I am older now, more patient, and can produce an exemplary apricot tart.
Midsummer nights, I not infrequently put myself to sleep considering the taste of a warm, ripe apricot. I imagine the apricot’s sunrise color, the red blush along its curve. I imagine the apricot’s heft in my palm. I recall its skin’s softness. I imagine the fruit under my nose. I inhale. I break apart the apricot. I love to split these drupe fruits — the fleshy fruits, like peaches and plums, whose flesh surrounds a single hard stone that encloses the fruit’s seed. I press both thumbs along the fruit’s curve and gently pull the fruit apart and expose the flesh. I study the smooth, hard seed. I get in there with my thumbnail and lift out the seed. I enjoy the stone’s resistance. I set half the apricot in my left palm and with my right hand lift the other half to my mouth and suck and bite. When I get to the sucking and biting part, my fantasy apricot seems so real I’m sometimes surprised grainy orange juice isn’t dribbling down my chin onto the pillow.
The other day I bought a dozen apricots. I stood on tiptoe and lifted down a white dinner plate. A cobalt blue line runs just inside the plate’s edge. I arranged the apricots in a circle, along that blue line. I left the plate on the kitchen counter. Afternoon heat deepened the fruit’s aroma, the way flushed skin intensifies a woman’s perfume.
I might have considered apricot tart or apricot preserves or tossing a half dozen apricots in the Cuisinart and pulping them to pour over ice cream. 1 didn’t.
I thought about my father-in-law.
I see him as he was several years ago: a gnome shrunk down inside a bright Hawaiian shirt grown too large for him. Cigarette ash litters the shirt’s red hibiscus. He reeks of whiskey. His face over the years has turned increasingly simian, as if his face sought its way back through elaborate genealogies to its first forebear. He looks like a mean, tanned monkey.
My father-in-law had the best apricot tree in town. The town was and is a small town, set down in a Pacific Northwest valley. He was born there, from pioneer stock. He planted the apricot tree when he first moved back after the war and bought the house where my husband grew up. I once asked my father-in-law if he remembered what kind it was—Floragold? Goldrich? Moongold? Moorpark? Wenatchee Moorpark? He didn’t remember. He said it was a few twigs and a root ball wrapped in burlap when he got it and that he’d also planted at the same time Bing cherries, pie cherries, pears, apples, peaches, plums. The vast orchard he had planned, he said, “didn’t pan out.” Winter took the other trees. Winters there were harsh. The apricot tree persisted.
He pruned the tree over the years, and the tree towered and spread. I am 5'5" and could stand beneath its lowest branches and still not have my head touch the tree’s dark green, broad, heart-shaped leaves. Only a few sparse grass tuffs prospered beneath its shade.
My father-in-law said he liked to look out the kitchen window and see that the white blossoms had set on the tree. “Means spring’s here for good.” An odd look flickered across his face when he said that, as if he were reliving a moment that felt good and hurt bad all in the same instant.
I stood in my father-in-law’s yard late one spring morning. A few days earlier, he’d tilled his vegetable garden. The garden took up an entire lot. I gazed across the brown, furrowed soil, which he had not yet begun to plant. The apricot tree stood at the garden’s farthest edge. Beyond the tree, emerald green grass rolled out to the horizon. The tree rose to perhaps 15 feet. Sun poured down on the white blossoms. The wind that blew all spring through the valley blew that day. The wind fluttered the apricot tree’s branches. White petals rose into the air.
Ecstasy is difficult to write about. My father-in-law, I think, well may have known ecstasy when he looked out his kitchen window at those white blossoms. His simian face, with its creases and the red spots where he had skin cancers burned away, looked, I think, like it looked some Sundays at church.
He was a lay reader in our Episcopal parish. He often was appointed to read one of the lessons. Some Sundays before he drove into the parish parking lot and strode into the sacristy and slipped into the white surplice that lay readers wore, he played nine holes of golf and drank down I don’t know how many Bloody Marys. So that by the time he stood to walk to the lectern, his gait was unsteady. When he read, he slurred his words.
Lay readers sit beyond the altar rail and face the congregation. My father-in-law not infrequently slept during the sermon. His tanned monkey face bobbed above the white surplice; when he snapped back into consciousness, he gasped. Children occasionally tittered.
After the sermon came the Mass. Most Episcopalians of my father-in-law’s generation accept that the words said by the priest over bread and wine turn those elements into the Body and Blood of Christ. My father-in-law believed that. When the priest extended the paten, transformed into Christ’s flesh, toward my father-in-law, his mean monkey face took on that same look that he had when he said, about his apricot tree’s white radiance, “Means spring’s here for good.”
