Fall in Oakland meant the arrival of two things.
The first was a religious ceremony: Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I would roll black tights with long runs in them up my pale legs, pull on a blouse the color of salmon, and along with my brother in his khakis and last year’s too-small button-down shirt, climb into the stuffy darkness of the car. We’d follow the click, click, click of my parents’ shining shoes down the sparkling pavement to the Paramount Theater. It would be late – or late for children; the September or October wind would bite at my cheeks, my arms. When I was small enough that I didn’t know what goosebumps were, that was where I learned – hurrying after my mother’s quick stride, watching my legs pebble pink under the sheer grey of my tights.
The other was a tradition that my parents had helped begin, and something that I assumed quite casually every block in every neighborhood in every city in America did until I was almost thirteen. It was a block party – a large block party, with nearly every house on both sides of the street bringing out food, setting up volleyball nets, filling water balloons, calling their friends and their children’s friends and their children’s friends parents to come and talk and laugh in the street. This, too, was a place of unexpected pain: I’d walk barefoot down the middle of the road, sharp rocks and the heat of the pavement pricking the soles of my feet. My sandals would be back at the house, just by the door. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want to go and fetch them.
Where most of my childhood memories I see as through some sort of haze – a contextless image of an enormous redwood stump that surfaces whenever someone says camping, a bloom of preteen recognition at the smell of a particular brand of shaving cream, the vague and gently unsatisfying nostalgia of rereading Where the Wild Things Are – these are never blurred, never out of focus. I know, if you ask me, whose driveway would have a collection of mini-pumpkins waiting to be painted in anticipation of Halloween, and where the fire truck would come in just before the sun began to sink low in the sky; I know the exact shade and texture of the chairs in the Paramount Theater, how they felt when I wore velvet, how they felt when I wore cotton. I know how the apples they gave the children on Rosh Hashanah mornings tasted, crumbly and left-out-too-long, and I can sing the Hamotzi in the same voice I sang it as a child: hamotzi lechem min haaretz, we give thanks to God for bread. I know the slap my flip-flops made as I jogged through the aftermath of the water balloon fight, and the way my wet T-shirt felt on my shoulders and my stomach.
The block party was almost always after Rosh Hashanah, unless Rosh Hashanah came very late in the year. There was no danger of them being on the same day – though it was not true, as I assumed as a child, that everyone celebrated the Jewish holidays, there were certainly more Jewish families on the block than just our own – and besides, it wouldn’t be a block party without Yaron, our Israeli neighbor, cooking falafel.
It was a strange thing, though, that no matter how early Rosh Hashanah came, no matter how late we held the block party, the latter would be warm and the former cold. Oakland would fill up with fog and rain and cold winds for Rosh Hashanah, and on the day of the block party give us a perfect, golden afternoon.
Summer always did last longer in California than it did anywhere else. It was as if the sun, crossing from east to west around the planet, hung on a little harder to my little corner of the northwest – as if, even as the leaves turned brown and gathered in whispering piles on the pavement, the warm gold in the air and snapping blue of the sky that made the rest of America think of June and July came there when it was done with the East and the Midwest, and spread itself over October like a cat over a blanket.
Rosh Hashanah marks the end of the growing season. The prayers for its companion holiday, Yom Kippur, read, on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who shall live and who shall die, who shall die at his time and who before his time, who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast… It is, in a more modern image, the moment when the Jewish people hand in our test to the teacher and wait, breathless, for the grade. It is the day when there is nothing more to be done for the crops, for the fields, for the harvest; it is the day when you put down the year, dust yourself off, and stand back to take a long look at what you’ve done.
It’s perhaps right, then, that fall should be a time of memory for me.