Great-grandfather’s apricot tree

A strange three-branched tree grew in our yard. Yellow plums grew on its lowest and most widely spread branch. They were huge, round, with rich juicy flesh easily separating from the fine smooth pit. Those plums glowed with warm golden light in the sun, as if honey would flow from them the moment they have split apart. As a small girl, I picked those plums on my way, as I ran outside. Two plums fitted in one pocket, and when the girls asked me to share, I could take a dozen of them in a veil. Plums were sweeter than sweet and gave rich harvests, not once per two years, but every year.

Another branch climbed up. Solid and oblong blue zwetschges were on it. I couldn’t reach them, so my grandmother, or rather great-grandmother Katia, picked them for me. But I usually just called her grandmother, because saying great-grandmother is too long and inconvenient. So, back to those zwetschges. They were sour and a tiny bit astringent. That’s why grandma made jam out of them. I did not like plum jam, but my grandfather loved it, or rather my great-grandfather, whom I also called just grandfather, because saying great-grandfather is too long and inconvenient. So, grandpa cut a big slice of black bread, smeared it with a thin layer of butter that my grandmother took out from the refrigerator in advance to make it softer, and put thick plum jam on top with a spoon. Then he sat and savoured it all with a big cup of strong unsweetened tea. He smacked his lips with pleasure.

The third branch of that strange tree was crooked and short. But despite this, it was covered in lush blossom every spring, and a dozen small sweet-bitter or rather bittersweet wild apricots ripened on it every summer. They ripened on a branch till they turned reddish, fell into the dense grass under the tree and rotted. Or at best they were pecked by a daring chicken who ran away from their fence.

Everyone called that strange tree a plum, and only grandpa said it was an apricot tree. But he knew better because it was his light hand that made that tree appear in our yard. Because he liked to graft trees. First, grandpa planted teeny-tiny wood-plants. And as they grew bigger, next spring he went between them with a sharp knife (do not touch it, you will cut yourself!), a roll of blue tape and an armful of precious budding sticks – and worked his miracles. He skillfully attached those sticks to the woodcut to cut and rewound the joints with sticky tape. He also had a tin can of garden brew that smelled like pine resin. Grandpa oiled those cuts on the tree with that brew and quietly told it to heal faster. The cuts on the trees did heal, and the sticks revived and turned into branches covered in young leaves. Then grandpa waited patiently several years for the first fruit. He smiled at the first fruit, as at small children, looked at them closely, sniffed, and stroked them with gnarled dry fingers. He was amused. Then he tried them and shared with me.

“A good plum, huh?” he asked me.

“Goooood one,” I meowed, chewing the sweet flesh and squinting from the rich sun around.

“Andrii Savych!” we heard from somewhere near the veranda. It was my grandmother calling my grandfather to eat. “Come now! Everything is ready. Everything is on the table!”

My grandmother always called my grandfather by both his name and patronymic. Even when she was angry with him, even when she was scolding him. Probably because she respected him very much. Great-grandfather and great-grandmother married each other before the war. Andrii Savovych married my nineteen-year-old grandmother when she was pregnant when the family of her fiancé was dispossessed and sent to Siberia before their wedding. Grandma wanted to go with her love, but her mother didn’t allow him to: “Kateryna, stop thinking about going to the middle of nowhere! As you do not take care of yourself, take care of the child at least.” Katia listened to her mother, so her groom left, and she stayed at home. Months later she met Andrii Savych. He was fourteen years older than my young grandmother, just became a widower and lost three children, all of them died of typhus… Only God knows how hard it is to marry an unloved one, but Kateryna’s mother convinced her again, that it is needed. Because the child needs a father now, not someday later when he returns from Siberia. Maybe he won’t come back at all. Katia washed her face with abundant tears, but she did get married. She had a daughter in six months. She somehow endured and nestled with Savovych. Everything was all right, they had a normal family, with nothing to gossip about for their neighbours. But they did gossip. Mainly that Kateryna had quickly forgotten her lover, and that Savych visited his dead wife and children at a cemetery rarely. But Katia and Savovych did not care, they lived as they lived. And a few years later the war began…

Andrii Savovych was not taken to the front because he had an open form of tuberculosis. On the one hand, it was good, but on the other hand, it was pure trouble. But good people advice on how to treat that terrible disease. Kateryna wrote down the recipe on a piece of paper and cherished it as the apple of her eye, for they said it was very good for healing. It was badger fat mixed in certain proportions with honey and chocolate. He needed to take in a tablespoon of the mixture in the morning and evening, after meals. If you follow all the instructions, a miracle should happen.

Of course, it was impossible to find badger fat and chocolate during the war, but Katia was smart, determined and enterprising. And their dog then had three beautiful plump puppies… Katia did it with trembling hands, with tears in her eyes, because she was always careful not to even step on an ant, and those were puppies… but she did get that fat. And found chocolate. Through acquaintances of their acquaintances who worked in service of the Germans, who at that time occupied our town. And the Germans always had a bar of high-quality dark chocolate. Subsequently, the city was freed from invaders, the Germans left. And the miracle did happen. Andrii Savovych almost stopped coughing, tuberculosis retreated. The war also came to an end… subsequently…

Our dinner table usually consisted of borshch, a couple of slices of fresh bread, a scattering of garlic cloves, lard, cut not only in slices, but also in strips to the skin, so that it was easy to bite, and tea with bread smeared with vegetable oil, with plum, currant or strawberry jam – whichever grandfather got. But he especially liked plum jam. Made of those zwetschges that grew on that apricot tree.

