The Orange Sea

I am haunted by orange groves.

A few years ago, I was working on some fiction and I noticed how I wanted to give each character an orange grove. I couldn't say why. I liked orange groves well enough. And I lived near an orange grove as a child.

Orange groves were a mysterious, beautiful, forbidden place we children took every opportunity to enter, and once we did, a certain wild kind of play would happen. We could throw things, climb trees, run screaming, have a snack and quench our thirst without going home.

In the story I was working on, I had a female character named Camille, who lived in Monrovia and owned one of the last orange groves there. This was fiction--I was making it up out of thin air.

Still, in order for a story to be believable, it has to be possible. Were there any orange groves left in Monrovia? At a certain point, I began to lose confidence in my own conjuring. Perhaps I was making up nonsense. So one clear, cool afternoon, I put the dog in the car and drove east to Monrovia.

*

It was the day after a rain; there was snow on the mountains, the sky was pure blue, everything had a scoured, bright look. I chose a Monrovia exit off the 210 Freeway and drove north through quiet suburban neighborhoods, guided only by the sense I had in my story of where the groves might be.

I came to tract homes from the '50s and '60s, neighborhoods actually built in what were once citrus groves. On some blocks, I could trace an old row of lemon or orange trees allowed to remain as landscaping.

Beyond the tracts there was new hillside development, huge ungainly homes waiting to be inhabited. But no orange groves. What had I been thinking? This was the '90s: anybody who had acres of land in this town would not want to keep it in temperamental, low-profit trees.

Still, I kept driving, bearing east. I rewrote my story in my head: Perhaps Camille and her husband were in Monrovia because they bought one of the big ugly new homes on the hill, which meant they had money and no taste, and I began to hate them--and the story too.

An arrow indicated a sharp right turn in the road. I slowed down, and making the turn I came upon the trees I'd seen in my head: the grassy orchard floors, the orange fruit hanging heavily in the dark-green foliage. The shock of recognition was so strong, it brought tears to my eyes, and an enormous, if mystifying, sense of relief.

*

I did not stop and find out who actually owned the groves. I did not trespass. Somehow, it was enough to know that there were some orange groves left in these foothills. I envied the children in the neighborhood who surely, once or twice a year, must run, screaming and crazed with freedom, through those shady rows.

A few days after this little excursion, I spoke to my sister on the phone. She had just returned from a vacation in Italy. After she gave me the news of her trip, I said: "By the way, do you ever think about the orange groves by our house?"

There was a silence. "It's so weird that you should ask me that," she said. "I have been thinking about them. Around Florence, there is a lot of ugly, sprawling development that's gobbling lovely farmland. And I remembered how sickening it was when they cut down our grove and built those hideous tract homes. I count that, and Grandma Ida's death, as the two great losses of my childhood."

As she spoke, the past came back to me too: How for-sale signs went up, followed by sold signs, then neighborhood notices for zoning variances and pending development. Families on the street tried to stop the developer, but they had no real grounds: Single-family dwellings on ample lots was the best we could hope for. Daily, walking to and from school, we watched as the trees were cut down, the stumps uprooted, the acreage slowly transformed into a cul de sac of stucco ranch-style houses.

*

Until I went away to college, I refused, on principle, to befriend a single child who came to live on that new street.

My sister called it "our orange grove," but technically, the orange grove in question belonged to an absentee grower named Goldsmith. Years ago, to the west of Goldsmith's orange grove was a preventorium, a residence for tubercular adults who did not want to infect their children. Some of my father's relatives lived in that preventorium, and their uninfected families lived nearby. Some were buying an orange grove just to the east of Goldsmith's.

Lured by the promise of mild winters and good job prospects, my grandpa Harry also invested in this property. In 1923, he sold his house in Meriden, Conn., sold or stored most of his possessions, bought a 1922 Model T Ford and, with his wife and three sons, drove out to Altadena. My father, at the time, was 8 years old.

There were 48 navel orange trees on the Hunevens' new property. They took out 10 or 12 trees to make room for the house, another four for the garage. Then my grandfather wanted a vegetable garden, and he took out a few more, and more after that to make room for a few other kinds of fruit trees. My grandmother put in a pond. Soon enough, you couldn't tell it was an orange grove anymore.

My father and his brothers and friends found the pristine, private stillness of Goldsmith's intact orange groves every bit as enticing as my sister and I would 30 years later. During the Great Depression, Goldsmith's groves also proved lucrative to young boys. My father and three of his friends sold large buckets of oranges door-to-door for a quarter. When the navel trees on the home place were out of season, the boys slipped next door to fill their buckets.

When they each had made a dollar, they went downtown, into what is now Old Town Pasadena. In those days, a dollar bought round trip bus fare, three movies, lunch at the cafeteria and, finally, a huge bag of day-old bakery goods to be eaten on the bus ride home.

*

The story that my sister and I made my father tell again and again was about the day he filled the bath tub with orange juice.

