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The peach tree
He is right. California is a good place. It is better than most places, to be precise. But California isn't home.


July 4, 2005

There are nineteen peaches on our tree this year. They are small and still green, but nonetheless they are still peaches. Nineteen is a number too few to feel proud of, but enough to appreciate and to remember. This was the first year that the tree had borne fruit -- the second actually, but the first time that the squirrels and birds had not dispatched of the peaches prematurely. The squirrels in particular raised the ire of my father, because they had the habit of only eating half the peach and discarding the rest at the base of the tree in a display of their power and our helplessness. Baba called them Hezbollahis.

"What else do you call an animal that just descends to destroy things?"

The persimmon tree was smaller than our peach tree, but I thought it was more beautiful. It has dark, vibrantly green leaves that are almond shaped, and they wave gently when a breeze blows through our yard. Last year, it had borne exactly one persimmon, tucked neatly under protective cover of three leaves escaping the wrath of the squirrels. Persimmons mature slower than other fruits, so it was mid-September when we finally decided to pick it. My parents insisted that my brother or I be the ones to pick the fruit off the tree. They always did things like that; saving us the biggest piece of meat, offering the first slice of watermelon, insisting that you be the first to drink water after a long day of walking. 

I picked it and my brother and I cut the persimmon up, and in turn I said I wouldn't taste it until my parents had theirs first. I don't really know if I like persimmons or not. It's a strange, temperamental fruit with smooth glowing orange skin. If you pick it too early, it is extremely tart and impossible to eat, but when it is sweet, it's better than mango or papaya but tastes like a plum or kiwi too. I don't know -- it's just a persimmon. I haven't seen any on the tree this summer, but maybe they don't blossom until later.

My dad's favorites are the grapes. When they arrived, the vines were in plastic bags and no longer than my arm, but now they have grown and spiraled up and outward. Baba went to Home Depot or Lowe's or another one of those massive home improvement stores two years ago and came back with four steel arches to fasten the vines to. Now, it looks like he may have to buy more or drastically prune the vines. The vines got sick last year, and we only ended up with maybe 4 clusters of semi-sweet red grapes, but I know that was his favorite harvest. We also tried in vain to grow a pomegranate tree and an almond tree, but they didn't take well to the New Jersey climate.

The rest of our small yard is crowded with tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, peppers, and different kinds of herbs. They are the featured items and meals are planned around when we have enough tomatoes or eggplants to make this, or enough cucumbers to make Shirazi salad. 

To me, it is normal, and one of the few symbols of an unbroken path to my childhood. We have always done this everywhere we have lived, creating gardens in the student housing community gardens and later at our first house in Michigan. Later when we sold our home and went into exile in Wisconsin, we didn't plant or grow anything outside because we had no intention of permanence or putting down roots. We had a small potted orange tree we kept indoors, that we gave away to Mariam and her family when we moved again, this time to the East Coast. 

When we moved from Wisconsin to New Jersey, we had to live in a townhouse at first. My brother and I would explore the towns of Central Jersey looking for a good high school for him, and the whole family would either drive around looking at neighborhoods or take a walk through the Princeton campus in the evenings after dinner. 

Those first few months were exciting -- we all felt as if we had been set free. Wisconsin's people were no better than the state's winters -- harsh, dull, and extremely cold. No one was happy there; my mother had left behind a business in Michigan that was poised to grow dramatically, my middle school-age brother felt alienated and repulsed by the legions of ignorant blue-collar Wisconsin white kids, and I had to complete my senior year of high school away from my friends.

My father, whose job had brought us there, tried to be positive most of the time, but remained silent when one of us would vent our frustrations at our new environment. For four years, we stubbornly clung to the notion that our time there was temporary, and refused to buy a home there. We eventually depleted the small some of money we had saved from the sale of our Michigan home, so when we moved to New Jersey, we had no money to put down for a house. 

Still, we were just happy to be free. We were 45 miles from both New York and Philadelphia, and the people seemed much more colorful and interesting here than they did back in Wisconsin. My mom loved their accents, my dad disapproved of their driving habits. My little brother threw himself into life in New Jersey, and it was good to see his anguish and anger dissolve and his playful personality reemerge among cool new friends and cute new girls. 

When we did finally find a neighborhood that we liked and could afford to buy a house in, we drove by the house and looked at the lot. It was in a new subdivision, one of the many cookie cutter neighborhoods that seemed to be sprouting up all across American suburbia. Still, I knew that the neighborhood would become beautiful once the streets had trees. The house itself would be smaller than our home in Michigan, but it was being built next to a beautiful and secluded woodlot that had wild turkeys, deer, doves, and woodchucks. There was also Wal-Mart's, Target, the Olive Garden, a diner and strip malls close by as well, completing the suburban Jersey idyll. 