When my grandfather deserved it – my grandmother appeased him. Actually, she was always appeasing him – she was probably grateful that he didn’t leave her to be shamed by their whole village when she was left pregnant without the groom. By the way, they called their daughter Tetiana, they gave her the surname of Andrii Savovych, and of course, she called him dad. Because he was her dad, he raised her as his own daughter. Andrii Savovych never mentioned his ex-wife and children out loud. He worked a lot, morning till night, provided for the family. It was then, after the war, that he became interested in gardening and began to create his amazing trees, including apple trees that had three varieties under one crown, and pears with branches adorned by the fruits of different shapes, sizes and colours, and that plum-apricot tree. It was a kind of consolation for the weary soul and benefit for the family.

Grandmother appeased grandpa as she could. The house was always clean, everything was washed and ironed, and something tasty was always vapouring on the table. As long as I remember myself, my grandmother was always busy at the stove. Even in the mornings, I woke up and heard that something already hissed-boiled-fried in the kitchen, and a delicious aroma is rushing into the rooms. And I lay there and guessed: fried potatoes with an egg? Potato pancakes with sour cream and dill? Dumplings with cottage cheese covered in crunchy pork rinds? And despite all those dishes, grandpa was skinny as a cod. At first, grandma complained, but then she stopped. She comforted herself that the main thing was that she was healthy, and the rest is not so important. All her life she cooked tuberculosis medicine for him, she called it “badger fat medicine”. She would say:

“Savych, I made you some medicine. Fresh. Go get a spoon.”

The grandfather went to take a spoon, scooped up the brown mixture from a half-litre jar, swallowed it and grimaced. Although the grandmother Tetiana said that the med is tasty, she stole it bit by bit from grandpa during the war. She was a child.

“She wanted some sweets. And that med was tasty – honey, chocolate,” grandma explained, “just a little fatty.”

But grandfather always grimaced. But obediently took the medicine. Therefore, the disease never returned.

“Grandma, why do you make that med for grandpa, if he’s already healthy?” I asked.

“Prevention,” grandma answered, covering the jar with a sweet-fat mixture with a plastic cap, and went heavy-footed to the kitchen to cook lunch.

Andrii Savovych and Kateryna raised Tetianka, had grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They always supported each other, went through their lives side by side – in sorrow and in joy. None of their children knew the story of the pregnant bride and the unfortunate widower until their old age. But as they found out, nothing changed. Grandparents got along, grew into each other like two trees – it was hard to tell which is where, only the crowns differed.

Grandma died when I finished first grade. In June. Everything was washed by warm rains. The trees were set with small fruits, honey juice was filling greenish plums day after day, the first grass was mowed, the first flowers dried up to the seeds, irises were blooming abundantly. And suddenly my grandmother began to choke and fell ill. Grandfather gave her cups full of raspberries collected with his own hands from personally planted and nurtured shrubs, brought slightly heated water, so that it was not too cold or too hot for Katia, sat silently next to her so that she didn’t feel alone. But she died anyway, although she was fourteen years younger than him. She left grandfather alone.

The funeral was large, with a brass band, with bright wreaths and flowers scattered by some woman down the road ahead of the coffin. And the coffin was floating somewhere above. And I could not believe that my grandma Katrusia was inside. It seemed to me then that as that coffin was lifted, grandma flew up like a bird in the blue sky and dissolved somewhere far away in grey clouds.

The wake was held in the yard among the grandfather’s miraculous trees. But no one paid any attention to the trees. Grandpa suddenly orphaned, grew shorter and even skinnier.

“Andrii Savych, let me give you a cabbage roll,” a neighbour who helped to cook lunch said. But grandpa did not seem to hear her, and looked with his swollen red eyes at the big photo of Katia with the diagonal black ribbon on it, looked at the people around, at his house, at the trees, and sighed quietly. I wanted to approach him, to hug him, but for some reason, I didn’t dare to. And he was left without my hugs then.

My parents quickly sold the house with a yard and a garden where great-grandfather and great-grandmother and our entire family lived. In Soviet times, it was trendy and prestigious to urbanize and to not live on the ground, but in large apartment buildings and high-rises. Therefore, our large family had settled in apartments. Grandma Tetiana took great-grandfather with her. But he was missing Katia too much, or he was bored without his wonder trees – after the death of great-grandmother grandpa lived only two years. He quietly died in his sleep on the fourth floor in one of the apartments of a multi-storey apartment building.

***

As a child, I always wondered why grandfather said that strange plum tree was an apricot tree. I asked him once why is it an apricot tree if there is only one short crooked apricot branch?

“And the trunk is from the apricot tree,” grandpa remarked gravely, “and the roots.”

I was a child and did not understand anything, I saw a splendid crown with yellow and blue plums, and for me, it was a plum tree. But after many years, I finally found out what he meant. My great-grandfather knew what he was saying. That plum tree was undoubtedly an apricot tree. But my grandfather loved plums, yellow, sweet as honey, and blue astringent zwetschges…

Yuliia Vovkodav

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