Update from Italy: Lemons, Etc.

The lemons in the garden of the palazzo where we live hang in mythical perfection among the palms and under the hulking cedar of Lebanon: dimpled globes of sunshine, speckled with green, dappled in the sun. The lemon trees winter over in the limonaia, or serra, a simple greenhouse built against the main wall of the garden, its frame painted green. The day that the lemon trees emerge from the limonaia is one of great joy, shouting and pushing and pulling of their enormous terra cotta pots. Family members who are recruited to the project maneuver them each into a suitable position in the garden.

Eleanor admires the lemons, their firm shape, the way they catch the light.

“Let’s grow one,” she suggested one day, and so I saved a few seeds from a store-bought lemon, and dug out some brown paper starter pots, as miniscule as a Beatrix Potter illustration, and spooned some dirt from the garden into each, poking a seed into the dirt with a pencil. Two transparent plastic clamshells that had previously contained rather soggy oily egg rolls from a delivered dinner during quarantine were handily repurposed into individual greenhouses for the little pots. I snapped the lids closed and we placed them on the windowsill where they might be monitored for light and water as we awaited their sprouting.

Before long, one seed had sprouted, its shoot waxy and bright. It quickly stretched up, up, up, then sprouted a second set of leaves. Eleanor and I squealed together to admire the tiny leaves, “it is growing!” she crowed. We watered it diligently. The second sprout showed some green, but seemed stunted, even as its companion thrived on the same windowsill.  

One day the sun shone too brightly on the sill and fried the first sprout. It wrinkled and wilted, and its proud stem bent double. Eleanor and I discovered this in great dismay. I felt a genuine grief in equal measure to the joy we had felt together when we saw the first shoot. The sprout was then accidentally overwatered in an attempt to revive it, and drooped even further as its damaged single root struggled in the thimble of muck. No amount of care could revive it. Mold crept up its stem. I finally swallowed the lump in my throat, pinched the root out of the dirt, and recycled it into our organic waste bin in the kitchen. The root came out easily, partly because it had never branched, partly because the mud was so wet. I spread the wet dirt out on a piece of plastic on the same windowsill in hope that the strong sun would dry it. 

“What is this!” Jason exclaimed. 

“Dirt. I am airing out dirt.” 

“You’re airing out dirt?” 

“Yes, the lemon shoot died,” I answered impatiently. “I will try again as soon as that dirt dries out.”

Meanwhile the second shoot had been quietly growing. No early starter, but rather a dogged dot of green, doubled over into a U-shape atop the dirt. Had it hit a pebble? Why did it not rise? It did not reach upward like its friend, whose early energy was no match for the challenges to its survival. I wondered why it had not straightened up. So a day after I recycled the expired shoot into the organic trash, I took a toothpick and carefully poked holes all around it until I could gently lift it up out of the thimble of dirt. The single root dangled. The suspected pebble was, in fact, its own seed germ, the hull a tiny helmet for the shoot, too heavy to lift. I gently removed the dirt with a toothpick, and placed it root-down again into the dirt, the hull atop its leaves, hoping that the leaves would stretch toward the light, that the hull would be gently discarded through the natural course of nature. That new leaves would emerge and unfurl their tiny cones. The slow starter came to my attention days after its companion expired.

Gardening and activity with seeds of any kind always remind me of the days before Victor’s arrival, when I would scatter whole packets of seeds onto raked dirt in our garden plot, and marvel at how few seemed to sprout, much less thrive. Basic botany and the literal metaphor science of seeds provided me with no small measure of comfort in those fraught years. What are the odds, I asked myself over and over in tears. The odds are infinitesimal.

The seed is essential, yet the hull is pushed up first with the shoot into the air. The remains of the seed do not remain in the ground; the root, nourished by the contents of the seed, pushes downward. And yet, what if the seed is too ponderous, too heavy, too awkward, and prevents the shoot from thriving? The vital information contained in the seed is in fact impeded by the information of the container itself. 

We cling to our origins in ways that prevents our shoots from straightening tall and reaching up toward the light. How often a quick start full of promise leads to unforeseen circumstances that threaten survival. The remains our own seeds prevent its growth, and thus our growth. 

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