Highway City, California (1950’s)
As an adult looking at photographs of “the ranch” on Polk street, I see a small, aging farm house, a few acres of trees and grapes, and a barn surrounded by rusting tools, farm implements, old bicycles and tires. I see the torn screens covered with cardboard and the hole in the wall near the back door. But my childhood memories recall a house filled with sunlight and food and people and laughter. I thought our seventeen rented acres of trees and vineyard and garden was more than I would ever be able to explore. And the barn was a wonderful place for playing hide ‘n’ seek, or just hiding from my three brothers.
I suppose it is significant that any house holds special memories for me. I recall bits and pieces of our life in at least a dozen other houses. Perhaps the ranch stands out in my memory because before we lived there it was my grandmother’s house.
The ranch belonged to the Forestiere family. My grandparents lived at the Forestiere Underground Gardens, or “the caves” as Gran called them, when I was three. My grandfather was a caretaker and gardener. I loved to visit my grandparents and explore the dark caves. It was always cool and mysterious underground. I don’t remember ever being afraid because it all just seemed like part of their house. After about two years at the caves, they moved to twenty acres owned by Mr. Forestiere’s brother-in-law, Jack Federico. It was there at the ranch that they lived for nearly five years and we lived for a year or so after that. My memories of the ranch blend many of the years together. It is often difficult to remember clearly whether something happened when we lived there or when my grandparents lived there. I’m not sure that it matters one way or the other.
“Uncle” Jack, as we called him, sold three acres of the ranch for a small housing project, so we were left with seventeen acres of trees and vineyards, a house, a wine cellar, a water tower, a barn and livestock pens, a drying yard and packing shed, a well house and an elaborate system of irrigation ditches. The whole place was an experiment in self-sufficient living. I think it is important to describe it fully in order to explain why it left such an impact on my life.
Nearly every tree that could stand the valley heat was represented on the ranch. We had walnuts, almonds, pecans, peaches, apricots, pears, nectarines, oranges, lemons, grapefruits, pomegranates, olives, and persimmons. I find it ironic that I can’t remember an apple tree, but perhaps it was there. The garden provided everything from lettuce to eggplants. There was a strawberry bed near the side lawn. Asparagus grew in beds along the irrigation ditches. I never went hungry. If I wanted something I just picked it, sometimes washed it, and ate it. Mint grew wild everywhere and I remember pinching the leaves and inhaling the glorious fragrance. I still love mint.
There were grapes in abundance. Grape vines covered trellises around the house. Grapes provided shade for the back porch. Grapes grew in long rows surrounding the packing shed. There were grapes for jelly and grapes for eating and grapes for selling and grapes for making wine in the press that sat outside the living room window. I could never keep all the names of the grapes in my mind, but somehow Uncle Jack knew them all. And when he made wine in the small press my mother’s mouth would draw into a thin line that meant she was gritting her teeth. She didn’t approve of Uncle Jack’s hobbies.
Uncle Jack was one of the most fascinating characters I have ever met. As a young girl I wanted to stay away from his grouchy exterior and strange ways, yet I was drawn to his presence. He kept a room in the front of the house for his infrequent visits. We were never allowed in there and to this day I can’t recall ever seeing it. What I remember vividly is watching him eat breakfast. He always had the same thing- a small glass of wine, a cup of black coffee, a raw egg, and a piece of unbuttered French bread. He would drop the egg in his coffee and then eat it like soup, often dipping his bread into the coffee, or sometimes into the wine. He also liked to sit outside on the back porch in the afternoon and eat oysters out of the shell.
The back porch was where we spent a lot of time in the summer. The house was level with the street in front, but it was three large steps up from the driveway in the back. A cement porch covered the back of the house and was finished along the sides with hardpan rocks in the same style as the Underground Gardens. Moss and weeds grew in between and over the rocks. Grape vines hung from the slatted cover and wound their way down the sides. It was just like a leafy room in the summer. There was a wooden picnic table and benches and also some metal lawn chairs. I remember fighting with my brother over who got to sit in the one that rocked. At the side of the porch was a funny old washing machine with a round glass door in the front. We could watch the clothes sloshing around and around.
At one end of the porch was a water tower. On really hot days Dad would release a small stream of water from the tank overhead and let us play in it. I often had the urge to climb to the top of the tank and jump in, but I was never daring enough.
My youngest brother however, was another story. I have the scar to prove that Jim was daring. When he was only three he decided to climb to the top of the barn. Someone had left one of the picking ladders leaning against the side wall so he just used it. I was the first to spot him sitting precariously on the roof, because as usual I was supposed to be keeping an eye on him. I managed to scramble up the ladder and grab him, but when I stepped off the ladder I backed up into some of the nearby junk pile and a piece of barbed wire stuck into my little toe. I suppose I should explain that despite the threat of stickers, nails, rocks, and ants, we seldom wore shoes. So, as I stood there screaming, it was baby brother’s turn to rescue me. He ran to the house and got Dad. Dad spent the next eternity taking the barbed wire out with a knife and tweezers. Then I had to soak my foot in bleach water to kill the germs. I was sorry I hadn’t left Jim on the roof.
