The grocery bag rustled as I stuffed the last orange in. I had nearly snagged it earlier when it popped off the high branch. The perfect golden specimen had slipped out of my hand and tumbled to the ground.
“Almost time to head back,” my dad said.
“Yep,” I said, looping my reins around my horse’s neck and nestling the bag’s handles over the saddle horn. I stuck my foot in the stirrup and swung up on Shyanne’s back. She turned her head around, one blue eye watching me. I pulled out a treat and let her steal it away. As we turned for home, I took one of the oranges—I had some Orange Julius plans for these guys—from my bag and sucked in a whiff.
It’s a tang that strikes the nose with tones of bursting, refurbished melancholy. The gentle scent of flowers that twine into the past. Orange blossoms have always brought me back to Arizona. A darkened house with a large grandfather clock and sunlight that streamed in from the back of the house. A hazy scene of dark fencing and a pool, that may or may not have existed, in his backyard with orange trees dropping a rug of flowers on the ground, the breeze tousling their petals. I sucked this scene in deep after watching The Brave Little Toaster five times. There’s something about those moments that I don’t remember and will never recall. I’ll never see it and, these days, two of the three other people I remember being there are dead. There’s no one to ask, only memories. The sweetness that trickles down my back at the sudden scent whooshing through a car window, makes me stop searching for clarity, and instead bask in a moment of clouded childhood.
I’ve lived in the Sunshine State all my life. I’ve watched the orange groves of old be bulldozed to make room for supermarkets. I’ve ridden horses through the various groves of my life, always plucking, sniffing, peeling, tasting, at least one. From tiny, tangy ones forgotten amongst the pines (these are best utilized as ammunition to throw at other riders) to the preened, juicy ones our neighbor let us take when we rode across his property to other trails. It’s funny how their scent, despite all my experiences here, takes me out of the state. It’s like how Florida is renowned for our citrus, but “the earliest references to oranges are to be found in ancient Chinese manuscripts and documents, with one such notation appearing in a written record dated about 2200 B.C.” (Florida Citrus Mutual). It’s what people forget that adds the tang and twang of nostalgia to life, that deep mystery of what we can’t remember but still hold on to in ephemeral ways.
Once brought here by Christopher Columbus and planted by Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine, the orange became an integral part of the Sunshine State’s new history (Visit Florida). The interwoven, almost interchangeable, nature of the orange and sun are often hard to differentiate when they bounce down the highway on the bumpers of Florida cars. Our state, the land, the fruit, the warmth, all seem to shimmer in a haze of invasiveness and natural coexistence. The tangled history of the fruit is American. The orange’s roots are all over the world.
Throughout the ages, the fruit of citrus trees has been a symbol of eternal love, happiness, and even holiness. The Japanese believed citrus blossoms represented chastity, while the Saracens believed it was a symbol of fruitfulness. Kings and queens built entire indoor gardens around citrus; Arab women used its essence to color gray hair, and Nostradamus wrote about how to use its blossoms and fruit to make cosmetics. Hercules so valued it, he stole the golden fruit from Hesperides, who protected it as the primary food of the ancient Roman and Greek gods. (Florida Citrus Mutual)
The orange is a startling mirror of the world. We are what we eat. Its presence is in my own life, my own mirror. I am here, but the journey of how I came to be is rooted in the varied paths of my family tree. Each journey is the peeling of a layer that descends into the center of the present. The bedtime story of the orange coming to America and blossoming into a commodity that was demanded at every breakfast table, leaves out the many freezes that hurt the industry and, now, many fail to recognize its great adversary: the Asian citrus psyllid. “This tiny bug carries a bacteria which attacks a tree’s vascular system, eventually killing it. The disease, which showed up in Florida in 2005, has created a phenomenon known as citrus greening that is decimating the orange and grapefruit industries in the state” (Semuels). When I was a child, this did not exist. When I was a child, it was about the sunshine, the sweetness, not the tang, of oranges.
As my family grew older, the easiness of life’s bedtime tales became harder to tell without a liar’s tongue. We had begun to find those things in life that were far from the nest of our mother tree. We branched out but a terrifying thing became apparent on our limbs as well: the stain of a controlling mother’s alcoholism and mental abuse.
