Mildred Coombes answered the piercing question, “What is it?” This question had a solid footing in the back of my mind for a couple of months. My wife and I were settling into the home we had just bought, our first, in Burbank, CA. Built in the late 30s, the home was adorable with Art Deco embellishments and a backyard as enchanting as a storybook. It was the kind of residence that was rich in character and history—the kind of home that made you innately aware of its personality through every nook and cranny. A personality that was nurturing, kind and graceful.
The backyard, in particular, is where the mystery kept us perplexed for those weeks. Surrounded by a vintage rose garden, an outdoor fireplace and attractive mature landscaping was a fruit bearing tree. It was an ornate specimen standing about 12 feet tall with its mushroom-like canopy spreading nearly as wide. The deep bronze patina of the bark contrasted beautifully through the glossy kelly green leaves. Sprinkled throughout the foliage were little ivory flowers giving off the most intoxicating fragrance in notes of honeysuckle and jasmine. That alone could stop you in your tracks to take in the heady perfume. No wonder it was abuzz with bees. If I were a bee, I’d be hanging out around that tree.
But it was the bounty stemming from those powerhouse blooms that piqued my curiosity, those golden orbs of mystery. The fragrance was my jumping off point. Having spent part of my childhood living in Orange County, I had confidence in pegging the tree to the citrus family. On one hand, the fruit was more rounded and plump like an orange. On the other hand, its coloring leaned a bit towards lemon yellow. To know me is to appreciate that I wouldn’t rely solely on appearances so I cut into one for a taste. Its flesh was equally as golden as its armor and the succulence it yielded suggested it was a lemon, only sweeter. Or it could have been saying it was a sour orange! Baffled still, I let it go for the time being—there was plenty of settling in that needed to be done after the move.
Shortly thereafter, a letter arrived in the mail. The handwritten style was a nod to yesteryear but the voice was ever present and vivacious. I learned its writer was 90-something and resided at an assisted living care facility. The content revealed a 60-year history of young love, child birth, milestones, family celebrations, home canning, gardening and the passing of a dearly departed. It was a touching love story of sorts, chronicling a life lived to its fullest. There was also mention of a tree, a very special tree lovingly planted decades earlier. The verbiage described it perfectly, “The Meyer lemon tree in the back with the pretty, rounded crown.” The corners of my mouth drew upwards into an easy smile. It turned out I was reading a letter from the original owner of the house—the person we had just bought it from! In an instant, I understood the source of my new home’s charm, the life force behind the grace, kindness and nurturing.
While I was pleased to have an answer to the question simmering on the back burner of my mind, I received something of greater value from the cursive note in my hand. I learned how to live in, care for and love a family home.
The closing line read, “Yours truly, Mildred Coombes.”
This story and recipe was my very first blog post published on this day in 2010. It was spotted by Chef Dennis Littley, who was a catalyst in establishing my presence in the food world and on the web. It’s good to take a look back every now and again, to see where it all started and to give thanks to those who’ve helped along the way. Thank you, Chef and cheers!
To Mildred Coombes, though I never met you, your thoughtful gesture of the note left a lovely impression on me—one that I hold dearly in the memory of that special lemon tree.