by Kathy Oldham
Every spring day was filled with the subtle scent of white blossoms, blushing pink on the fruit trees. The petals would later carpet the ground like snowfall when they dropped. The soft hum of the bees at work pollinating, their legs fat and yellow, filled the air. The electric buzz of the cicadas I could hear but never see.
Oozing sap formed nubby amber balls, about the size of a grape, on the apricot and cherry branches. When the outside of the ball had hardened, I would pull it off the branch, careful to keep the goopy interior away from my play clothes. I was dumb enough to taste it, something you only do once, unless you like turpentine.
I loved when the miles of irrigation pipes lay between the rows of trees, like icy veins pumping water to the dry soil. The joints often leaked, making cool mud, smooth as melted chocolate, squishy between my toes, and a slippery wet feeling on a warm day. Later, I would find an undisturbed puddle of mud which had dried and cracked. I could pick up the pieces, and pretend it was a map of an unknown country waiting to be discovered.
Every year, it was hard to be patient and wait for the fruit to ripen. Oranges, apricots, prunes, loquats and cherries still taste best to me if a little green. The cherries were the first fruit of the summer season. As soon as the clusters started ripen, I convinced myself, and my younger brother and sister, the shiny red globes were ready to eat. Oxblood red, nearly black, was the Bing cherry’s real sign of peak ripeness. For an impatient little girl, it was much too long to wait. By the time the Bing’s were ripe, the only fruit left was on the topmost canopy, too high for me to reach. The trees had either been picked for sale or were stripped by the starlings that trilled by the hundreds, flapping and fighting for space on the branches up amongst the leaves.
In late summer, the air hung heavily with the sweet scent of stewing tomatoes, wafting over the valley from the nearby Del Monte canneries. To me, August always smells of stewed tomatoes. We had our own vegetable patch where my mother grew green beans, cucumbers, okra, lettuce, radishes, corn, squash and tomatoes. When friends came over to visit in the summer, dad would give everyone a salt shaker on their way to stand in the tomato patch to eat tomatoes, ripe off the vine, as if they were apples.
Between the vegetable patch and the side of the garage, behind the old farm house we lived in, sat the chicken coop. The little banty hens were reliable layers of small toffee colored eggs. The sole rooster was an arrogant and stupid bird. He produced nothing but ruffled feathers and noise. I was sorry the hens had to tolerate him. Our hens were a hive of activity and egg production–laying, brooding, scratching for worms and eating grass. They didn’t cluck much, but made soothing almost cooing sounds as they went about the business of chicken life.
One summer as the migrant families arrived to pick prunes, I decided I wanted to earn money and work like the Mexican kids too. To have a job was very grown up and important to my six year old eyes, and I wasn’t to be outdone by the other little kids. The first day on the job I was handed a wooden box, one of many piled up and waiting to be filled. The box was called a lug, and for each prune-filled lug I would earn 50 cents. The prunes were really plums which we picked up from the ground after they had been shaken off the tree. In the August heat, the sweat ran down my back and arms making streaks in the fine dust that coated my skin. The fruit was squishy-ripe and warm and sticky when I accidentally stepped on it.
The children were fast as they worked alongside each other, and their boxes soon filled. They would then quietly move to the next empty lug, and I knew they were watching me. The adults carried the heavy fruit-filled lugs away, sometimes talking, but usually quiet in their work. I didn’t understand what was said, but thought the job was tiring and wondered how they had the energy to continue day after day. Now, I think they were probably laughing at me, the slow pasty tenderfoot who complained about getting dirty and having sticky hands. What they didn’t know was how I observed their proficiency and camaraderie, the rhythm of their language and occasional laughter in the heat and sweat, among the prune trees.
I only picked one box of prunes that day. When it was time to get paid I got 50 cents from Mr. DeRose, even though the box wasn’t filled to the top as it should have been. By the end of the day I was sorry the other children had to work so hard and pick up prunes out of the dirt, but I was kind of glad not to pick prunes again. Every harvest time until we moved away from the orchard, I looked for the families to come from a place I imagined was exotic and far away.
From an early age I knew an education, a disaster, or a new job motivated a big life change. The newly college-educated generation of the Italian family who owned the orchard we lived in, didn’t see a future as orchardists. None of younger generation wanted the family fruit business. There was a development boom in the area and the new graduates convinced their fathers, three brothers who were business partners, to sell the property. The day came when we had to move out of the old farm house. The orchard property sale signaled the end of my idyllic country life when we moved into a suburban neighborhood nearby. It was the beginning of the Silicon Valley with housing being built for the employees of IBM, Food Machinery, Lockheed and the new technology businesses that gobbled up the orchards.
The seeds of desire to know another culture and place were established for me during those early orchard days through my exposure to the immigrant families who owned and worked in the orchard. The lure of places unknown to me was later reinforced every time a postcard arrived with a foreign postmark, a new charm was added to the bracelet of a traveling friend, or a present was brought to me from distant lands. My feet itched to go too. I was a young tow-head who couldn’t wait to grow up to see what else the world had to offer.
Once childhood was behind me, I shared with a friend what I thought was an unattainable dream, to experience other cultures. He was a free spirit, who encouraged my desire for adventure.
“It will be the regret of your life if you don’t make your dream happen. Find a way to make it happen.”
He was killed on a motorcycle, on the way home from Yosemite, the summer we both were twenty. I was bereft, but his advice to me was embedded in my mind.
The impact of his young life, cut off before he had a chance to fulfill its promise, gave me a deep sense of urgency to act before it was too late. Suddenly, tomorrow did not feel like a sure thing. I made a plan, but it wasn’t travel I wanted, it was to live in another country. To travel wasn’t enough. I wanted to immerse myself completely wherever I went.
In the years after I first left California, Paris and London were where I made my home. Eventually a new job brought me back to the Golden State. Always with me is the little girl who dreamed of having a foot in more than one place, and, the encouragement of a dear friend long gone.
The Blenheim apricot tree I planted in my garden has set its fruit for the year. Always impatient, when the fruit is almost ripe, I will pull one off the limb, twist it into halves and eat it fresh from the tree, throwing the brown stone-hard pit on the ground, just as I had done when I was little. When enough cots have ripened, I will make pies and the jewel-colored jam which recaptures the flavor of summer and my orchard childhood in the months to come.