The Illegal Grape

For a few years, I smuggled grape vines into Mexico. You probably don’t understand why. It’s because when you ask for a grape vine here, someone leads you to a few dusty plants, you ask what kind, and no one knows. There are local grapes that supposedly grow at high elevations. We’re at 7,000 feet. I have one of these vines; it puts out plenty of growth, but in eight years has produced only one little clump of tiny blue grapes each year, without much flavor. I have since grafted a White Concord to it, hopefully harnessing its vigor for this fine—now immigrant—grape.

I stopped smuggling when I could no longer stand the anxiety of being caught by Customs authorities who published and distributed increasingly dire warnings of what would happen to those who tried to import agricultural products, living or dead.

It was important to me to have grapes in my Mexican garden, and I saw no other way to get them there. I bought them in California nurseries, rooted stock, in the dormant season, cut back the roots and branches, surrounded the former with wet sawdust, sealed them in a plastic bag to keep the moisture in and placed them in my bag with as much cleverness as I could muster. I slipped the offending twig into the pant leg of a folded pair of jeans and, on top of that, lay charging cords, a coat hanger or two, and a short clothesline and clips for hand washes, in the hope of confusing scanners and the persons operating them. I counted on bored airport customs officers at the entering airport thinking they were looking at something like a Chinese back scratcher or a long water color brush. I counted on other immigrants, let alone other travelers, not having the same needs I did and thus, over time, not training officials to look for and spot grape vines.

What were those needs? I needed Concord grapes, and I needed them because, as a boy, I used to climb up into a canopy of vines that grew ten or fifteen feet above occasionally boggy ground, between half-drowned New England pines and elms, beside a brook with dark water, more brown than black. There, perched in that web, we filled our mouths, fed like birds, sucked the juices out of the area between the skin and the core, swallowed the slippery center, then spit the tart skins out down onto the mottled shade below us.

When I was young and first in love, I associated Lilac blossoms with some vague, semi-anguished romantic longing—not far below which lay my intense interest in the smooth brown skin on the thighs of my sweetheart. But what does it mean now that recently, while in New England, I thrust my nose into a fullness of Lilac blossoms and found the scent too much like a cheap imitation of what I had known before? Still, in behalf of youth, I have to thank the English sea captain who is said to have brought the bush from Persia in 1695 and planted it in Portsmouth, New Hampshire—precisely the place where I had been visiting. Would the fragrance be different then, more appealing, if  the bush grew in my garden? Or I were young again? For the reasons given, I think I have no plans to re-assume criminal activity for the sake of the Lilac.

For many years, I lived in California, where I treasured, above all others, the Persimmon tree—of which I had two. In theory, one for us, and one for the raccoons—who, it turns out, did not observe the rules. I had to wrap tin flashing around the first four feet of our trunk and trim away all low-hanging branches to frustrate their intelligence and appetite. In the late fall, the Persimmons’ leaves were as brilliant as New England maples. When their leaves fell, the fruit became golden-orange Christmas tree ornaments hanging from the bare branches. I would place four or five on a white, south-facing kitchen windowsill, turning and testing them periodically for ripeness. I was quite aware that they represented a clean, important connection with my mother—who loved them—a connection that was otherwise fraught with complication and distance. I have a Persimmon tree, but it is under attack by an exaggeration of aloe vera plants (Northern Africa) and kumquats (from 12th century China). It is a gift from a Korean-American friend who decided I should have one when I told her what they meant to me. But something has happened. The leaves are wilting, I think because I left a long length of hose leading to the tree. Someone may have watered during the heat of the day and poured scalding hot water over the surrounding soil, that then seeped down onto the tree’s roots. A disaster for memory and connection.

Now, each morning, I reach a thumb and two fingers toward a grape that I think has the proper purple-blue color; and I put it in mouth. The juice is sweet, and still cool before the coming heat of the day. Several times, sparrows have landed unnaturally close to me during these feasts. I have never been able to get Mexican birds to eat from a bird feeder; and I don’t want them to catch on now and start eating my grapes. And so, instead of spitting out the skins, I collect them in one hand and, when I’ve eaten my fill, I toss them into the aloe vera jungle, where I think the birds will not go because of the danger of cats.

The grapes taste just as they did when I was a boy, and so I am happy. I can’t be a boy again, at least as far as my biology goes, but memory, while it is intact, is less affected by biology. And so I have this fruit that connects both beginning and end. The Concord grape appears to like it here in Mexico—as I do. This immigrant wealth—smuggled illegally into Mexico.

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