January 30, 2011
My father is breathing hard. I’m half-terrified he’s going to have a heart attack and it will be all my fault. I’ve asked him to help me transplant a small pear tree that is slowly dying, limb by limb, from his yard to mine, where I can attempt to revive it with fresh compost and ample water. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for years but couldn’t because I lived in California. But now I’m home, in Portland, Oregon, and am determined to keep the little pear tree alive. It’s the end of a typically mild Northwest January—a perfect time for transplanting. A bald eagle squeals its squeaky courting call from the tip of a western red cedar. A wintered landscape of bare branches and turned fields surrounds us. So far we’ve managed to avoid the rain.
The problem is that although the pear tree is little—dwarfed by drought and nutrient-poor soil—its roots aren’t so little. My father weeds out some nasty quack grass while I wrestle with the root wad. No, the tree says. Not budging.
When my father first put down roots in Portland over a half-century ago, his own dad, an Italian immigrant, bought him a small pear tree. My father’s garden exploded from there— with apples, figs, plums, raspberries, corn, zucchini, beans. I grew up shelling peas, picking tomatoes, spreading walnuts on screens to dry.
In college I couldn’t wait to see the citified world—the world of important things. I moved to Paris, then San Francisco. Boulevards, boutiques! But it was there, while renting an apartment, that I suddenly took to staking tomato plants in the landlord’s tiny backyard. He thought it was quaint. I thought it was necessary.
It took 15 years to move back to Portland. Just in time. My father is 85; my mother 82.
After an eternity of tugging, I coax the pear tree from the ground. My father is sweating. My pants are mucked with mud. No problem. By dusk I’ll have the tree planted in my yard. My father and I notice that its last living limb is loaded with buds.