“Put your ankles together! Feel your toes at the edge of the board! Legs straight! Bring your arms up over your head, fingertips touching to a point, and elbows touching your ears! Now, chin down to your chest…and when you jump, be sure to bend at your knees and spring off pointing your toes, keeping your feet and knees together! Okay!-take a DEEP breath…Ready, set…DIVE!”
WHooooooossshhhhh!, into the water we’d go, and if it hurt your head, then you did it all wrong. The flat pointed hands and fingers were supposed to carve into the water just as a Viking longship’s prow would do in the frontier oceans. These were the commands of our father, our very own private swim teacher.
Having been a Science & Physical Education Major in college, his specialty was teaching athletics. He taught all eight of us, and eventually our own children, how to swim. For my own boys, it was when they were barely three months old. But for us siblings, sometimes it wasn’t until we were about three, four or five years old. I can honestly, to this day, still hear his voice calling out the directions. It was very special to learn with him by our side, in the water. He would hold us up with his big daddy hand, and insist we kick our feet with rapid vigor, keeping the knees stiff and straight. He would tell us our legs represented our powerful motor. He told us to hold onto the side of the pool, laying on the water on our stomachs, kicking energetically. He taught us how to use our arms to glide across the surface- this time our hands were cupped for scooping the water past, as we torpedoed across the pool. The hardest part was learning to just tip the head sideways to catch our breath. He’d say to keep our head down and just swivel one cheek upward to gulp in that oxygen. These were the hallmarks of fine swimming, perhaps Olympic medal earning, one day! Our dad would often challenge us to race each other and from this I learned to become quite the competitor in many things, not just swimming. You could say all my siblings have that competitive spirit.
This instruction would take place at the end of a long workday or sometimes on a Saturday. The pool was adjacent to the main office where my dad earned a living 6 days a week for 44 years. He was employed mostly as a salesman and eventually became the Executive Vice President in charge of Sales. However, my family knows the fantastic story of working his way to the top, from having first been hired as a field hand outside in the nursery fields. He began humbly watering plants and after a couple weeks was invited to join the sales team of the company. We grew up respecting the story of his humility taking that entry-level job despite his four year college degree. All he knew was the plant industry fascinated him and he wanted in on the action.
Like many others deserving of a nice respite when the day was done, my father enjoyed a good swim. At the nursery pool after the 4 pm end of the work day horn had sounded, any worker in the company, whether it be field hand, maid, delivery truck driver, clerk or salesman, could go and swim in the pool. They could bring their children and wives and make an outing of it. In our case, my father would check to see the pool wasn’t too crowded for a family of eight kids, and my mom would get the call to drive us on over. We’d be thrilled 100%. Anything we were doing was put on hold, because we knew two things: we would get quality time with our father and we would have a blast playing with each other.
With mother behind the wheel, our family’s red and white Dodge station wagon would roll up to the impressive Spanish gates, and two lane entrance into the wholesale nursery. Purposely planted along the edge of the southward and northward lanes the palm trees would be standing proudly in flanking rows, creating “Romanesque columns” that seemed to beckon and salute as we drove up to the driveway to the Nursery Office. Our eyes took in the panoramic sight of acres and acres of plants all in rows and grouped according to specimen and care. There were hot greenhouses where new plants were germinating. We could detect lathe houses which sheltered plants that needed mostly shade. Halfway up the drive we would cross over the railroad tracks that ran through the enormous property. Then our view would take in the huge mac trucks waiting for their next shipment to be loaded from the dock. They were parked toward the west end of the property, where a large circular reservoir stored much needed water. Once we had crossed the train tracks, we knew we were almost to our destination. The lane would continue straight up to where a jungle oasis appeared to be. All kinds of green foliage seemed to spring out of the ground and the circular drive would stop right in front of Monrovia Nursery’s main office. Lining the driveway were round stones pointing upward and defined a border between the driveway and the verdant habitat. It was brimming with ferns, an abundance of flora and sequestered far out of sight flowed a small stream canal that was a concourse for fresh water.
