Just like children sleepin’
We could dream this night away.
But there’s a full moon risin’
Let’s go dancin’ in the light
– Neil Young, “Harvest Moon”
My husband, son and I are on our way to the home of a family we do not know, a friend of a friend, for Passover, and everything about this drive is new. Three weeks ago we moved to California and our skin still stings with newness. Dry air collides with damp cool coastal wind on the precipice of what rainy season exists in this region, and the chemistry of our bodies is a mixture of exhilaration and nerves and exhaustion that makes us feel sad and vulnerable and present at once.
Sonoma Mountain Road is like so many in this area, one that seems like it wouldn’t be there at all, or that it would find its end, but it just keeps going; it buckles and narrows but does not yield. We pass through an extensive redwood grove, bouquets of moist ferns at the base of ruddy trees, that appears as swiftly as it’s gone, a stark contrast to the rest of the open landscape and bare rolling hills and vineyards. Was this once all redwoods? And then we pass through an oak tree forest, almost as startling to us, with thick low branches that spread out like open arms inviting children to scale their way toward the sky.
After the winding vertiginous road, we disembark as though stepping off a skiff and see children run in a hilly open landscape that has its own slopes and valleys, like a human body, its own array of ecosystems. Old vine grape vines slant further down in a dip, and there’s a prolific vegetable garden with raised beds and wooden box frames up on a flatter bit of land closer to the house where a jungle of nasturtiums makes an attempt to escape.
The air is cool and fresh -it’s the first month of spring- and many of us wear down jackets and scarves. Our boy quickly joins the other kids – and there’s something about the children scattered like chess pieces, or bunnies here and there, haphazardly running, zigzagging, that is chaotic and orderly at once. They are like every child since the beginning of time who has found joy in sprints of complete abandon, red-cheeked in the cold spring air at dusk, completely lost in their imaginations and the wilds of the outside world which is the greatest playground known to man. Who needs a jacket when you feel this alive, their uncovered bodies seem to say as they move continuously.
Soon the adults call the children to gather at the elegantly arranged outdoor table, set for fifteen, where green bouquets of parsley wade in glass jars on a white table cloth.
“Where’s your other boot?” my friend, who has hardly aged a day since college, many eons ago, asks her son, Z, a lively five-year old boy with dark brown eyes and loose short curls that go from brown to gold at the tips.
“This is honestly the fourth pair of boots I’ve bought him this year,” she says, exasperated and amused in equal measure.
Then my friend’s daughter, a five-year-old with white-blonde spiral locks, is upset as we sit down, something about the colors she used in her Haggadah coloring book. Her irritation develops into a full belly cry in seconds, but her tears are soon quelled by the many eager adults looking for a way to appease her, and before long the first glass of wine is poured and the Seder begins.
My friend’s daughter has a beaming smile now as many adults make a point to say l’chaim and smile warmly in her direction. The children cheers with grape juice and the contents of at least one child’s glass spills across the table.
“Would you like more wine?” my husband asks the hostess.
“Go ahead and keep this thing full all night,” she quips, her attractive big blue eyes beaming.
Each adult, and the one child old enough, reads a portion of the Haggadah clockwise around the table.
The adults assist the youngest child in singing: “Ma nishtanah ha-lailah ha-zeh mi-kol ha-leilot?/ Why is this night different from all other nights?” And we sing “Miriam’s Song,” “Whoever thought the sea would part with an outstretched hand/ And we would pass to freedom and march to the promised land,” and “Let My People Go” with as much passion as we can muster.
The life of Moses is brought to life by the hostess with finger puppets and the children gather around her and the heating lamp, faces turned upward, rapt, as though listening to a storyteller around a bonfire in some other century. Baby Moses is set in a basket and floats down the Nile river, as the story goes. . .
I spent the day of the Seder, during meals and other activities, prepping my son, who turned three the week before, about Passover and Moses and Pharaoh. Was I really telling him about that big and horrible word – slavery; this word belonged to a long list of other words which described things I wished did not exist in the present as well as throughout history: genocide, holocaust, war. I could feel the density of these words like a crushing weight that would begin to corrode the carefree joy he easily tapped into daily. Could we not just skip this part about the human race for now? But I was doing it, I would tell him the story of Passover, or at least a cliff note version designed for a three year old.
