Friday, July 20, 2012

The Past...By Surprise

Rushing through the supermarket here in rural Arizona this afternoon, I skidded to a halt and stared at a small display in a basket in the fresh fruit department: lychee nuts! I couldn't believe it. My favorite delicacies of my youth -- hard to find even in Los Angeles -- were sitting in a basket here in Florence, Arizona!


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.


  1. Gosh, Kathy, you have me utterly enthralled by this glorious tribute to the little lychee. I don't think I've ever tasted one -- but I'm now on a mission to do so -- surely I will be reminded of this story of love and joy.

  2. I have never heard of a lychee nut, but I do love the story you told about them. I suppose living in West Virginia I doubt that they are anywhere to be found around here. I will have to say that you must have a very deep love of them to have asked for them at the hospital. Incredible story! Thanks for sharing!

    Have a Wonderful Weekend!

  3. Dear Kathy, I've been reading your blog for several months now and knew that someday I'd learn more about your father. Early on, I learned that he was difficult and that consequently your childhood had been difficult at times.

    Now you so beautifully describe the tenderness of this man as he bends over your hospital bed and discovers what his daughter most wants and then gets it for her. That tenderness touched me deeply.

    The truth is--and I discover it more and more the older I grow--is that we all are hounded by our demons, some more than others. And yet at the deep center of ourselves, Oneness dwells, and sometimes--in a moment of great grace--that Oneness can connect us as your father and you connected in that hospital room. Your writing here is quite lovely and evocative.

    One last word to tell you the food that I've eaten since my mom first cooked it when I was little: porridge. Peace.

  4. I so enjoyed your memories of the lychees. I've never had one, but now I will certainly give it a try if ever I find them. There is a certain kind of pickle my little German great grandmother would have for us, and any time I smell them, I think of her.

  5. Replies
    1. Yes, I did, Janet! They're over by the bananas and mangoes if you want to sample some. These are not as tasty -- are a different variety -- than the ones Amp bought earlier this season, but they're a great surprise nonetheless!

  6. What a sweet story about your father's love, your being so terribly ill and lychee nuts.
    I have never had one but adore their cousins, the Spanish Limes that we used to find in Key West. It was similar, hard shelled, and a sweet/tart peach colored flesh surrounding a seed. Can almost taste one now.

  7. I love it when I see a kiwi. Not from my childhood, but one of the first exotic fruits I ever loved.

  8. I feel the same way about cherries. We only get them around Christmas time and they are super expensive, but I don't care. They are tied to my childhood memories and I savor each bite. Loved your story, but I don't think I've ever heard of this fruit before.

  9. I really liked your story. In my childhood, the most exotic fruit was the orange. You can''t imagine how much I enjoy the gifts of nature to this day :)

  10. I also love lychees but you have the most pleasant memories of them :)
    Asia has so many different things to try we don't have here.
    I especially like Jack fruit.
    But as a kid, I thought nothing was better than my McIntosh Apples. They were reddish, crunchy and sweet and I couldn;t get enough of them.Today my son likes green apples but I can't understand why. Maybe cause we picked them ourselves in a farmers field they became a part of me like the lychees became a part of you.

  11. I've never seen or tasted a lychee nut, so thank you for your wonderful description. The story of your father bringing them to you in the hospital brought tears to me eyes.

    Treats were rare in my household growing up, but I always knew that when my parents brought home a package of Oreos they were going out for the evening and we were going to have a babysitter.

    My favorite food memory is making Baked Alaska with my dad. For some reason I was intrigued by the picture of this dessert in my mom's Betty Crocker cookbook. At around age 10, it became our specialty, something special that my dad and I created together. Once the entire family was gathered waiting for our flaming Baked Alaska to be served. After all the ooh's and ahh's, the family bit into their slices, which is when we realized we'd mistakenly added salt instead of sugar to the meringue!

  12. What a wonderful memory, Kathy. It very nearly makes me cry. I've never had a lychee nut but now you have me curious! My favorite food memory is Christmas stockings and Easter baskets where I always found creamed herring, green olives and sardines. They are still favorites! And petit fors. We took Rick to brunch for his birthday and there were petit fors on the buffet. They made me smile.