The persimmon tree, graceful and beautiful in every month, puts on its most spectacular show in late autumn of the year. About 20 feet tall, it stands on a sloping hillside in my neighbor’s backyard. The dark and glossy leaves passed through their yellow stage and now have fallen, leaving only the brilliant orange globes hanging heavy on barren branches like illuminated Christmas ornaments. Their sheer weight gives an impression of a weeping willow, boughs bent and heavy with the abundance of their offerings. Rich saffron-orange fruit against the spareness of almost-winter in California.
From where I sit at my computer, I can look out the window, across a driveway, and into the dining room of the house next door. My mother, bent like a sapling but without the sapling’s resilience, arranges a handful of glorious orange persimmons in a ceramic bowl. I watch her move the bowl into a random morning sunbeam, focusing her failing eyesight on the bursting beauty of the fruit.
Following my dad’s recent surgery, he and my mother lived at my house for the first six weeks of his convalescence. Then serendipity smiled on us: The house next door became available, and the owner agreed to a month-by-month lease. So my parents have been living there for the past three months, struggling with decisions of aging and illness that no one wants to face.
That struggle is not yet resolved.
I watch. My mother lifts a persimmon from the top of the pile, cups it in her hand and presses the tough skin, testing for signs of ripeness. Finding it still too firm, so firm that a single taste would surely pucker her mouth into wrinkled astringency for hours, she replaces it in the bowl. Trailing a 60-foot coil of tubing that connects her to her oxygen machine, she walks out of my sight toward the living room, where she will . . .
What will she do, she who can’t see well enough to read even the newspaper headlines, can’t play solitaire, can’t do the Word Jumble in the daily newspaper? Once she has counted her pills, taken her nebulizer treatment—four times a day, 30 minutes for each treatment—cleared the dishes from the table and stacked them, just so, in the dishwasher, taken a second nap, made her bed . . . what will she do?
She will talk.
My father, deaf, watches TV with the volume on mute because he can’t hear it anyway. She will talk, and he won’t hear her. She’ll talk on and on, staring at something, nothing, in the middle distance. Her hands, loose amethyst and silver heirloom ring upside-down on one thin finger, will twiddle with her Kleenex, her asthma inhalers, her pill container, her purse, all lying jumbled in her lap.
I look across to the empty dining room with the bowl of persimmons on the table, and I know what’s happening in the room I cannot see. I know it, and it makes me shrivel and cringe from my own responsibility.
I don’t want to go over there.
A good daughter would be in attendance three times a day, at least. A good daughter would sit and listen for hours, sharing a pot of tea. A good daughter would somehow think of something for her mother to do. A good daughter would never say, “Mother, don’t . . .” or “Mother, stop . . .” or “Mother, can’t you just . . .”
But my parents’ good daughter lives 2,000 miles away.
I live next door.
And I don’t want to go over there. I don’t want to be thanked for the small and meager things I do for them—a load of laundry, grocery shopping, bringing dinner or just some carrot cake, picking up the wads of soggy Kleenex and the dropped pills of many colors. I don’t want to be told, “Oh, honey, don’t go to all this trouble for us. You’re so busy. You don’t have time to do these little things.”
I don’t want to go. I mutter the words beneath my breath as I turn the key in their lock and step inside.
The persimmons here will ripen more quickly than those on my own windowsill. The thermostat must be set at 82, and I quickly shed my sweatshirt. Yes, in this nearly tropical, closed-up heat, the persimmons in the blue and white bowl will be soft to the very center within a couple of days.
My mother follows me, gathering up her oxygen tubing and coiling it behind her. The constant hum of her machine provides the background music of her chatter, “fried potatoes for breakfast, has the mail come, missing one pill, can’t find my pink blouse, need more Kleenex, phone calls, garbage day, persimmons still too firm . . .”
I load the dishwasher, my mother standing on the opposite side and repositioning every single item. “The cups belong here.” I turn off the flame under the left rear burner—"I didn’t leave it on, not me"—and check the green light on the smoke alarm. Battery still good, thank God. She talks and talks and tells me I do too much for them as I put milk and eggs and nonfat dairy creamer back into the fridge. She tells me she was “just about to do that” as I sprinkle Comet in the greasy sink and scrub it clean.
I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be a witness to their aging. I don’t want to watch as over-ripeness becomes decline, and then decay.
From the edge of the window above the sink, I can just barely see the persimmon tree, still laden with its fruit. Sometimes at night I hear the territorial fights of urban possums and raccoons, each claiming the ripening fruit as its own. I don’t get up to look—my bed is far too cozy—but I hear the squawks and squeals as the first one on the scene repels all comers; the hissing and the squeaks as one finally reigns triumphant, and the other slinks away.
Soon I go back to sleep, putting off the morning for a few more hours of silence.
Now three days have passed, and I again notice my mother at the dining room window, fingering the pile of fruit within the bowl. Again she holds one up to the light, and oh! She sees me! She lifts her arm, toasting me with the fruit as if it were a goblet, and her smile is as bright as the persimmon in her hand. She motions me, come over, come over, the persimmons are ripe, they’re ready.
There are six persimmons in the blue and white bowl. One is rotten, split and oozing, and fruit flies gyrate all around it. One, still greenish and firm near the stem, is not yet ready. But four, says my mother, “are just at the pink of perfection . . . well, the orange of perfection,” and we laugh together.
“And Daddy doesn’t like them,” I remind her, “so these four are all for us.”
In the kitchen we stand together at the sink, leaning forward with a wet washcloth in one hand to catch the drips. “Persimmon juice stains,” she told me long ago. In our right hand we each hold a super-soft, lush and sexy, totally ripe brilliant orange persimmon, with the brittle leafy cluster at the stem end in our palms. We take a nip from the slightly pointed tip, exposing the mushy pulp. Then, looking at each other like two thieves in the night, covetous and secretive, we cover the open wounds with our mouths.
And we suck.
We suck the life from those persimmons.
We suck and slurp, we gulp and swallow, we moan and sigh with pleasure. We laugh and wipe our faces with the washcloths, and I wipe a spot she missed on her chin, right there. And I kiss her forehead.
Then we each eat another one, and finally we are sated.
I throw away the rotten one and leave the last one on her windowsill. It’ll take another day or two to ripen, and she’ll have it as a solitary treat.
“Are there more on the tree?” she asks, and I realize she cannot see it, as I can, from her window. How can she miss it, all that splendor? How can she not see the saffron-colored fruit, as big as apples against the deep brown hillside?
But she can’t.
“Yes, there are more. I’ll pick a few tomorrow.”
That night, I hear the animals again at war among the branches. When I go to the persimmon tree in the morning, I see the ground below is littered with small discarded seeds, the remains of a fruity feast devoured on the spot. Why wait till later, the raccoons must have figured.
Why wait, indeed? Don’t parcel out the harvest with stingy hands. Grab life where you find it. Eat. Eat. Taste the fruit and suck it dry, leaving only the empty husks to be trodden in the brown earth underfoot. Eat it now, eat it all, eat as much as you can.
Only leave a few persimmons for my mother.
Peggy Vincent is the author of Baby Catcher: Chronicles of a Modern Midwife.