No story of the ranch would be complete without mentioning the animals. We shared our seventeen acres of greenery with a variety of livestock. My Grandad had a crow that talked, a Husky that terrorized strangers and populated Highway City with three litters of puppies, and a goat that gave the worst excuse for milk I have ever tasted. Gran kept a parakeet that not only talked and whistled, but also ate from her plate, had the run of the house and took a daily shower in the kitchen sink. He once took a sip of champagne from Gran’s glass and we thought he was going to die. But he lived, and lasted ten more years, so I guess it didn’t hurt him.
We also raised sheep, geese, guinea pigs, chickens, pheasants, rabbits, and pigs. The pigs occupied a large pen attached to one side of the barn. In the center was a large mulberry tree. Its limbs hung over the fence on two sides and we used to pick the ripe mulberries and throw them to the pigs. The baby pigs looked so sweet and cuddly, but I understood the food chain because Dad had butchered a pig in the yard and packed it in the freezer. I knew better than to get attached.
Beneath the barn was a tunnel that wound its way out to the middle of the orchard. I don’t know if it was Jack’s attempt to duplicate the caves, or if it was a hiding place of some sort. I never ventured through it, but Dad said it contained several old barrels and boxes. My imagination saw it filled with bootleg gin, or runaway slaves, or escaping outlaws. I even dreamed of going through the tunnel and coming out in Oz with Dorothy and Toto.
Another area similar to the caves, was the wine cellar. It was lined with hardpan and even on hot summer days it was cool and dark. The heady fragrance of aging wine mixed with the odor of damp clay to give it a distinct smell. Grandad’s menacing Husky, ironically named “Cuddles”, had her puppies in the cellar. Viewing the puppies was a rare chance to go down into the cellar because the rest of the time it was off limits.
To the side of the cellar entrance was a bread oven made of adobe and more hardpan. Next to it was a small storage shed, also made of hardpan, and a pen where the guinea pigs were kept. Even the little house inside the pen was made of hardpan. Everything on the ranch seemed tied to the earth.
I suppose the little yellow house itself was nothing special. It had a large kitchen, a living room, two or three bedrooms, one bathroom, and a screened porch room that sometimes served as a bedroom. It was also where Gran hung starched jeans on special metal frames and huge starched petticoats that belonged to my aunt. When we lived there I thought my room was special because it had glass doors. Only later did I realize it was really a dining room with French doors separating it from the living room.
Like many people, my fondest, clearest memories are of the kitchen. The kitchen was the hub of the house and there was always work going on. My mother and grandmother cooked and canned and created food with a skill that is now rare. The kitchen was often filled with the aroma of fresh bread or simmering spaghetti sauce. Uncle Jack spent hours teaching Mom and Gran how to make real Italian sauces. Or sometimes the whole house was filled with the stench of homemade hominy. My grandmother made buckets and buckets of hominy. My children often laugh at my hominy-phobia. I can’t bear to touch the stuff!
The bathroom was just off the kitchen. I remember because of the day mom had to be rescued. She and Gran had been canning and Mom was getting tired. She went to the bathroom to splash water on her face; we heard a “thud” and the door slammed shut. Unfortunately, Mom had fainted against it and it wouldn’t budge. We found Dad out in the field, and he managed to force the door open a bit, reach around it and move Mom over. He revived her with something nasty smelling that Gran kept in the bathroom cabinet.
One of my pictures from the ranch years is of a young man leaning against a tree. He is tall and thin and wearing a sailor hat. The picture is blurred and the face is dim. The inscription says only “Bruce”. I remember little about him except that he thought I was cute and I thought he was mature and exciting, although he was only a few years older than I was. The one vivid memory that comes to mind is the two of us standing next to the pig pen tossing mulberries to the latest litter of babies. Bruce casually reached into his pocket and pulled out a lighter and cigarettes. I was terrified. I had never seen a child smoke before and I just knew hell-fire and damnation were going to fall on us at any moment. I don’t remember what I did, but I don’t think he came around much after that.
The later years on the ranch were a turning point for me. It was on the ranch, in the garden one day, that I realized my grandfather was an alcoholic. We were at the ranch when my uncle was sent to prison. We were at the ranch when my friend’s little sister died suddenly in her sleep. We were at the ranch when my developing mind realized we were desperately poor. Heavy burdens for a young girl. But nothing can dim the memory of those golden years when trees were heavy with fruit for the picking and the kitchen smelled of spaghetti sauce.