After settling in, we did what we always did after moving; we went to a nursery and bought trees. It felt different this time from before. I felt that we had finally found our home, the place that my parents would stay in and anchor our family to. Put down roots. We selected a blue spruce pine for our front yard, roses and annuals to line our driveway, and the fruit trees to create the garden in the backyard. My mom and dad planted the flowers while my brother and I dug holes for planting the trees. They were small and delicate at the time, and I looked at them skeptically wondering if they would grow at all.

Our trees in Michigan grew extremely fast. We had lived in our house for four years, and in that time, our cherry tree and apricot tree that we planted when we moved in both shot up to eight feet. The summer that we moved from Michigan to Wisconsin, the cherry and apricot trees, barren the first three years we had them, were staggering from the weight of the fruit on their branches. We moved in August, perhaps a few weeks too early to have picked the fruit from the trees we had planted.

Still, the New Jersey trees did well. I would visit my parents' house almost every weekend from Jersey City and later New York. I always looked forward to the 50 minute train ride, watching the rough cities of north Jersey fade into suburbs and the suburbs disappearing behind the tangle of trees as I sped toward my new home, in a neighborhood that still did not have all its houses built. It was an escape from my pressure cooker reality in New York. Once a week, every Sunday, almost like clockwork. 

Every summer, the trees grew taller, the roses fuller, and the house itself began to grow more attractive and distinctive looking. I had grown comfortable in the thought that this would be the house I always had the key to, could close my eyes and hear my parents talking in, smell the food cooking in the kitchen.  I saw it as the house that I could always store my extra books or furniture to temporarily while I completed my transient life as a graduate student or moved into my next apartment, always looking for the next best move. The house that my parents grew old in, the house where eventually my own children would come to see their grandparents and pick grapes and tomatoes and peaches in the summer, and patiently wait for the persimmons that would be waiting for them in the fall. I had grown comfortable and content.

When my parents told me last week that they were once again moving, this time across the country in California, I was quiet for a minute. They would be gone by the end of the summer. I saw the anxiety and resignation in the faces and couldn't bear it, so I said the things that I knew they needed to hear, and was strong for them. Most of all, I tried to convince myself that this was for the best.

Later that week, while my mom was at her Spanish class, my father and I went to On the Border, a corporate Tex-Mex restaurant, and one of many chain eateries that lined US Route One. In the car, he asked me what I was feeling. I told him I wasn't sure, because I knew the reasons why they had to go and I told him I had reasons that I wanted them to stay here. I was embarrassed to say that at 27, I didn't want them to be far away from me. But I did. He drove on, and spoke while he continued to look at the road.

"I don't like the fact that we will be separated and far from each other. I never wanted that, and it's what will be the most difficult. But I am taking the job because I have always felt it was better to be ready-to take the chance to make your decisions in life rather than have life decide your fate for you. You know how life is here already."

He turned into the parking lot and turned to face me.

"I know this isn't ideal. But if we stay here, it is only putting off the inevitable. One day the company will be sold, and then our future is anyone's guess -- Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota -- and then what? Those are all the places we don't want to be. California is a good place, and it doesn't come calling that often."

I looked at him and nodded. Tried to smile but didn't quite make it so I drank my beer and ate chips instead while Shakira blasted from the speakers. My father is fifty seven years old. He is still handsome and in good shape, although with less hair than before. But something about him has always been younger than me -- maybe that he has always been more of an idealist and optimist than I have ever been. At peace with his decisions. I looked at him, and was struck that at his age he could still take risks and confidently make moves that I am starting to dread. 

He is right. California is a good place. It is better than most places, to be precise. California is year-round sunshine, the Pacific, mariachi music and cold Cerveza. California is progressive, beautiful, warm, and awash with Iranians "baavar kon, it's just like Iran", although they have blond streaks and identity issues. California is real Mexican food, almond and palm trees, vineyards, multicultural, bilingual; California is towns with Spanish names, San Frandiegos and endless LAs. 

But California isn't home. California rudely reminds me that although born here, I am my parents' son; ultimately an accident of citizenship who can lay claim to nowhere and a fool for thinking I could relegate my suitcases to the basement for good. California is a pleasant interruption that I didn't want, a six hour flight farther from everything important. It doesn't come calling often, but like a typical jealous ex-lover, California came calling at precisely the moment when we had found happiness elsewhere. 

When we came back from dinner, we didn't discuss the move anymore that night. Baba went outside to mow the lawn and water the flowers. Maman came home from Spanish class, answered the phone and started making tea. Restless, I went out to the backyard and paced in the fading twilight. The peach tree is already taller than me and will grow even more next summer. I looked at my father inspecting the marigolds with the garden hose, my mother sitting in the kitchen with her tea and laughing into the phone, and picked one of the peaches for myself.

For letters section
To Roozbeh Shirazi

Roozbeh Shirazi




Book of the day

The Legend of Seyavash
Translated by Dick Davis

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