When I was a kid there was a paw paw tree that grew along an alley next to our church. I can remember finding masses of the things rotting on the ground. But given their coarse green skin and the smell of their decay I took more pleasure in mashing them underfoot than I did eating them. Recently, though, the paw paw reentered my life, and I felt like I’d struck gold.
My brother Aaron found the fruit hanging from its tree, and the two of us sang the paw paw’s praises to anyone who would listen (which was mainly the two of us). He pressed his thumbs into its skin and it opened, golden and soft. Our niece was with us—we were together for a family birthday party—but she hesitated as Aaron held the fruit out to her. The paw paw was creamy, especially toward the center, and I suspect she thought it was rotten.
“It’s like a banana,” I said, encouraging her. “It’s like a tropical fruit right here in West Virginia.”
She ate a bit, and then Aaron offered me half. I happily grabbed the fruit and went to give my children their first taste. It didn’t look like much, to be sure. By the time I called the kids over the fruit had already been torn in two, mashed up, and half-eaten. I faced four sets of skeptically raised eyebrows when I told them to try a bite.
To me the fruit was one of the best treats I’d had in ages. Better than candy. The kids were not quite so overwhelmed. Each one tried a fraction of a dollop, and three of the four shrugged and said, “it’s pretty good.” Finn, my seven-year-old, had a stronger reaction, as he was determined to hate it.
The dab of fruit spent less than a second on his tongue before he was spitting and sputtering and threatening to vomit. I shook my head as he ran away from me, escaping into his blessedly paw paw-free life. I kept on eating, and walked back to the tree. There was no more fruit.
“It doesn’t keep,” Aaron told me. “It has more vitamin c than oranges, a lot of fiber, and more vitamin a than apples. But you can’t store it. It goes bad.”
He told me about the scores of paw paw trees in the woods behind his house, and how the air smells like paw paw beer as the fruit ferments on the ground in the fall. He talked about paw paw bread and paw paw custard and I imagined myself cramming my mouth full. For a moment I fantasized about nabbing a seed from our now thoroughly eaten fruit and having a tree of my own, but I have nowhere to plant the thing. Another item for the “someday” list.
It’s amazing, though, how ephemeral that sweet little fruit is, and how many of the small joys of life operate in the same way. When they come, there is no time to waste. God brings them about, and we have to enjoy their flavor while we can.
Later that evening I sat in the floor beside my twelve-year-old and wrapped my arm around his shoulder. He is nearly man-sized now. Much bigger than I was at his age. I wanted him to tuck his head up under my chin like he used to, to envelope him with my arms, but the two of us don’t fit together that way anymore.
Instead we talked until too late about Harry Potter and why Tom Riddle made the bad choices he did, and I realized that this moment needed savoring just as much as the ones we shared when he was smaller. I sat with him, harvesting the fruit of our life together, and planting seeds for a future, better harvest. One full of sweetness and flavor that, God willing, will stay with me until I myself go down to the ground.