Sarah Matheson Harris

The Lemon Tree



what i did while others were interning

As a simple writing exercise, I was asked to write about what I did over the summer. While my fellow classmates spent their summers interning across the country, I had instead faced the grueling task of cleaning out my late parents’ house. For this prompt, I chose to write about resurrecting a shattered lemon tree. Surprisingly, the story of having to repot a lemon tree came to represent my emotional journey of grieving my parents.


the lemon tree

Have you ever hugged a lemon tree? It’s nothing like hugging a giant maple or pine tree, or probably any other tree for that matter. It’s covered in thorns that are camouflaged green and nestled out of sight. The trunk of the tree is not particularly welcoming of hugs either. It’s quite thin, like an umbrella pole holding up a sprawling canopy of color. It might even snap given the correct pressure. There is no standing invitation for anything more than a quick pluck of its fruit. I don’t suggest hugging a lemon tree.

Given the fact that my parents had lived in the same house for thirty-five years, they had accumulated an impressive amount of odds and ends. A collection of buoys carved into the shape of mermaids, a faux fur rug complete with a snarling tiger’s head, the skeleton of a vintage Schwinn bicycle, and a larger-than-life sculpture of a middle finger flipping you off: these are just a handful of the items currently residing in the bottom of a dumpster parked in the driveway of my parents’ property. Remnants of memories, many before I was even born, are the only things left residing in their home.

Cleaning out the office was the most time-consuming of the work accomplished thus far. Each piece of paper, lending itself to the several hundred pound collection of paper taken from that single room, needed to be thoroughly inspected in case it proved too important to discard. Scattered in between piles of life’s innocuous details, there were failed court cases, evidence of loaned money never to be returned, printed emails of family feuds, and wishes that would go unfulfilled. Never was there a more honest portrait of a man and his family.

Amongst other talents, both of my parents had a green thumb. While my mother tended to an assortment of perennial blooms, my father preferred growing fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, broccoli, squash, and lemon trees. Under his care, three lemon trees had lasted eight seasons of Virginia’s fickle weather. As of this summer, only one still survived. Weeds had taken up residence everywhere else that plants had once thrived on the property. The lemon tree was the only living thing left of what had once been there.

The surviving tree felt like a little sliver still left of my dad, more tangible than family photographs or other memorabilia cluttering the house. It is easy to recall memories of him taking care of it, nurturing it and loving it. I felt the similarity of how I took care of him just one year ago in the numerous hospital wards he visited. This tree was giving me the chance to care for my father one more time, a chance to honor him once again. I was flooded with emotion: love and humility at the thought of being able to take care of my father again, while on the other hand terror and agony at the possibility of losing him again through this plant. It was certainly an awful lot of emotion to put into a plant, but there it was.

Without hesitation or an ounce of knowing how to take care of it, we brought the lemon tree back to Richmond. We placed it in our back yard where it could drink up all of the sunshine it needed. The back yard was empty of pretty much anything at the moment, aside from a small jungle of weeds. There was no grass, no pathway, no fencing, nothing. Our plans to dig out a basement and then build into the backyard were halted until early fall so at this time, the lemon tree was all that stood in its place.

For the next month, we watered it, pruned its branches, rotated its position in the sun, and did all that we knew how to keep this plant alive. It would take two of us to move it even the slightest inch; the potted plant must have weighed at least sixty pounds. We became obsessed with the well-being of this plant and saw it as an extension of my father. It’s not an experience many people have, being their parents’ primary caretaker and subsequently facing a very final decision when the time comes, at least not at such a young age. Perhaps it was my youth that compounded this feeling, but having to say goodbye felt like I had failed him, both as a caretaker and a daughter. I was not ready to fail him again through the lemon tree.

I woke up late one morning and groggily made my way downstairs. As I sipped my coffee and allowed the dogs to snuggle up on the couch, the tension around my husband’s tightly-held jaw gave away some sort of impending doom. He started off exactly how anyone else would tip toe into delivering bad news. “It’s really not that bad, I promise,” he said. And then he got to the root of it. The part that he couldn’t hide from me. Our workmen had come to the house early that morning to help haul away some trash that was collecting on our back deck. There were so many boxes that they had brought a trailer to help haul them away. While backing the trailer closer to the deck, they had blindly rolled into the lemon tree and crushed its base. The lemon tree. My father’s lemon tree. Crushed. The pot was in at least ten different pieces and the tree’s root ball hung limply off to the side.

Panic was the only feeling I can remember from that moment. It ran rampant, coursing through my veins and pushing every other thought out of my head. We were meant to leave town that day; Eric was leaving in an hour and I would leave early evening. If I was going to save my father’s lemon tree, it had to be before I left town. Knowing that I couldn’t rely on my husband because of inconvenient timing, I spent the next five hours zipping around the city visiting four different gardening stores. I hunted for proper soil, fertilizer, a new pot, and overall life support for both the plant and myself.

Covered in both sweat and gardening dust, I returned home to the challenge of resurrecting what might have already been a lost cause. I surrounded the injured tree with all of my supplies ready to begin, but was instead confronted with an even more insurmountable dilemma. In order to transplant the tree, I would have to lift it up, peel away debris from the broken pot, and place it into the new pot. Prior to this day, I could barely even budge the plant left or right without the assistance of my husband. Accomplishing this task would require nothing short of a herculean effort on my part.

I wrapped my arms around it’s scrawny trunk and tugged until the root ball was freed from the shattered pot. With a face full of thorns tearing into my cheeks, I hugged the lemon tree and with all of my strength, I launched it forward into the new pot. It landed lopsided favoring its left side, but it was in the pot and safe from that morning’s earlier carnage. I finished off the plant with soil and fertilizer before dragging myself away from my improvised operating table.

Two months have passed and the lemon tree’s foliage has expanded beyond belief; it is the healthiest it has looked since it left my father’s care. The surprising twist is that without the lemon tree being crushed, it might have died. The roots had outgrown their prior home and were desperate for fresh soil and attention. There had been no new growth until its repotting. Transplanting that lemon tree by myself was the most panic-filled and physically grueling day of the summer, but without that day the tree would not have survived.

Hugging the lemon tree was an unpleasant experience; I’m sure it was quite traumatizing for the tree as well. I faced similar experiences this summer, aside from the lemon tree. Uncovering the grim details of my parents’ lives and deciding what physical reminders are worth keeping has been a monstrous task, one that I wish for no one so early in life. However, like the lemon tree, it forced growth. It was a task that demanded change through painful discovery. Thorns were hidden out of sight and stung when I came across them. Things that my parents never wanted me to see, I was forced to confront. It is a task that is ongoing with many more thorns still to unearth.

I wonder how tall I will grow.