Mother, standing, walking a skipping child back from school, swinging a basket of food gaily in her off-hand. Peals of laughter mingling with peels of zesty tangerines, unraveled as they walked by fingers sticky with their juices. Mother and son, making faces with orange segments, confidently confiding in the other about the distance to be had by seed-spitting. She let him win, of course. His day out, her day off, the rest of the week’s inevitable toiling washed away in a little wooden crate of sunshine hidden among the rest of the produce.
“Do they grow on vines, mom?”
“Vines, dear boy,” came the voice of wisdom, still laden with Belfast-bereft-of-bombs. “Why, no. You’re thinking of grapes and tomatoes.” The boy wrinkled his nose at the thought of the bitter tomato, whose inclusion in his mother’s usual breakfast choice frustrated him almost as much as her repeated attempts to convince him that it was a fruit. Nothing as bitter and horrible as a tomato could be a fruit. “Tangerines grow on great trees in orchards. Like the way they grow apples and lemons and- and coconuts.”
“Coconuts grow on palm trees! I learned that today!”
“You’re right they do, m’boy. On big trees that grow out of the sandy soil like arms of giants buried in the sand.”
“Arms! Wow!” The child paused, holding one cheek in a still-sticky palm. “So- that’s why they’re called palm trees, because they have a hand at the end of them?”
She laughed. “That may well be the case. You’ll just have to find out.”
“I will! I will!”
The exuberance of youth, the constant energy and wide-eyed wonder piled on top of Vel-Cro sneakers, mismatched socks, and scraped jeans stained with dew and chlorophyll. Matching stains on the elbows and palms of his hands meant that he’d probably been spending another sunny afternoon face firmly pointed earthwards, watching insects climb the micro-metropolis of grass and weeds.
“Can we get a tangerine tree, mom? I’d feed it and water it and climb in it.”
“Alas, dear boy, there’s nowhere to plant it. We’ve no lawn to speak of, and no back-yard that isn’t covered in rock. We’d not only need to buy somewhere new, but also somewhere warm and nice for tangerines to grow.”
“But why can’t we?”
She paused for a moment, slipping in stride and suddenly tired. “Because we’re not able to buy things like that, dear boy, I’m sorry.”
The boy paused, looking up at his mother, suddenly feeling like he’d said something rude or wrong, like asking grown-ups how old they were. It was an ache, having that kind of thing be so possible, that the simple things and questions could really hurt someone. Even the person who kisses it better can be so vulnerable to their own little collection of nicks and cuts. He wanted to ask if they were poor, but he felt with horrid certainty that this was another question that might hurt her, or make her sad. These things might have been as true as the little scrapes, but they could still hurt, and very much so.
He grabbed her suddenly, little arms circling around her hips, face pressing into her abdomen.
“What’s wrong? Jason, are you alright?”
Their eyes met, a vertical stare. “I’m fine, mom.”
“Well then,” she said, suddenly bursting into laughter, “that’s grand.”
It was. Hand in sticky hand, they resumed their walk. But the thought lingered with Jason, having been confirmed: even grown-ups need someone to make it better. Maybe everyone does. Maybe everyone needs someone to be special for them, someone different from everyone who just calls them by their name, someone who says ‘dear’ or ‘honey’, or ‘buddy’, or best of all, Mom. Someone who knew more than just a stitched-on nametag on an anonymity-ensuring uniform- Not just Eily Connolly, but Mom.
His mother kept her smile, and started to hum- “When Irish Eyes are Smi-liiing….”