Going to “The Nursery Pool”, also meant many expeditions in this little mini forest; for you see, sometimes we would end up getting out of the pool to go and play along the footpath in hopes of making a discovery. A major part of the time we would assign roles and make up pretend “movies” acting out our parts. This rich garden was a veritable petrie dish for imaginative play and dreams dramatically coming to life. We just rolled with it and made up stories spontaneously as we pretended and explored. But, we only played in “the jungle” if we truly had our fill of the pool, or if we were made to wait a half an hour before being eligible to go swim. My parents were very strict about “the half hour rule” to avoid any of us getting stomach cramps from swimming too soon after having eaten.
Another point of interest for us, was to have a look in the windows of the main office. It wasn’t a building, per se, but instead an old, yet stately, converted hacienda. My siblings and I would gawk and peer in the windows either before we went to swim, or afterwards. Once in awhile, we were lucky enough to actually walk inside with our dad. Stepping up onto the front veranda, you could see it was floored in a woven dried grass mat that was carpet-like and covered every inch of space. I always thought how exotic!
In the low-lying bay windows, one could see in to a chic, beautiful Spanish decor room. Once inside, the floors were a creaky, dark wood that spoke of history, presence and professionalism. There were carpets placed in designated areas for conversation or perhaps reading. The rich, supple, deep-red leather heavy furniture was a child’s sheer delight to touch or maybe dare to sit on. The coffee table was also a weighty Spanish wood design that was plain yet, elegant. The configuration of all the furniture; the sofa, easy chairs, tables, even the secretary’s desk—was a smooth, chunky Spanish style— all sturdy and widely curved. The entire room was both shady and sunlit, and evocative of a gentlemen’s salon, serving as a perfect lounge for waiting customers about to solidify big business deals. I always wished the furniture could be in my house one day. I think though, I loved the place because my Dad worked there.
On occasion, we would follow my dad through the glass double doors into the inner Spanish courtyard. All the executive offices were situated in a square around this small but, colorful area. There were pillars of wood carved in a myriad of rounded ripples swirling around them. These swirls were all painted Spanish tile tones…peaches, turquoises, light greens, dark blues, chile red and bits of yellow, which were decorative and complimenting to the smooth terra cotta color painted portions. To me, they were works of art and I would give anything to see one of those pillars again!
Each office set of doors was paned and looked out onto a trickling fountain in the center, with bromeliads and tropical green plants surrounding it. The water feature was the focal point and Mexican tile flooring squares surrounded it. The tiled flooring went throughout the patio up to each office’s set of paned double doors. Our father’s office was on the north side and to the right of the inner patio square, if you entered from the front main office. Because this small, central “sanctuary” was actually an outdoor patio, the sunshine would cascade down onto the fountain and speckle flecks of sunshine on the palm and fern fronds, the bubbling water and the floor and posts. It was a tranquil, lovely, romantic spot that tended to make one think any moment a mariachi band would casually stroll through one of the doors and serenade via violin, viola, guitar and trumpet. Indeed a special place.
The real excitement though, was that swimming pool! It was adjacent to the main building. Surrounding the pool stood a variety of ultra tall trees, quite established, that looked completely majestic to me while swimming and gazing up to the sky. Another small path went from the driveway and wended through some shrubbery. A tall bottlebrush plant was growing up against the south wall of the main office. Every time I walked on that path that I felt compelled to stop and feel the tickle of the soft red with gold tipped bristles that made up this most unusual flower. It remains one of my favorite bushes in the plant world.
The gate clicked open and there it was- Eureka! The huge rectangular swimming pool! Rule abiding as my family was, we headed straight for the bath houses to take a quick shower which was always terribly cold. Then, the proverbial “cannonball jump” into the deep-end would commence. One by one, we’d each try to outdo the size of our siblings’ splashes as we ran up from the showers to the redbrick perimeter path, to jump and grab our knees as we hurled ourselves into the “great blue” with all our might. My baby brother Christian became quite adept at this ritual and often was named the “winner” in this particular contest.
Once we were in the pool, there were so many fun ways to play. First and foremost we would make friends with various kids from other families. There was one family in particular we always hoped would be there to swim with us. They were always a highlight. In addition to the social aspect, my little sister and I loved being “mermaids” and we would swim underwater and come up for air pretending to flip our tails as our feet and legs remained locked together. Typically, we wore bathing caps, but on occasion we would let our long tresses freely flow as if we really were those legendary sea nymphs of lore. This was a delight we enjoyed for many years of my youth. She and I would include our brothers and deem them “Mermen”, and eventually one of them would vie for the title of Neptune: god of the sea.
