Lemon Tree Very Pretty

At least, I think it is a lemon tree. I can tell by the shiny tear-shaped leaves that it is a citrus of some sort, but it could be a lime or a tangerine, rather than a lemon. The person who would know for sure is my former colleague and longtime friend, Frank Miranti, who died suddenly about this time last year. He is the rightful owner of this tree, which he very likely started from seed and cared for religiously through many seasons: watering daily, misting the leaves, fertilizing every sixty to ninety days, pruning in the spring after the fruit had dropped and the tree had been brought back outside, dosing with beneficial bacteria culture in the fall, checking carefully for signs of scale or mineral deficiency, treating any problems as soon as they appeared. The tree is nearly five feet tall and in a fourteen-inch pot; it was one of the smaller ones he owned.

I still can’t believe he is gone. I keep going over those first few days in my mind, when those who knew him were reeling from the initial shock, calling and emailing everyone we could think of who knew Frank or who might have information about what had happened, and discovering in the process previously unknown connections among his various circles of friends. I first learned something was wrong on a Monday when my ex-husband called me at the office and asked if I knew why there were police cars in front of Frank’s house. I immediately called the office where Frank worked at the time to see what I could find out; the woman who answered the phone was crying when she told me that he had died.

Over the next days and weeks, we tried to piece together what had happened between the time Frank left work on Friday and the time he failed to show up for work on Monday. According to coworkers, Frank seemed fine when he left work at the end of the week. From what we could gather, he had then taken his youngest sister grocery shopping; after that, he had gone to visit a friend in the hospital. That was the last anyone saw him. His sister thought she remembered him saying he might not be at the farmers market at 8:00 on Saturday, which was his usual time, because he had been out so late on Friday. His sisters from St. Louis wondered why he didn’t answer his phone. Later one of his neighbors noticed that Frank had not been in his garden all weekend. No one recalled him being sick or depressed, although several people commented that he had been working hard in recent weeks. By Monday, when he didn’t call in to the office, it was becoming apparent that something was wrong, and someone contacted the police, who found him dead in his bed of unknown causes. Weeks later, after completing the police investigation and running numerous forensic tests, they still had not identified a cause of death. He was forty-nine years old.

I had known Frank since graduate school, when he was writing heavily textured poems about his grandmother from Sicily and I was writing spare poems about my stillborn daughter. We both lived near Stephens College campus at the time, and he used to walk past my place on his way to and from the University every day. Even before we met, we couldn’t help but notice each other. He had long curly black hair and a full dark beard. I had hair down to my waist. I thought he looked like Jesus. He thought I was the perfect Earth mother. We first noticed each other the day my husband and I and our three-year-old son moved to town. Frank told me later that when he saw us unloading our small antique printing press from the moving truck, he knew he had to get to know “that hippie family.”

During that first fall, we saw each other occasionally at poetry readings or other campus events and spoke when we met on the street, but we did not really get to know each for a couple of years, when we found ourselves in the same graduate program. We took several poetry workshops together, taught parallel sections of freshman composition, co-edited the English department’s literary magazine, and served as poetry advisors for the Missouri Review. I was pregnant during the years we were in school, and Frank worried over me like a mother hen, fussing at me when I skipped lunch or drank too much coffee, offering me rides home when the weather was bad or he thought I looked tired, covering my classes for me when I lost another baby, bringing flowers to the hospital after my second son was born. After graduate school, Frank and I worked as editors at several different University offices off and on over the years—at an assessment center, at an early childhood center, and in distance education. He was a skilled editor, a conscientious worker, and a loyal friend.

We also shared an interest in gardening, and we often shared cuttings or seeds, but Frank had the most amazing Mediteranean-style garden you could ever hope to find in the Midwest. In addition to the citrus trees, he also grew pineapples and jasmine and figs and grapes in his lush garden space. Some of his plants, including one he called the Grand Duke, were descended from plants his grandmother brought over from Sicily.  Frank loved to share cuttings and fruits from his garden, as well as advice. He was a font of wisdom about organic gardening methods; those who stopped by his garden could expect to receive a personal tour, complete with samples of whatever was in season and answers to any questions one might ask. He also routinely brought the fruits of his garden to the office to share, including lettuce, spinach, and tomatoes, as well as more exotic offerings. One year he offered bundles of grape vines to anyone who wanted them, along with detailed instructions about how to care for them the first, second, and third year. Another time he brought in fresh figs for those who wanted a taste. He brought in small batches of his special fertilizer or mineral supplements or fungicides to share with other gardeners in the office.  Several times he brought me a single jasmine blossom in a small plastic vial; the sweet scent filled the entire office and lasted for days.

When his sister brought the small citrus tree to me, she also brought me a two-page single-spaced set of instructions that she had found while going through Frank’s papers. He had written them several years earlier when he decided to give away his prize lemon tree, after he began having back trouble and the tree had grown too large to carry up to his third-floor apartment every fall and back down to the garden every spring, even with assistance from the homeless men Frank occasionally hired to help out around the place.  That particular tree was well over eight feet tall by then, with full spreading branches. The tree had been in his family for years but had never bloomed until Frank took it over. In fact, the first year it began to fruit, Frank thought at first that the tree had developed gall, until he took a closer look and discovered that the hard green pea-shaped growths were in fact lemons. Under Frank’s care, the tree continued to bear fruit in a sunny window in his apartment, some years producing dozens of large lemons, which Frank would always share with friends and neighbors.

