Prentiss Riddle: Garden

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Of loquats and lonely old men

Get Donkey mentions his fondness for loquats, which reminds me of a sad story from my Galveston days.

The loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) is a wonderful fruit, very sweet when ripe, small and with some largish seeds inside but well worth the effort. People commonly grow loquat trees as ornamentals in Southeast Texas and may not even know that the fruit is edible, which means that you can walk around grazing on bushels of them at the right time of year (sort of like pecans in Austin). I'm told loquats will grow in Central Texas as well but may need some protection from severe freezes, so you don't see them in Austin as much.


I'll always associate loquats with a neighbor in Galveston, a weathered old man and gifted gardener from Sicily with whom I had no language in common. I spoke a little Italian but since he spoke only Sicilian dialect that didn't help much. He was always chasing neighborhood kids out of his loquat tree (the kids were forever trying to strip the tree of fruit before it was ripe, breaking branches in the process) with cries of "Getty! Getty!" so that became my private name for him.

Once I sat down next to him on the steps of the Victorian house where we each had apartments and tried to engage him in conversation. I managed to learn that loquat is nespola in Sicilian but before long he surprised me by trying to get me to hold hands or kiss him. I don't make a habit of kissing guys, let alone 80-year-olds with whom I can't communicate, so I had to get up and leave. I tried to remain neighborly but kept my distance from him after that. The fact that he couldn't accept a simple "no, grazie" left me suspecting that there was some dementia at work and not just a cultural barrier.

Sometimes his Galveston relatives would stop by to check on him and we'd chat. Before long I put two and two together and realized that he lived alone rather than with his family because he also made passes at his teenage nieces and nephews. Often in the evening scruffy young men would visit him and I'd hear loud arguments; I don't know what arrangement he had with them, but apparently on more than one occasion he ended up being robbed. Eventually he had a heart attack and his family moved him out, I assume to a nursing home.

So anyway, I can't see or eat a loquat without memories of that old man, his wonderful garden and his disastrous attempts at seeking human contact. One of these years I'll plant a nespola in his memory.

garden 2003.04.23 link