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.