This picture was taken in Sorrento, Italy, a few years ago. Those sunglasses are large enough to fit around my big head. When I snapped this I was reminded of an incident I hadn’t thought about since the fourth grade.
My Portuguese grandpa had a green thumb and could grow just about anything. He was hard of hearing and didn’t mind me shadowing him and pelting him with questions he either ignored or couldn’t hear.
Behind his house grew a small grove of fruit trees he used for making brandies. But another tree in his front yard always drew attention; one side yielded oranges and the other side apples—Grandpa had grafted two trees together. But what always caught my eye were his lemons.
They grew on a bush near the steps leading to the front porch. The bush didn’t look unusual in any way, but once a year lemons started growing…and growing…and growing. The lemons became so big that Grandpa would steal Grandma’s pantyhose and tie them around his precious lemons to keep them from dropping from the bush.
And they’d grow…and grow….and grow, until they were so heavy that Grandpa would place little wooden crutches under the branches to prevent them from bending. When I asked if these lemons had been grown from magic beans like Jack’s Giant Beanstalk, Grandpa pushed back his tattered fedora, swiped his sweaty brow with the back of his hand and shook his head. When I pressed he explained, “These aren’t really lemons.”
“No. They look like lemons. They smell and taste like lemons, but they aren’t. This is a citrus plant from the island were your great grandpa was born.”
“It must be a magical island,” I exclaimed. “Where is this island, and is everything big there?” A stupid question since Grandpa was of normal height.
“It’s called Madeira Island and it’s in the Atlantic Ocean near Northern Africa.”
I had no idea where this was, but it sounded wonderfully exotic.
I wasn’t one of the popular kids at school, probably because I was chubby and constantly being shushed for talking too much in class. One day our teacher, Miss Stremple, told us we had to give a presentation in front of the class. I had no idea how to tackle the assignment, but an idea came to me when the deadline arrived for us to reveal the topics for our presentations. I stood beside my desk and announced that I was going to make everyone lemonade.
The class’ lack of enthusiasm was matched by Miss Stremple’s. “I was hoping you’d pick something more interesting,” she said.
“I’m gonna make lemonade for the entire class,” I said, “and I’m only gonna use one lemon.”
Miss Stremple smiled. “I don’t see how that’s possible. There are twenty-six students in this class. It would take much more than one lemon.”
“Maybe,” I said, “unless you happen to have a magic lemon.”
She smiled at me. “I look forward to tasting your lemonade, Stephen.”
Fortunately, my presentation was the last one given, which gave Grandpa’s giant citruses more time to ripen. The day before my presentation, Grandpa helped me select the perfect one: it looked exactly like a lemon, except it was the size of a bowling ball. I pulled it to school in the Radio Flyer I hadn’t used since I was little. I also brought a pound of sugar taken from our pantry, paper cups and a plastic garbage sack to line the wastepaper basket I intended to fill from the sink in the janitor’s closet. When I pulled the giant lemon out of a grocery sack several of my classmates pointed at it in awe. The teacher had a knife and cut it into smaller pieces, and when the garbage sack was properly filled with water I asked for volunteers to help squeeze out the juice. Several hands shot into the air.
I gave a short talk about Grandpa and Madeira Island in the Atlantic near the African coast and explained that this really wasn’t a lemon at all but an exotic lemon look-a-like. Miss Stremple had ordered everyone to wait until my presentation was over before drinking from the paper cups on their desks, and as I wrapped up my talk I hoped Grandpa was right when he said this big yellow thing tasted like a lemon. If this drink tasted like underwear and everyone spit it out, I’d probably get a bad grade and be even less popular than I already was.
She gave the signal and the cups were drained. My heart was in my mouth and I nervously forgot to sample my concoction. I shouldn’t have doubted Grandpa. Chants of more…more…more rang out. The drink did taste like lemonade. My presentation got a B+. I think I would have gotten an A except all the sugar made the class unmanageable for the rest of the day.