Why I’d asked my father-in-law, “Do you remember what kind of apricot tree that is?” was that I wanted to plant an apricot tree alongside the fence in our yard. I studied up on apricot trees. Apricot, like apple or peach or pear or cherry trees, are either “self-fruitful” or “self-unfruitful.” Varieties that bear fruit from pollination among their own flowers are “self-fruitful.” Those requiring pollen from another variety are “self-unfruitful.” Given that my father-in-law had only one apricot tree and that it regularly put forth its white shroud of flowers, followed by a profuse setting of fruit, it had to be self-fruitful. It could not have been Goldrich, which is self-unfruitful, and must have been, I think now, either Moorpark or Wenatchee Moorpark.
In-laws, for almost everyone, are difficult Rarely do your inlaws believe that you are good enough for their child, and rarely are you. I had hoped to be gathered into my husband’s family the way egg whites are folded into a cake batter. I wasn’t. They would have preferred my husband marry a local girl, as his younger brother had. They would have preferred someone whose family they knew.
I grew to dislike them, in large part because they disliked me. But as much as I disliked them, I wanted them to like me and to approve their son’s choice of me.
My father-in-law was a gifted, orderly gardener. His rows ran straight and were as weedless as his wife’s kitchen floor was without crumb or stain. His Romaine and Bibb and Iceberg and Black Seeded Simpson lettuces, one head after the other, grew equidistant from one another. His Blue Lake pole beans ran up straight white string, as did his peas. His Straight Eight cukes dangled down among wide, fuzzy green leaves. He never grew flowers. “I don’t believe in flowers,” he said. He believed in potatoes, Early Girl and Big Boy and Celebrity tomatoes, Country Gentleman corn, Table Queen acorn squash, and the bright red French Breakfast radishes with a white tail that he sliced and ate layered across buttered bread.
My father-in-law’s name was Jack; my husband was Jack, Jr. My mother-in-law’s name was Thelma. They did not ask that I call them “Mom and Dad.” They did not suggest that I call them, as their friends did, “Jack and Thel.” I called them nothing.
My mother-in-law, a full-time housewife, despised the domestic arts. She nevertheless kept a spotless house. She regularly stripped wax from her floors and spread new wax. She ironed her sheets. She sat at her Singer and she sewed matching print and plaid shirts for herself and her husband. She cut out and sewed cloth book jackets that she sold at the parish’s annual Christmas bazaar.
She designed the book jackets to fit paperback books and added a little strap, as on a purse, that would hang over one’s arm. She pinned a note in each jacket.
The note was handwritten in her lovely, clear script. This is what it said:
This is one of Thelma Hubbell’s Cover Ups for paperbacks, and it may help simplify your life! Now you won’t leave your book in an airplane seat, because it will be safe on your arm — ready to read in dull stretches at airports and cocktail parties. It also gives you privacy—after all, it’s nobody’s business what you’re reading!
“I put meals on the table” and “Nothing fancy" was how my mother-in-law described her cooking. She cooked vegetables down to mush and meat until it looked like a geology exhibit. My husband said that his mother “feared rawness.” She hated her husband’s garden produce. “The vegetables,” she sighed, “are so dirty.” She often threw out the big Detroit Dark Red beets and the Royal Chantenay carrots that he carried in a zinc bucket from garden to kitchen. My husband noted that his mother seemed to regard his father’s gardening as some unspeakable, filthy habit. My father-in-law brought in five, six apricots at a time that he ate out of hand. The rest he gave to me and to neighbors. My mother-in-law would have none of them. She said apricots weren’t “big, like peaches.” She said that she liked canned fruit better than fresh.
When my father-in-law telephoned us or dropped by our house to tell us the apricots were ready, we went with boxes and two small buckets. The stepladder waited under the tree. That ladder must have been 20 years old. It was metal and every year showed more rust.
He stood to the side and watched us as we stood under his tree. My husband climbed up on the ladder and carefully, one after another, set the apricots in the bucket. Then he climbed down and handed me the full bucket, picked up the empty bucket, and clambered back up the ladder. I, meantime, sat on my heels at the tree’s edge, packing the delicate fruit. I took great pains to take the fruit from the full bucket and lay it in the empty box. After I had one layer of apricots, I spread out several folds of paper towel over them and then began the next layer. The fruit was that fragile.
I could see, while I arranged apricots, my father-in-law take his measure of me. His eyes narrowed and his gaze held and studied me. I felt that he did not like what he saw.
My mother-in-law once said to me that she and I were fortunate in having “married up.” Her father was a roistering chief of police in a mountain mining town even smaller than the one into which her husband was born. She meant the remark kindly, I knew even then, but it hurt me, and I would not have dared repeat what she said to either of my parents, who, at any rate, were long divorced and lived thousands of miles apart from each other and from me. We were pretty much a failure, as families go, my parents and I.
