The Monrovia Nursery Pool

“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.

 

 

Those Eyes

A while ago, a relative of mine, posted something that caught my attention on social media. It was a very fine photograph of a VERY fine lady she and I both have loved our entire lives. Our grandma. Seeing that photograph got my synapses firing. I clearly remember when and how that picture was taken. My grandmother had come to visit me. She was with her only son, my uncle. He snapped a shot of the two of us sitting on my bed with my harp behind us. Grandma had come to hear me play my Troubadour Lyon & Healy harp. I remember absolutely nothing in particular about this “command performance”, but I do recall the walk with her afterward. I lived in a beach city at the time, and it was fitting that she came to see me there, especially since she is the one person who cemented my love of oceanside living.

While on our deliberate and visually fulfilling constitutional, my grandmother chatted about this and that…the trees, the flowers, the baby strollers, the birds we could hear over the din of cars on a nearby main boulevard. As I listened, I drifted off at times, to snatch bits of thought I kept in the ‘hallways of my memory’, always being easily available to ponder and enjoy. My uncle walked along with us, and eventually we wanted to reach a landmark diner to have a delicious meal. Grandma was in her mid-eighties but, didn’t really seem to be. She stood and walked straight. Her upright stance was as demonstrative as her upright attitude. She exuded quiet confidence, and could flatten a naysayer in their tracks within a matter of a phrase. It wasn’t malicious, just setting the record right, that’s all. We all knew that. Thus, our conversation was often punctuated with these characteristic pieces of wisdom. Oh, if only I could hear her say more….For now, it’s those remembrances waiting in the wings of my mind that will have to suffice.

How sweet those hallways of thought can be, with her in them! Most of my memories of Grandma center around her darling duplex home in Southern California. It looked just like a bungalow with a sloping wide A- line roof. It had front criss-cross paned windows bedecked underneath with cheery window boxes spilling forth her favorite, red geraniums. Her home also had prolific, lush front and inside gardens that most certainly were prize-worthy. Her house was painted a soft, deep tan; the hue enriched by a tad more brown tone, than a yellowy tone. This was such a pretty color that made a perfect backdrop to all of the foliage and flora on display. Her small plot of lawn was continuously vibrant green. It was a rich color that beckoned you as a child to lie down on it and feel the coolness below your skin. This natural “carpet” brought soothing relief on even the hottest of days. Bordering the grass area were plantings that brought delighted smiles to anyone who took the time to inspect. My favorite plant was the Fuchsia, or the “ballerina bush” as I would childishly call it. Hers had vivid purple and magenta flowers that danced in the breeze like ballet gowns swishing across a stage. She had several species of Azaleas, and they yielded a feathery, almost gossamer-like accent of pinks and lavender. Tantalizing to the eye, for sure was this beautiful bounty out in front, but the magic continued up the walkway and back to her inner side-yard oasis.

In my grandmother’s inside garden, were serious plants that seemed to command respect due to their sheer size and vigorous presence. Two of these were the trumpet vine and the honeysuckle vine. They had been borne from her gardening enterprises; from cuttings dipped in Root-tone F to the magnificent adult climbers on fence and post that they were! She loved her vines and would let us taste the honeysuckle from the blooms, which made us feel quite cavalier! There were several massive vines at work, having set their tendrils out in quest for further heights and expanse. The trumpet vine was really one for fascination. I never saw it devoid of a profusion of flower. They would hang down almost as if they were a string of musical notes in a composition. Though all the names of her vines escape me, I am positive she had flowering shrubs as well.

At one’s shoulder-level, I recall the showy camellias. There were at least three varieties, some double petaled, even! I could never mistake the signature scents of the lower-thriving gardenia and her night-blooming jasmine. She had heliotrope and hydrangea, spires of goldenrod and giant, statuesque gladiolas. If that weren’t enough, bordering her flower beds were lobelia and begonia. It was such a thickly endowed garden, that there was just enough room for her glass picnic table with wrought iron matching chairs. Grandma loved serving us lunch out on the patio, amidst all the greenery, fragrance and dazzling color.

