This month, A Beautiful Perspective relaunched as a digital magazine tackling a single theme each month. For our first month, we’re exploring the concept of home. Click here to read more stories from the HOME Issue.
Portuguese writer Duarte Nunes de Leão once defined the word saudade as a “memory of something with a desire for it.”
Saudade describes how I felt upon finding Mango House, perched on the last acre of a historic grove in Miami Shores Village. Its history fascinated me: Built in 1933 with now-outlawed materials, including coral and Dade County pine, it functioned as the mango pickers’ cottage before being expanded several times in various directions over the years. The native Miccosukees canoed up the canal (now an alleyway) and camped under the mango trees. They left venison hanging in them, filling their hulls heavy with fresh fruit.
House-hunting, my husband and I had gotten lost in this quaint neighborhood, about 15 minutes north of downtown Miami, and come upon the corner property by accident. The domicile’s wood frame, surrounded by stately mango, avocado, sapodilla and live oak trees—a fortune in natural air conditioning—called to me with a combination of déjà vu and kismet. As if we were supposed to live there because we had already done so.
A tiny “for sale” sign sat on the green wrought iron fence. We inquired. But as we suspected, it was out of our price range. Jon was just out of his medical residency, with massive loans to pay back, and I was a food writer and poet. We had a toddler and another baby on the way. No matter how it spoke to me, we couldn’t afford an oddly shaped, 4,400-square-foot house guarded by century-old trees.
I climb the spiral staircase that leads to my office—a generous loft in my bedroom that a former homeowner, an amateur astronomer, built for his telescope—and find myself not writing much. Instead, I watch the squirrels race the freeways of tree limbs, bridging and exiting with hardly a jump. After the stress of Hurricane Irma, the vegetation grew back with a vengeance, as if to prove its fertility. Sapodilla branches finger the impact-resistant windows that face my desk. A blue jay sways impudently on an unruly ficus that has escaped its hedge and reached the second story.
A lot of things are unruly around here.
This winter, the mangoes bloomed three times. Now, in August, we are still harvesting rosy, early-season Hadens, the first monstrous glut of which ripened in May and should have ended six weeks later. Meanwhile, the avocados are maturing too soon. I am exhausted of the joy that comes from picking good fruit, and even more tired of cleaning up the foul, buggy mess that accompanies it.
In a couple of hours, I will walk the yard with the dogs anyway—collecting, always collecting.
We put contracts down on two different houses in Miami Shores; both fell through. And then Mango House went off the market and came back on, greatly reduced—a warning sign we didn’t heed. We were the first ones to walk through. Our bid was accepted. I couldn’t believe our luck.
And just like that, it was summer, and I couldn’t believe our stupidity.
We had no idea what we were doing. Neither one of us had ever picked a mango before in our lives, let alone harvested an entire crop from nearly a dozen trees. We didn’t know that mangoes wait for no one: When ready, they fall. They thundered down from so many panicles simultaneously, all day and night long, we heard that thump thump thump in our dreams.
Andrew and Irma have taught me what “capricious” means in the vocabulary of hurricanes. Mango House withstood both of these killer storms, unharmed. Instead, we will be the end of it.
Yet we maintained the house’s story, adding three young trees to the eleven that already stood roof high. We took great pride in our eight varieties of the fruit, which everyone tells us is the best they’ve ever had. We attended mango festivals and collected mango art. I got several mango tattoos.
And every season, there are so many mangoes—a mature tree produces 1,000-3,000—that we practically run a free u-pick for our neighbors, friends, chefs that we know. I jar jams, salsas, fruit soups; I bake and dehydrate and freeze. One extremely plentiful year, we grew so desperate that we left big black garbage bags filled with fruit at the back doors of restaurants.
The annual drama is like childbirth: It’s both painful and exhilarating going through it, and then you forget afterward. In many ways, surviving harvest, my palms stained orange and my hair webbed with sap, endeared the place even more to me. For 18 years, we raised our two kids here. And for 18 years, we both celebrated and struggled with the house and the land which, perhaps unwisely, I made both my muse and my brand. I wrote a book of poems about it, Bud Break at Mango House, and authored a cookbook, Mango. Both won awards.
