore fruit, it was as if all the joy of summer days were bursting from its branches. Birds chirped; the children came, and my father gave them sacks to fill for their families; the mailman, who had checked the tree’s progress daily, received a large bagful although he continued to pluck a few from the overhead branches as he made his deliveries. Neighbors collected under the shade of the branches, where they ingested news of politics and football scores as eagerly as they devoured ripened cherries.
Dad harvested daily, picking from the bottom branches, visiting neighbors with fresh bowlfuls. My family waited, knowing our turn was coming. When Dad had picked and dispersed all he could, he called, urging us to come get the remaining cherries in the high branches. Since we had three trees in our own backyard, we were not enthusiastic about his call. But Dad couldn’t see any food wasted, and he was uneasy until the last cherry was off the tree.
Finally, I would bring one son, or the whole family, armed with buckets and ladders. Dad shouted encouragement as his grandchildren climbed high in the tree, and he directed them to where the cherries were, calling: “Can’t you reach just a little higher? Oh, look above you; that’s the ticket!”
He used a rake to pull the long branches down, and we grabbed the clusters and plunked them into the bucket. The cherries were fully ripened by the Fourth of July, and picking was hot work. Afterwards, Dad fixed lemonade, and we sat around the kitchen table enjoying the air from the swamp cooler. As we talked, Dad asked my children about their friends, their summer activities, their aspirations. Dad recalled his own childhood summer days in Toquerville, a small town in southern Utah. At eighty-seven, he was one of the few left of his generation born at the turn of the century.
He told us of hand-churning ice cream with blocks of ice carried down by mule from the Piney Mountains. He remembered the Fourth of July horse races through the center of town. One year someone set off a firecracker, sending the horses on a wild, premature start. His delight in this recollection made us wonder if he knew more about the perpetrator than he was willing to say. He told of his grandfather, who was one of the early pioneers sent by Brigham Young to settle Utah’s Dixie. As he talked about clearing the red, iron-rich land, we knew his (and our own) roots were deep.
Mother and Dad worked together bottling the fruit for winter. During the fifteen years my parents lived in the house, the older grandchildren found a second home there. Brigham Young University, located within walking distance, drew the grandchildren from several states. They enjoyed dropping in for snacks. As Mother served bottled fruit and tuna sandwiches, Dad listened to and sifted through the variety of problems that college years bring. He blessed one granddaughter when she was ill, another when she faced an important exam; he approved or disapproved of potential sweethearts; he monitored questions on the desirability of majors, whether law school was preferable to business management; he encouraged a grandson to nourish his religious roots by going on a mission. Each grandchild left that home well fed.
When Mother had gone, I still bottled a few cherries for Dad, but the flavor was never again as sweet nor the fruit as welcome.
One spring the tree again burst into a profusion of blossoms. “Oh, it’s going to be loaded,” my father said; but I sensed some apprehension in his voice. As the days grew warmer, the leaves came in small, withered clusters. Branches that should have been richly dressed stood naked. A blight that affected many fruit trees in the area had attacked, and the tree was too old to rally. The cherries ripened prematurely and seemed to suck the last life from the tree.
When harvest time came, my father was away seeing the long-ago familiar sights of his mission in Belgium. A few cherries retained that sweet, rich flavor; but most had dropped or were hard and shriveled.
When Dad returned, the last leaf had fallen, and the tree was dying. The neighbors agreed it was past saving. Dad called a friend on the block who came with his Boy Scout troop to help. The screams of the chain saw brought the neighbors to watch the demise of the tree. I was away when Dad wrote, “Sad news: we had to cut the cherry tree down, so now I have some nice fireplace wood.”
I often wonder if some of his own life’s blood went with the tree. A few weeks later he underwent surgery to remove a cancerous growth. That autumn while the world was still in its golden splendor and the wind merely whispered of snow, my father passed away.
These winter evenings as I sit by my fire and watch the crackling cherry wood, I am grateful for trees and parents who live good lives and share their good fruits.