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by C. Jeanette Tyson

If you wanted to find my father in the wintertime, it was pretty easy. All you had to do was follow the peels. He ate both oranges and tangerines, but the peels were the same, either orange as bright as fallen leaves or orange gone rusty, in leathery curls. You could find those peels in the floorboards of his pickup, in the feed for the hogs, in the pockets of his coat, on a square of paper towel on the table beside his recliner where he read the paper and watched the news on television.     
When my aunt was living in Florida, she would bring us a large cardboard box of the fruit for Christmas. Or we would get them in red mesh bags from the grocery. The tangerines were easy to peel but had those strings. The oranges had thin skins that left bitter-tasting stuff under your fingernails. The way to avoid that was to cut them in slices, turn them inside out and tear out the flesh with your teeth.

   I worried once the man had scurvy, the way he ate them. But his state of health at the time was fat and happy. The deficiency he had was not vitamin C, but The Depression. Actually, it wasn’t even that, as he was born in 1932; it was a small, mean father, thin soil, a generous and worn-down mother granting too much credit at their general store, five other children hungry as he was, the times themselves.
     My father told us stories which my brother and I relentlessly embellished. Our favorite: Dad didn’t have mittens so he walked to school with potatoes in his pockets to keep warm; glory be, it was a mile there and two miles back, uphill both ways. And he ate the potato for lunch. Or he had holes in his pocket. It could go on and on.

    But somehow we knew better than to attack his orange story. The story of how fresh fruit had been impossible to come by in the heart of winter; both product and cash being scarce. How, if he were lucky, he might find an orange of his own in his Christmas stocking or how he might not, how there may have been only one orange that his mother cut carefully into seven wedges. How they didn’t carelessly throw that peel away, but put it in a dish, the fragrance precious and full of dreams for places they had no way of knowing.
     My father wasn’t the only one with this kind of obsession.
     This was later, and someone else’s father, held for two years after Pearl Harbor in a Japanese detention camp. It was not the worst one. Whenever a Japanese officer would come around, someone would yell “tally ho” so the men could hide their contraband. One day no one saw the officer arrive. He stood in the door and called “tarry ho, everybody, tarry ho” and everyone laughed.
     Finally the father was released. A ship brought him to New York and his daughter met him there, the two of them chasing each other madly around the hotel’s revolving door. They stayed in New York two days before going home to North Carolina. Every time they ventured into the streets, the father would stop at the fruit vendors and buy something—bananas, apples, pears, oranges-- until the dresser at the hotel overflowed. “Why are you doing that, Papa, we have fruit at home,” the daughter said. “I have craved it and I don’t ever want to be without it again,” he answered. When they boarded the train for home, they took along his small suitcase, his tin cup and plate from the detention camp and the big bags of fruit.
     Different journeys, both of them long.
     I have a large jar of tangerines on my kitchen counter right now. The kids can peel them all by themselves. Jackson can eat two or three at a time. He can eat them whenever he wants. He can eat one in June.
     When I remember my father and his oranges, it makes me sad and also proud. The satisfaction he must have felt! We all need a marker, we need to be able to say ‘I didn’t have that then but I have come a long way and I have it now and it is the most delicious thing’.
     For anyone who has a computer and is able to read this, the thing we, or our children, crave is probably not going to be fruit or food of any kind.
     What will it be, then? I wonder.
C. Jeanette Tyson is AustinMama.com's beloved foodie-in-the-field and mama of Maddy and Jackson, age four.


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