When we got our three or four boxes of fruit home, I washed and pitted the apricots. As one after another ripe fruit passed through my bare hands, I easily understood why the Persians, who were growing apricots before the birth of Christ, called them “eggs of the sun.” I made several apricot pies and apricot preserves and apricot chutney. I had not yet learned to make an apricot tart and would not, for years. If any apricots remained, I canned them, halved, in pint jars with Bing cherries. What you do is halve the apricot and stick into the hollow where the seed has grown a whole cherry. You layer the raw fruit inside the canning jar so that the cherry-filled side faces out. You pour hot sugar syrup in the jars and then process them in the canning kettle. The cherry’s red tincture bleeds into the orange apricot’s interior.
I sent my husband over to his parents’ house with a pie and several jars of preserves and canned apricots. I knew even then that my motives were mixed. I genuinely wanted to give something back to my father-in-law for what he gave us; I also wanted to show him I wasn’t a no-good, that at least in the kitchen he might reckon me as virtuous as any local girl.
Several weeks after our first picking, my father-in-law would invite us again, this time to gather windfalls. Winds that blew through the valley in early summer blew ripe apricots onto the ground. The fruit, once it fell, deteriorated quickly. Skin split in the fall and the flesh turned brown. Wasps whirred above the toppled fruit. While my husband stripped the tree of the last fruit, I gathered windfalls. The decomposed fruit I threw into a garbage sack; recently fallen fruit I packed into boxes for preserves and nectar. The last time I did this, a wasp stung my arm, right above the wrist. The sting was painful. The swelling later was ugly.
I think I am correct in believing that what we do not like in our in-laws—say, something as petty as bad table manners or as big as mean-spiritedness — is a habit or trait that we fear will surface in our mates. We worry that when love’s initial bloom drops away, that a wife will bolt her food and keep her elbow on the table or that a husband will not give a friend or a child the benefit of the doubt.
I had trouble with apricot tart. I could make a tart that tasted good but didn’t look pretty. I was young and lacked patience. The tart dough, richer than common pie-crust dough and more difficult to handle, turned ragged by the time I rolled it out and fit it into the tart tin. I had trouble slipping off the apricots’ skins without ripping the fruit’s flesh. The custard that sits beneath the apricots I didn’t stir with sufficient assiduity, and it had lumps. And, finally, because I did not keep the flame turned low enough, the apricot glaze that finishes off the tart turned past the promised gold to brown. I fretted and wept and regretted who and what I was and felt shame at the truth about myself that ruined my tarts. I was in too big a hurry. I wanted goodness and beauty, but I wanted them fast.
My mother-in-law declared herself “happy as a clam” after my father-in-law retired from dentistry, when they sold the big house where the apricot tree reigned. She said, “I intend to be as retired as he is retired.” They not only sold the house, they sold almost all its furnishings. They bought a double-wide trailer in a court outside town. My father-in-law ate his breakfast downtown at Webster’s Cafe. He hunkered with his buddies, men he’d known since childhood, at the counter. They brought silver pocket flasks filled with liquor and poured the liquor into their coffee. Most mornings, after my father-in-law returned from breakfast, they played golf, she with the ladies and he with the men. Afternoons, they watched television and napped. Evenings, they drove out to the country club or sat in their matching brown leather recliners and watched their programs. In May, he set out tomato plants—Celebrity — in the tiny plot allotted each trailer.
Their friends began to die. My mother-in-law said, “We’ll just have to get used to it, burying folks. Soon, they’ll all be gone.” Her remark upset my husband. He said his mother seemed to feel that she and his father would live forever, that when the last human on earth died, his parents believed they still would be standing. But what happened was that they began to falter. His mind started to go and her body began to ache. He would find himself downtown at Webster’s and not remember how he got there. But even with two packs of unfiltered Camels a day and a lifetime of whiskey, his body hadn’t even begun to give out. She became crippled with arthritis and forgot nothing.
As things turned out, I never got around to planting an apricot tree. I planted apples and pears, which long after I left my husband, began to bear fruit. If my father-in-law ever knew what variety his apricot tree was, he would not know now. Senile dementia has gobbled his nerve cells and shrunk his brain tissue.
I think of his head as almost empty. I imagine his head as a gourd that holds maybe a dozen dry seeds.
I am older now, more patient, and can produce an exemplary apricot tart. I slowly roll out the pastry and fit it into the tin. The custard is smooth, rich, eggy, and subtle. I cut halved apricots. I use a sharp knife. Each thin slice looks like a pale orange crescent moon. I arrange the apricot slices atop the custard in concentric circles. I brush on strained apricot jam. I do not have to set the timer to remember the oven.
My father-in-law is beyond my dislike. I am beyond his. He has entered apricots. He inhabits every bite. I am unable to spit him out. We eat the bad with the good. Beauty teaches hard lessons.