Your walnuts are costing us a fortune,” my husband said.
Gary watched me tape up another box. He thought we’d make money on our nut harvest, but he hadn’t counted on the “dad factor.”
My husband and I found a walnut orchard for sale on the internet, sold our business in the Bay Area, and moved. Neither of us had ever sat on a tractor or had any idea how to prune a tree, but the view of the surrounding vineyards and towering mountains were irresistible.
I had just learned I was pregnant, and we decided to adopt a completely different lifestyle. “How hard can it be,” we thought. As serial entrepreneurs, we were willing to try anything.
Our country lifestyle was as different as it could be from San Francisco, and some days while I watched the disker pull its way through our obsidian-rich soil under a sky black with swirling formations of crows, the moments took on a surreal quality.
That first harvest, I wandered out to the field with a caldron of spiced hot chocolate and a ladle, my oversized belly announcing my presence to workers huddled on the orchard floor in the cold. Our soil is rocky, so nuts have to be harvested by hand, one walnut at a time. It’s brutal work, and I was too pregnant to help.
I looked at those buckets of nuts and wondered how it would ever get done. We were trying to move an ocean one drop at a time.
But the nuts somehow made it to the processor and a few weeks later, our baby girl miraculously was born, so we settled happily into our changed lives.
Then my parents decided to visit.
We looked forward to seeing them with a mixture of sweet anticipation and a little bit of dread, as probably most people do when extended family come and stay. My dad embraced our time together as a rare chance for conversations about business, politics and anything else that crossed his mind. He had always been a talker.
Somehow my mom managed to tune him out, but my dad’s tendency to go on and on seemed to get more pronounced as he aged.
He would arrive brimming with ideas. Even before suitcases were unloaded, he’d corner my husband with newspaper articles, business strategies, even farming tips despite the fact that ours was the first farm he had ever visited. Thankfully, he always went to bed early.
One October evening, after a long day of listening to my dad’s parade of ideas, my husband faced me in bed. “Please, take him on an errand tomorrow,” he pleaded. “Find something for him to do. Just keep him busy.”
The next day, I took my parents to a local processing plant and showed them how walnuts are cleaned and dried. When we got home, I dragged a 50-pound sack of nuts and a cracker to the kitchen table. “I really need to get started on my baking.” I lied, “Could you crack a few nuts?”
Thrilled to help, my dad started right in.
A minute later, I heard the distinctive sound of shells cracking into pieces, then plinking noises as wooden husks hit a metal bowl. I plugged in a radio, tuned it to an AM station I knew he would like, and let him work. It was magic – my dad was occupied, my husband was happy, and I was getting shelled nuts.
An hour or so later, I checked on my dad. He was still in the same chair, happy. Pretty soon my mom joined him at the table, cracking and munching. A Benny Goodman song came on, and Lauren and I tried to jitterbug, her pigtails flying as I twirled her on the brown linoleum floor. That night we ate walnuts in our salad, over our pasta, and in our desert.
As the years passed, my parents’ ability to travel dwindled. “Send me some walnuts,” my dad said. “I’ll crack them for you.”
I visualized my dad at his assisted living complex in Lee’s Summit, Missouri eager for something constructive to do with his time.
So Lauren and I filled a box with walnuts and walked to the post office. “Thirty four dollars,” the clerk said. For $34, I could buy a lot of shelled walnuts or hire a neighborhood kid to crack hundreds of pounds for me, but I handed over the cash.
A few weeks later, a package arrived in the mail. There were my walnuts, shelled, bagged and neatly lined in a box. I looked at the return postage – twelve bucks.
That day after school, Lauren and I got out brown sugar, flour, butter and eggs. We baked cookie after cookie making sure each one was studded with walnuts. Then we wrapped them carefully, packed them in a box, and walked again to the post office. My husband grabbed a cookie and rolled his eyes. Another $18.
Over the years, walnuts made their way in various forms from California to Missouri and back again. I always worried that one of those boxes of nuts would spill like a load of ball bearings into the inner workings of the postal service, bringing the nation’s whole complex machinery to a grinding halt. But that never happened.
Instead, postage fees prompted relentless teasing from my husband, and packages quietly made their way back and forth.
Until they didn’t anymore.
My mom and dad are gone now.
I watch our trees swaying in a strong wind and think about their unending cycle of life. At a different kitchen table, I plink walnut shells into a mixing bowl, gather the cracked nuts and sprinkle them on our salads. Lauren, a teenager, keeps me company with a parade of ideas.
Like my dad, she’s a talker, brimming with enthusiasm, and she likes to make herself useful. And like my mom, I pull up a chair, the rhythm of our task keeping us company, memories of Benny Goodman silently echoing in my heart.