Thursday, October 28, 2010

Rattlesnakes and Walnuts

My Grandmother had one wish before she died in a nursing home.  I will never forget her words.

             "I hope you have some good memories of me, instead of how I am now."

Nor will I forget the way she beamed at me when I told her of all I remembered about her home in Elsinore and the years following when Granddad retired and they moved to Oceanside. 

When I was a child we visited my grandparents often in Lake Elsinore, a small rural town surrounded by open fields and walnut groves.  The tiny retirement community was barely 50 miles away, but the trip always seemed to take forever.  We would start from Oceanside early in the morning and drive along Route 76 through endless groves of tangerines that grew along the San Luis Rey River.

Once outside our own city limits, we would keep careful watch at the side of Old Highway 395 for the "Monster Rocks", a name derived from my childish misunderstanding of Dad's term "mountain rocks."  Old Highway 395 passed through our local Indian reservations and I could always imagine  a feathered brave crouched behind one of the huge boulders, bow and arrow in hand, ready to pounce on us, the unsuspecting white man.  Dad even made up silly stories about the road signs and how they were names of famous Indians.  Back then no one worried about political correctness and a silly story was just a silly story.

My grandfather, affectionately known as Father Mac was pastor of a tiny Episcopal church located downtown on the lakefront.  He and Grandma lived in the church rectory outside of town on a single residential block surrounded by walnut groves and open fields.  Theirs was the first home visible for miles across the fields and I always watched eagerly for my grandmother as we approached from the edge of town.

Forty years ago we would walk for hours among the trees collecting sacks of fallen nuts.  The growers generously allowed area residents to glean the ground fall, provided we did not disturb the trees or harvest nuts directly from the branches.  Grandma had two walnut trees of her own, but we always looked forward to walking through the groves.

My grandfather, an avid gardener, had a small fenced in plot  behind the property line where he grew vegetables.  In the summer months we were not allowed beyond the little garden.  Dad was certain that if we played in the fields amongst our tumbleweed forts, surely one of us would find a rattlesnake and get bitten.  Although the occasional green garden snake could be found among the carrots and cabbage, in our secret defiance I never once saw a rattlesnake.

On Saturday afternoons Grandma would emerge from the house with cold drinks in colored aluminum tumblers or Popsicles that had funny cartoon character handles.  With treats in hand we watched the sky for parachutes.  Elsinore was home to one of the only jump schools in the region and if we were lucky we would see stunt divers link themselves into intricate groups and patterns.  We were entertained for hours on end, each performance punctuated with anticipation of drops from Sneaky Pete, the mystery pilot.  Sneaky Pete was silent and invisible.  We never knew he was there until suddenly the sky bloomed with as many as 20 parachutes.

Lake Elsinore is a thriving city now. The walnut groves and open fields are long gone.  Grandma's house, surrounded by tract homes, can no longer be seen from the edge of town.  The lake has receded so that the little church no longer overlooks the water and outlet malls have replaced the jump landings.  All that remains of the sleepy retirement community are the cherished memories of a grandchild.

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