To sit at a transparent glass table impressed us as children. We could watch our feet dangle and play footsie with one another. Grandma always thoughtfully set the table in style. Placemats were a must, and very often they were bright, happy colors and either made of woven cotton or straw! The napkins came with napkin rlngs of course, and our grandmother loved her colored glass! Thus, our goblets were made of glass and usually a translucent color in which to visually enjoy her homemade pink lemonade. Sometimes, we might drink out of her equally festive 1950s style colored-aluminum tumblers. Teal, magenta, red-orange, chartreuse and yellow….a feast for the eyes every gulp of the way! The “pieces de resistance” were the unique sipping straw stirrers. The tippy top of them had a tiny round ball with a hole in it for a mouth piece to sip on.  It was lavender colored and infused with silvery speckles,. The ball shaped mouth piece was connected to a thin silver metal straw, which joined at the bottom to a matching lavender/silver speckled and slightly pointed well of a spoon. We thought this was the best invention next to our dad’s Osterizer! We each had our own sipper straw spoon and we probably spent more time stirring and giggling and sipping and bubbling than she probably would have liked. But what are summer visits at Grandma’s in her beach cottage garden for? Being silly and carefree of course!

Further back in our grandmother’s inner sanctum was a narrow walkway flanked by her clothesline. That’s where our bathing suits and damp towels would end up. We would also line-up our pails filled with claimed seashells and starfishes, for surveying and comparison, later. We would walk all the way to the back gate. This led out to where Grandma’s garage and tiny plot of green alongside it opened up into her back alley. Now, here, quite nonchalantly placed, so as not to cause too much attention, was the prize of all prizes.

Her fine horticultural specimen sat indiscriminately all year long. Then, once a year, this jewel of a plant would have its moment of glory. In the night, well past sundown, Grandma would take us in our pajamas, robes and slippers out to see her secret. She would tell my brother to hold the flashlight to mark our path as it was quite dark. We would follow single file, in stealth-like, soft footsteps. Once we were exactly there, stooping down in hushed, fragile patience, she would shine the light on her epiphyllum oxypetalum; the “Queen of the Night” flower! As if worshipping the nocturnal luminescence, it would fully open its bloom to the moon. All white itself, and surrounded by blushed at the base slender, pronged petal adornments; it had lacy stamens and pistils which seemed to float upward from inside the blossom. Her petals appeared to glow as they spread wide with frilled edge…a most dramatic exhibition! The “oohs” and the “ahhhhhs” could not be kept at bay. Our eyes stared in wonderment, and I absolutely know this was the solidifying factor in all our lives that made us become stewards of the Plant Kingdom. Having us partake in this annual event speaks volumes as to the kind of person our Grandma was.

Looking back at that picture posted on social media, I reminisce fondly. My Grandma and I were sitting in tandem. shoulder to shoulder on my bed, with my harp prominently in the background. You see, I believe my grandmother brought many splendid things into my life. She was the one who played her piano and accompanied my violin playing. She once walked me to a neighbor’s house who was a member of the Philharmonic to have him hear me play, (even though he was gone that day). Never fear, she let me read books for children about Beethoven and taught me to play along with her, Mozart’s “Minuet in G”. This attentive lady believed in me, and I believed in her.

Beyond that, there is something even more. Philosophical, really. Grandma’s eyes that were caught so well in that photograph ~~ say it all. Her soul behind her eyes was a Knowing Soul. She knew life was music. It could even be a symphony! Not only was music the expression of tune and rhythm, but, it was an essence we could all “see” if we just looked hard enough. Music is in the curling “melody” of growing vine, the “toned” fragrance of flower, the “dancing” curve and shape of leaf and patterned petals. Music is not reserved for just our ears. Our eyes can “see” Music, too. This is what I learned from my precious, sweet Grandma. This is what upon occasion, brings little ‘dewdrops’ to my own eyelashes; when I see the gentle beat of a butterfly wing, a hummingbird’s blur, or a medallion-shaped silver dollar Eucalyptus leaf twitching in the breeze. Thank you Grandma May. I love you.

