My travels over a long weekend were for the purpose of attending my nephew’s wedding, held very near my old high school and home in the agricultural middle of California, the Central Valley. If the event had begun any earlier than 4:00 in the afternoon, much sunburning would have occurred; as it was, the two sunhats I retrieved from my car were traded around for a few hours among several of our family group, of both sexes.
At the reception, descendants of my parents, with their spouses, were seated all together at one of the long tables on the grass, and my own clan took up two-thirds of those chairs. No seat assignments had been made beyond assigning us a table, and as I was the oldest — the matriarch? — I sat at one end, what might have been the head of the table. But truly I didn’t sit there very much. The three-year-olds Liam and Ivy kept me busy, fetching drinks or wedding cake, or taking them up front to dance in a circle with me. Do the books on how introverts can survive parties ever talk about the strategy of hanging out with the preschoolers?
It was fun to introduce those two to the aunts and uncles and cousins they hadn’t met since they were old enough to be introduced. “Ivy, this is your Aunt Cairenn. She is my sister; we used to be little girls like you….” The children were all happy to shake hands and be cordial, though reserved. And my heart filled and was satisfied to see all the love shared among the younger generations and across generations, even though many of them rarely see each other.
Over the two layover days I spent time at three houses, each situated in the middle of a different citrus grove. Two belonged to my siblings and one was the home of a man I grew up with in a bygone era that seems a short while ago; we used to ride our bicycles between the rows of orange trees and slide down the golden hills on pieces of cardboard. While I wasn’t paying attention, my brother and sister and my friend Dick were learning the art of farming, so that now they can carry on in their parents’ tradition and even in some of their groves.
I had the chance to play among the trees again, this time with Liam and Ivy and Scout, who in the absence of store-bought toys were making do with old oranges that had fallen off the trees, with snails among the dead leaves, and with a trowel in the dirt. The smell of the trees and of the Bermuda grass lawn, and of the soil, and the air that stayed warm into the evening when we watched the Black Phoebes swooping and scooping up insects… All of these sensations and moments added up to create in me a dreamily contented mood.
My nephew the groom partly grew up in the same house that I mostly grew up in, that his grandfather built. I stayed three nights with my sister who is another of his aunts; she and her husband farm mandarins and oranges for his mother and for themselves, and live in a house they designed to have a view of the Sierra Nevada much like this one from her neighborhood (taken by someone else).
It was fun to be with country people who are daily involved with plants and animals different from my usual. In addition to the snails and phoebes mentioned above, I learned about or interacted with:
—A frog that I met in the bathroom. It was at midnight and I didn’t want to bother with him right then, so I went back to bed and he disappeared for two days, during which time everyone teased me about my tall tale. Then he was found in a different bathroom, and I was judged to be sane after all. Here he is in a bucket.
—A house finch who flew down the chimney into the ashes; I helped Nancy use an old towel to surround and collect the tiny bird and carry him outdoors.
—Gophers come down from the foothills in droves to feast on the roots of all the watered orange trees and vegetables, etc. that my friend Dick grows on 50 acres, and their tunnels contribute to the erosion of the sloping orchard land. His son explained all this to me and showed me the traps they put into the tunnels, trying to keep the population of pillagers at bay. It’s a constant and fairly hopeless battle that must be fought nonetheless.
—More snails: Did you know that some snails are carnivorous and eat other species of snails? Yep. The brown snail is a pest in the orange groves, but the Decollate snail ignores the trees and goes after the brown snails. My brother is in the field of citrus research and one nephew is a farm advisor on such matters. I lured them into the grove with my questions and we scratched around under the trees trying to find some Decollate snails so I could remember how they look different. Later I did find an empty shell at my sister’s. You can see one on Wikipedia’s page about them.
—Pink oranges. Have you heard of Cara Cara oranges? I hadn’t; I must not have been spending enough time with all the citrus growers, because already Sunkist is selling lots of Cara Caras — they are mainstream. Friend Dick is growing them, as well as…
—Berries: I had brought with me boxes of blueberries from Costco for a family breakfast, fruit that seems to have been grown in Salinas, California, not far from the coast. But even in the hot Central Valley they are growing blueberries now, more of them than are produced in any other area of the U.S. I learned about this from Dick as we stood on a patio overlooking his garden, and I could well imagine how the earlier spring might sweeten up the fruit. His son ran down and brought back some blackberries bigger than my thumb and mm-mm….yes. The flavor lingered on my tongue as I drove away.
Another nephew is marrying in October, so I will have a good reason to visit again and soak up the vibes of my childhood stomping grounds, and chat with farmers about their crops and the weather and the birds. I know that time will be here before I know it; I should read this post again about a week before my departure, to remind me of the joy I am likely to have once again.