“‘If I planted a new tree today, it would get greening this week and it will be dead in five years for sure,’ said Scott Young, a fourth-generation farmer who owns 400 acres in Polk County” (Semuels). Greening is chopping down the industry, it doesn’t wash out in the water, it stays in the groves. It picks off the healthy offspring until there are no healthy ones. The growers have come face to face with an adversary that is not curable yet.
MS, bipolar, depression: I don’t even know what else my mother suffered from. I could only understand that she wasn’t who I thought. She was violent and controlling, she was what I feared. I was too young to fully grasp that it was something inside her, not her. It was a disease, but an unforeseen, unseen one that crept up our trunk. It was not a disease she came face to face with, but it is a disease that I will remember as her face.
The orange groves struck by this debilitating disease produce sour fruit and yellowed leaves. Their slow waddle towards death sees them become shrunken skeletons of their former selves. That was my fear even after I stopped living with and seeing my mother: becoming sour fruit. I feared that unseen adversary that crept through the blood and didn’t wash out in the water. It was not the sweetness of elusive nostalgia, but a visceral creature preying on our family, and I feared it would stalk me through my life. When my mother passed away over a year ago, I was at home. It wasn’t the house that we had fled from or the rental my father, sister, and I had fled to and lost due to our financial circumstances. It was the home I had found, while looking for a place to volunteer during my period of “house-lessness.” I lived with my boyfriend and his generous family during that last half of my senior year of high school, just so I could stay in school. It was at Howey Horse Haven Rescue, that I found my home and my family. It wasn’t about our blood lines. And my momma, not my mother, started to mend that large part of my heart which had been broken and neglected for so long. She did so out of choice, though she didn’t know just how much she was truly doing for me. That’s almost two years ago now.
Almost a year ago now, a month after my biological mother took her own life, we picked up a very special horse. I remember how sad and lifeless Scout looked when I led him out of a tiny sand-filled enclosure with about two feet of tin for shade. They had shaved off most of his mane, and all he seemed to ask was “What now?” I fell in love, there was so much love and happiness and spoiledness that I knew he needed. There is some thing about his dopey ears and eyes that brighten when he looks at me. It’s the way when I walk around the corner and call his name he perks up and watches me come to him. It’s the way each weekend when I have to tell him I’m going back to school, he begins to pout. The way he watches me until I go back around the corner. He is my light, the best Christmas present. Everything, because of this new home, even with the trials of life, is better now. I’m healing, becoming whole, becoming me instead of my biological family tree.
Last spring, I rode down the road from my new home to a dirt driveway where there is little fruit stand. It is past acres of grove that a family had up for sale. I had seen their sign and was here to buy some of their oranges. I wasn’t on Shyanne, I was riding Scout. I wasn’t with my dad or my sister, I was riding alone. I had no plans for an Orange Julius but intended to share my purchase with our rescue volunteers. What struck me as Scout and I rode past the trees was the devastation of disease. At the end of this swath of skeletal trunks, a kind woman sold me some of their oranges and grapefruit. This place was her mother’s, but now her mother and their land was too tired to keep it up. The trees were too sick.
They had lost so much and were selling most of their acerage. The fruit, I observed on the ride home, had the definitive marks of greening, which had infected groves across the state with little hope in sight. I took a whiff of the citrus and felt those memories of the bygone days, of picking oranges from a different horse’s back and heading home to a mother instead of my Momma. So much of my biological family were good, but we had our share of sour fruit. This family I had now though, was a choice, not blood. I had chosen to volunteer during a time in which my father and I had lost our house. I had become family with the amazing people I found. It was a miracle, a blessing: this ability to change my tree. The human quality of choice allows for an avoidance of disease, because it was never about the blood, but the choices.
Florida Citrus Mutual. “Citrus Industry History.” Florida Citrus Mutual. 29 November 2017.
Semuels, Alana. “Florida Without Oranges.” 27 January 2015. The Atlantic. 29 November 2017.
Visit Florida. “Facts About Florida Oranges & Citrus.” Visit Florida. 29 November 2017.
The title of this work are lyrics: Mayer, John. “In the Blood.” The Search for Everything. 2017.
Link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ob-jS7bqYgI
Featured image courtesy of https://www.verywell.com/oranges-nutrition-facts-calories-and-health-benefits-4119322