Where Did My Childhood Summers in Southern California Go?

Okay, I get it. We are in a warming funk. It may only last another thirty years, but, it is a funk. How I long for the days of old…when I was a “Sea n Ski” gal with my white sunscreen nose, floppy sunhat, rubber flip flop thongs (we wore them on our feet, folks), my ruffly bikini and my straw and wooden beaded beach basket tote! That was living in style! My little sidekick sister sported a matching but different color handmade corduroy beach cape with yarn ball trim and silver fancy button hooks. We also had those nifty little plastic eyeball protectors that you’d set atop the bridge of your nose as you lay down to soak up the sun and build that “brown as a berry” suntan. Suntanning was serious business to the Real McCoys that we were: the Little Surfer Girls of Corona Del Mar…The only preliminary was jumping into our big brother’s forest green bomb ’56 Chevy Sedan, and flying down the 57 with “Wipeout”, “The Monster Mash” and “Witchy Woman” blaring out of the radio

This is what all children from the San Gabriel Valley would do multiple times, week after week, all summer long. And our summers were the full three months, baby! At times, the beach was often a different deal compared to where our homes were. We would leave in the mid-morning when the sun was beginning to bake at 80 degrees, only to find the the beach’s marine layer was lingering around until at least noon. That meant double doses of suntan lotion,…for everyone… had learned the cloud refractive process can redden fair skin to a ripe red lobster hue if you dare to lay under cloudy beach skies in the summer. But that was okay, because mostly I remember many carefree days playing on the shore with a cool breeze coming off the waves. It was delightful conditions such as these that borne the creative, gleeful escapades with my little sister and brothers.

We loved doing so many things together, such as beach combing for sand dollars, seashells that looked pretty, and digging for sand crabs as the tide would recede. We loved hopping over the mounds of seaweed being attacked by the fiendish little flies that loved buzzing all over them. As insouciant children can only do, we cheerfully chased the waves and would stop to dig our toes into the wet sand; for this always tickled relentlessly as the water would pull away. These were simple rituals we must do each visit. Every time, we walked the length of the beach with the intention of getting to the jetty. There we would search for starfishes and bring one home in a pail. Climbing over the rocks would be rough and very hard on our toes, but by the end of summer, we were in condition and our feet had toughened from the practice. Perhaps the most memorable summer was the one when we staked our claim at the summit of Pirates’ Cove. We discovered above the cave, if we clambered up to the very top, nearest the edge where the waves would dramatically perform their sea-song of crash and spray, was a strongly anchored pole. We painted onto an old white cloth our own flag emblem, and tied it to the pole as if this beach, cove and cave were our very own. It was OUR mystery to know; OUR realm to rule.

These summers of youth are a blessed memory. I know my siblings and I have heartfelt remembrances of our sweet Grandmother who taught us to love the beach. She is the one who took us literally into the waves as she herself would gather-up her pedal pushers or ruck-up her skirt and tie it around her waist so she herself could wade through the ocean along the shore. She encouraged us to use our eyes and look into the water, to find things, imagine things, to adore and respect the sea. Because of her, I learned to brave the waves, and body surf. She taught us to be strong and smart and to be one with the water. My little sister and I would pretend we were mermaids while we dove and flipped and frolicked as any fabled sea-nymph would do. The ocean was a multi-faceted playground and our affinity for this gifted place was always a huge part of our childhood summers.

The beach-goers of today have a far different experience. It is no longer a spontaneous excursion. Instead, it is a destination often requiring parking reservations. Too often the crowd is indifferent to the beautiful tableau before them. Instead of consideration of others’ and their space, disregard and flagrant selfishness is often made manifest. It is typical for there to be loud, overbearing conversations, blaring music, and unsupervised little ones running amuck kicking sand everywhere and onto everyone. The lack of clean-up is appalling, too. Trash just left indelibly leaves an ugly testament to modern-day indifference. Where is the respect for our planet? Where is the social conscience? Thank goodness not all beachgoers behave in this manner.

