My Life With Marilyn, the Family Lemon Tree

Lessons from a beloved plant

lemon tree
Gracia Lam

My father had a lemon tree named Marilyn. She was a gift from my husband, Alex, who gave her to my father 11 years ago, when Alex was still my boyfriend and my father was still well. His sense of smell was his strongest tie to his childhood in Baghdad, where lemons fragranced the streets and were essential components of okra or meat dishes or phyllo walnut rolls, and their oily skin was burned over open flames as incense, the scent both invigorating and comforting.

For the first three seasons Marilyn refused to fruit for my father—though not for any lack of effort on his part. Fastidiously, he sprayed her with rose water and sang to her in Arabic. He gave her prime real estate in my parents' apartment: in the sun always and next to him at the dinner table, where my father often sat for hours, well after the plates had been cleared, reminiscing about his youth.

But then, things changed. My father got sick with cancer—and then, sicker and sicker and sicker. And because of doctors' appointments and hospital visits and everything else, we all forgot about the lemon tree except for my husband, who one day found her, moments from dead, and almost ended our relationship. How could you? It was our first big fight.

Once, we got our friends drunk on lemon margaritas and midway through, when I told them, These are Marilyn's lemons! everyone stopped mid-sip, unsure whether to drink up or stop drinking altogether.

After that, he made Marilyn our responsibility. He brought her to our apartment, moved her from the fire escape in summer to the bathtub in winter to the windowsill in the shoulder seasons and around and around we go. We played jazz to her in the mornings and lavished her with praise. When we brought her inside well before the first frost, we sponged down her leaves with delicate soap and cloths as if she were a small child. Of course, it wasn't just about Marilyn. In lucid moments, my father would ask, “How is she doing?” “Great!” we'd say. We hoped that it might bolster him for a little while. In a way, it was the least and the most that we could do.

Two months after my father passed away, Marilyn had her first big bloom. Three whole lemons. We couldn't believe it. We cheered. We arranged them on the counter like found robin's eggs, and tended them as if they might hatch. When a friend came over and asked if she could use one to remove a garlic smell from her palms, we nearly kicked her out. But then, of course, we did have to use them, somehow. Produce is produce.

Shortbread cookies
Candied Lemon Cardamom CookiesMatt Taylor-Gross

The pressure was on. We'd waited years. And my father. And everything. We couldn't possibly use a squeeze here, some zest there. We had to be deliberate, careful, reverent. And so, we were. Or so we thought. We planned to preserve them in olive oil. All three. The recipe was at once reminiscent of my father and appreciative of Marilyn's hard work. And simple. That was key. And so we tried. And we failed. Somehow, we added double the salt and rendered the poor little lemons inedible. They made our mouths pucker and smack. Worse, there was nothing we could do, and we tried everything: more acid, more liquid, rinsing them off. We supplemented with lemons from the bodega down the street, apologizing all the while, but it did no good. Nothing worked. And we were so, so sorry.

Still, not everything was lost. Marilyn must have forgiven us. The next year, she produced five perfect lemons. We were even more careful this time. We used two for a simple roasted chicken (my father's mother used to make a whole chicken on Fridays, cooking it over open flames outside and then smothering it in a pillow afterward to trap the juices and keep the moisture from escaping, either an Iraqi technique or just a my-grandma technique, I'm not sure) and three for a bourbon, maple, and mint cocktail that was as good as any I'd ever tasted. It's hard to say if it was the best citrus we'd ever had, or if it just felt like that. But it did feel like that. Taste, after all, is really only one small component of taste.

Shortbread cookies
Candied lemon peel (not from Marilyn)Matt Taylor-Gross

In the years that followed, Marilyn continued to be good to us. Every winter she produced just a handful of lemons. And every time, the same pressure. Some years, we made tarts—and they were the best tarts. Other years, we made marmalade with vanilla and cardamom—and never loved a spread more. Always, always, only the people we loved the most were beneficiaries of Marilyn's bounty. Once, we got our friends drunk on lemon margaritas and midway through, when I told them, These are Marilyn's lemons! everyone stopped mid-sip, unsure whether to drink up or stop drinking altogether.

Three years ago, we bought Marilyn a life partner (a lime tree that we named JFK), and she began to fruit twice and then three times per year. Soon, we were inundated with citrus and had to become more inventive because still, we refused to use her lemons for daily activities, for any sort of supporting role. And so we made lemon bars and cherry-and-lemon salsa and pasta with roasted zest. I asked my father's sister for recipes that she remembered from Baghdad (she was in her 90s by then)—and we riffed on her cardamom cookies, adding thick curls of preserved lemon on top. We thought about how to do right by Marilyn.

One morning, not long ago, when I made the warm apple cider vinegar, Manuka honey, and lemon concoction that I drink every day, I wondered why it tasted so good. Turns out: Marilyn. Her lemons had gotten mixed up with the others. And it seemed clear then that reverence to Marilyn, and thereby to my father, didn't need to be so grave, so ceremonious. We didn't need to make a thing of it. And every day, or whenever the time was right or the mood was right, her fruit could come in, brightening things, lightening things, as only good lemons can do.