The neighborhood roosters begin crowing you awake long before the rising of the sun. Soon, the cacophonous chirp and twitter of a veritable avian orchestra joins them, led by a pair of mourning doves calling to each other, seemingly without surcease. Someone’s donkey is braying good morning. Hauling myself out of bed to sit on my parents’ back patio with a cup of tea, I can barely see the horse next door. It is virtually camouflaged by outbuildings and undergrowth, the swish of the tail just visible as it munches the dry grass close by the fence, with only the occasional whinny to remind the world that it is here.
I am visiting my parents for a week at their home out in the country. I will catch up with old friends in Fresno, trade words across a Scrabble board and munch matzo with my my mother and father at the two Passover Seders.
In spite of the early morning hullaballoo occasioned by the local fauna, this place is notable for its peace and quiet. My parents say they are bothered by the sounds of cars speeding past on their way out to Road 37 or Highway 145, heading to work or shop in Fresno and points farther afield. But it is different for me. As I live a block from a freeway exit, here I notice only the sounds of the birds and the animals. The roar of eighteen wheel diesels, to which I have become accustomed, is conspicuously absent.
It is springtime, and my parents are constantly out gardening and tending to their large property. Recently, they had to kill a couple of poisonous snakes. My mother complains about the moles digging up her vegetables. She has put down wire mesh beneath her box plantings to deter the rodents. Touring her garden, I notice the plethora of insects and worms in attendance.
“The birds must love it here,” I remark.
“Why don’t you ask them?” she replies without missing a beat.
At the age of eighty, my parents’ quick wits and definite opinions are as sharp as ever. My mother complains about everything: My weight, my clothes, my career moves, my sister, her cousin from Los Angeles, the neighbors, supermarket prices, even the birds. There is one bird on her property, she insists, that mocks her by calling out “Debbie stinks, Debbie stinks, Debbie stinks!”
During my visit, my mother spoils me by cooking my favorite traditional dishes: Lima bean soup, borscht with boiled potato, stuffed cabbage, homemade apple pie. But she just finished a course of antibiotics for an infection in her arm, and she finds it painful to do all that chopping and grating. I have agreed to prepare the haroseth tomorrow, the traditional paste of apples, walnuts and cinnamon that we eat during the Seder. I will add chopped dates, the way she likes it. Saving her all that peeling and cutting is the least I can do.
Now it is evening, and we drag folding chairs out of the garage to enjoy the cool breeze that blows down the driveway. We chat about old times, describing our memories of events that occurred fifty years ago. Then it is time for the great star show. With few street or house lights, it is dark out here; the jewel encrusted night sky shines forth in all its twinkly splendor, as if for our enjoyment alone. The only constellation I recognize is Orion. My mother points out the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper and Cassiopeia, while she searches for red-hued Beetlegeuse, which was burning out even when she studied astronomy back in college, she tells me. Later, after TV episodes of “Call the Midwife” and “The Good Wife,” we will sit on the couch and pore over albums full of black and white photos from the sixties and seventies.
I wonder how long this will last. My father still dons a hat and heads out to mow the property in 95 degree heat. My mother still digs and plants and prunes and waters. As their health issues increase, however, it becomes painfully obvious that this cannot go on forever.
The nightly cricket concert is well underway, and I have box seats courtesy of my open window. And as I allow the chirping to lull me to sleep in the guest bedroom of my parents’ house, I am reminded that I must cherish every moment here.
For as much as I miss my wife and my comfortable routine back at home, I can’t escape the fact that today could be the last time I get to do this.