Tommy’s Tangerine Tree

By Ruth Hilton Hatfield
Contributed by Lorne Carmichael

When Tommy, our youngest son, was a little boy, he loved tangerines. At Christmas, when they came on the market, I always kept a plentiful supply especially for him. He ate them for breakfast and supper, and there were always lots of them in his lunch box. As well, he loved to snack on them while he read or watched television.

One day I caught him flipping the seeds on the carpet. I scolded him, telling him to put them in an ashtray or a flowerpot. The result was that come spring, four little orange trees sprang up in a pot of geraniums in the kitchen window. I selected the tallest and sturdiest and replanted it in its own little pot. Tommy was intrigued.

“Do you think I can have my own tangerines?” he asked. I told him that it might take a very long time.

Time passed. Tommy grew up and became a petroleum geologist on the east coast, searching for oil and gas off Newfoundland. He loved the Atlantic Ocean with a fervor which I attributed to the fact that he had seagoing ancestors on both sides of the family. He married and built a house in Nova Scotia in sight of the Atlantic.

But he always came to visit us on his birthday, which was on New Year’s Eve, and each time he would ask to see his tangerine tree.

In the twenty years that had passed since the little tree sprang up, it had grown amazingly. Each year I would put it into a bigger pot and place it in a warm, sunny spot in the garden, then bring it inside for the winter. But by the fall of 1981, I had no receptacle large enough to hold it, as it was now six feet tall.

Our daughter, who lived near us, offered to look after it as she had a very large urn, which she placed in a sunny window. When Tom came that New Year’s Eve, he wanted to see his tangerine tree in his sister’s home.

“Do you think it will ever bear fruit?” he asked.

I told him not to hold his breath – that although it would bear both male and female flowers if it ever bloomed, it was a Japanese tree and probably our climate was too cold for the flowers to set. He decided that he would take it down to his home in Nova Scotia the following summer. The foliage was beautiful anyway, he thought.

At that time he was working as a geologist on the Ocean Ranger oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland, and he was very proud to be doing exploration on what was probably the largest and most modern oil rig in the world. It was like a huge man-made island – indeed, the crew called it “Fantasy Island.” They had to go out to it by helicopter, the only time, Tom said, that he was actually nervous. “It’s a long, long way down there, Mum!”

I said, “I do wish you didn’t have to go out in this bitter winter weather.”

“I’m safer than you are, driving out of your driveway between ten-foot snowbanks,” he assured me. “Besides, the rig’s unsinkable!”

“So was the Titanic!” I said.

“You’re mixing apples and oranges,” he replied.

So when he telephoned us after he had returned to Nova Scotia and said he would be going out on the next shift change in a few days’ time, I said, as I always did, “Be careful!”

Early on the morning of February 15, my husband turned on the radio and woke me.

“Tommy’s in trouble,” he said. “The Ocean Ranger is listing!” We did not know it then, but it had already gone under the waves around one o’clock that morning.

There followed grief mixed with desperate fear, until we finally realized the unthinkable had occurred. Our dear, kindhearted, life-loving son had been taken from us. Amidst the wild despair and unbearable sorrow, we were borne by the belief that a spirit such as our beloved son’s could not possibly disappear completely – that he was still with us and loving us.

But I longed for some kind of assurance. And how I dreaded the coming of Easter that year! How could I join in the celebration of eternal life when I was not sure of it myself?

Then, on Good Friday, I got an answer. When our daughter telephoned, she said excitedly, “Mum, you won’t believe this, but Tom’s tangerine tree is full of blossoms!”

It was true. On Easter Sunday they opened fully, and their fragrance filled the house. Surely no flowers had ever been so beautiful! Someone had responded to my doubt and hopelessness with this little miracle.

Since the tree was inside, with no honeybees to pollinate it, we did not expect the blossoms to set. But again a miracle happened! Four tiny tangerines appeared. A short time later, two of them dropped off. Over the next few months, however, two more beautiful tangerines grew and eventually ripened. On the following Christmas Day we ceremoniously divided and ate Tom’s tangerines. We felt that he knew it, and we were comforted.

A horticulturist has said that perhaps people had spread the pollen when they smelled the fragrant blooms. But I believe “someone” sent those blossoms to comfort us when we most needed a miracle – the miracle of Tom’s tangerine tree.

Now, five years later, another little tangerine tree, a child of Tommy’s tree, is growing on my windowsill. We had planted the seeds of the tangerines we ate on Christmas Day, 1982. I shall not live to see it blossom, but I shall nurture it as a symbol of life everlasting.