Thursday, November 5, 2015

Romancing the Cherimoya

Laiali, my third-grader granddaughter guides me to the roof garden of her home where my daughter is busy tidying up the space. She collects the fallen leaves and deadheads the roses, adding by her presence to the garden’s sunny exuberance while the second Indian summer lasts. Many annuals are patiently awaiting the first frost to take their frigid leave. Laiali points excitedly overhead to the neighborhood’s resident hawk circling above Tomkins Square Park. Dozens of park pigeons take notice and take flight in wavelike formation undulating in synch with their neighbor’s fitful bursts of vertical energy. Suddenly Laiali gets distracted and turns her attention to a more immediate diversion: One incidental tomato plant has taken root between the flowers, grown and bore fruit. She hands me the one ripe strawberry tomato. She doesn’t like the veggie-fruit. Besides, my wife and I had just arrived and our granddaughter is keen to show us her welcome. Back in August, at our home in Galilee, our visiting two sets of grandchildren had a great time every morning feeding the chickens, collecting eggs and picking apples, pears, lychees, passion fruits and figs. Laiali is paying me back, I sense.

I bite into the tiny tomato and tears run down my cheeks. It is sugary sweet. Why couldn’t we have stayed home for a couple of weeks longer? But missing my garden never brought tears to my eyes before. Why now?  True, the persimmons were just ripening when we left. I had put a few dozen fruits underwater to take away their astringent bite. At the height of the season it takes only three daily water refreshments to render the fruit edible. But this was early in the season and I misjudged. They needed four or five daily water changes. I left them for friends to savor; I totally missed out on the persimmon season this year. The pomegranates as well were just short of their peak ripeness. I had been feasting on them with my morning cereal for a couple of weeks already, comparing the gradually less tangy flavors of the four varieties in my yard. One more week and the balance of citric acid and fructose would have peaked together with the antioxidant explosion that justifies the festive individual aril-by-aril culling and careful juicing for a yearlong supply of the aging antidote. I had to trust my nephew and his wife with the delectable task on the traditional farming understanding of sharing the liquid product equally. The same unspoken agreement holds for the prodigious carob crop. I can already taste the fresh molasses over whole-wheat pancakes.

I know my nephew will keep some of the ripe feijoas in our icebox for us. But, alas, with storage the fruit looses much of its exotic flavor and despite the low temperature most of the tropical fruit will rot before we get back. But the cherimoyas! My God! Those custard apples with their candy-like tangy sweetness must be what brought tears to my eyes. I had been indulging myself with them for one full week before I was dragged away kicking to the airport. What adds to the pleasure of eating the fresh fruit is the needed delicate swishing around in one’s mouth of all those smooth black seeds that help squeeze the delectable juice out of the tender white chunks before you manage to separate what to swallow from the small hard projectiles you, or rather I, so love to spew in rapid succession to keep the roosters and the cats away from me in the garden.  Absent-mindedly I relish the arty essence of the fruit’s constituent parts.

That was how Djon, my Indonesian college roommate and lifelong brother thereafter, had introduced me to the exotic fruit. It was in Hawaii with our Indian brother, Jagy. We couldn’t afford to buy one for each of us. So we must have borrowed the fruits from someone’s tree:
“ There is nothing like it except perhaps for durian.” Djon insisted. “But no one can slight the fresh fragrance of cherimoya or the celadon tinge of its outer covering. Just touch the surface of those dips between the tiny ridges. It is like glazed porcelain. And yet it is tender to the touch, almost inviting your fingertips to caress and squeeze it. You know how amorous wahines respond to your touch, brother!? That is the feel of fresh ripe cherimoyas to my hands. And you haven’t gotten to the magic of the flesh yet, brother! You take out that plug at the center, which by releasing its centripetal hold on the surrounding meat admits to the ripeness of the fruit. Only then can you split the virginal flesh open to feast your eyes before you do your taste buds. Just look at the way those closed-flower-shaped chunks of glistening white pudding await the touch of your tongue. And look at the central shiny black seed in each chunk giving it its individual charm as the whole bunch of them compete which will be the first to tickle your throat.”
Djon was in love with cherimoya and tried and succeeded to infect me with the affliction. No wonder when we travelled to AndalucĂ­a he never stepped out without a serrated edge spoon carefully tucked in the inner pocket of his his sport coat.

Yes, Djon had the imagination, the intimate friendliness and the touch of humor to bring a fruit to life and give it sex appeal. But, no, this second most favored fruit of his never got enough under my skin to bring tears to my eyes as I take leave from it. Of course, I must have cried for Djon, not for the fruit.

The night before my crying fit I had attended a presentation by another dear friend, Dr. Ghada Karmi, the grand dame of Palestinian Londoners, and picked up a copy of her latest book, Return: A Palestinian Memoir. I fell asleep mentally and emotionally ruminating on the way she expresses her sense of loss as she is forced to deny her dying father his request to go home and is mentally transported to another scene of colossal loss, her forced expulsion from her family’s Jerusalem home:

“He sank back and closed his eyes. This memory returns to me even now, because I know that passionate longing for normality, for life to resume as it has always been, and yet be powerless to make it happen. It took me back to an April morning long ago and to the child I was then, standing helplessly at the closed garden gates of our house in Jerusalem that my heart feared I would never see again.”

Finally I comprehend my tearful reaction to tasting that cherry tomato: I bet you I can draw a four-dimensional map of the neuronal synapses that led from the taste buds on my tongue to my subconscious brain, via stored memories of fun and intimacy from college days, to the neural record of my and Djon’s drifting apart to separate commitments and raising of families, to his illness and my partaking with his family of his love as he passed on, back to my own private loss of my mother, dead and buried in my village while I was away attending school in the city, to Ghada’s loss of her father and home, to the collective loss of the homeland experienced by all Palestinians, back to Djon, my family and home away from home, to the beautiful taste of cherimoyas in my orchard.

I love you, Djon!