Salinas Valley Seasons
I quickly learned that life on a farm was dominated by the seasons, each with its own rhythm and personality.
As an only child, I would find myself often isolated and alone. But I was befriended by nature who delighted and stimulated my imagination by sharing the many wonders and secrets of its bucolic land. I became a keen observer of the seasons, eagerly monitoring the landscape's changing color palette.
In the spring the naked hills and land grew verdant coats of glossy grass. Sprouting seedlings poked their green heads through the moist earth. But it wasn't until after Easter, when the sun radiated sufficient warmth to coax buds open that a color explosion of wildflowers erupted over the hills and through the meadows. Purple lupine, orange poppies, acres of yellow mustard, pink irises--all grouped together on the countryside canvas impersonating an Impressionist watercolor. If Easter was early, the March winds would blow cold early afternoons, bending the grass blades so far back they undulated like an English moor.
At dusk, fragrant wildflowers mingled with the sweet smell of alfalfa lightly scenting the cool evenings with a hint of honeysuckle.
Springtime opened my pores to every sense. The freshness of newly sprouted grass invaded my nostrils. My taste buds watered, anticipating the "green" taste of the tender blade's moist sweetness. My ears became radar. I detected subtle sounds: the sft-sft of gophers impatiently shoving dirt out of their winters nests, the thump-thump of baby rabbits against soft dirt, (warning me I was too close), or zift, zift of lizards racing behind bushes.
I'd sit still and silent, my back against the sun, waiting to see what might appear. My patience was rewarded. Between the blades of grass, beetles cleared paths, ants loaded with cargo quick stepped and grasshoppers jumped so high they landed on my legs. Sometimes I saw animals emerge from winter refuges. Garter snakes slithering through the brush, or baby hares, nervously leaping out of bushes, like fluffy jacks-in-the-box. Even the reticent bucks and does might suddenly appear, proudly walking a spotted, wobbly legged fawn along a field. If I held my breath and sat perfectly still, they might come close enough for me to see the fawn's dappled spots and the twitch of her nose.
Early mornings when I awoke to go to school, dawn entered dressed in a transparent veil of fog. Dampness clung to the air as I walked to where the dirt road met the paved black top. Here the yellow school bus picked me up every day.
Birds greeted me along the way. Meadowlarks sang, mourning doves cooed and silly magpies hopped in front of me.
If spring was sublime, summer was frenetic. The farms down Highway 101, up Jolon Road, and through Loanoke Road, became a beehive of activity, abuzz with field workers, tractors, and harvesters that picked, packed and boxed a salad bowl of crops. Vegetable packing shed's conveyor belts hummed into action. Centipede long trucks lumbered up and down country roads, loaded with boxes of tomatoes, lettuce, carrots or sugar beets spilling over the containers. Field workers dotted the green fields like flowers with their colorful clothes.
In the summer, the pungent smell of ripening fruit and vegetables overpowered the scent of wildflowers, and years later, with the production of garlic, the southern portion of the Valley reeked with that odor.
Midsummer saw the hills shed their emerald coats for gold and the only green spots remained on madrona and oak trees.
School was out and as a child, summer meant days so long, no amount of activities could be made to last until day's light faded past my regular bedtime. Mornings started warm and sultry. Bees droned monotonous tunes outside my bedroom window swarming the sweet, smelling flowers my mother planted "so you will have sweet dreams."
I'd do my chores: make my bed, feed the chickens, sweep the porch and have the rest of the day stretched before me like a lazy cat. I could ride my bike down to the Salinas River and pretend I was searching for treasure but it was a forbidden pleasure. I couldn't take the chance that my mother's warnings about quicksand by the river not be true, especially having seen all those Tarzan movies where the bad guys die slow, watery deaths. Later I would realize it was her fear of vagrants known to roam the riverbanks that led to this white lie.
On hot afternoons when there was nothing to do but give into the heat and be lazy, my mother and I entertained ourselves by telling stories. My mother's stories were a mix of family history, legends, myths, and religious lessons, she'd also include movie story lines, radio dramas she'd heard or novellas written by writer Corinne Tellado in her favorite magazine Vanidades. My mother possessed a rich, mellifluous voice that insinuated itself into my imagination, playing my emotions like a harpsichord and commanding interest through her uncanny knack for mimicry.
