Bob stared open-mouthed, too. He has hunted for the elusive fresh lychee many times -- and often in vain -- both in stores in L.A. and online after we moved here as a special surprise for me.
"Stock up," he said with a smile. "Let them know someone here really loves fresh lychees."
My love of fresh lychees -- canned just aren't the same -- has roots that extend back a century.
My father's father -- the grandfather I never knew because he died when my father was only eight years old -- had lived in China for a time, spoke fluent Mandarin and, as an attorney, did a lot of work on behalf of Chinese immigrants in Tucson. His son, my father, would sometimes accompany him on his rounds and grateful clients would give them a rare treat -- fresh lychee nuts -- during the brief growing season. The fruits were shipped from China to the Port of Los Angeles and then transported to Tucson. The treats were too sparse, too rare, to be sold in markets. They were passed, with great celebration, from one friend to another. One of my father's fondest memories from his all-too-brief childhood was sharing a precious stash of lychee nuts with his father.
And so, after coming of age near the Chinatown area of Los Angeles, my father had his contacts. And when the brief lychee season came each summer, he would get a call from his childhood friend Kwan Lee Leong who owned the main grocery store in Chinatown. The lychees had arrived! We would rush down there, go in a side door and buy the precious stash. Then we would go home, sit on the back porch and eat them, the sweet juices running down our chins. (Lychees have a tough outer shell that you crack and peel to reveal a sweet, nearly translucent, grape-like fruit within. The taste is wonderfully subtle.)
And my father would tell me stories about when he was a little boy and how much he had loved his father and how much he missed him. And how much the warm memories flooded back whenever he bit into a lychee and felt the infusion of cool sweetness on his tongue.
And so lychees have come to evoke certain times of my own childhood, those rare, sweet times of calm and companionship with a father who was so frightfully unpredictable.
Once, when I was fourteen, a diagnostic test of my brain went horribly wrong when I had an allergic reaction to the general anesthetic. What was to have been an overnight hospital stay stretched to a week as I lay unconscious, aware of others around me, but unable to respond much of the time. Finally, I heard myself speaking tentatively as my father leaned over me, holding my hand and stroking my head tenderly. "Lychee nuts," I whispered. "Would it be permissible to have lychee nuts?"
"Oh, my baby," my father choked, with a half-sob. "Of course it's permissible. They may be dried this time of year, but I will get you some lychees right away. Just hang on!"
And soon he was pressing lychees dried in their shells into my palm and my hand closed around his. And I knew then, with a rush of emotion, just how much this difficult, conflicted man loved me.
Sightings of lychees in my adulthood and into my young old age bring moments of incredible joy. My first hint of lychees this year was when I was visiting my brother Mike and sister-in-law Amp in Los Angeles and was at a local Costco with Amp. She was hunting for strawberries, found some and then, on impulse, reached for another clear container. It was filled with lychees! Instant ecstasy! I became a child again, clapping my hands with glee. Laughing with me about my sudden exuberance, Amp put another two cartons of the fruit into the shopping cart. I ended up taking those, packed in ice, back home to Arizona where I stretched this treat out over two glorious weeks. I thought that was my lychee experience for the year.
But then today -- an incredible find. Right here in the middle of nowhere, in my local supermarket: my past and my present in a delicious collision.
Do you have special food treats from childhood that delight you?
Are there items that take you back years and evoke wonderful feelings and memories?
As I savor this unexpected bounty today, the past floods back in a rush of warm memories: a loving father and sweet, vulnerable son sharing this precious gift that was given with love and gratitude by my grandfather's Chinese clients and, years later, a little girl sitting close to her vulnerable, wounded father happily sharing the rare, sweet treat of fresh lychees -- and an equally rare moment of harmony, joy and love.