It's grass head season, Hannah muses, glancing at the calendar. She pictures the balls of seeded dirt wrapped in pantyhose that graced her kitchen windowsill in years past. Israeli children bring them home from preschool and kindergarten during the Hebrew month of Shvat, to brighten up grey midwinter vistas with their glued-on googly eyes and red-felt smiles. The heads usually grow well, until they go missing. Hannah would always find them months later behind beds or in toy chests, the grass hair brown and brittle, flaking onto Matchbox cars and stuffed animals.
It occurs to Hannah that this year's grass head will be their family's last. Shira, the youngest of her four children, will soon be moving on to first grade, leaving early-childhood crafts behind.
"Let's go, Shira," she calls, and they head out to kindergarten.
The air, normally so fresh and clear in this hilly city, has been a gauzy shroud of moisture for weeks now. It's been colder than winters here usually are. Hannah looks at Shira, skipping bareheaded alongside her, and resists the impulse to pull the coat hood over her daughter's head.
Before they enter the kindergarten, Shira waves to the gnarled and noble olive tree that presides over the building's front yard. Hannah fully understands. The twists and grooves of its trunk are so expressive, she's sometimes tempted to greet the tree herself.
"Maybe he knows where your hat disappeared to," Hannah quips. Shira giggles and they go inside.
Per their daily ritual, Hannah sits down on a kiddie chair next to Shira so they can draw together for a few minutes, using templates provided by the teacher's aide. The aide calls "Chodesh tov," the Hebrew new-month greeting, and holds out a selection of tree templates. Right on time, Hannah thinks, as she helps Shira choose a template.
Artwork completed and kisses bestowed, Hannah exits the kindergarten building. She turns toward her house, then stops. Can it be that the cold spell is breaking? She loosens her scarf, partly unzips her jacket. It occurs to her that the pinging inbox of her home office, the chipped coffee mug, and the rattling spacebar can wait.
She pictures herself alone at a café table with an overpriced latte. She racks her brain for a necessary errand, comes up with nothing. Who will give her a reason, a direction?
Hannah glances at the old olive tree in the kindergarten yard. Its branches, swaying in the breeze, seem to be pointing away from her usual downtown destinations.
Hannah turns the corner and enters the neighborhood's main street. Passing its huddle of utilitarian storefronts, she walks farther along the street than she's ever gone, toward the neighborhood's edge. As she proceeds, the buildings and people thin out and the street becomes a quiet transportation corridor leading out of the city, with only the occasional car whizzing by.
On a distant hill, a new neighborhood is under construction, a mess of cranes and buildings in varying states of completion. Hannah heard recently that families had begun to move into the first finished complex. She stops for a moment to contemplate the rubbly view. She knows no one and has nothing to do in that embryonic suburb. Still she feels compelled to continue on in that direction, as though something awaits—something that will reveal itself once she's arrived.
The paved sidewalk ends, and Hannah scrambles on the side of the road, through weeds, rocks, and junk. Real estate billboards of varying heights, widths, and colors dance before her like a bizarre welcoming committee as she approaches the new neighborhood. Garden apartments! Large balconies with breathtaking views!
She makes her way into the development, winding steadily uphill through dust and debris, past workmen who eye her with indifference or suspicion. Eventually she finds herself on a street lined with just-completed buildings—handsome stone-faced midrises with first-floor garden apartments. A film of sand clings like vernix to the newly paved sidewalk, and the gardens look raw with squares of grass sod not yet melded into lawns. Plastic playhouses and riding toys bloom in primary colors, overpowering the occasional small shrub.
Here and there, flimsy saplings teeter like babies learning to stand on their own. In one garden, Hannah spots a small olive tree in a pot, waiting to be transplanted.
It looks so familiar.
Once, along with scores of other young families, she and Dov and their two oldest children—a toddler and an infant—had arrived to populate another shiny new suburb. Same city, different outskirts.
Like most of their new neighbors, they'd exchanged a tiny downtown apartment crammed with infant gear for a large duplex where they sprawled like royalty around unaccustomed expanses. Instead of hauling a double stroller to a public playground, they could now step directly from their living room into a private garden.
The garden started out as an ocean of dirt. It looked like a blank slate—what Hannah and Dov had imagined babies to be until their own had taught them otherwise. Like human infants, the garden came with inborn traits. They had to learn its temperament. What parts got sun at what hours. What areas were most affected by wind. You couldn't plant anything just anywhere.
As with their children, they'd learned through trial and error. Sometimes they had to move a non-thriving shrub from one part of the garden to another—just as they might need to switch a child's preschool.
A young almond tree struggled for no visible reason. They'd placed it in a choice spot, watered and fertilized it by the book; still it barely grew for several years. Then, over the course of a single summer, it transformed from a sad-looking stick into a flourishing tree. Like the child whose speech delay sent them on an odyssey of evaluations and therapies until he amazed them by becoming a talker overnight. Speech therapy sessions, home exercises, and constant coaching? Simple patience? They'd never know.
