Two peach trees graced the back yard of the big house to the north when we moved here thirty years ago. I harvested what hung over my fence. No one else did and the yard had gone to weeds. My neighbor two doors south came here in 1945, said the big house and yard were spectacular in their glory days. My peach tree was a volunteer, sprouted twenty-some years ago.
It turned out to be the last of its tribe. A developer bought the neglected big house in the 90s, disregarded our protests, cut everything down—the peach trees, the grand old maple, the rose bush—inexplicably leaving a crab apple near the house and an otherwise bare yard. When that happened, my little peach was six feet tall, its pink blossoms brightening my world each April.
Except for major events like the Blizzard of ’82, weather memories blur quickly. I don’t recall this, but last November a cold front dove us overnight from the mid-60s to 13. Many trees hadn’t hardened yet, including my peach. This spring, buds appeared, never opened, shrank; a few leaves, bright green, withered and fell. All spring I peered daily into its branches seeking signs of life.
The August I had peaches for the first time, I knew nothing, appealed to Mardi and don José. “Will they ripen if I pick them?” They were still greenish, but squirrels were ravaging them like candy. We stood in Mardi’s back yard, looking at sagging, peach-laden branches drooping over her fence.
A squirrel yanked off a peach, sat on its haunches, took three bites and dropped it. I’d tried dangling shiny things, nets, coyote urine and charging out the back door with a broom. The squirrels looked at me, like, “are you kidding, lady?”
“Pimiento,” Mardi said wisely, “pimiento o cal.” She mimed throwing pepper or lime over the branches. Too late now, though. Do it when the fruit is chartreuse and the size of olives. Squinting into the branches doubtfully, Mardi pulled a peach and bit into it. Her frown became delight.“Son listos, son dulces,” she exclaimed.
Don José, who had been rather reserved about these peaches, picked another and examined it closely, a light dawning. “Son duraznos blancos,” he beamed. “Los crecen en México.”
“The ones in your yard are yours,” I proclaimed the obvious, but these neighbors wouldn’t have touched a peach until I said it. Now that he knew what they were, don José became enthusiastic, picked a bagful. White peaches, like they grow in Mexico. They were, as Mardi said, ready, and sweet.
By early September, I’d spent hours pruning back to one peach every few inches but still lost several slender branches, breaking under their sweet burden. It had been an ideal spring: generous rain, no late freezes. Blossoms covered the tree and fluttered down petal by pink petal without an intervening frost. Much of September passed in picking and putting up peaches. I’d never done that before but everything I needed to know was online. Ripeness can’t be gauged by the rosiness on their sun side: the green of the whole has to turn yellowish before they’ll finish in a paper bag. Those that are ready leave the stem willingly. Those that are not resist letting go, much like children.
If you scald peaches, they slip easily out of their suede skins. By the last batch I knew a minute or two in hot water was enough and when I plucked one out, could tell ripeness by touch. A push of my thumb at the stem indentation and the skin slid off on ripe ones, leaving a paler wash of red and yellow, the pigment of the peel staining the flesh beneath. Denuded peaches are satisfying to contemplate, muted in color, moist and glistening as if glazed. Those that resist peeling are too green, can’t be forced. They offer evidence I’ve been impatient in trying to beat the squirrels.
When that first season ended, I had six quarts of sliced peaches in the freezer. Five jars of preserves and three of chutney glowed on the shelves. I’d made pies and cobblers and given bagsful away. I’d had the exquisite pleasure of selecting an exactly ripe fruit—one I’d climbed the ladder to reach—and biting into its fragrant, sun-warmed flesh.
Those pleasures and that hard work, two things so often joined, recurred several seasons, but not many. Early bloomers have a rough go in Colorado, and those pink petals were often battered by April snow. Peach trees have a 25-30 year lifespan, and mine was in that range. I will miss this tree’s blossoms and bounty, yes, but also its gracefully curved leaf, its deep shade, its connection to the past.