He was 15 or 16 years old, the Depression was in full swing, and he and his older brother and two friends were bored. My grandmother had a Kitchen Maid electric juicer, and the Valencias next door were ripe. The boys didn't set out to juice a zillion oranges, they just got going and there was nothing in particular to stop them. Some picked, some cut open the oranges, some juiced. When they ran out of containers for the juice, they gave the bath tub a good scrub and filled it, if not to the brim, to the level of a satisfying bath.

"It was 90 dozen oranges," my father says.

They invited everyone in the neighborhood to dip into their handiwork. People came and marveled. Although the sight of a bathtub filled with juice would be amusing at any time, in those lean years it was no doubt a rare and startling vision of abundance--and even profligacy--when everything else was in tight supply.

*

The part of the story I always liked the best was when my grandfather, an electrician, came home from work. He was tired, he was dirty, he was cranky. And his bath tub was full of orange juice.

"Did he get mad?" I would always ask. My grandfather was famous for his black moods and explosive temper.

"Oh, yes, he got very mad."

"Then what did he do?"

"He started laughing."

In a day or two, everyone who wanted to had seen and drunk from this orange sea, the juice itself was turning sour and tangy, and someone pulled the plug.

Of course, such pilferings did not go unnoticed by Goldsmith, who came from wherever he lived to spend several, if not many, Saturdays reinforcing the eastern fence. "Oh, he'd give us the darkest, dirtiest looks," my father says. "He knew who was stealing his oranges. There was no mistaking it. All the trees nearest our house were stripped."

By the time my sister and I were old enough to invade the groves, the fence was prodigious, thick: an impenetrable snarl of old, splintering wood posts and rusty barbed wire, rotted bamboo screening and fiberglass panels--I even remember some decomposing fabric in there. We children were strictly forbidden even to think about entering the groves.

Still, in the corner of the property, there was a hole just large enough for a small child to slip through.

*

In 1947, my father bought a third of an acre from a woman who was subdividing a lemon grove around the corner from his old home place. The first year he owned it, the woman he bought it from came in and harvested all the lemons on his property, a practice that, he discovered much to his own chagrin, was perfectly legal. He laughs about it now and says: "I paid off my karmic debt to Mr. Goldsmith in one fell swoop."

The next year, my father started building a house, met my mother and married her.

My sister and I would walk around the corner to my grandparents' home, passing first the preventorium (which was by then a boarding school for children with cerebral palsy) and then Goldsmith's fenced-in groves.

From the outside, the orange grove appeared orderly and bucolic, like so many green-walled avenues, the trees rounded, uniformly spaced, their trunks smooth, painted white to the waist. The orchard floor looked flat and dreamy, carpeted in soft green ground cover--clover, grass, alyssum. This was illusory, of course. The trees were thorny if you climbed up into new growth, and the dirt beneath them was weedy and rutted and full of stickers. And there were so many snails that no matter how hard you tried to watch your step, it was crunch , crunch , crunch everywhere you went.

We didn't get into the orange groves often--two, three times a year, but I remember crazed games of hide and seek, dirt-clod fights, good hits (given and received) with fruit hard as baseballs.

*

There were warm days late in the spring when the fruit was ripe and the blossoms had simultaneously exploded, and the smell of the groves infused the neighborhood like a major perfume spill. But the grove itself, when you were in it or near it, had its own smell. Years of fruit-fall and dropped blossoms and leaves had composted into dirt and pulverized into dust that was pungent, spicy, earthy. It was also the smell of my grandmother's house and yard, which was, after all, once an orange grove.

My grandmother died in 1958; the groves came down a year or so later. To this day, the smell of orange groves is tangled up with memories of my own childhood, my grandparents and the stories my father told us over and over of his childhood.

When my father and mother retired in the '70s, they retreated north, into the citrus-filled valley of Ojai. My father planted citrus of his own on their foothill lot: Meyer and Eureka lemons, Navel and Valencia oranges, tangerines, limes, tangelos and grapefruit.

"Do you ever catch kids stealing your fruit?" I asked him recently.

"Yes, a few times I've seen them out there," he says.

"And what do you do?"

"Oh," he says with a laugh, "I look at it sympathetically."

ORANGE MUFFINS

For several years in the '80s I worked at the River Island Country Club in Springville, Calif., another area rife with citrus. I made muffins and desserts in the restaurant's kitchen. One day, the owner of the club, who also owned several hundred acres of groves, suggested that the kitchen try to use more oranges. Here is the recipe for orange muffins I devised.

2 cups sifted flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice

2 eggs, beaten

1/4 cup melted butter

2 tablespoons orange zest, chopped

Raw sugar

Sift together flour, salt, sugar, baking soda and baking powder in mixing bowl. Set aside.

Beat together orange juice, eggs, melted butter and orange zest in separate bowl. Pour wet ingredients into sifted dry ingredients. Combine with few swift strokes. Do not worry about lumps.

Fill cups of well-greased muffin tins 3/4 full. Sprinkle tops with raw sugar. Bake at 400 degrees 20 to 25 minutes.

Makes 12 muffins.

Each muffin contains about:

142 calories; 184 mg sodium; 46 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 21 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0.08 gram fiber.

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