Other times we were all engaged in a long-lasting game of “Marco Polo’. As everyone knows, someone had to be “It”, and someone had to be “Marco”. The rest of us would swim about echoing the Marco call with the “Polo” answer. Marco had to keep his eyes shut because everyone would tattle tale if they caught just one squint of an eye starting to open. It was silly and at times nearly hilarious. How we loved that great American swimming pool game!
It may be that the best way to enjoy swimming was to join in the races across the pool. Now, I really detested getting the water in my ears when I swam freestyle. I much preferred diving down (under) water, testing how long I could swim without coming up for air. My younger brother enjoyed racing (me) across the pool underwater. We were constantly neck n neck, and the winner always won by a millisecond. We strove to outdo the other. Initially, I had to get a gulp of air halfway across, but by the end of summer I would be able to sometimes swim across and back without having to breathe. I loved kicking underwater like a frog and propelling myself as fast as I could. I recall thinking if I visualize my fingertips on the wall and physically push my body harder at the last seconds, I will be the fastest! The whole underwater swimming method suited me just fine!
We became quite enthralled with the races and often times we’d announce an “All Family Swim Heat”, lickety-split to the opposite end and back. Mother would be the judge and declare who had finished first. Eventually the older siblings had an advantage over the younger batch, and the races became (little kids versus little kids) and (big kids versus big kids). After the races, Dad would give us pointers and solid athletic advice. This was premium parenting in my book.
Another game we made up for ourselves was the “Drop the Object and Fetch It” game. Someone would throw keys, barrettes, coins, anything that could be detected from looking above the water down to the bottom where they would naturally settle. Diving downward and shooting back upward often did nasty things to my ears and nose, but I didn’t care, it was simply an exhilarating game. When we became well-versed in how to achieve this task, we began timing our efforts. The same object would be thrown and each of us would try to retrieve it the fastest. We quickly learned one diver at a time meant no head-bashing would ensue. When any game ended, there would be “free for all” frolicking and jumping about-often ending in building a tower with the tallest kids standing on the pool floor, and taking in a smaller child on their shoulders. If, we really wanted to go hog-wild, a second child would climb up and sit on the shoulders. The result was a tower of three. You guessed it; we’d turn toward the opposite team tower and play fight with our hands. The goal was being able to knock or pull down the competing team . This was true fun because if you fell, it didn’t matter- you just simply fell into the water-which we loved!
Dad wasn’t the only instigator of competitiveness, fun and comraderie. Our mother especially encouraged us to “Make Commercials”. She has always loved tv ads and how clever they can be. Being children of the television generation, we sure knew our advertising punch lines and lingo! We would recite familiar favorites. Each person had to think up their own product and sales pitch. The more comical, the better. She would egg us on, pressing us to practice being articulate to a fair thee well. One at a time, each sibling had a turn to stand on the diving board as if it were a stage and act-out a self-made commercial. “Hamming it up” scored extra points, for sure, and if you could conjure up a jingle, then, BRAVO to you! Participants would try out accents of all sorts in order to gain notoriety. After each commercial had been recited, then the “actor” would jump in the pool in a “super-sillious” way, as a perfect punctuation to a moment of fame. Everyone would break out in cheers and whistles and wet, thunderous applause!
A general vote as to whose commercial was the best delivered that day was cast by a majority vote or our parents sat in the seat of judgement. On occasion we might move on to a team contest. The giggles and shushes were rampant as we put our heads together to make the commercial a shared winning endeavor. This is when the “jungle oasis” served as a great place to go to and strategize in secret. Winning with your team was always a happy moment. But, usually, someone would be the obvious “stand-out” star. Hats off to whomever that would be! Winner or loser it didn’t matter, because the laughter and the freeform play were the REAL prizes. I’m just glad we had parents who loved children and relished our individuality. I am quite grateful that my parents fostered our self-esteem in such a celebratory way. I also think it is a priceless gift to have been raised to be open, innovative and bold. These are characteristics that will carry you through life.
