Sweet and Sour

A memoir by Suzanne Siteman

The lemon in my hand is light, but with an interior weight to it, as if the fruit and juice on the inside have a presence I can feel through my fingers, pushing against the skin, even before the flesh is broken. Lemon peel is in fact skin-like; pock-marked with visible pores that prick the surface and cluster and crowd closer as the rounded body narrows to a pointed, misshapen end. I can imagine finding it on the ground like a gumball in the spring, or an acorn in the fall, surrendered from its branch.

This one is small but abundant, plumped and taut like my stomach when my daughters ripened inside me, when I liked my body best. I close my eyes and feel where the fruit was plucked off its branch, where it hung overlayed by deep green leaves, one of many lemons on the tree; that place of separation sharp to my touch. It gives a bit when I palpate it in my hand and my fingers slip over the waxy rind. I like to shift it against my thumb and pointer finger like a stress ball. In much the same way, my hands were drawn to my pregnant belly; seven, eight, nine months in, grazing the smooth shelf of me—idling there.

We say that things are colored lemon-yellow but this lemon is really lemon-lime, like the Mountain Dew I was allowed to drink on Saturday nights as a child in my feetie pink pajamas with the rubber polka dot soles. Beneath the surface yellow, a pale green bleeds through, not a remnant of its infancy but an indication of where it grew on the tree and the constancy of sun under which it ripened. Lemons grow best in warmth and strong light, sheltered from the wind. 

 A lemon is contained. Rarely does one soften to the point of collapse. It holds its shape with a kind of dignity regardless of age in my refrigerator. Sometimes, when one lives there too long, fuzzy spots of white mold fleck the exterior like a pox. Still, I see its original beauty.

The scent of a lemon whole is a delicate union of farm, field and floral. Split open, it smells unadulterated; like laundry on the line, curtains shifting on a windowsill, a blue Iris. There is a sweet undernote. When I was pregnant, I kept bowls of lemons at home to lift and breathe in when random smells overwhelmed me. Lemons consoled my off-kilter senses. A baggie of lemon halves lived on the front seat of my car and their faint reminder clung for months after I gave birth. 

Cut across the broad middle I find a pinwheel lives inside, symmetrically segmented. The milky-yellow flesh is luminous, the seeds are buried in sight just under the translucent surface, and I am reminded of the trace of my daughters’ elbows and knees flashing across me like an internal projection—tiny bones briefly visible. I squeeze the lemon to release the juice and a sand dollar forms in the empty space left behind, framed by fragile white membrane. Vacant elegance. Seeds spill. On my tongue, the rich acidic taste flares and the glands under my jaw contract in salivatory response. The body is never indifferent to a lemon.

My youngest daughter Amy left for college this year while cases of  COVID-19 burst back across the country. She loves the bitter bite of lemons. She is wise to sweet and sour. She slices them into exacting wedges to squeeze into her glass, watching the water cloud as the juice sifts slow-motion to the bottom. She likes to notch one and hang it on the side, a restaurant-like gesture I find graceful and illustrative of her maturity, of my maturity; a woman of advanced maternal age I was labeled when I carried her at forty. 

I used to find Amy’s orphaned lemon remnants on the kitchen counter, the quarters she hadn’t claimed, sitting upright and stoic on my cutting board, leaking juice. I didn’t mind this small mess she left behind. I think of them now in my kitchen when I drop slices into my own glass and feel them land against my lips with every drink.

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Suzanne Siteman is a nonfiction writer and new Coloradan. She has recently returned to writing with the launching of her last child. Her work has appeared in Pithead Chapel, Mothering Magazine, New Millennium Writings, The Larcom Review and elsewhere.


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