Every spring I would wait, petulant and impatient, for the buds to turn into shells—for that perfect summer day when the almonds were ready to be picked from the tree. I’d rush out into the yard in the early morning light when my dad would drop me off on his way to work, and I’d stand beneath the tree, my tiny hands on my tiny hips, peering up into the branches. You would come and stand next to me and I would ask you in my child’s voice if they were ready.
“Not today,” you’d answer in Greek.
“But when, Papou-mou?” I’d whine back at you.
“Soon,” you’d say, lighting a cigarette.
“Tomorrow?” I would implore.
“Maybe tomorrow,” you’d rest one hand on top of my head and draw back on your cigarette with the other. “We’ll see tomorrow.”
I was so small, and every year a little bigger, yet I never tired of that old routine we had—I’d play it out with you now, if you were still here. It lasted for months, and every part—the waiting and the restlessness, right up to the blossoming and the final celebration and nut cracking—rests like a warm blanket over my mind.
The almond tree stood up against the rotting fence palings at the bottom of the garden at my grandparents house, right behind the orange and green plastic swing set they erected for me, later to be inherited by my baby cousin. The garden is different now, but the tree is still there, completely unmoved, still yielding its fruit, season after season. Almost as though you never went away.
On the inevitable morning when the almonds would finally be ready I’d see it in your eyes. You’d be teasing me, telling me, “one more day,” but I knew—your eyes would flash with an animal wildness or they’d glitter like stars at my excited shrieks. We both knew what would unfold, and hand-in-hand we’d walk out to the garden, to stand under the tree.
You’d lift me then, up over your head and onto your shoulders. You’d be wearing a white singlet, your grey slacks and a pair of suspenders, with a cigarette hanging out the corner of your mouth and your hair slicked back from your morning shower. Up on your shoulders, you’d threaten to drop me, pull me away from the tree suddenly just as my chubby hands were reaching for a cluster of almonds, mercifully taking me back into range before jerking me back away again.
Like this, we’d strip the tree slowly, you laughing and me shrieking—not too many at once though, the summer was long and we had so many afternoons to share. I’d pull the almonds from their branches and drop them into the bag you’d hold outstretched for me, and like this we would go, until you’d decide we’d had enough, and you’d set me down on top of a wooden table in the middle of the yard.
Knowing my cue by heart, I’d crawl under the table.
“Where is my Katerina?” you’d ask loudly in Greek.
I’d giggle beneath the table, but say nothing.
“Oh well,” you’d sigh, “I guess I’ll just have to eat all these delicious almonds on my own.”
And so it would be that you would set about cracking the almonds out of their shells using your teeth, and peeling them of their still yellow skins. You would put them on a plate by the edge of the table and I would nervously reach my hand up when I knew you were preoccupied and steal them, one by one. I was always so afraid that you would catch me, even though I knew that you knew the game as well as I did.
When you would see the empty plate you would fly into a mock rage. “Who stole my almonds!” you would shout, “why, it must have been a little mouse!”
I would crunch the almonds in my mouth as quietly as I could, curled up the way I was under the table there, and you would continue to peel them above the table, and gesticulate wildly when they’d disappear.
“If I ever catch that mouse,” you’d say, “I’m going to feed it to the cat!”
And so we’d go until there were no more almonds left. We’d repeat this routine through the whole summer, and then again the following summer. And again and again and again and again, until finally, you were gone.
Even though you’re not here anymore, I still wait for the summers. I still wait to go back to the old house where you used to live. I still wait for the tree to blossom and for the almonds to be ripe enough to eat. I still stand beneath it impatiently, with my adult hands on my adult hips, wishing you’d come and stand next to me, dragging on your cigarette.
“Not today, koukla-mou,” you’d say, “not today.”