The sun is hot on my back, and my thighs burn with the effort of holding this position. My back doesn’t hurt, though. Those stretches work.
My face is full of leaves. They come in triplets, saw-edged, each the size of the space between my thumb and forefinger. Hard, unripe berries tap against my glasses. Somewhere too close, a yellow-jacket buzzes.
I put one hand down and reach with the other into the shadows, scattering leaf-hoppers. The sweat sticks to the inside of the glove as I squeeze the handles of the garden sheers. A growing resistance, then a dull snap, and a brown, prickly cane shudders behind the leaves.
The dead cane tears away from the bush like velcro, exposing a patch of soil, the wall of my parents’ house, and a small volume of empty space, dangling with raspberries.
I grab one and put it in my mouth. It tastes like the dirt and leather on my glove, ash from the recent forest fires, and decades of piled summers.
Raspberry canes take a year to grow up from the root, another to produce fruit, and then they die in the third. My job is to clear out the dead canes of last year to make room for next year’s shoots. I’m also exposing more of this year’s berries to my daughters and their cousins.
I wanted to do this in my garden, which is just old enough to have its own raspberries. They’re planted in rows away from the house, just the way my grandpa had them. And I have already done the chore of cutting out that patch’s first crop of dead canes. But my kids were firm: if we were going relive someone’s childhood today, it would be theirs.
I decide that my back is hurting after all and slowly stand.
My parents’ garden hasn’t changed much since Julia was a nine months old and pooping in the wading pool. The lilacs have grown thicker, the apple tree has died. The bird bath is now at our summer house three valleys south of here. Julia manipulated my parents into giving it to her.
But there’s still the enormous rhubarb plant next to the compost. To the east, beyond the rhubarb, the hill slopes down to the Interstate, the web of aerial traffic, and the houses, condos, restaurants, business incubators, network hubs, micro-factories, and silvopastures of Lolo, Montana.
Julia and Mikhaela move through the garden like a hummingbird and a lawnmower, respectively, with the other teenagers strung between them. Some are talking or doing incomprehensible things with their key-rings and charm-bracelets, but an impressive amount of berry-picking is still getting done. Mikhaela said she wanted to make a pie for the party, and they already have enough for two.
I glance to my right, where my younger daughter is methodically mowing her way down the raspberries. I can’t tell whether she’s listening to an audiobook or sharing her POV with some other kid in Saudi Arabia or just thinking her thoughts.
I remember my grandpa when he drove me home from the airport one summer. I had wanted to read a fantasy book, but he wouldn’t let me. He kept me talking that whole drive.
“What did you learn in drama camp today?” I ask her.
“Diegesis,” she says.
There’s a conversation starter! But my attempt at a follow-up question is interrupted by a delivery drone descending onto our lawn. Its brown plastic carapace is emblazoned with the logo of the nearest hub, which means only that this isn’t a delivery from a Lolo caterer or micro-factory. The kids could have ordered something from Seattle or New Zealand, and it would still get routed through the local hub. My guess, though, is that it comes from Sofia, Bulgaria.
“What did you forget to pack, Yooli?” I shout at my older daughter, Julia, as she runs toward the drone, waving her wallet-key.
Last summer, Julia packed almost nothing for our trip to the US. She told us she thought it would be easier to just mail herself stuff when she remembered she needed it. When we saw the international shipping bill, we got her her own bank account and wallet-key, which might have been the whole point of the exercise.
The drone sees her key, releases the box it was clutching, and zips back into the smoky air to join the sky-traffic.
“I didn’t forget anything.” Julia shakes her hair out of her face and lets go of her key-ring, which zips back to her belt on its recoil line. The belt is bright pink, with green and blue Kazakh embroidery patterns. Each key on the ring is a different color and pattern, for a different digital purpose. “This is for our party.”
She pulls open the self-storage box, revealing an irregularly-shaped pink crystal the size of a melon. It’s a salt-lamp.
Generational cycles are funny things. Growing up means doing whatever your parents didn’t do, but we all have a soft spot for our grandparents. I want to be firm and practical like my grandpa, Mikhaela wants to be strong-minded like my mom. My older daughter Julia, for her part, cultivates a free romantic spirit like my mother-in-law. This, for me, is an endless opportunity for spiritual growth.