How I miss those innocent, oblivious summer days on the beach. My transistor radio softly played “Oh, Sweet Pea come on and dance with me”, while my “sunbathing” Barbie Doll greeted her boyfriend Ken who “drove up” alongside her in his snazzy convertible. He’d “hop-out” to join her in her fun…I even miss my own casual gawking at the surfers and lifeguards, and reading on my stomach so I could scope out the rest of the male population from behind my sunglasses. When I think of all those beach days, I recall delicious picnics comprising tuna fish sandwiches, grapes, lemonade, Fresca or Squirt, brownies and Ruffles Potato Chips. Lively conversation and giggles always accompanied such a meal. The beach was a place where imagination, dreams and giggles were allowed free-reign. No wonder the fondness for such a place kindles strong in my soul. The magic of childhood is a blessed thing to experience in such an unfettered way.

When the sun began to go down, the whole ambience of the place would change. Those beach goers remaining, were hoping to see that sacred orange ball dip into the horizon. They always sat in muted, pensive, still repose. Everyone was in their own thinking world. A hush would fall over the total beach almost as if it were a sanctuary of some sort~a special world requiring honor and afterthought. All sea worshippers would hear the symphony of rhythm persevere; thunderously rolling white-capped waves; pounding evermore.

Childhood summers to me are not memories of the broiling asphalt blacktop and car outdoor thermometers registering 115 F. degrees. They are not the cranky drivers, nor the insanely inflated gasoline prices. Summer is not the watering lawn restrictions or the drying up of trees and shrubbery. Yes, we did have fires back then, but not as many, it would seem… I guess what I am trying to say is, summer meant worry-free times. We don’t have that anymore. I’d like to hope that the summers of yore will return once more.

 

Quintessential California

QUINTESSENTIAL CALIFORNIA

There is something pretty special about Southern California. Granted, it has many pitfalls…too numerous to list in full. Our choked “freeways”, brutal potholes constantly attacking one’s tires, steamy-hot August and Septembers, graffitied walls, robotic shopkeeper salutations, those who leave trash anywhere, those who don’t seem to want to share, the unsolved transient people predicament that is a shameful reminder we can’t cure poverty, and all the rule-breakers…parkers in the handicap spaces that should not be there, but also, too many empty handicap spaces leaving prime access bare, cars parked on actual front lawns, overly groomed trees hacked to nonsensical “design” insuring no bloom for another nine months, and the incessant firetruck zipping down the straightaway, having to strategize and dodge the numskulls who refuse to clear a path. That all being said, Southern California is STILL a special place. I realized this just recently on a midweek evening, It was all just so magical.

That afternoon, I bolted out the classroom door like a racehorse from the starting gate. I raced my weary legs as fast as they’d allow to the parking lot. My steering wheel practically burned my fingers as I got the car started. The temperature reading boasted 113! So, I blasted the AC to full capacity, creaked-open the windows a slight bit and zzzzzzzzip…out of the parking lot I went! Ten minutes later, I was home. I bolted into the door connecting garage to inside the house, kicked off shoes, plunked down keys and purse, and with exhaustion in tow, ascended my daunting staircase. Once at the “summit”, I retreated into my inner sanctum…the bath and shower. Emerging all refreshed, powdery and perfumed, I took a waft of shampoo essence with me wherever I walked. I was ready for a night worthy of all the intoxicating aromas, the fashion fantastique and bejeweled accents one’s personal repertoire can provide. But, this particular evening, the reality of it was that it truly didn’t matter what I was  wearing. This would be about truthful music listening, whether in tennies or tuxedos, it was each individual listener’s choice. Mode of travel to such a concert was varied as well. Many bravely choose to ride their own wheels and navigate the parking situation. My choice fell in line with the majority; the wise majority. I simply drove my car to a public park about fifteen minutes away. When the bus rounded the corner and into the lot, a line of anticipatory music lovers awaited boarding the vehicle for the most nominal roundtrip fee of  five dollars! Now, granted, the temperature was still in the 100s when I beeped my car shut. But, I knew that getting to my destination was going to be effortless, pleasant and safe.

