November 22nd, 2003

caillebotte_man at his window

Cold Night, Zen Fruit

On cold nights, the stars remind me of bits of ice. Tonight, I can't stay outdoors long enough for my eyes to grow accustomed to the darkness. The frozen expanse of the milky way remains invisible to me. I see the bright stars, and say hello to Orion, then go back indoors where my ears tingle as they warm up. I know that the thin moon has risen, but it remains concealed by the dark mass of trees. I think of it as I saw it last night; a bright crescent with a pale orb above it, outlined by a fine silver circlet. The best late-rising moons come in the cold months. Most Novembers, there would be enough lingering warmth to justify my remaining out for a while to watch it, but this year is bone chilling. I'd rather sit in front of Sluggo with a cat warming my lap.

A nephew brought fruit last night. There are some red grapefruit, some sharply scented lemons, and a couple of pomegranates so ripe that they are bursting open, exposing rows of the translucent, dark red kernels of flesh within which the pale seeds can be seen. I've always loved pomegranates, though they are among the most frustrating of fruits. Like the mango which clings tenaciously to its giant seed, and the persimmon with its tenacious, mouth-furring skin and slippery, messy flesh, the pomegranate surrenders its rewards only to those with the willingness to submit to its peculiar demands. The thing the pomegranate demands most strenuously is patience. The kernels must be gently exposed by peeling away the bitter integument (so reminiscent of bees wax, or of tripe) and each then carefully plucked form its niche without bursting the thin red skin which holds the juice. Inevitably, some of them will break, leaving a dark stain on the fingers which will remain for hours.

It was because of the propensity of the juice to leave indelible stains on clothing that my mother always refused to buy pomegranates when I was a child. Fortunately, one of my friends lived behind someone who had a pomegranate tree growing close to their back fence, and in the autumn we would swipe liberate a few of the forbidden fruits, and eat them carefully, so as not to reveal our crime with the telltale red stains. I was frequently unsuccessful in this concealment. Breaking apart the tough outer skin of the fruit, a few of the kernels would inevitably burst, and the sweet-tart juice would squirt onto my shirt or my pant leg. I would be scolded later, but it was so worth it! The satisfying crackle of the outer skin breaking, the soft pop of the individual kernels coming loose, the surprisingly intense burst of tangy flavor when the kernels were crushed between my teeth, and, not least, the pleasure we took in seeing who could spit the small white seeds the farthest; they were ample reward for any harsh parental words about ruined garments.

But the slowness of the process of consuming this autumnal delight! That was always a sore test of youthful patience. Even now, I find myself eager to rip the fruit open and stuff my mouth full, heedless of pulp or skin or seeds, and let the juice run down my chin and drip onto my clothes. But I know it wouldn't be good. Too much pomegranate at once overloads the taste buds, and the pulp which inevitably accompanies any bite into the fruit adds its own unpleasantly bitter overtones. No, the kernels must be taken one by one, or a few at a time, and savored slowly. The pomegranate is the Zen master of fruits, teaching patience, and dealing out punishment for any departure from the true way.
caillebotte_man at his window

Short of a Century

One of my cousins called this evening to say that my father's oldest surviving sister had died this afternoon. That leaves only his one older sister and one younger brother from that generation of his family. All of them are in their nineties. My mother has one younger brother still living. Remembering all the aunts and uncles who have gone, I'm struck by the fact that I will soon be a member of the oldest generation of my family. It seems very strange. They were supposed to fill that role. I remember when my maternal grandmother died many years ago, the last of her generation on either side of my family. It was only then that I noticed that my aunts and uncles had become what I would think of as elderly. I suppose that people seldom think how they will be entering that state themselves, until some event reminds them of how much time has passed.

The last time I saw aunt Naomi was several years ago, when she and my father's older sister came here for a visit. They told stories about growing up in Manhattan Beach and Walnut Acres, and about their later life in Catalina. I can't remember most of those stories, or those I heard earlier. They seemed only amusing anecdotes at the time. Now they are vanished history.

I don't think anyone from my part of the family will be able to attend the funeral. My parents certainly can't travel that far, especially not in this weather, and my brother and sister and I can't get away. My swarm of nephews and nieces never really knew their great aunts and uncles, most of them having grown up in this part of the state. My parent's generation of the family has scattered itself across the west in recent decades. Most likely, my aunt's funeral will be attended only by those of her direct descendants who live nearby or can get away, since they are now scattered across the entire country. It occurs to me that I am unlikely to again see many of my relatives on that side of the family. The last time any appreciable number of us were gathered together was at my grandfather's funeral, more than twenty-five years ago. My mother's family is almost equally scattered, so I will probably see few of them again, either. My atomized generation no longer has much to glue it together.

So, tonight I'm thinking about distances, and the passage of time, and all the unvisited grave sites in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Ventura, and in Arizona and Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, as well as Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, Switzerland, and other places which have passed from the family memory. Now the list has grown.

Naomi Hanson
1904-2003