My father is not a particularly handy man, as my mother will not hesitate to explain, and he has never been one. He fixes my closet door when the hinges malfunction, and he taught me how to change light bulbs safely and mow the lawn evenly, but not much else. My mother has been pleading with him for years to pave the driveway and he hasn’t made a move to do it. So why he took the initiative to cut down the trees that one summer, I don’t know.
We were living in a narrow townhouse at the time. My bedroom was Pepto-Bismol pink and had a white metal bunk bed that I hung curtains from and used to stage puppet shows for my sister. Ten years ago. Just over five miles from where I sit now. It was a fifteen minute drive there when we last dropped by to look at our old home.
We had two pear trees in our backyard. Stout, stubby, and vertically challenged, they weren’t much to look at. Nearly barren, too — the few fruit they produced were rock-hard and more likely to shatter your jaw than be preserved as jam. Too short to sit under the shade of. Regardless, they gave an impressive shadowy effect during summer evening barbecues, and they provided children who’d only known apartment balconies something to boast about. Having your own fruit trees — surely that’s something out of paradise! Jannah, as it’s said in Arabic.
Or not Jannah, as it turned out. After moving in, we had to wait until summer to learn that they were pear trees, that they bore the occasional fruit, that said fruit would only ever extract loose teeth — I took a bite from one once as a child and swallowed a loose baby tooth — and attract both honey bees and flies. For Muslims, honey is traditionally considered a blessing, a prime example of God’s love for humans, so we tried to tolerate the bees. But the flies!
And so my mother nagged. “I could grow watermelons here,” she lamented. “Wouldn’t you rather have watermelon than these inedible pears? Wouldn’t that be better?” I despised watermelon at that age — the tale about the boy who swallowed seeds and grew a watermelon in his belly haunted me until I was twelve — but even I agreed it would be a better deal.
My father must have agreed. He proved his dedication to the cause by cutting the trees down less than a year after my mother’s entreaties began. Should you find that slow, then I assume your home is one filled with warm cookies, marital bliss and probably a dog as large as he is beloved.
I don’t know how it happened. It must have been a quick process, because they were there when I left for school and were gone by the afternoon. He must not have known what he was doing, either, because two gnarled stumps peeked out above the grass.
“You cut the trees down!” I nearly screamed, unable to stop looking at both how much space our fenced yard now seemed to hold and the two ugly specimens we had traded for it. “Why did you do that?”
“You know why I did it,” he said, holding up his arms, riddles with bites. I thought of my own calves, pale and scratched beneath my cotton shalwar. “The yard is full of bees and flies.”
It was true. You couldn’t walk from one side of the yard to the other without bugs tattooing your ankles. Swarms of insects. But God, he cut a fruit tree. A fruit tree. I remembered what we learned Saturdays at the mosque: even in times of war, Abu Bakr, the first caliph, had instructed his followers to never cut down fruit-bearing trees, as it would leave innocent civilians without a food.
I did hate bug bites, though. My ankles were constantly swollen from traipsing barefoot in the cool grass to catch fireflies.
“Well, why did you leave the stumps?” I said, unsatisfied.
“I thought I could dig them out,” he said guiltily. “It didn’t work. Go get some rope from the basement and help me pull them out. Your mom will be so angry when she gets back.”
Of course she’d be furious. How do you make a watermelon patch with two sprawling, arthritic tree stumps in the center? We spent the weekend straining at the rope tied around the stumps. To no avail. My mother arrived, threw her fit, then joined us in our renewed struggle to shovel the stumps out.
“I wish we just left the trees there,” moaned my younger sister, scratching at her calves furiously. “I don’t even like watermelons. I hate seeds.”
My father set his shovel down to rub at the red, raised skin on the insides of his wrists. “You know, I’d rather deal with the bugs,” he admitted, sounding defeated as I felt.
I picked up the small metal shovel they had given me to use. The cool metal slipped from my hand, so that the blade pointed towards the patch of brilliantly healthy, green grass surrounding the stumps — an anomaly in our yard, despite half-hearted efforts at sprinkling extra fertilizer and grass seed elsewhere. The sunlight filtered a single pane of the air: a cloud of invisible, microscopic flies fluttering against our cheeks. An umbrella-shaped plot of Amazon green.
These days my interest in greenery is limited to the tiny cacti and succulents sitting on my coffee table. Now that I’m in my twenties, I don’t leave my home much either. For classes and work and groceries and meeting friends and shopping and attending events and Doing Things, yes, of course. But I leave the gardening and frenetic biking in my childhood. To open my windows on a nice day and occasionally read a good novel out in the park is enough for me, although I did move my workspace to a sunnier corner of my room when a blood test last year showed that my vitamin D is a bit low. My mother blames my homebody lifestyle; I might lay some of the blame on my hijab, too. Either way, opportunities for tanned arms and bug bites and fruit-picking are slim.
But sometimes, when I’m perusing a farmer’s market downtown, when the sun is shining so hard I have to squint, when I bite into a sweet, soft green pear and juice dribbles down my chin to mingle with sweat — I think about the baby teeth I lost to the fruit our trees bore. And when I reach the stringy core, I imagine myself like Johnny Appleseed, patting a brown pear seed into the soil of my backyard for every itch and scratch I suffered. Watering it, until I see the shade the leaves create, until I see the clouds of flitting flies, from my windowsill three stories up. Where I will eat store-bought watermelon after store-bought watermelon in defiance.