I chose a seat in the senior section, especially since I am trying to be honest with myself…I am, after all, a “young” senior! The “people watching” commenced…offering a feast for the eyes of character studies in all degrees of humanism. Despite the variety, young to very old, the stepping into the public transit of each person brought on a variety of detail checks. Many were giddy with anticipation, some looked as if they were about to make a trip to the dentist, and still others stepped onboard the bus clearly as if it were their first time. I sat toward the front because I have always had a secret desire to be a train engineer. Seeing all the working and goings on of a bus driver was entertainment, enough.

Soon we were on our way, making the infamous, seemingly impossible trek across the freeway system of Los Angeles and environs at rush hour. I struck up a lively conversation with a young woman probably barely a third of my age. She slipped onto the bus at the very last second, and found a seat with the rest of us “older , wiser” folk. We engaged in discussion about the destination we were trying to get to…the Hollywood Bowl. Somehow, the miraculous path the busdriver decided to take got us to the glorious outdoor ampitheatre in record time. Throngs of people, busses, musicians, instruments, bicyclists, even, descended upon the bottom of the hill leading up to the Hollywood Bowl parking lot. There, I saw the Will Call, secured my ticket and made a bee-line for the nearest elevator. Having been to the Hollywood Bowl all my life, this was a first for me. I have never taken the easy way up. However, the reason was two-fold. My sister has a box which is in the lower level of the theatre where the elevators readily lead to, which means we would be seated much closer to the stage than I ever experienced before. Secondly, I was simply dog-tired from a long, hot September workday..why not use the elevator? When I found our box, I found my sister. She was disseminating directions to the waiters. We laughed because she had arrived literally three minutes ahead of me…despite the fact that we came from polar opposite locations in the Los Angeles Basin, to meet at the exact time on a Thursday evening, workweek night…a true miracle in itself. She too, arrived via public transit, also parking her car in a lot somewhere out on the Westside. Yet, here we were, hours later, and ready to indulge in music, fine wine and a mighty fine meal. Her husband and colleague met us at the box about ten minutes later…all of us starved and ready for the evening to commence.

Now, in the past, I have had meals at the Bowl. Usually, it entails toting along a wicker basket with sandwiches, fruit and and perhaps a tart to finish off the experience. Wine usually was brought by one of the party members, or could be purchased by the glass at the Bowl. Everyone eats anywhere. Seriously. There is no rule. It is true Southern California. If you find a bench halfway up the trek to the nosebleed section, so be it. If you are lucky to claim a grassy knoll, that’s great, too. Most of the time, I have eaten right there, in my bench seat, where I will spend the next few hours enjoying music to the fullest. Patrons can get a bit unruly, but this is not a common occurrence. After all, we are not at a Dodger game. It is fun to see the individualism abound at the Hollywood Bowl. People show off their glassware, their dinnerware or their uniquely festooned eating space they’ve claimed their own for the evening. I have seen small candelabras, and lovely, miniature floral “table” arrangements!  As concert attendees walk past, they might comment and strike a conversation about where such things were bought or made. It is not unusual for discussions to be about someone’s cake and what they are celebrating—it is as if everyone forgets they are Southern Californian workaholics and become “family”. I love that.

This particular night, my meal was in a “box”…which is fancy wording for a seemingly overpriced seat and table to be shared with another person and a second set of seats and table. I soon learned whatever the price was, it was a BARGAIN, for sure! True, it was a tight squeeze, mind you, and I am so grateful my personal “waterworks plumbing” was not being problematic, or else it could have been a big drag. But, my extremely generous hostess, had ordered me one of the meals expertly prepared right there at the Bowl. It was scrumptious—crab, shrimp, avocado, all drenched in “raspberry this” and accented with “raspberry that”. Even the dessert carried the theme, but was the farthest from being tiresome.

