NAMES FOR AN ORANGE

JENNIFER FLISS

 

On a whim, I order a box of oranges from Florida. Two weeks later, I hear the thunk of a package being tossed onto my porch. I retrieve it, cut through the tape with open scissors. I pull out the box, take off the protective bubble wrap. The oranges are all wrapped individually in tissue-thin paper. I pull them off. First slowly and then faster and faster revealing four by four lines of honeybell oranges. And now, I am crying.
 
My grandmother, like many New Yorkers, settled in Florida somewhere between middle age and old age. Long before I moved to Seattle, she would send packages of oranges to me first in New York, and then later while I was in college in Wisconsin, and then after that, back to New York. I remember now, how she would also send me baked goods—brownies, cookies, in old coffee tins—Chock Full o’Nuts and the like. She would carefully wrap the sweets in cling wrap before packing them tightly in the tins. She would drive to the post office in Lake Worth and mail them to her granddaughter. What kind of love is this? It’s monumental, soul-giving, life-saving love, I’ll tell you that.
 
When I’d visit her in Florida—sometimes with my parents and sometimes alone—we would often visit a local orange grove called Blood’s Hammock Groves. Turning off busy Linton Boulevard—one of the many multi-laned streets and highways that run east-west in South Florida—we’d enter an oasis, bushy trees hung heavy with fruit; people walked around on sandy paths looking up, always looking up.
 
We too would walk around and look at the citrus trees. On the tram that ran visitors through the grounds, I sat close to my grandmother and rubbed the soft skin on her hand with my thumb, around and around in circles. I feigned interest in the history of the place—there since 1949. I held my hand outside the vehicle palm-side up, in hopes to catch a falling orange. But mostly, I couldn’t wait until we got to the little shop to sample oranges—honeybells, navels, tangelos, Valencias—and pick out bottles of fresh juice and plastic vats of already-peeled, pith-free, orange segments.
 
An orange is eponymous. An orange says sunshine. Oranges say luxury. An orange often gets confused: tangerine, clementine, mandarin, satsuma. There are differences: in species and in language, but they’re often used interchangeably. Oranges are endangered.
 
Dealing with asthma—always struggling for breath in the humid mildew-moldy Florida air, I often had a difficult time sleeping when I stayed at my grandmother’s. I found middle-of-the-night solace in the light of the side-by-side doored refrigerator, drinking glass upon glass of orange juice. Its tang and sweetness, if not physically healing, mentally provided comfort I couldn’t find at home in my own apartment in New York, when nighttime brought out the worst demons. I might as well have been in an orange grove with my grandmother’s protective arms around me instead of in a darkened condo awake while everyone else slept.
 
My grandmother would often have the fridge filled with segments and juice from Blood’s Hammock Groves ahead of time, so when our flight came in, we could indulge right away. And in the morning, when I woke up to the sounds of frying matzoh brei and the smells of coffee, I’d glide along the cool floors into the kitchen where my grandmother, in a silky lilac house robe, would be preparing breakfast. She’d slide the matzoh brei onto a plate for me and hand me a glass of orange juice. Then I’d decide whether to eat inside or out. It was a particular Florida-ness. The Atlantic right there, the air conditioner air melding with the sultry hot air from outside. Sliding doors led to a wrap-around porch open to create an indoor-outdoor space only possible in tropical climates. I’d usually take my breakfast to the porch, while my grandmother perused the paper, studying the stock market. My feet were cold on the tiled flooring, but the salty breeze was warm and tropical as I watched people walk along the tan beach, tankers in the distance, as the orange pulp coated my teeth and tickled my taste buds. Later in the day, we would walk along the beach, my grandmother and I, sidestepping Portuguese man-o-war and collecting seashells. She’d turn to me often and say, isn’t this grand?
 
My grandmother has been dead for four years. She was in her nineties, lived a long and—though not without trauma—happy life with three children and six grandchildren. Her photo sits on my side table atop a cover-less Bible. When she was in her thirties, my grandmother had a breast cancer scare. She told me she made a deal with G-d that she would read the bible every night if he saved her—so she could take care of her children. Always, always, she was taking care. She was spared, though I believe it was more luck and medical treatment than the divine, but since then she read from the scriptures every night. And I won’t get rid of the bible. Within the thin pages is a handwritten note in scraggly writing: a list of stocks and their values dated May 8, 2013, along with an appointment reminder card for physical therapy. In the morning, she often greeted me with a glass of orange juice and the newspaper. Now, Sugarbabe, which stocks would you buy? she’d ask.
 