“Your salt-lamp.” I repeat. “Why do you need a salt-lamp for a party? Why do you need your salt lamp? You could have ordered a brand new one and it would have been a lot cheaper.”
I know what she’ll say next: “it’s my money. You‘re the one who told me to get a job and now I have eighty.” I open my mouth to tell her that she still ought to save her money for something important. And what is it exactly that she’s doing in these eighty jobs anyway?
But Julia hoists the salt-lamp and says, “it has to be this one. My friends and I licked it into just the right shape.”
I have no idea how to respond to that. I close my mouth and process data while my daughter skips away, tongue-sculpted lamp cradled in her arms. I’ve been out-maneuvered again.
I strip off my gloves and hat and go to find my wife.
Pavlina is on the balcony, sipping chilled white wine with her brother and sister-in-law. They’ve lived in California since the early 2010s, and in some ways they’re more American than me.
“I need to go to the teenager party,” I tell Pavlina.
“Zashto? Ti li si tineidjar?” Why? Are you a teenager?
Pavlina’s brother lifts a bottle of beer in my direction. “Ne trevozhi, bre. Veche si imam pushkata.” This is an in-joke.
According to Bulgarian tradition, Julia’s and Mikhaela’s first teenager party means we adults are all exiled here, to my parents’ house. We’re supposed to have a party, too, but I suspect it will be more like a military command center. Lots of tense pacing while we try to imagine what chaos is unfolding on the front lines.
“What are you talking about?” My dad appears from the kitchen with a tray of cheese and the tactical situation becomes more complicated. Neither of my parents approve of the teenager party, and we’ve been tip-toeing around the topic all week.
“We could be in the attic,” I tell Pavlina. “Or the basement.”
“That is where I’ll lock you when you go insane, yes,” she says.
Pavlina’s brother cackles and my dad says “What?” in a tone that means “I am playing the doddering cyborg grandpa, but I really am angry that you’re talking over my head.”
“It’s the teenager party.” I look out over the balcony, where our kids are doing incomprehensible and scary things in the yard below us. “I mean, what if something happens?”
My dad doesn’t say, “exactly! We have to cancel this whole barbaric ritual.” He says, “I’m worried too.”
“Yooli and Mishi will take care of it,” Pavlina says. “That’s what they’re learning to do.”
“What if someone brings dope?”
“They’ll tell him to smoke it outside.”
I check to make sure my mom isn’t in earshot. “What if things get…physical?”
“Zdravko and Boris are big. They’ll beat him up.” These are Julia and Mikhaela’s cousins, who seem to be engaged in some a virtual sword-fight right now. Mikahela is directing it.
“Now you say, ‘there can be only one sun, one moon, and one great khan!'”
I look around for support, but even my dad is nodding. “You don’t need to worry about boys,” he says.
I pick up a piece of cheese. “Well, at least I got them to pick raspberries with me. Mishi’ll make a pie.”
Pavlina looks serenely out at the Sapphire Mountains. “Sore wa kokuteiru no tame da to itta yo.”
‘She told me they were for cocktails,’ in Japanese, a language which nobody within earshot speaks but me and my wife.
I try to slow my breathing.
It isn’t just the underage drinking. It’s the social situation. My kids keeping secrets from me. Me keeping secrets from my dad. I reach down inside of myself for that still, small, voice. It says “be honest.”
“Mikhaela is making cocktails?” I say.
The US and Bulgaria have very different ideas about what constitutes proper behavior for teenagers and police officers. My dad, brother-in-law, and sister-in-law now all agree that the teenager party is a terrible idea.
Pavlina, meanwhile, looks steadily at me, letting me know that I have now become her opportunity for spiritual growth.
I put my cheese down on the balcony railing. “I’m just worried. Our kids are going to be alone in the summer house, which we just finished. They’re going to be drinking and smoking and licking salt-lamps.”
“Huh?” says my brother in law.
“What’s going to happen? What are we going to do when something does happen?”
“You’ll deal with it.” Pavlina declares, standing. “Nali si moyat mesten vodach?” Aren’t you my native guide? Another in-joke.
She pats me on the shoulder. “In the mean time, meditate on trusting your children, or at least trusting God to watch over them.”
“The God of fools and children,” I mutter. But that still, small voice speaks to me. “Go pick some more raspberries,” it says.
Daniel M. Bensen