But prizes don’t replace wood that rots in humidity, or pool deck tiles that smash under football-size fruit. Every so often, my husband suggested that we sell. Out loud, I would remind him, “This is our retirement fund. We will… someday.” Privately, I vowed to the trees, You are history. I will let nothing happen to you.
I was only lying to myself.
An Atala butterfly flits around the ficus. A brief uplifting. These butterflies were once thought to be extinct, and are endemic to only three counties in Southeast Florida. We have cultivated them, planting coontie—also an endangered native—that the caterpillars use for food and to embed their cremasters while they metamorphose.
We have, in fact, restored the yard with many native plants, and added other fruit trees. A Brazilian cherry. A Baboon lemon. Monstera, longan and several types of bananas.
One year, during citrus canker outbreaks, government workers came and chopped down a healthy Meyer lemon, a key lime and six grapefruit trees. They were a difficult loss to process.
Last September, Irma uprooted much of our coontie, sweeping it away like tumbleweeds. But what was left has grown back like the rest of the greenery, just in time for another hurricane season.
I arrived in Miami in 1992, a new bride at age 24, one month before category-5 Hurricane Andrew hit. We lived on South Beach then, during its Renaissance. Under mandatory evacuation, we had the choice to go to my husband’s parents’ home in Boca Raton or to his grandparents’ place in Kendall. The forecasters were predicting that the storm would hit southern Palm Beach County, but I was more comfortable with Jon’s parents.
Andrew wound up pummeling Florida City, Cutler Ridge, Homestead—areas next door to Kendall, and well south of Boca. Jon’s grandparents survived, but their house was wrecked.
Andrew and Irma have taught me what “capricious” means in the vocabulary of hurricanes.
Mango House is only five blocks from Biscayne Bay. It withstood both of these killer storms, unharmed. Instead, we will be the end of it.
In all likelihood, this time next year, my view will be something else, somewhere else. It won’t be dramatically different. We won’t go far; my husband will still be practicing neurology in the vicinity. The same subtropics will speak the same green nothings to me.
I will look out over my laptop screen and feel saudade for Mango House.
I know that we’re right to let it go. My daughter, a junior in college, and my son, a senior in high school, outgrew their rooms and their shared bathroom a long time ago. We’ve added solar panels and a natural gas line, but our bills only go up.
It’s unwise to redo the wood, to fix the pool deck, to make any more improvements when the land is worth five times as much as we paid for it. If we sell to a developer, who will divide the acre into lots and build climate-ready houses, we’ll have enough money to move to new construction that has also taken the ever-growing threat of storms like Irma into account.
I’m told what we’re doing is called climate gentrification. It is privileged and, apparently, it is evil. As if I didn’t feel conflicted enough for abandoning the trees, including the coconut palms and guava that routinely get ripped off, despite my sign saying, “When the fruit is sweet, bitter are the roots of thieves.”
Bitter, too, are the roots of hypocrites. I can’t help but castigate myself. But sweet, says everyone else, about the forthcoming fruits, the end to all this labor that we have put into Mango House.
Miami Mango Salsa
This is a mainstay in my house during mango season, and you’d think we’d get sick of it. But it’s so refreshing and flavorful, it’s hard to resist. So it’s usually on hand.
2 ripe mangos, diced
1 small Vidalia onion, finely diced
1 Scotch bonnet chili pepper, minced (optional)
Juice of 1 key lime
1 tablespoon apple cider or white vinegar
2 tablespoons minced, fresh cilantro
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
In a non-reactive bowl, mix all the ingredients. Refrigerate until ready to use. Before serving, allow the salsa to come to room temperature.
Makes 2 cups
A Different Cultivar: For a version that’s more like a Mexican pico de gallo, leave out the cilantro, substitute jalapeños for Scotch bonnets (chili peppers still optional), and use a larger dice.
From Mango by Jen Karetnick. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014. Reprinted by permission of the University Press of Florida.