The Guava Tree

Mata de Guayaba, The Guava Tree

Mata de Guayaba, Guava Tree

Growing up in the outskirts of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, with very limited TV and no technology, meant that us children spent most of our time outside, communing with nature in a world full of daily discovery and adventure. We learned from an early age survival skills like which bugs bite, which plants sting, and which trees bear the best fruit. You learned that you don’t mess with large tarantulas but you can always play with their babies. Dominican snakes are not poisonous but they all bite. And that most hedges have hidden wasps’ nests and one pays dearly if they are disturbed. You watch out for red ants and it is always fun to watch lizards mate.

Our country house was built at the top of a hill in the center of a huge lot enclosed by an eight foot wall with barbed wire on the top. Years of political persecution, a failed attempt at kidnapping my brother, and political unrest on the island had lead to the gradual transition of the property going from a home to a fortress. On either sides of the said fortress there were two very large lots that were used for growing vegetables, raising chickens and a few livestock. Within the three lots were countless varieties of tropical fruit trees including our favorite, a guava tree. The fabric our lives was woven within this garden and our tree. It was not the most beautiful guava tree in the world, but my mouth still waters thinking of those wonderful, lemon yellow guavas with the juicy pink flesh.

I have always found it curious that something like a guava tree could be one of the icons defining my life. The guava tree was the meeting place for my siblings and I. We resolved issues perched on our separate branches, talked about life, and it was where we worked out our pecking order. Each kid claimed ownership of an area in the tree and the fruit within it, according to our ages. It was done more out of instinct than actual discussion like other things we learned to work out. Our lives were very uncertain living under the oppression of a dictatorship and the guava tree was our haven and security. How could anything bad possibly happen to us in our guava tree?

Guava Flowers, Flores de la Guayaba

Guava Flowers, Flores de la Guayaba

But despite our guava tree, bad things did happen to my family. My father defected to Puerto Rico, within days our dogs were poisoned, within four hours we packed every thing we owned and fled to my uncle’s house. The government confiscated our properties and the head of the secret service took up residence in our precious home. Within two years the dictator was killed and we reunited with my father in Puerto Rico. After six months of political chaos we returned the house and the guava tree. The first thing we did was to check out our guava tree. It was still standing and full of fruit as expected. Life was good.

Two years later my father was named Consul General in Miami and off we went again, leaving the guava tree behind. My oldest brother Pico, my best friend, was sent to a military boarding school in Virginia and overnight I became the eldest. I was a girl and I now had a lot of responsibilities taking care of my new baby sister, cooking, cleaning the house, and doing the shopping with my mother. At this point I was never allowed to play with boys without adult supervision. Life was never the same.

While we were in Miami, a Civil War broke out at home, just as we were about to return. The War ended six months later and we returned once again to the Island. We moved into a house in the city because my parents had rented the house while we were overseas. There was no guava tree. We had no running water for about six months and the electricity came and went at random. The US was still occupying the country and you still heard machine guns in the distance day and night. But you never found out what the shooting was about. The US and the temporary government was systematically killing anyone that got in the way of “democracy” and US corporations took control of most of the country’s natural resources. If anyone complained about it, they didn’t last long either.

I remember the day I went to the neighborhood convenience store and saw a Coke. They were back! I ran home and begged my mother for a dime so could buy one. Nothing ever tasted better.

When we were finally able to move back to the house and our guava tree, we found that my parents had sold the lot that contained the guava tree to my uncle who had built a purse factory on the property. The tree now stood in the middle of a parking lot, nearly bare of leaves, and the little bit of fruit it bore was eaten by the factory workers.

Simultaneously with the demise of the guava tree, our family was also unraveling. My parents separated and filed for divorce. I escaped within myself and into my art. I built a special fortress inside that I dwelled in for the next 30 years. My school grades declined and my social life came to a halt. The more I painted the deeper I went into my safe space. The good news was that the more I painted the better I got. My oldest brother returned to the Island but he never adapted again. My younger brothers were now teenagers and were always gone. And, sadly, my little sister Jackie never got to experience our tree. I, too, was finding my own path in life, which included a husband and attending art school in Philadelphia.

My father passed away in 1979, my brother Pico in 1996. I married Tom, had my daughter Avaryl, and did the best I could to survive and keep my sanity. In 1981 we got divorced, In 1986 I had a nervous breakdown – no surprise there – this forced me to figure out how to let go of the past and create a better present for myself and my child. It has been a very long and interesting journey full of adventure and exploration. But one that has led me to the inner peace I longed for all my life. Now in my 60’s I am finally at peace with myself and the fortress has given way to a home.

The guava tree is long gone. Santo Domingo is a nightmare of a city – noisy, violent and chaotic – and I can’t imagine living there ever again. I visit my mother when I can but can’t wait to leave. Tom and I remarried after 30 years apart. It made sense since we have been each other’s rock all these years, and are busy building a peaceful life for ourselves where there is no drama or conflict. We have also brought his daughter into this space – a safe place free of stress and conflict. A great life you might say. My daughter is healthy, happy and a great designer, so all is well, and her little sister is thriving.

Some days I get nostalgic and I long for the magic of the guava tree. Now guavas are sold in the supermarket. Every time I buy one, sit back and enjoy the juicy pink pulp, the childhood memories of our guava tree come flooding back.

Published in Maggie Mae Magazine in 2007.