For many days after he would ask, “Tell me the story again about Moses and Pharaoh,” already so naturally drawn toward the tension and drama in stories of good and evil or the gray areas in between. His question was followed by passionate commentary, “I don’t want to be a slave, I don’t want to live in Egypt, Pharaoh is mean! Let my People Go!” he would say.
The children make jokes and giggle and chime in soberly on the Passover story while taking little tastes of this and that from the Seder plate: hard boiled egg, charoset, matzah, horseradish. They dip parsley in salt water, until it is drenched and dripping, and you can see delight on their faces the moment they taste the briny bitterness.
After the majority of the Haggadah is read (we never do get around to completing it) we eat matzo ball soup with barley and beans, kugel and salad, which the children barely touch because they are full from their Seder plate snacks and are off in search of the afikomen. Z has found it for the past couple years and the adults are rooting for a new winner this year, or for a girl to win, as they head off in little search parties, working together, so eager to find their treasure.
I never do see which child finds it, but once it’s found, they proceed to hide it again and again, creating an all together new game that they don’t tire of for a good long time which allows the adults to have that rare indulgent pleasure of being able to speak more candidly for a while.
“Are you going to have more kids,” someone asks me.
I’m not sure,” I say, “I haven’t decided, but it’s decision time,” which is what I always say so generically when I am asked this question (and I’m asked this question quite frequently . . . How long can I say that for?) And then that question is usually followed by the question, as it was on this night, “How old are you?” and when I tell them they respond with, “Oh, I thought you were so much younger!”
“I didn’t think I would have another, but I’m so glad I did,” a woman with an eight year old and an 18 month old says. Her new baby is an absolute delight.
“I’m just starting to miss babies again,” my college friend says, “now that the twins are five.”
Conversation continues about where everyone’s from and where we moved from and how I know my friend who invited us here tonight, about Prince who passed away the day before and Purple Rain – how old we were when we saw it, about the rising real estate values in various Northern California towns, about the Green Gulch Zen Center and Sausalito and Fairfax, about mountain biking and beaches, and more wine is poured and bottles are drained and the hostess is lovely and hilarious, the more so with each glass of wine.
The hosts’ daughter, a blond lightly freckled five-year-old, continuously picks up our son, to his dismay, and brings him into her room where the children have gathered to put on performances for the adults.
A few of us clean up the table, bring plates and silverware and empty wine bottles into the kitchen, and the wood stove in the living room warms our bodies after an hour and a half of cool spring zephyrs.
Every now and then the audience breaks into laughter and exuberant clapping, “Encore, encore!” a dad shouts.
After a few more show stoppers, the guests trickle out toward their cars and the ritual veil of the holiday begins to wane.
Reveling in the warmth of the evening we walk outside, with gifts of chocolate dipped matzah in our hands, serene and happy.
At the horizon an extra-large ochre full moon levitates above Sonoma Mountain like a gift from space we weren’t expecting and we pause as though we have never seen a full moon rise over a mountain before we give hugs and say au revoir to our new friends.
In this moment all is perfect: the company, the aftertaste of good wine still clinging to our mouths, the sky, the light of the moon, the first stars. In this moment it even feels right that we moved, that we’re away from our beloved friends and family in North Carolina, that we’re in California, that we’ve uprooted our whole life and stand in the balance of a foreign equilibrium where we find our way anew each day, with each new experience and new friend we make.
On the drive to the farm house in Valley Ford, where we’re living for the month, a special Prince tribute is on the radio.
“Prince is one of my favorite musicians, he was an amazing guitarists and a great song writer. He was a poet, an incredible artist,” I tell my son in the backseat.
“Prince died?” My son asks.
“Yes,” I say.
“I miss Prince, but we can still listen to his music,” he says optimistically.
“Yes, that’s true, we can still listen to his music.”
One of my favorite songs comes on and I turn up the volume:
“Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life, Electric word, life/ it means forever and that’s a mighty long time. . .”
We dance in our seats, only confined by seat belt and car seat and the metal of our new charcoal gray Prius that moves quietly down the road.
“Are we going to let the elevator bring us down/ Oh, no! Let’s go crazy!”
“I really like Prince’s music,” he says, before the next song, another favorite, “Raspberry Beret” begins.
“I’m glad. You have really good taste in music,” I say.
As we drive into the blackness of the asphalt onto Highway 1, the illumination of that Sonoma Mountain moon seems lost in the rear view mirror as the coastal fog moves in like a presence to be reckoned with.