Driving around the bend would lead you to two rows of sycamore trees planted just before Armstrong set foot on the moon.
In previous decades they were trimmed by hired hands. Now they are left to sprawl out in abandonment, crossing limbs against each other as they wrestle and sway. It is becoming more and more difficult to drive through without scratching against their tendrils.
Another mile of driving on gravel would lead to a small cottage near the edge of pine woods, surrounded by an orchard and almost overrun by blackberry brambles. This is what I visit her for. Pruning her crabapples, Bartlett pears, peaches, apricots, lemons; setting nets over them to drive birds away. Rolling back the invasion of blackberry briers.
But the main reason I visit her are for her desserts. My grandmother’s pies and pastries used to be famous around the area. When lumbering was still permitted, most lumberjacks passed the cottage in the mornings and evenings. She used to spread a table outside for them. Apple custard pies, blueberry muffins, lemon tarts, poached pear and cream.When my mother was a child, my grandmother kept her out of the kitchen to prevent her from learning these recipes. She refused to share them with anyone and instead forced them to drive ten miles out of town to taste her delicacies.
My grandmother’s arthritis and eyesight have gotten worse over the years, but she refuses to show any of this. When my grandfather passed away and we came to take her to the nursing home thirty miles away, she stood on the front porch and stared at us with such vehemence that all of us backed down. And this is how I see her now, standing on the front porch waiting for me.
I park under an oak tree and walk towards her, carrying cans of dog food. Brindy sees this and bounds towards me, almost tripping on her stomach with her short legs.
‘Afternoon nan’, I kiss her on the cheek.
She nods, ‘I made you some fig preserves to take home. The blueberry muffins are in the oven right now.’
I spend the afternoon clearing the blackberry tangles that have crept near the lemon trees beside the cottage. The briers have become thick and stubborn from absorbing fertiliser for the orchards. Many times their thorns breach my gloves and overalls as I try to hack through and disentangle them. Still, I succeed in clearing out a breathing space and carry the mangled briers far away, making a pile to burn later.
Brindy races between my legs with a bone in her jaws while I do this.
My favourite tree is a huge fig tree that grows at the back of the cottage. According to my grandmother, the fig tree was the only one to survive harsh frosts in 1965. When I was five, I used to climb its branches and hold up its leaves, which were bigger than my face, as Indian masks.
I start gathering the garbage heaped at the back in the shadow of the fig tree. It seems that my grandmother has been clearing out the cottage – a broken cot (probably the one my mother slept in?), a splintered mirror, scattered papers, flowered china. I was on my way to move my truck around the back when I see it.
A photo peeks out behind burst plastic bags. The afternoon sun catches its glossy surface and bounces in my eyes. I see my grandmother, grandfather, mother, and a strange woman. My mother looks around ten in the picture, nervously clutching my grandma’s dress. My grandfather stands beside her, tall and proud, beaming at the camera. To his right, a stooped girl stands behind them, her face scunched in enigmatic anxiety. The photo looks as faded as the memory it contains.
I stare at the strange woman. I remember my mum telling me years ago that my grandmother had a sister, but I have never seen her. She would make an occasional appearance in other peoples’ lives, like an inkblot on a manuscript; accidental, unwanted. I shove the photo in my pocket and move my truck.
In the evening I sit with my grandmother on the front porch, scoffing blueberry muffins and lemonade. The sun has just set and the sky is a pastel wash of pink and purple.
‘Nan,’ I say through mouthfuls, ‘I found this earlier. Who is the lady beside grandpop?’
She takes the picture from me. She squints and purses her lips tightly.
It takes me a while to realise how pale she has become.
‘Nan, are you ok?’
Her face is an ashen grey and for a second it reminded me of my grandfather lying in his mahogany box.
It is getting dark. The last remaining purple slivers of light in the sky diffuse the hard lines on her face. She looks frail and tired. It is usually easy to forget how old she is, but there is no mistaking it now.
‘She was always so quiet, that Emily’. Her voice is from a time long ago.
I pause and look into her eyes. My grandmother is lost in a time I will never know.
‘She was great in the kitchen…and in the bedroom’.
I stop chewing. My mouth turns dry and the muffin tastes like ashes.
‘Why don’t you ever talk about her?’ I ask, afraid of the answer.
‘She fell from the fig tree.’
The first stars were beginning to line the sky.
‘She fell from the fig tree and never got up.’
I had to leave. I stood suddenly, the chair crashing beneath me. My grandmother jumps and a new desperation lights her eyes with a fervour I have never seen before.
‘They were going to leave me,’ she pleads, ‘he was going to leave me with her. There was nothing else I could do.’
A sour taste was rising within my stomach. I must have eaten too many muffins. I run to my truck, clutching my abdomen.
‘Wait Clara!’ She is chasing me now, and the arthritis is evident in her knees as she limps, ‘Take the fig preserves! And the muffins! I made so many I can’t finish them all myself.’ She presses them into my hands before I can open the door.
I didn’t even notice the sycamores scraping my truck when I pull out. I drive for hours, following my headlights as they cut a path through the dark. It’s a moonless night. Scores of insects plunge themselves into my windshield and lights, burning up in conflagrations. And then I find myself stopped by the side of the road, my engine off, and I am pacing and pacing to match the beating of my heart.
I remember the photo again and take it out along with my cigarette lighter. I light a cigarette and hold the photo up to the warm flame.
Emily has a high forehead, a widow’s peak and her hair is pulled back in a bun. My mother has a widow’s peak. My grandmother does not.
I inhale the cigarette deeply to suppress the bile within. I might vomit otherwise. ‘Well, fuck,’ I hear myself say.
Red flames lick the edge of the photo, then slowly eats its way up, devouring my mother’s face, then my grandmother and grandfather. Their figures melt then curl up into embers.
I take the fig preserves and the muffins out from the back seat and throw them as far as I can into the dark.
There are things I will never understand. Three generations of women, and all that is really shared between the years are the saccharine remnants of fig jams. Fig fibs.