I found the winter holiday spirit underneath a pecan tree in Hillsborough.

Late last week I visited the Orange County courthouse in Hillsborough for a relative’s hearing.

While hurrying down the sidewalk, I saw an older man scooping up nuts and tossing them into a plastic grocery bag.

“What are you getting there?” I asked.

“Pecans,” he answered.

I looked up and saw a rather slender albeit mature tree with branches filled with ripened pecans a few feet away, right next door to the sheriff’s office.

That flourishing tree with bunches of sweet nut fruits dangling from its branches looked like a displaced sideman from the Garden of Eden.

When the court recessed for lunch at 12:30 p.m., I went to my car and grabbed two plastic grocery bags. It was just before 2 p.m. and the restart of court proceedings, and I had filled up one bag.

I wondered what people thought as they watched a stylishly attired middle-aged man with a blue beret jauntily perched atop his head harvesting pecans during a district court recess.

Hell, maybe they thought I was doing some kind of court-ordered community service after pleading guilty to some annoying low-level misdemeanor like getting pinched for half of a marijuana joint

“All right, wise guy, get out of here and go pick up the pecans outside the courthouse for two days next week.”

A stocky guy around my age wearing a Carolina blue UNC hoodie stopped and asked me if I was picking up chestnuts. He was impressed when I told him I was harvesting pecans.

“You know what pecans cost nowadays?” he asked.

I did indeed. A bag of pecans at Costco is currently selling for $16.

I told him that while driving to the courthouse, I saw a sign in a wheelbarrow that read, “Pecans For Sale, and considered stopping at that wheelbarrow to buy a small bag later that day, unless my relative went to jail.

Instead, I had discovered nature’s free bounty right beside the sheriff’s office.

While gathering up the pecans, I remembered when I was a child growing up in the 1960s, scooping up pecans in front of GraMa’s house, where the biggest pecan tree in the world lived. Swear it was. Big, dark massive trunk. Thick muscular branches. It was like a member of our family. 

Now when I think about that tree, it reminds me of a cheerful, squat sumo wrestler whose branches would shake in the wind like the grappler’s hands. But instead of white powder, fat, juicy pecans would spray all over GraMa’s front yard.

A flood of memories about my grandparents’ tree swirled around me as I gathered up pecans near the Orange County cop shop: Aunt Coo coating the tasty brown fruit with butter and sugar in a cast iron skillet to make pecan candy; dancing next to its majestic trunk while James Brown sang “Get On The Good Foot,” and the ghosts of police officers beating my gran’daddy Willie Horne senseless, right under that pecan tree in the front yard.

In the early 1990s, whenever the Rodney King beating was shown on TV, my mom would tell me, “Tommy, the way the Rockingham police beat your granddaddy made that Rodney King beating look like a picnic.”

The city cut the pecan tree down in my grandparent’s yard as part of its urban renewal program after Martin Luther King was murdered. A community center now sits on the property. Nice, but I have never quite forgiven town officials for destroying that part of my family’s legacy.

While watching the Panthers finally figure out how to win a football game last Sunday afternoon, I used a nutcracker and nut picks to shell a goodly number of the pecans I had harvested from the Orange County sheriff’s office. Enough to fill a big bowl, and I still have a heap of them leftover.

I’m planning to make pecan pies spiked with rum, and honey-roasted batches to give to my children and other family members as holiday gifts.

“This is great,” my older children’s mother—one of the wisest and kindest people I know—said about my winter holiday gifting plan and showed her the pecan recipes I  had found. “It’s not the money spent,” she added, “ it’s the love, time, and effort.”


Maybe I’ll include a story in my children’s holiday stockings along with the pies and treats; a story flavored with rich, bittersweet memories. For me, the magic never failed to happen whenever my mom, who died 20 years ago, began a story with, “Tommy, when  I was your age…”

Days later, Imani, my youngest daughter, gave me a wonderful gift: never-before-seen photos of my mother and I dancing at my wedding reception in 2003. 

Another priceless gift.

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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com. Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com