“Orange Grove” painting by Tom Brown
At the ripe old age of three, I began spending my days in a magical place. As previously stated, Mom and Dad were both working, and I’d been dishonorably discharged from preschool for “conduct unbecoming a three-year-old.” So Mom had no choice but to place me with someone far more laissez-faire than my former drill-sergeant preschool teacher (“It’s nap time, mister, and when I say, ‘Sleep!’ you don’t ask, ‘What if I’m not sleepy?’ you say, ‘M’am, yes, M’am!’”)
Enter Frieda. Frieda and Alfred lived in a rambling California rancho amid what had once been a sprawling commercial orchard. But their ranch hands (sons), now strapping young men, had moved out. So Albert was gradually selling off the property to developers, who were in turn reseeding the landscape with tract homes. “Three Models to Choose From: Pick A, B, or C (with C you get Egg Roll)!” This included our little suburban bungalow at the other end of the block.
But the rancho still encompassed quite a few acres. It was dense with citrus and other kinds of trees. In addition, Frieda grew tomatoes, onions, pumpkins, squashes in every known color (including octarine), and flowers full of flying critters who’d inspect me for nectar if I held still, which I seldom did.
Frieda, who I considered my Daymom, raised ducks, chickens, geese, rabbits, parakeets–anything that moved. Cats wandered where they chose, under the house, on the roof, in the trees, serving as volunteer ranch hands (or, rather, ranch paws), living off of the all-the-vermin-you-can-eat buffet. And so did I. Although I don’t recall trying mouse or rat. But I did carry a salt shaker in my pocket to sprinkle on fresh-picked tomatoes. Oranges? Nice. Lemons? Frieda’s lemonade was the best! I quickly learned to climb, and would lie in the branches of fig trees for hours, munching their sweet little seeds and making up stories about Frieda’s Magical Garden.
My earliest friends were the trees and animals. I loved them, and they loved me back. Well, most of them did. There was one particular goose named Queenie who took her name a bit too seriously. She’d peck me mercilessly any time I failed to show proper respect as one of her subjects. Frieda taught me to chant, “Pretty goose, pretty goose,” until Queenie finally harumphed and waddled away.
There was one particular tree, a rare kind of mango, that loved me best. Its soft, pulpy fruit tasted and smelled like heaven. Even after I fell from its branches, knocking the wind out, certain I’d die, I forgave it. Frieda rubbed the life back into to my chest, and the next day I was up in its branches, daydreaming. Interestingly, two decades later the memory of that unique fruit would change my life forever.
More on Frieda’s Magical Garden next week.