Strawberry fields forever
Working in the fields was an inseperable part of my childhood. The memory that remains is one of longing, and of a tremendous sense of freedom.
On Saturday morning, we drove to Tira. That's how it is, when I'm feeling really bad, I have to drive to Tira. I'm not convinced that it helps, but it's a need I haven't yet learned to control, like many others. And in general, what exactly do I manage to control? This was the thought that echoed in my mind.
"So how are you?" asked Dad, driving slowly along the dirt roads surrounding Tira. The children sat in the back seat, excited about Grandpa's promise that he would take them to pick strawberries. He had spoken with a good friend, one of the last people in Tira who still grows strawberries, and the friend gladly invited the children to visit.
"Okay," I replied, nodding my head, looking at the few fields remaining to Tira. Huge houses have been constructed without any order, and among them were winding dirt paths; the last rains made driving on them a challenge. "A little mud," said Dad when I expressed concern. And for a moment I recalled how mud was once an inseparable part of my life.
The children were thrilled to see the strawberry field. "Look, strawberries," shouted my son to his sister, pointing at the furrows spread before him. "So what?" giggled Dad's old friend when he shook my hand, "your children have probably never seen such a thing, eh?"
No, they haven't. I thought about the last time I was in a field. We didn't have strawberries, but we had a large vineyard, fig trees, a mango orchard, and on a small plot Grandma used to grow peas, onions, lettuce and sometimes even watermelons. I remember the watermelons; they were smaller than the ones you buy today, and for some reason I remember them being redder.
"Careful not to slip," I shouted at my children, who started walking between the furrows. "Look Dad, there are green strawberries too," said my son, pointing at the magic in the soil. "Right," I replied, "they'll get ripe and they'll be red and sweet."
"And what's that?" he asked, pointing at the plastic sheet.
"They cover the field when it rains."
"But we learned that plants need rain."
"True, it's absorbed in the ground, but if it's strong and hits the fruits it can destroy them."
"And that one is brown, Dad."
"Yes, it's a defective strawberry."
"Defective," he repeated the word, and his gaze didn't stray from the brown strawberry. He lingered for a long moment above it, like someone participating in the bitter fate of one brown strawberry. I had no words of consolation.
Work in the fields was an inseparable part of my childhood. For some reason, I can't connect to the burdensome feeling and the difficulty of agricultural work during summer vacations or after school hours; the memory that remains is one of longing, and of a tremendous sense of freedom. A sense of freedom like that which accompanied me on the walk with my children in the open strawberry field.
When we grew up and went off to study, my father decided to give up agriculture, which in any case didn't really contribute to the family livelihood, he claimed. He leased out the vineyard and neglected the mango orchard until the trees sickened, and then uprooted them. I remember how we cried when the tractors uprooted the trees that had been with us for years. I also remember the day we planted them.
"Mango?" asked the neighbors, wondering about my father's behavior; he was the first in the village to decide to plant mango. Afterward I heard him explaining to Mom that mango is a tropical fruit that would never succeed in growing in the soil of Tira but he couldn't disappoint Grandma and leave the plot empty. For Grandma, abandoning land was an act of heresy.
But the little mango trees did take root in Tira's soil, and grew almost on their own, without too much effort on our part. All we had to do was pull out the weeds in the spring and operate the irrigation system in the summer. The mango trees drank loads of water, and when we grew up they produced the tastiest fruit we had ever eaten. My father meanwhile forgot the main purpose of the planting, and was happy to discover that he had planted a variety called Maya, the best one. The neighbors also began to plant mangoes, seeing they involved a minimum of work and that the fruit could be sold for a good price.
"Why are you crying?" asked my father, who caught me in a moment of thought.
"I'm not," I replied, laughing. "It's my hair."
"You really have to get a haircut," he said. "You've never had such long hair before."
"Yes, I know," I replied, "I didn't have time to get a haircut."
"You don't say?" he asked, beginning to smile. "Maybe I'll take you to the barber?"
"No," I said, "tomorrow I'll go to my barber in Jerusalem."
"I insist," he said. "Let me take you to the barber in the village, like I used to."
The children argued in the back seat over the question of who had picked the biggest strawberries. My father said in a whisper that he and Mom - several of their savings plans had reached maturity, and they both thought that maybe they'll distribute them now, or maybe they'll wait until - and then my father asked, "You won't quarrel, will you?"
"No," I said.
The barbershop in the center of the village was empty on Saturday morning. The children sat there with Grandpa and perused the Arab newspapers. The barber stretched out paper and wound it around my neck, the radio reported shocking news, and I glanced in the mirror to make sure that the children weren't listening to the horror stories. My father lifted his head and looked at my reflection in the mirror, and seemed to want to ask me to sit on his lap, as I used to do.
"Short?" asked the barber, and the noise of a machine hummed in my ears.