My mother is a true “California Girl.” She has the classic, long waves of ocean-sprayed hair. She has the classic Malibu tan -- or at least, that’s what she always called the bikini-shaped tan lines when I asked about the thin white stripes of skin on each shoulder. She has the classic, carefree smile and pearly white teeth you see in ad campaigns. She has a magical aura of calm surrounding her, something that’s always reminded me of the ocean when it’s calm. She has the classic goody-two-shoes American girl vibe that brings the world to its knees: men open doors for her, women gossip about her latest sundress, and children hope to grow up to be like her. I know I did.
The strongest memories I have of her are in our blue-painted kitchen, sitting at the table with the window open so we could hear the waves crash on our own little piece of shore. I would do my homework and she would do little things to fill her time before dad came home like paint her nails or clean the kitchen or have an orange and remark: “What’s the point of life if you can’t have a good orange?” I used to roll my eyes at her and keep working, wondering how she could be so complacent with the domestic nature of her life as I solved math problems she’d long forgotten. I never understood how she could be happy as she was. How she seemed content to live her days as a housewife, frivolously spending time with friends or window shopping or cooking during the day and spending the evening with her husband and son until she went to bed early so she could wake up the next day and start the whole cycle over again.
Part of why I worked so hard to be like my father because I assumed that whoever I married would need to be taken care of like my mother because what kind of a husband would I be if I didn’t take care of my life partner? But mainly, I wanted more than the life I was born into. I wanted power, responsibility, and prestige. I never understood how anyone could adore a simple life… until I grew up, moved out, graduated from college, interned at top companies, and got the big corporate job I’d been working toward all my years of schooling.
I have everything I’ve ever wanted, but I’ve never wanted the things I took for granted more in my entire life. I want to go back to a time before spreadsheets and six figures, before a trophy wife and two stuck-up kids who care more about their phones than they do about me. I want to go back to a time where I followed my mom to the farmer’s market in the hot summer where we’d buy our produce for the week. My mom would count out the money she allotted herself to spend on produce every time she purchased something from a vendor, and whatever money was left, we’d spend at the orange stand that sat in the one shaded corner of the market. We’d spend almost as much time as we’d spent at all the other vendors combined at the orange stand, and I’d watch as my mother inspected every peel-encased “jewel of California” orange, looking for the perfect pieces of fruit. She’d have an extra bounce in her step the moment after we paid and to when we climbed into her little blue Taurus, her pearly-white smile just a little bigger than it was when we arrived.
The first thing she’d do after putting our purchases in the fridge or the fruit bowl on the counter was take out two oranges and begin to peel them, always making the same comments she had the last time she peeled an orange. “What’s the point of life if you can’t have a good orange? Something small but sweet and succulent? Something so inexpensive and plentiful? We’re very lucky, you know that, Caleb? Not everyone can have oranges as good as these.”
Now, I’m one of those people who can’t have oranges as good as the ones I’d get with my mother at the farmer’s market in southern California. I live across the country in Boston where I’ve traded beautiful ocean waves for smoke and shouts from Patriots fans in bars. Where I’m away from “the jewels of California” and my mother’s grave. Where I’m so out of touch from where I came from that I can finally see the value of a good orange, and how I wish I could have just one more with my mother in the kitchen of my childhood home and listen to her say one more time: “What’s the point of life if you can’t have a good orange?” Because she’s right; there isn’t. See you soon, Mom.