by David Cecelski
I was picking up pecans in our front yard this morning and I got to thinking about the old trees that dropped them. My grandfather planted those trees when he was a young man in the late 1910s or early ‘20s, soon after he returned from the First World War. They’ve been part of our lives for a long time now and we have family stories about almost all of them.
One story involves my grandmother and a Model T Ford. According to family lore, my grandparents hadn’t been married long when she backed their Model T over one of the pecan trees. The accident nearly cut the sapling in two. It just about broke my grandmother’s heart, because she knew what great hopes for the future my grandfather placed in those trees.
Fortunately, my grandfather was able to mend the sapling with tender care and a good splint. The tree grew tall and strong and its nuts have been part of many a pecan pie and Christmas fruitcake. (I still make my fruitcakes with them.) It stands next to our driveway, and we still call it the “pecan tree that grandmamma ran over.” You can still see a crook in its trunk where the Model T hit it, too.
We get a lot of hurricanes here and many of the stories that we tell about our pecan trees are about those storms. Over the last century, they’ve certainly left their mark on our trees more than anything else. They’ve shorn limbs, cropped boughs, and split a trunk or two asunder. The biggest hurricanes, like the ’33 storm or Hazel in ’54, brought down giant limbs, sometimes dashing them against our house.
The ‘33 hurricane was probably the century’s worst here. It took 21 lives and, only a few miles from here, razed the communities of South River, Merrimon, Lukens, Roe, and Lola to the ground.
Here that storm only toppled the pecan tree next to our pasture gate (along with one of our chimneys). My grandfather didn’t give up on that tree, though, any more than he did the one that my grandmother ran over in the Model T. He used the hoist on a state road-grading truck to set the tree upright and fastened it in place with cables. It’s still standing now.
I don’t think even my grandfather could have saved the pecan tree that we lost in Bertha in 1996. That hurricane brought down the big tree next to our front porch. I almost cried when I found it there, the trunk shattered, the great limbs, 50 and 60 feet long, splayed across the yard and pasture.
But I also counted my blessings. We were lucky that the old tree fell across the yard, not on the house. And it could have been a lot worse: my brother lost almost everything in that hurricane—his house, his truck and nearly all his belongings.
I was thinking about all these stories while I was picking up pecans this morning. I was thinking about my grandfather who planted the trees, and my grandmother’s fruitcakes, and the little incident with the Model T, and all those storms. I was thinking, too, about how often stories get attached to things, to objects, I mean, even a little grove of pecan trees.
My mind jumped around a lot. I’d think of the old pecan tree by the front porch, for instance, the one we lost in hurricane Bertha, which of course made me think of Bertha, which, in turn, made me remember what it was like when I first reached my brother’s neighborhood after that storm: street after street in shambles, but him and his family alive, and almost giddy at being alive.
And I recalled how all their neighbors—a lot of commercial fishermen—opened their seafood freezers that night and prepared a community feast, since the electricity was out and everything was going to go bad anyway. And how beautiful the stars were that first night after the storm, with everything so dark and not even the Red Cross there yet.
And all it took to bring back that night, and all those other memories, was picking up pecans.
If you’re interesting in planting a pecan tree yourself, check out the web site for the North Carolina Pecan Growers Association at www.ncpecans.org. They have a good how-to guide for selecting varieties and growing pecan trees, as well as links to USDA and NC Ag Extension web sites that also discuss growing pecan trees. The site also includes recipes and a list of growers who sell pecans and pecan trees.