A time came when Hannah began to perceive her suburban homestead as a tightly closed fist; she craved the open palm of the city. She knew her frappuccino yearnings were the stuff of midlife crisis, but there it was. Shamelessly she projected her longings onto her children. Surely the older boys would like a shorter commute to their high school in town. Surely everyone would benefit from the wider variety of activities that the city had to offer. Dov had misgivings, but Hannah persisted in her lobbying efforts.
Finally, with their brood—two teens, a tween, and a preschooler—they'd left their beloved garden behind for an urban row house with just the tiniest patch of yard.
The older boys were, indeed, happy with their shorter commute. They joined a new dojo and moved up in their karate belts. Dov fell in love with the ramshackle shul down the block and its cadre of old-timers, with their stories of disaster and survival.
Ironically, only Hannah was traumatized by the move. Last year, as the month of Shvat approached—their first in the new house—she became inconsolable. How could she greet the holiday of Tu B'Shvat away from that harbinger of spring—the blooming almond tree she'd watched grow from a sapling, along with her children?
She'd stifled her distress and moved on. Now the New Year of Trees was rolling around again.
Something drops on the ground just behind Hannah, giving her a start. Contemplating the rudimentary gardens on the other side of the street, she hasn't noticed the children playing on the second-floor balcony of the building behind her. She turns, stoops, and picks up a small, plastic, toy ambulance. She glances up. A little boy and girl, perhaps three and four years old, are looking down at her almost somberly, as though dissociating themselves from a misdeed committed by some other, naughtier, children.
Hannah enters the building, climbs to the second floor, and knocks on the door of the apartment to which the balcony belongs.
A woman answers. Perhaps in her late twenties, she's tall, of large build, very pregnant and Rubenesque under her loose cotton pinafore, the same kind of outfit Hannah had used to cover her waxing girth with while expecting. A few wisps of hair escape her headscarf, which is slightly askew. She is good-humored enough to smile easily at a stranger, her plump, freckled face ruddy and pleasant. Hannah holds out the ambulance to her, and she looks confused for a moment, then beams with recognition.
"Itai? Moriah? Come here, please!"
The children slink into the living room from the balcony. The mother scolds them, though mildly; they can see she shares their amusement at the small drama of a passerby coming up from the street to return their toy. She confiscates the ambulance, putting it on a high shelf and bidding the children to remain inside. "Chas-v'shalom, you could hit somebody and really hurt them. Did you drop it by accident or on purpose?"
Well aware that no reliable answer will be forthcoming, she turns to Hannah, who has ventured past the doorway and into the apartment. Hannah can see out to the balcony with its stacked chairs and ride-on cars, a small universe of plastic. Beyond the balcony: half-built houses, cranes, and an even-more-distant hill, not yet denuded of trees.
The apartment interior is messier than Hannah can remember a home of hers ever being, but who knows—maybe she's repressed the worst of it.
"We're going to have to do something about the railing out there, maybe cover it with Plexiglas," the woman says.
Hannah smiles. "Yes, that's one solution."
"Would you like a cup of tea? The kettle's just boiled."
"No, thanks. I'd love a glass of water, though."
Hannah follows the woman into the kitchen. It's an open-plan apartment. From the kitchen, there's a clear view of the brother and sister jumping off the living room sofas, climbing up and jumping off them again. The mother shakes her head.
"We bought new couches when we moved in. I'm hoping the novelty wears off soon. We have to pick our battles, right?"
Hannah nods. When they'd moved into town, she and Dov had finally replaced the sofas their kids had worn threadbare in the old house.
Purely to make conversation, Hannah asks the woman that most Israeli of questions—why the kids aren't in preschool.
"They'll be starting next week. I had to find places that suited us. We've been enjoying our time off, getting used to the new house." She smiles ruefully at the frolicking children.
Hannah stares for a moment into her green plastic cup. She can remember a time when she and Dov ate and drank out of kiddie dishes and cups, the same ones the children used. Somehow it had seemed like less trouble. She looks back up at the woman.
"When my oldest was three, he begged for a toy fire engine that we finally got him. It was a nice one, too—flashing lights and all. He was overjoyed. A day or two after we gave it to him, it disappeared. We never saw it again. He didn't seem upset, which I found suspicious. I had a feeling he'd thrown it over the garden wall into the street, but we never could get an answer out of him."
"Yes, they have a way of doing things accidentally on purpose. They experiment. To see what will happen." The women laugh softly together.
Hannah says thank you for the water and rises. The woman walks her to the door.
"Enjoy your new home. And have an easy birth!" Again, the good-natured smile.
Hannah exits the building and heads back down the hill, toward the city. By now it's nearly midday; a wan but hopeful winter sun toasts her gently. A tune pops into her head and she starts humming it, realizing only afterward that it's a Tu B'Shvat song—a perennial preschool favorite. Shira will come home today singing it, Hannah knows. Perhaps next year, as a first-grader, she will no longer find it appealing. Perhaps next year Hannah will miss her daughter's little piping voice flubbing half the words, her improvised dance steps, her arms swaying like demented tree branches. That's okay, she thinks. Some other child will pick up where Shira left off, discover what she let drop. Nothing is ever really lost.