Florida’s citrus crop is declining, primarily owing to Huanglongbing, or citrus greening, a devastating disease that has caused, from 2006-2014, a loss of 7,500 jobs, $7.8 billion dollars, countless boxes of citrus, and groves. There is no cure.
 
It’s a Seattle winter and the wind is whipping the big maple outside; the evergreens barely tremble. On my table is the box of oranges. They aren’t from Blood’s—that grove, like so many others in Florida, has shut down. Due to the economy, it closed in 2008, which doesn’t feel that long ago. Somehow, I wonder if I’ll get it back just by reaching back far enough? I found that information in the obituary of Norman Blood, its founder, who died the same year the grove closed. I am surprisingly saddened given this man was a stranger to me.
 
We are planning a trip to visit an aunt in Florida in a few months’ time. I do an internet search for Florida groves. Can I bring my daughter to one? Watch as she tastes her very first sip of Florida fresh orange juice, bits of pulp forming a mustache above her sweet lips while I tell her about her great-grandmother, for whom she is named. How she would hold my hand under the orange trees, how she encouraged grapefruit, but I always forewent the bitter fruit, preferring the sweetness of oranges. She called me Sugarbabe. I call my daughter that too. That wasn’t planned. It just happened. I’ll probably mail her cookies and brownies when she leaves the house, though I’m not looking to get ahead of myself. She’s only four.
 
My internet search comes up weak. There are a few shops that sell Florida oranges out of baskets and they call themselves “markets.” There are some industrial sized groves, providing oj to the masses of America. A few groves are open to the public, but they’re on the other side of the state. I search again for mail order oranges. I will bring them to me. To us.
 
Two weeks later, here are these oranges, on my kitchen table. They’re not perfect flawless spheres. They’re off the tree, a little bruised; lines like veins run through the skin on a few of them. Some are brighter than others, ranging from a reddish-orange to a more subtle shade, nuances of green on their dappled surfaces. Plastic bibs are included in the box—like they do for lobsters in beach-shacky seafood joints. There’s a note that says they really are that juicy.
 
It requires quite a bit of self-control, but I am going to wait for my daughter. I’ll be picking her up from preschool in two hours. This is something best shared.
 
For me, an orange is love. It is the juice that runs down my chin and my forearms, occasionally causing a rash of pink dots on my arms where the acidic juice stings, but I don’t wipe it away.
 
Oranges are family, the end of times, and of better times, and of times past. It is sweet when everything around is sour. An orange is hope, destiny, and sometimes failure. What someone calls an orange, like everything else, is malleable. Do you say o-range or a-range (I say the latter, one of the few giveaways of my New York roots).
 
Next to a window splattered with Pacific Northwest rain, my daughter rolls one of the oranges on her cheek. Here, I say, as I take it from her. I dig in a fingernail, break the skin, and pull. Peel away the outer protective layer. If I put the peel in my mouth I would taste bitterness, as if nothing that has touched it could be so sweet. But instead I let the curls of peel fall to the table, I pull apart section after section that, as if magically, end up in an array on my plate—like a childish illustration of the sun. I put one in my daughter’s mouth. And then one in mine. We share this sweet moment that came in the mail, from the past.
 
I bite into the orange and I see my grandmother waving to me from her sixth floor porch. I held my hand over my eyes because of the sun. I’d been sitting by the pool soaking in the sunshine and now it was time to come upstairs. I bite the orange and hear the last words I heard from my grandmother’s mouth, Isn’t she sweet?, she told the nurse as I left in tears, knowing it’d be the last time I would see her. I bite into the orange and I see my grandmother’s eyes. They’re the same eyes as my daughter—blue, almost like the Atlantic. I guess that wasn’t the last time I saw her. I watch juice dribble down my daughter’s chin, looking at me like she’s known me far longer than her four years. I wipe her mouth and say between sweet bites: Isn’t this grand? I think of all the names for this feeling.

 

 

∘∘∘