I have been doing my best to follow Frank’s instructions for caring for the tree his sister gave me,  although I did not have the exact brand of fertilizer and mineral supplement he called for, and I did not always apply the fertilizer ten days before the full moon, as he  recommended. I also did not prune the tree in the spring, as he would have done, because I wan’t sure whether it was too late by the time I received the tree and moved it outside. And I am sorry to say I did not water it every day or mist the leaves more often. Frank’s instructions warn that if the tree is underwatered, the topmost leaves will start to curl, which I did notice a time or two. Regardless, the tree survived its first two seasons with me in reasonably good shape. I am trusting that Frank knew what he was talking about when he said not to worry if the tree yellows up a bunch of leaves and drops them for about three weeks in October/November.  I have drenched the soil twice now with Knock Out Gnats, as instructed, and moved the tree inside for the winter, where I have placed it in my sunniest south-facing window. I hope I can keep it alive and maybe even coax it to bloom and bear fruit.


7 responses to “Lemon Tree Very Pretty

  1. Katherine, Frank's sister

    This is a lovely, heart-felt, humorous iteration of one of Frank’s most important relationships. It is an exceptional, exquisite gift that you are sharing with me and, hopefully, lots of others. I had a brief period of garden duty in the spring and am still amazed that every time I pull a patch of weeds, a volunteer of sorts displays. From lettuce to fig tree, rose bushes to zinnias, broccoli to “What’s that called?,” cucumbers that he never even sowed as far as I knew, the most outstanding feature was seeing a constant display of new plants in each the spring, summer and fall. There have been touching moments that paid tribute to all of the gatherings around the garden. This week, the hawks called out as the mice scattered and butterflies lighted on first my left shoulder then my right. It all reminds me of his hugs hello and goodbye–hearty and light, pats and squeezes, ruffled hair and a Zepplin call–A AAA A…a southern drawl of an “Hooooolaaaaaa” and the “cool shades” nested above a radiant, often rambunctious smile. Even a check of the car fluids made for a celebratory day along the garden with Frank…a man who lived 94 years in his 49. And, yes, fresh pickings to go, often in one of a myriad of vases took their rightful places as the only things to notice in my itsy bitsy apartment. Here is to the love of life and one lived in an abundance of radiant energy. Frank: Luffa and Goooooooaaaaaalll! I can’t wait to see you again. Keep playing.

  2. I just found out about Frank’s death–was doing a search for him, wondering why I hadn’t heard from him in a couple of years and why his address was not working…. Frank was one of my best friends in grad school, and I remember the marvelous garden he had, even then. When I moved to Hawaii in 1988, I needed to find a home for several citrus trees that I’d grown from seed. I gave Frank one of them. There’s no reason to assume that the tree in Marcie’s essay is the same one; they’re easy enough to grow, until they get too big for the room they’re in. But I never got one to fruit. I’m glad Frank did.
    –Alan McNarie


  3. Some days Google is not your friend.
    I was just looking for Frank because I could not find his number and realized that I had not heard from him at Christmas or my birthday in a year or so and thought I should call.
    Yeah…not such a great idea…so sad now.

    But this is a lovely post remembering an extraordinary man.

  4. Very touching tribute of my cousin. Frank is my mother’s 1st cousin and my 2nd cousin. I remember him quite well when he attended my grandfather’s funeral. Frank has one surviving aunt, my grandmother, Angie, on the Giordano side. She still tells stories of Frank’s grandmother, Nana Giordano, as well. Nana Giordano was loved by all those who knew her. Hard to believe Frank has been gone nearly 2 years and to die so young. Thank you again for sharing the memories. By the way, I am a high school English teacher. I guess it runs in the family that we love words.

  5. Pingback: I’m pretty excited about my grapes. | Reality Bites

  6. I was a first-semester freshman when I walked into Frank’s Creative Writing:Poetry class at Mizzou in the mid ’80s – a class I chose out of despiration because the other writing classes (required) were full. I still think of the people in that class and our experiences together. A few semesters later, I walked into my first Business Writing class and saw those familiar curls. Yes! I knew this was not going to be a dry, technical writing experience.
    I’m sad I never got to tell Frank that I now use the writing skills he helped hone in my career as a communicator in public service. Reading this post, though, I know we’d have picked right back up where we left off. My husband and I are rabid gardeners – and my husband’s ficus tree makes the inside/out, outside/in trek every year the way Frank’s lemon trees did. I guess I can take comfort that he now knows the great mystery of what lies beyond, the topic of way too many tortured college-student poems!

    • I still miss Frank and the way he shared his passions with such a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. He would be happy to see how his spirit still moves among the people who knew and loved him.

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