You'll remember this story well, but I feel the need to tell it again today.
At the Stuckey's in Danville, Va., I spotted the miniature orange tree that I knew I must have. It was maybe six inches tall and lived in a white cardboard box with cellophane windows. I marveled at its compactness. How could an orange tree be so tiny?, I wondered. The fact that I loved oranges, that they hinted of exotic lands, made this 10-year-old's boy desire even stronger.
I went searching for you, hoping to convince you that I couldn't possible continue existing without that mini orange tree. We were making our usual pit stop at the Stuckey's halfway between Greensboro, where we lived, and Roanoke, where you were from. During this period, I'd ride up to Roanoke frequently with you. Your father, Daddy Jimmy, had recently passed away, and you, being his only immediate survivor, would go up on weekends to settle his estate.
I went along for the ride for several reasons. First, it got me out of Greensboro. Second, I loved Roanoke, loved Daddy Jimmy's big old house there.
There were other reasons, too, Dad, that weren't evident to me then. I deeply missed my grandfather. He was a white-haired, classy, gentle man, and you named me after him, so there had always been a link. And the trips to Roanoke gave you and me quality time alone that never quite happened otherwise.
You worked six days a week, sometimes seven. On your days off, you often loved to fish. It was no secret to you that I loathed it. On the few fishing trips you'd convinced me to go on, I was alternately bored and appalled: bored by waiting endlessly for a fishing line to tighten, appalled at the can of squirming worms into which I was expected to stick my fingers and extract a sacrifice for the fish hook. You also loved to golf. Again, for me, golf = boredom. I'm sorry about that, Dad. But that's just who I was.
Back to Stuckey's. You came in to pay for the gas, and excitedly, I led you to the orange tree. "Isn't that neat?" I said. "Can I have it?" If memory serves, I believe the tree cost $5 or $10—an investment back in the late 1960s.
With your careful photographer's gaze, you studied the Bonzai-ish fruit tree in its box. "I'm sorry, son, but I think it'll just end up dying," you said. "It'll be a waste of money."
"No it won't!," I pleaded. "I'll take care of it. I'll water it!"
"I'm sorry," you repeated gently, and I knew that was that.
A few months later, on my birthday, I awakened and rushed downstairs to see what goodies awaited. There, in the center of the breakfast room table, was the miniature orange tree. You flashed me a sheepish grin. "Happy birthday," you said.
When did you buy it?, I wondered. I hadn't seen you do it during our subsequent Stuckey's stops in Danville, and there was no other Stuckey's close by. And I would've seen you try to sneak the tree into the car. And I'd gone with you on all your other Roanoke trips between the time I coveted the mini citrus tree and my birthday.
You remained mysterious about the orange tree's procurement, which of course drove me nuts. Ultimately, I decided that you drove by yourself to the Stuckey's in Danville, which is about a 45-50 minute ride, specifically to buy the tree. You took time out of your busy work life to buy your son what he wanted for his birthday. I think you did that as a way of saying 'thank you' for accompanying you on all those trips to Roanoke. I couldn't have known this then, but now I know how much you missed your father, and having me there probably gave you a lot of comfort.
And of course, Dad, you were right. I became the little orange tree's unintended executioner. It may have lasted two weeks before browning and collapsing into an exhausted heap. But you never said what many parents would have in that circumstance: "I told you so."
I've bought a few miniature orange trees over the years, perhaps in an effort to show you I could sustain them. Unfortunately, the outcome was always the same: death to the innocent orange tree.
Although my efforts at raising miniature fruit trees have been fruitless, Dad, there are some things I've managed to get right over the years. One of those is, along with my sisters, to take good care of the woman you adored, the woman you were married to for over 50 years, the woman who was never quite the same after you passed away.
You've been gone 20 years now, as of today, Dad. But you've never left me. Just this morning, you came to me in a dream. I was at your funeral, and some man I'd never seen before was giving the eulogy, and I was growing agitated because he clearly didn't know you. I wanted to stand up, move him aside, and talk about the man we were there to mourn.
When I rose to speak, you were suddenly seated beside me in the church pew. You touched my shoulder gently, smiled, and said, "Don't forget to tell them about the little orange tree."
"I will," I said. "And by the way, how did you get that? I've wondered all these years."
You smiled enigmatically and gently waved me toward the pulpit.