Farmor and the Figs

Thursday, February 14, 2019

2019 Scholastic Writing Award, Gold Key Winner

Farmor and the Figs

My father’s favorite child is the fig tree that sits smack in the middle of our kitchen counter. His pride and joy, it’s big five leafed arms seem to span the entirety of the island, blocking any attempt at a view from the kitchen to the living room: big, unmovable, and stubborn. It’s biggest accomplishment is producing no more than three figs a year, each smaller than the last. Yet, he spends hours doting on it, watering it, talking to it, adjusting its position to reach optimal sunlight. That fig tree seems to be part of his soul; without it, he would crumple.

Papa’s fig tree is a bit of an experiment. We live at the base of Alta Ski Area, trapped in between jagged peaks. For all eight years I’ve lived in my mountain home, our fig tree has thrived (or as much as a fig tree can at 8600 feet). I don’t quite understand it, but, perhaps Papa’s Alta fig tree connects him to his past. Every time we cut open a greenish fruit to reveal its pink insides, my father tells us the same story.

“It’s my mother’s, you know.”

We know Papa, we know. She was beautiful, that six foot tall Swede whose name I have. The bravest person I’ve ever known, she took a boat to America at nineteen, and married the son of Italian immigrants. She grew roots in the States, her smile could fix the world; her kindness moving mountains.

In the late 1970s, while visiting Guazzora, the village my great nonno is from, my farmor saw magic. A fig tree, standing proudly in my great grandfather’s backyard, with branches that seemed to spread all the way across the crumbling architecture of the 1600s Italian town and roots that buried themselves deep into the ground. Farmor (which means grandmother in Swedish) decided she wanted her own fig, to remember her Italian lecagy, and create her own in her new country. Showing her determination, my grandmother cut off a shoot, and smuggled it illegally into the United States. She planted it in her Maryland backyard, teaching her children to grow like the fig. Eventually, Ulla-Britt sent each of her five children to college, like the tree dropping its leaves, one by one by one. Farmor’s fig seemed to be a constant, a reminder of what she created, and how she let her creations bloom.

All three of Farmor’s oldest boys went Ivy, flourishing at an urban Yale and a mountainous Dartmouth. Each of them attended medical school, graduating top of their classes, and lived their lives to the fullest. My father’s two older brothers fell in love with a woman, got married, and settled down. However, Papa, forever the wild child, refused to be tied down. A free spirit, he didn’t give  in to “the man’s” expectations. So, instead, he traveled the world: kayaking in Costa Rica, visiting orangutan sanctuaries in Borneo, hiking across Kazakhstan, and eventually even selling Peruvian sweaters on the streets of Washington, D.C. He spent days at Grateful Dead concerts, basking in Jerry Garcia’s talent. It seemed like nothing could stop my Papa, until he met my Momma. She reminded him of the song Scarlet Begonias, with “rings on her fingers, and bells on her shoes”. He even knew without asking that she was into the blues. He’d found love, and there was no turning back.

Eric, my dad’s less wild older brother, moved back to Maryland with the woman he had found. My grandparents were about to sell my father’s childhood home, and Eric desperately wanted a piece of that fig. Like his mother before him, he planted its roots deep into his home’s soil, letting his tree blossom along with his new family, his own children flourishing like the fig. He slowly but surely gave each one of his siblings a piece of the fig tree, delivering the Alta Fig to Utah and Papa when I was a little baby. Eventually, the entire Libre clan had one to call their own. My Farmor would come and admire them, traveling all across the country to watch her children take care of their children, a legacy through the fruit. Forever laughing, my Farmor would gather our whole family around the tree, making jams and tarts; firm in her belief that good love spreads through good food.

Early in the summer of 2012, my Farmor passed away. Her roots held even in death; surrounded by each one of her five children, and all of my thirteen cousins. By Eric passing a fig shoot to each of his siblings, he let his brothers and sisters take a piece of Ulla-Britt. It gives them something to hold on to, to tell their children to blossom like the figs, to be reminded of beauty and love and kindness. Through the roots my grandmother spread, we’re all connected. Eventually I will get a shoot, and my children will get one, and so will theirs. It’s a tradition through fruit, a living piece representing a living connection between our family.

So every fall, when my father’s eyes sparkle and he proudly parades his rare Alta fig, we tell him we know. We know Papa, we know. It’s from the woman who could move the mountains.