It’s the member of the family Mark Was only lets in the house when it gets cold outside.
Not to name names — oops, it doesn’t have one — but it stands more than 6½ feet tall, barely fits through the door, is undeniably bottom heavy, has been known to make a mess in the corner and has a reputation for being a bit of a thorn in his wife’s side.
Still, Was couldn’t love that grapefruit tree more.
He was in second grade when he and his mom planted a seed from the half of grapefruit he was having for breakfast that morning. Not only did it sprout, but 61 years later, the tree it grew into is still with him.
It spent the first 20 years at his parents’ house, graduating from plastic pots to whiskey barrels. It moved in with him when he got his own apartment, and for the last 30 years, home sweet home has been Was and wife Linda Gendrich’s house in Wauwatosa, where it’s officially part of the family.
It summers out on the patio and has breezed through high winds tipping it over, deer sampling its leaves and squirrels using its pot to bury treasures. In the fall, it rides out the Wisconsin winters in a southeast corner of the house with a window view and a grow light for “a little oomph.”
Getting the nearly 100-pound tree in the house and back out again is quite the biannual production. It can grow as much as a foot during the summer, so Was usually prunes it back in the fall to reduce its size. It then gets wrapped in blankets and tied with bungee cords and twine to rein in the branches to better navigate it through the door. It’s taken him, Gendrich and a neighbor to wrangle it, and even then somebody or some wall still gets scratched or poked by one of its sizable thorns.
“I don’t know how my parents did it for the first 20 years,” Was said. “As soon as I moved to Wauwatosa, they showed up with it in the back of the car and it was like, ‘Here, we don’t want it anymore.’”
Gendrich has been known to share that sentiment at times, but despite her pleas to “get rid of the thing,” the tree is still going strong.
It’s rootbound, but about every three years they pull it out of the pot, cut the roots back, give it fresh soil and watch it flourish once the summer temperatures arrive. Just as Was’ mom told him all those years ago: “Water and sunshine, and it’ll thrive.”
Things were a little touch and go about 10 years ago when it developed a spider mite infestation, but advice from friend and nationally known gardening expert Melinda Myers and the staff at the Mitchell Park Domes in Milwaukee got it under control.
“Unfortunately, it has never bore any fruit, and I don’t know why,” said Was, who has long given up hope that it ever will. “At 61, it’s well past its prime — kind of like me.”
What it lacks in breakfast table offerings, it makes up for as a conversation piece. At every Christmas party, birthday party and picnic on the patio, it never fails to get people talking. When visitors can’t believe it’s a grapefruit tree, Was plucks off a leaf to rub between their fingers so they can get a whiff of the citrusy aroma.
There was a time when he considered donating it to the Domes, where it could live out its golden years in a spacious and toasty year-round home surrounded by tropical friends and no more stressful seasonal moves.
“But I can’t do that. It’s part of my childhood,” he said. “I can’t get rid of it. I just can’t.”
A little piece of his mom is growing with that tree. It brings back memories of her sitting at the table going through plant catalogs in January and February to pick out the peppers and tomatoes she started from seed.
She’s the love in this labor of love. He’s pretty sure each fall and spring when it’s time to move the tree, she’s looking down and laughing to herself.