When we had played to our heart’s content, that is when we’d finally get out of the water. Our hands and fingers looked ancient and wrinkly from soaking in the pool for so long. Of course we would check out each other’s hands and compare. Then off to the jungle oasis, and especially to go see the stream…
Now, there was one more venue in which to play at the nursery. Since this had once been a fine rancho home, it had been the custom to have an outdoor barbecue area. Following the herringbone brick lain path leading down some steps on a small incline in the lawn that surrounded the pool, we would find ourselves led to some cement steps. There were just a few, and there you would be, in the midst of what kind of looked like an outdoor kitchen and dining room. There were tables and benches, a massive barbecue, a fireplace and an oven built within low bricks walls that housed cooling cabinets. There was a sink for washing dishes and a myriad of cupboards that were again built into the bricks. If you opened the little cupboard doors, you could see there was white insulation of some sort, that was meant for keeping food either hot or cold, whatever your pleasure. We rarely cooked anything, but instead used them for playing Barbie Dolls. Barbie would have her own “house”, as well as her sister Skipper and Barbie’s Friends: Midge, Ken and Alan. The little cupboards were perfect as their “bachelor pads”, hotels, restaurants, schools or shops. The entire area was a perfect place to retreat into fantasy doll play!
If we didn’t have our dolls, we would simply make up skits and role-play. On the occasion that we did have a meal there in that brick outdoor patio and dining area, it was with picnic basket, tablecloth and blanket brought by Mom.
As one can see, the privilege to have such a whimsical place to spend time with our family goes beyond measure. Having the Monrovia Nursery Pool to go to, made living in smoggy San Gabriel Valley in the sixties and seventies bearable. The smog was harmful enough to make your eyes smart and sting. There were plenty of days we had to remain confined indoors. That’s when we resorted to television: our shining beacon in a child’s world or reading the National Geographics. Board games such as Monopoly, Parchesi and Clue were other beloved pastimes. But, boy oh boy, did we quickly snatch the opportunity to play outside in our own backyards as well as at the company pool whenever there was no more threat of that awful smog. This fortunate opportunity fostered a wealth of ideas to be drummed up, dreamed of, tested and regaled afterward. Our amusement came from our own brains, not some device placed in our hands to tune (us) out. I am indeed grateful I grew up in this way.
And the memories of swimming with my father at the helm? Priceless. He comforted us if we stubbed our toes on the bricks or the pool steps, encouraged us to get involved in what might seem to be a daunting water polo game, and he would give each and every one of us special “one on one” time.
Definitely the memory I TRULY cherish above them all, was my father telling me to hop up on his back in the shallow end of the pool. He would say, “Put your arms around my neck, just lay on my back, and I’ll take you for a ride.” My body would relax and soften into an inner smile. I’d lift my chin a bit to gaze up at the trees standing like green skyscrapers, looming large and wise. My dad had hair on his back which was ticklish, and he had a certain father scent to his skin. If I think hard, I can still smell that glorious signature scent. He would swim oh so gently, as if he were a calm quiet, mallard ambling about, “owning the pond”. We might have seen a dragonfly whizz by, taken notice of the thrumming of wind in a hummingbird’s wings flitting overhead, or have been momentarily accompanied by a big blue bee. Then, off in the distance, way up high on a towering pine, we might have heard a woodpecker tapping out an oh so subtle rhythm. Because the Boston Pops Orchestra was our special musical bond, he would start humming the “Blue Danube”, or “The Viennese Waltz”. He even knew the “Merry Widow Waltz”, too. This was a soothing ride that was quite nearly an art form. I loved sharing those times with him. Tender was my daddy’s soul. Invariably, the eventual, “Come on, kids, let’s go home, outta the pool!” would break the pacifying spell. Then, in true sailor-strength fashion, Dad proceeded to rub dry our hair with a towel, to the ridiculous point of losing our balance as our heads were rubbed very vigorously. The end result was always laughter.
Yes, it was good to be alive and a kid who went to the Nursery Pool to explore, to play, to learn, to fantasize, to invent and to perform at the behest of our wonderful dad and mom. Thank you for this blessing.