My California dreaming

I wrote this many years ago when I was longing for sunlight in the midst of a long cold English winter. It might seem odd to publish it now, while my home state basks in unseasonable sunshine and we pray for rain, but still: this is my California dreaming.

I’ve traveled on four continents, lived in England and Japan, and gone to sea with the British Merchant Navy. But wherever I am, when I close my eyes against the sun on a hot summer’s day, I’m lying on a front lawn in San Fernando, California.

The grass smells pungent, green and gold. I can hear my sister’s roller skates racketing down the sidewalk, and a sound that Joni Mitchell would later call “the hissing of summer lawns” … our sprinklers aren’t on, but the neighbor’s are. My dad is washing the car at the curb. Water splashes from the garden hose and gurgles down the gutter.

A grasshopper rests briefly on my bare leg. It tickles.

When it’s dinner time, we eat outdoors at a redwood picnic table under a pepper tree. Barbecued hamburgers with squares of Kraft cheese melting down the sides; corn on the cob, dripping butter; and a crisp green salad, chunky with tomatoes. And for dessert? How about Foster’s Freeze? says Mom.

My ice cream squishes through its crust of crisp dipped chocolate and drips onto my clothes. My sister and I are in shorts and sleeveless tops, with sandals on our dusty, mosquito-bitten feet. Mom, her golden-red hair glowing, is wearing a sundress. Dad’s short-sleeved shirt has the top three buttons undone.

It could get so hot that going barefoot meant dancing a hot torment down the sidewalk on almost-blistered feet. Dad would fill the plastic pool and my sister and I would lie in cold water all afternoon, she plump and sunny in a ruffled bathing suit, me skin-and-bony, squinting near-sightedly against the light.

Some weekends we’d go to Balboa Beach, my sister and me wedged tightly in the back seat with the plastic pails, the multi-colored beach towels and the yellow beach umbrella. We’d splash along the water’s edge, shrieking in mock fear at the bubbled gold-brown seaweed.

Mom would read while Dad looked for ships, his life-long, never-consummated passion. I fell in love with the ships and the ocean … hence, later, the British Merchant Navy, but that’s another blog post.

Other weekends we’d visit my grandmother, driving over the Tehachapi Pass and down the Grapevine until the land was flat, brown, and planted in cotton as far as the eye could see. Dad always stopped along the tree-lined “straight stretch” to pick a boll each for my sister and me. Cotton was a miracle, a chubby white softness blooming in a nest of prickly dark-brown leaves. I fell in love with cotton.

There was a tree outside my grandmother’s house in Bakersfield, thick-leaved and ever-moving. I’d climb its obliging branches and lose myself in its rustling, dark-green leaves. I believed that if I pressed my ear against the trunk and listened hard enough, I’d be able to hear the tree talking. I fell in love with trees.

My grandmother rustled too in her silky dresses of pale blue and green and lavender, scented with “Blue Grass” cologne. She’d call me in from the tree for brownies, richly chocolate, dense with walnuts. At night she’d tell my sister and me stories. “It was Sammy Squirrel’s birthday and he decided to give a party … ” I fell in love with stories.

My dad’s sister, Aunt Catherine, lived up in the foothills on her parents’ property, “the ranch.” Her fiancé, Hal, lived there too, in a separate building called “the shack.” He was handy when Aunt Catherine needed help shooting a rattlesnake or taking care of her widowed father, 88 years old when I was born and with 10 more years to live. A small, spruce, upright man, he still shaved with a straight razor and said his prayers in his native Welsh.

Outside, beyond a grove of avocado trees as big as houses, stood a pile of abalone shells, taller than I was, collected by an abalone-diving Japanese family who leased part of the ranch to grow flowers. The trees and the shells were part of the mystery of the ranch, along with the mesquite-covered hills. What lay on the other side of those steep slopes? Some day I’d find out, I vowed, and fell in love with the idea of travel.

The mysterious foothills.
Aunt Catherine was a teacher, and so was my mom’s stepmother. They both had lots of books. Dad loved books too, and my mother had been a librarian before she got married. I fell in love with books.

Mom’s dad and stepmother lived in San Diego, a small white city in those days, gleaming in her ever-present sun. After visiting the famous zoo so my sister and I could see the animals, we’d take the harbor cruise so Dad could see the ships. Later my grandad would take hold of my sister’s fat dimpled hand and my thin-fingered one and we’d walk to Balboa Park to feed Cheerios to the squirrels. Then it was home for Nana’s fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and biscuits glistening with raspberry jam.

During Dad’s vacations, we drove all over the West – Sequoia, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Big Bear, British Columbia, Mount Lassen. We went on nature hikes with friendly rangers and sat around camp fires under star-sprinkled skies, singing “Happy is the donkey if you feed him hay.” We saw deer, chipmunks, bears, geysers, waterfalls and wildflowers, but the best part of summer, the strong warm and always-beating heart of summer, was lying in the grass with its green-gold smell, hearing roller skates and sprinklers and water gurgling down the gutters, so that is where I go on a hot summer’s day when I close my eyes against the sun.

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