One Plum at a Time

plums-in-kitchenIt’s hard to believe that the summer solstice was only a few days ago. It’s the longest day of the year, but it’s the one that makes me contemplate how swift summer is, since we lose about a minute of sunlight each day from now until December. Everything in our yard is in full bloom, but that floral kaleidoscope carries with it the knowledge that the beauty of summer is at its zenith. The green hills in the parks nearby have already given way to an almost fluorescent yellow. This is a time to hang onto what brightness, color and warmth there is, to wring what we can from the waning days.

Castro Valley, where I live, is the land of plums. We have six plum trees in our back yard, and everyone who lives here seems to have at least one. Our neighbor has been known to take a Shopvac to his tree and suck all the plums off it before they do any damage to his lawn. At some point during the first few weeks of June, our Santa Rosa plums—the best plums there are—ripen at the same time and fall to the ground. The window of opportunity to collect them is a short one. Every year around this time I experience “fruit guilt,” the shame of not dealing properly with all the plums this tree produces. The shame of being less organized and less industrious than my ancestors were. It lingers around me like the smell of, well–rotten fruit.

Today, I go into the yard, determined to do something. Most of the plums are gone by now, but a few still cling to the upper branches and some of the ones on the ground are not yet spoiled. The other trees—with tiny plums that are a lemon or pale coral color—can be ignored. The fruit from these trees is sour and inedible. I concentrate on the Santa Rosa plum tree. The plums on this tree have an eggplant-colored skin with a powdery-blue patina smeared across the surface. I pluck one of them from the ground. Larger than a golf ball and smaller than a tennis ball, it fits into my palm perfectly. Plum-sized, it is a measurement unto itself. Some jewel-toned syrup oozes out of its broken skin. It’s hot and pungent as strawberry jam that’s ready to be ladled into canning jars. How many plums did the tree produce this year? Two hundred? Five hundred? I want to quantify them, as if having a number to affix to them will make them manageable.

“It is better to do something than to do nothing,” a friend, considerably older than I was, said to me years ago. That was his mantra, apparently. I, in my twenties, thought, “What kind of philosophy is that?” I pitied him for being so full of self-doubt, so paralyzed by his choices. Today, I am as old as he was when he told me this puzzling mantra. And I think I know what he meant now. What he probably meant was, “It is better to do anything than to do nothing.” This makes sense at a gut level but, upon examination, is terrible advice. Still, no piece of advice is perfect, when scrutinized too heavily. I heed his advice, picking up as many of the plums as I can, putting them into pans and buckets, but not beating myself up over the ones that lie on the ground, fermenting in a pile of wasteful profusion, a gooey plum stew.

Pretty soon, June will be a distant memory, and so will the plums. They’ll be forgotten, stacked in our downstairs freezer in little Ziploc bags. What I’ll have is the memory that I did something. That I took them on, so to speak. One plum at a time.


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