I'd sit back, torpid, in a trance, letting my imagination wonder through her verbal imagery. My mind was the movie screen, her voice the projector. She encouraged me to read and share fresh, new stories with her. And, I too, desperately wanted to read lots of books and be able to tell her enthralling tales like the ones she told me. In my urgency to acquire stories, I quickly learned English. I also became a frequent and regular customer at the library. My only disappointment was not being able to check out more three books at a time. Summer was my father's busiest work season and he could only manage to drive into town once a month.
When school resumed in September and the fields lay ravaged with the stench of rotting squashed vegetables permeating the air, there was no doubt summer was over.
The autumn winds blew over the fields, whistling mournfully as they danced with whirlwinds of dust over the plant-littered earth. Soon they would be cleared, leaving the once-lush land bare except for the hay fields with their yellow bales of hay strewn like gold bricks.
In town, the streets slowly emptied each week as migrant workers headed back to their homes. The town looked abandoned and felt lonely. No longer did teenage boys stand on their usual street corners in their best black pants, white t-shirts and freshly pomaded hair, smoking and calling to each other. No longer did the tinny sound of the accordion playing ranchero music escape from the winging doors of El Resbalon, the farm workers' favorite saloon. Even the torrent of cars that flowed weekly through Broadway became a trickle. Texas license plates disappeared, not to be seen again until Spring when once again the orange plates would sprout along with the California poppies and brighten the gray, empty streets.
My father's work consumed him. He left home before dawn and worked into the night, harvesting one crop and clearing for another one. I learned the meaning of the expression "make hay while the sun shines." This season had the greatest potential for him to make overtime. The winter was too uncertain. If it rained, he would not work therefore not be paid. He had no contract, no benefits. So he drove the tractor from sun-up to sundown. And prayed the winter would bring enough rain for steady work in the summer and fall, but not so much as to unemploy him in the winter and spring.
Winter arrived like a ghost, its cold presence felt before its physical appearance seen. Cold, damp, foggy mornings descended over the valley covering the fields with sheets of crunchy frost.
The linoleum on my bedroom floor was an iceberg. I had to race to the bathroom in my stocking feet every morning. My teeth chattered like rattles while goose pimples swelled and scratched against a thin flannel nightgown. The wood-stoked stove in the kitchen provided the only warmth in the house. Mama made oatmeal every morning. As much as I disliked its mushy texture and lumpiness, nothing else could warm my insides and prepare me for the long walk to the school bus.
Outside the hills and the slopes lay fallow, waiting to be plowed in neat rows and wavy patterns. The birds were gone. The animals hidden. Winter, a stark world of primary colors: dark brown hills and fields, deep blue skies and foamy, thick white morning fog.
Girls were not allowed to wear pants in my grammar school. Morning after morning, I'd stand waiting for the school bus, hunched over, shivering against the cold and wind, as my legs grow stiff and blue from winter's chill. In the coldest of winters when the wind blew frigid and unrelenting, not even my warmest coat could keep winter's icy fingers from making my spine shudder.
After school, the school bus deposited me at the same spot I'd started out, but the road back home felt longer. The cold pummeled my back. It made my nose red and drippy and irritated my eyes. Only the aroma of my mother's cookies warmed me the instant I opened the door. Suddenly, the bad weather, demanding teachers and clannish classmates--external struggles that could be as trying as seasonal changes, did not matter as much. In my house, our little nest, with the smells of familiar cooking, favorite afternoon cartoon shows, ("Quick Draw McGraw" or "Yogi Bear"), and the lightness of my mother's cheery patter made the dark season bearable.
Then the rains came--in torrents, drenching the hard-caked soil and encircling the countryside with their gray cloak of desolation. Would this be the year the complacent Salinas River turned into a raging tide and flood? Would the crops be ruined or helped? Would there be enough work for Papa?
No animals. No flowers. No people. No answers. Just black rich earth all around, redolent of musk and dampness.
The land lay ready, wanton for seeding, eager to procreate new crops in the spring when the cycle would start all over again. Another season. Another crop. Another year in life of a farmwork's daughter in the Salinas Valley.