To make the meal even more delicious, my sister who must be the most expert wine connoisseur this side of the Mississippi, had bought a bottle of a Pinot Noir I could not get over! I don’t normally get crazed over alcohol…but this was surely derived from the private stores of Bacchus himself. I remember the initial taste being crisp, refreshing, and then a quick peppery snap to follow. Next thing I knew, my mouth was savoring a smooth, Ever So Smooth, I can tell you, flow of flavor that was, as they say, “to die for”. Once, the relishing of wine had happened, I then became aware of a lilting, “the devil may care” state of mind. Oh, my goodness, this must be illegal it is so good. I asked C, my sister, about the wine, and she named it all in a very matter-of fact way—but when I got home and researched it, it was indeed a rare wine, so rare in fact that the winery had already finished selling their last bottles of this particular wine and year. Supposedly one other bottle was “out there” in circulation, but where? Anyhow, It is not a typical endeavor of mine to get all excited over a wine, but this deserved all the praise I could give. Truly, it was a finely crafted work of art. It was a perfect punctuation to a perfect meal, preceding a perfect concert.

So, the short white coated waiters whisked away any remnants of our meal, except for our glasses and beverages. The summer sky was beginning to present its entrancing show of first bright points of light coming out on a sky of teal. We began to hear the lulling sing-song of the crickets, and feel an  enveloping, soothing breeze that must have been born over the Hawaiian Pacific and floated its way to the inlands of Southern California. Even the crowd seemed to respond to these signal changes, all seeming to settle in and get their mindset ready for a night filled  with the notes of Brahms and Beethoven.

The program began with Brahms’ Tragic Oveture, continued with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #3 and culminated with Brahms’ Symphony #2. I must say, I know I am enjoying a fantastic concert when I feel like I have “discovered” classical music for the first time! That is how I felt that night. The overture was gripping and dramatic. Paul Lewis came out to perform the concerto, and he was nothing short of impressive. Having a big screen television to slightly turn my head to my left to see,  made me truly experience that performance…because the soloist was so up close, visually. Yes, I could see all of the Philaharmonic down on the stage, and yes I was situated closer than I have ever been as a concert goer, but to see every single note played on the keyboard was as if Mr. Lewis were in my very own living-room! Very, thrilling, indeed. Then, came the break. Everyone stretched and exchanged points of view. After intermission, the audience again settled into some serious, “the world will stop for this, tonight” musicianship. There is something about Brahms, anyway–he is so closely linked to Beethoven, so any Brahms will give a gentle, yet substantial hint as to what will be in store if you next have the privilege to listen to the Magnificent, heart-wrenching, soul-demanding, “you had better yield and kneel” Beethoven! The Brahms’ 2nd Symphony somehow seemed Epic that night—it was simply a powerful, emotional entity–the reason I love music…

The venue, the stars, the nature, the music and the miraculous ride to and from, created a magical mixture I’ll never forget. It was splendid to share it all with my sister, brother in law and colleague, but especially my sister. To know that we both love music so much and that here we live, in a wonderful sliver of land on this earth, called California. Here, the finest of things do sometimes transpire, despite the debacle our freeways often can be. Not this evening. Not on this date. This was a time for the memories. When I eventually reached my own little car back in the parking lot of a city far away from the Hollywood Bowl, I unlocked it, sat inside. and turned the key. I made sure the radio would not come on and adulterate the still drifting notes and motifs in my head. The scents and tastes, visuals and smiles, and the many surprises along the way remained safely locked into my memory to relish in the future. How glad I was that my beloved, quintessential California did not let me down. Her people charmed. The drivers commandeered. The chefs “painted” savory palettes to not be forgotten. The wine gave clarity. Nature inspired on cue. And the musicians, well, they did B &B proud. Such a night was a night triumphant, in my neck of the woods….Southern California.