August 21, 2006

The Plum Tree

My house in Los Angeles was owned by Esther Williams back in the 40’s. She of course put in the pool. She also, if old architecture magazines are to be believed, planted the gardenias, the palm tree, and the grand old olive tree in the front. She did not plant the plum tree in the back. Plum trees generally have lifespans of only 10-20 years and mine, according to an arborist who examined it, was almost 40 years old. "Extraordinary," she exclaimed while poking and measuring it. And completely unpruned." I had called in the specialist because the tree wasn’t producing fruit and I wanted to see if there was anything that could be done, you know, fertilizer or something. "If you want plums, the best thing would be to chop this tree down and plant another one," came the answer. The poor thing is about 20 years past it’s prime."

If she was right and the tree actually was 40 years old it would have been planted by the hippies who owned the housed throughout the 60’s and into the early 70’s. Silverlake had yet to be gentrified, places were cheap, and according to my 80 year old neighbor Rosita who was born on the block, "Those kids turned that house into a real love shack. There were 11 or 12 of them and they didn't like to wear clothes."
"Where did they all sleep," I asked (it’s a two bedroom house).
"Oh all over the place," came the answer, "there were two of them in the garage, and one of them sometimes liked to sleep out in the back in a tent. You know it was the 60’s. They smoked a lot of grass."
"Do you know if they planted the plum tree," I asked. "Oh they had a whole garden back there.", Rosita smiled, "Plums and oranges and all sorts of lovely tomatoes."

I did not heed the arborist’s advice. I pruned the tree. I made sure it was watered. I found fertilizer for stone fruit trees. But none of this had any effect. Summers came and summers went, and no fruit. At some point my then girlfriend, now wife, Jenn arrived. She breathed life into the house. After she arrived the kitchen was always humming, her actor friends would come and go sometimes doing acting exercises in the living room (she’s a theater director), and once again there was a garden out in the back. Each spring it would fill with heirloom tomatoes, carrots, and squash and winters would bring butter lettuce, arugula, and strawberries. A pair of mallards took up residence in the pool.

And then one day out back Jenn looked up at the tree and said, "Hey... plums," and I ran over, stood under it speechless staring up, and saw the tree was loaded with plums. I practically shouted, "We made plums! We made plums!" Throughout that summer the tree gave so much fruit we had to give some away and each time we would go outside to harvest it felt like a small miracle. Winter arrived, and we decided to move to New York by the end of the next summer. The tree flowered in the spring, but summer came and it was once again barren. Or so we thought. Right before we left as Jenn was doing a final walk around she called me over. There were exactly two plums on the tree.

We sold the house, to an actor of dubious taste. I made the mistake of returning to visit a few weeks after the sale. He had ripped out the garden, was surrounding the place with a high concrete wall, and worst of all for me, he had chopped town that plum tree.

I am not a superstitious man, I don’t believe 13 is unlucky, I don’t believe breaking a mirror is bad luck, I don’t even believe finding a four leaf clover is good luck, but I believe those plums were made for us. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that they would be almost indescribably delicious, and of course they were.

posted at 02:10 AM by raul

Filed under: personal history

TAGS: LA (3) plum tree (2) reality is more magic than magic (3) small miracles (1) the esther williams house (1) true love (2)


08/21/06 09:09 PM

That's is a wonderful story- I think you are right about the plums being meant for you two. It breaks my heart to hear that someone would tear out your garden and tree. I think if I ever sell a house I will never go back- it's almost always sad...

08/22/06 02:29 AM

Is that a Saylee Oh shirt. I love her stuff. Beautiful story despite the bitter bite at the end.

08/23/06 09:58 AM

what a great story. except for the end, so sad! reminds me of The Giving Tree.

08/23/06 04:43 PM

wow, R, my father worked for Esther Williams. he was essentially her gardener/ live-on-the-premises/ go-to-handy-man-guy long before i was born... likely in the late 40s or early 50s? not sure. i'll have to ask him when it was and where they lived. know how long she was there?

08/23/06 07:46 PM

This would have been very early on probably early 40's right at the beginning of her career. We had one of those glossy photo magazines from the period showing her hosting a party in the backyard and I think I remember it saying she was 25.

08/23/06 11:15 PM

It's a shame that your buyer tore apart the garden. It's like taking away the history of the house. We just moved to Eagle Rock and have a mature lemon tree in the back yard. We plan on planting more fruit trees. Our neighbors have kumquats and pomogranates. Just about everything grows here. What a joy.

08/24/06 04:12 PM

talked with Dad. He worked for her from '52 to '60 in beverly hills. alas, i was imagining him planting the gardenias...

08/08/08 11:47 AM

We planted a plum tree by the end of our drive at the road where our neighbors walked their kids to school. They were the sweetest and most abundant plums I've ever seen; everyone would stop to pick and eat one or two, and leave smiling.

Our neighbor who let us use his pasture for our horses gave us a recipe book with plum pie written by his cousin in Montana.

One fall a woman and young daughter knocked on the door to tell me she read a story at school about making plum jam, and wondered if she could pick a box. The next week she brought us a jar of purple heaven.

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