Do you have a childhood memory that still fills you with
joy and leaves a taste of nostalgia in your mouth?
The fall of 1996 holds one of those memories for me; it was the harvest year of our century-old olive orchards. To set the scene, the harvest season is when the whole family puts aside all chores and duties of village life and ventures into history. Although, this history is recorded in the trunk of an olive tree rather than the dusty pages of a book.
The harvest season can extend through the fall into the winter months. It is a back-breaking job to handpick these bitter fruits scattered on the ground. Everyone, including kids, helps with this initial duty of picking olives that have naturally fallen off the trees.
Baby photos of Salih in the Village
That fall, I had just turned six years old. I walked among these old funky trees with all my attention paid to not stepping on the delicate fallen olives. I could tell the past century had not been easy for the trees, just like the country where they were planted, and theirs was a life worth mentioning. The orchard was planted by a Greek man in an Empire stretching from Europe to Asia almost a century ago. Now, both the Greek man who planted them and the old Empire were long gone. My Turkish family is now picking their fruits in a newly established country, and the trees hold the memories from this history.
After WWI and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Greece and Turkey exchanged their respective populations in their newly drawn borders. My grandparents were on their plantation in Thessaloniki when the order came to pack and leave immediately. They were forced to leave the land they called home for generations, loaded onto ships, and sent to their new mandatory homes. My grandparents landed in Smyrna, modern-day Izmir, and I still wonder how they felt the first time they stepped into the evacuated homes of the Greeks. Some say they found warm, freshly baked, Greek-style bread left behind in a hurry. They later found toys, letters, and notes addressed to the new tenants of the homes with instructions on how to care for the land and assets.
The Greeks planted these trees with the hope of passing them down to their grandchildren. As I walked into the orchard, I thought, “Where were they now?” Maybe they were telling the stories of this land with a sorrowful tone in their voice. Now, I was walking among their trees.
On that day, I had one goal in my mind; I was going to climb my first tree, and I knew exactly the one. A tree at the end of the orchard with branches spreading higher than any other caught my attention. My dad told me it was the oldest, and I decided to conquer it. From my first step on the trunk to the highest point I could reach, my pounding heart was filled with joy. I could see the rest of my family picking olives on the other side of the orchard. I was still lying on a wide branch when my cousins came to join my adventure. We were on that old tree for hours until they started to yell our names to join them for lunch.
Lunch was a humble spread with cheese made by my mom from our cow Sarikiz (Blondie), black olives from last year’s harvest, and fresh sourdough bread studded with chickpeas baked by my aunt. As for the salad, we picked green onion leaves and wild cherry tomatoes growing in the orchard; cherry tomatoes were a delicacy not yet available on the shelves of a typical Turkish grocery store. The taste of the bread dipped into the olive oil is still on the tip of my tongue when I think of that special day climbing the old olive tree: the brightness of the fresh olive oil, the warmth it leaves in your throat, and the smile it brings to your face.
These flavors and tastes are thanks to a Greek man I will never meet. I wish I could tell him that his trees are still standing strong, and if his grandchildren one day wish to come, the old olive trees will be waiting for them to climb.