My father died last month at 98. Although surely not a premature happening, nor a surprise, it created a change in lifestyle of no longer taking care of him and not having his supportive presence urging the Biblical injunction, ‘‘Choose life. Enjoy now."
Arranging his estate was simple. We paid the few remaining bills as we had been doing since he (a very wise man) exhausted all his resources four years ago. What our parents left -- a cut-glass vase, a silver picture frame displaying their pride, and many books -- were easy to divide with my brother. But haunting my awareness is the legacy of mother's myths and father's fables.
Last year, when I had a rare chance for a trip to China, I asked Papa if he thought it wise to go at my age, well over 60. "Of course, go if you want to see China," was his quick answer. "You'll never regret what you do. We only cry for opportunity wasted. Life is an orange."
Leaving him and riding down Sunrise Boulevard, I was stopped behind a bumper sticker that declared, "Life is a beach." That was a new one that sent my memory travel- ing back to "Life is just a bowl of cherries," and "Life is a Cabaret," and then, to my inheritance, Papa's story about the orange.
When I was growing up and had a decision to make, Papa, a mild-mannered man, would wait for me to unburden whatever concern I would share with him, and then answer with a lengthy para- ble.
In younger, less patient days, I would disrespectfully urge him to the punch line of his tale. But as I matured, and he in my eyes became wiser -- as parents do -- I listened more attentively and incorpo- rated his message.
Sorting through my legacy I recalled the story. Papa in his youth, an immigrant looking for a livelihood, tried an appren- ticeship with an itinerant salesman, Sam. It was a career he abandoned after his first foray. They brought the world to the isolated farm- houses of the newly settling north Midwest. Sam would bring the pleasure of his com- pany, the display of the many sundry goods in the back of the Model T, and a token gift for the family. This time it was an orange.
The spellbinding part of the oft-told tale, as Papa described that North Dakota family's reaction, was Sam unwrapping the lustrous ball from the pink tissue paper in which it had come from Flor- ida. First the farmer unbeliev- ingly said, "I have no need for that. That gold looks costly. What is it?" Stealthily Mrs. Farmer came to look at the object d'art glowing in the otherwise bleak kitchen.
"Don't be afraid. It's a fruit. For eating," Sam explained as he offered each a whiff of the tangy sweet smell. Out came the wares for sale: pots, checkerboard, pillows, all of which were dwarfed in appeal by the dazzling orange.
One by one the children came to view this wonder of the southern world, awed by the scope of nature beyond their ken. Meanwhile, the order for Sam was growing. In an hour, the nearest neigh- bors' children were there to view the orange. It was all right to look and admire, the farmer ordered, but no one, not friend nor family, was to put a finger to it.
As Sam and Papa were ready to leave, Sam suggested the choice of juice or a slice, which could be savored by everyone.
"No, no," the farmer insisted. "You gave that to us as a gift and I don't want it hurt." Sam and Papa prof- fered the argument that the value and pleasure of the orange was in the consuming of it. "It's for now," Papa added. "Don't wait." Unbend- ing, the farmer insisted that he would keep it in its natural state to show his brother's family.
The peddlers left -- what else could they do?
On the return trek, six weeks later, they stopped at the very same farmhouse.
"I'm so happy to see you," said the farmer's wife. "Some- thing is wrong with IT." There on the sideboard was the orange, withered and shrunken, with a trace of blue-gray mold coating the once shiny surface. "We should have tasted it."
As the traffic light changed, my decision was made. Papa, so long-lived, knew how frag- ile life is. I enjoyed the trip through China, remembering each day that "Life is an Orange."