Within the walled garden of my parent’s home in Charleston, a vicious battle wages annually between my mother and the local squirrel population. It’s a fight on principle. In our household, we savor the few precious weeks when the ancient fig tree (genus Ficus) begins to produce succulent fruit. The wide lobed fronds open to shade small green globes of sweet flesh that peek out from the tree’s knobby branches.
Year after year my mother stands as the sole defense between this single fig tree and the sneaky arboreal predators who love figs almost as much as I do. Come May, mother begins to monitor the fruit’s growth with the fine attention of the botanist. By the last week June, she has begun hourly updates via text message on the circling of rodents out the back of the house. She attempts to herd them away with swift swipes from her trusty broom and a kind of war cry that would frighten the stoutest of men.
To her utter dismay, this year the squirrel leader has taken a particular pleasure in teasing my mother by resolving to squat unmoving with a face full of fig in the middle of the garden as my mother comes in from the car. Coupled with the trampling effect this fig glutton has on her great grandmother’s bright yellow daffodils blooming just beneath said tree, she has found new resolve to harvest a record number of fruit.
This antagonistic behavior, which by the way is quite out of character for my gentle mother, is, in my estimation, an inherited trait. You see my maternal grandmother also had an unsympathetic streak when it came to animals and her garden. She was a product of the generation of women who lived through the Great Depression and raised her children during the Second World War. Her garden was sacrosanct. Well really, I should say that it was her sugar sweet Silver Queen corn that was her weak spot.
My grandmother Celia was notorious for keeping her father’s rifle under the floral sofa on the sun porch in her Charlotte suburb home. During cocktail hour—in pencil straight silk trousers and blouse, a cigarette in one hand—she’d spy a rogue fluffy brown tail weaving it’s way among her precious corn stalks and within the blink of an eye would whip out this gun and fire a warning shot across the animal’s bow. And I suppose on a number of occasions she ended up with squirrel in her famous Brunswick stew.
We don’t partake in squirrel soup, but if Michael can manage to haul the ladder out of the basement in time—even his 6’3” frame can’t reach the plump fruit at the tip top of the tree—, we do often end up with a pile of fresh figs that are like nothing else I’ve ever tasted. This year, the lot of them went into a batch of Michael’s homemade canned preserve. And as a bit of a food glutton myself, I can attest that when spread liberally on a hot-from-the-oven biscuit this figgy jam has all the taste of summer, and I can almost hear my mother’s war cry ringing in my ears.
One irony in closing. As delectable as figs are, my mother can’t stand eating them. But she loves that tree and the joy that comes when Michael, my father and I tuck into a bowl of ice cream laced with slivers of soft seedy flesh, fresh from her garden.