My paternal grandfather was from Corning, in Northern California. He worked at CalTrans before it was CalTrans, supervising the maintenance of a network of highways up in that part of the state. At some point after that, he became a walnut farmer in Anderson, living in a neat little house at the edge of his walnut orchard. His trees were mostly English walnuts, but there were a couple of black walnuts and some pecans. On one side of the house was a pear tree that gave fruit that tasted of summer sun.
Grandpa used to send us a box of walnuts at harvest; he'd ship it down on the bus. Each year's box would spend the winter in the garage, across from the washing machine. Mom would go down there periodically to fill up a big bowl with nuts, then we'd sit around the family room and crack walnuts while we watched tv. Mom had only a couple of actual nut crackers, but Dad had his vise grips, which worked even better. She would put the shelled nuts in rinsed milk cartons, then put those in the freezer to be ready when she was going to make cookies. (Mom put chopped walnuts into chocolate cookies, oatmeal cookies, Grandma's cookies, and chocolate chip cookies.)
***There were always some pecans in with all the walnuts, but those we just ate as we cracked them. I don't think pecans ever made it into anything except the nearest mouth.
We kids would try to get as many perfect half shells as possible. (Every once in a blue moon, usually using the vise grips, we'd split a nut into two perfect halves.) We'd wipe the bits out of each perfect half shell, then melt some wax, drip it into the shell, and stick a toothpick in it. Then we'd put a little sail on the toothpick and have another walnut shell boat to sail in the bathtub or down the gutter after a rain.
Grandpa's orchard was an almost Dr. Seussian kind of place. The trees' branches spread out broadly to all sides, but the trunks were kept neat and clean, with the ground cleared of everything except the occasional dropped leaf. It was like a forest drawn by a five-year-old: no bushes and no critters, just the trees that touched each other overhead and blocked out the sun. Part of the fence around the orchard had pigs on the other side of it. The pigs weren't Grandpa's, they belonged to a neighbor, but they were on the other side of Grandpa's fence that we could climb and hang on so we could watch the pigs do their piggy thing.
There was a barn, too, by the orchard, a barn without animals, just machinery. Lots and lots of old machinery. Dad once pointed out to me the corner where Grandpa's refrigerator sat out World War II. Grandpa had gotten the refrigerator because the Rural Electrification Project was going to bring him electricity, but then the war broke out, the project was put on hold, and the refrigerator was left in the barn for the duration. After the war, electricity finally did come to Grandpa's place and the refrigerator got to come out of the barn and into the house.
And Grandpa had his tractor. I don't know what kind it was, but it was big. At least, to me it looked big. Grandpa was allowed to give us rides on it, so long as we didn't go outside the confines of the orchard. He would put the two little girls on his lap, one on each leg, the boys atop the engine compartment or standing between his legs so they could steer, and my older sister and I hanging off the back, one on either side of his seat. We rumbled and bumbled, bounced and jounced, up and down between the trees, out of sight of parents and having a wonderful time.
One time, he took us out of that orchard anyway. I don't remember if he had all of us or just the older four, but he took us on a rumbling ride down a road and around a corner to a little store stuck off by itself. He stopped the tractor outside the store and we all piled off to go into the store in search of goodies. Grandpa came in behind us and told someone, in a voice as proud and resonant as if he were introducing royalty, "these are my GRANDCHILDREN." I wasn't looking his direction when he said that, I don't know who he said it to, but I heard the love and pride in his voice as clear as could be. We were his grandchildren, and that thrilled him. As the fourth of six children born within an eight-year span, there weren't many times where I felt special, but that day, I did. I was Grandpa's granddaughter, and that made me special.
***A few years ago, I finally told our parents that Grandpa took us out of the orchard. They hadn't known.
Grandpa died when I was eleven.
Thirty years ago, I got my favorite Christmas present ever. I was in Japan, not just far from home but far from home in a place where Christmas was not quite like Christmas in the states, and then I got my present. My older sister had come across a picture and gotten enlarged copies made for all of us. The picture was of the six of us, with Grandpa, on his tractor. Grandpa was in the seat, leaning around my oldest brother who was standing in front of him; maybe Grandpa was showing him how to drive the thing. The other five of us were squashed all together straddling the engine compartment. Our youngest sister was in the front, laughing at someone; our second brother was holding her, with my older and next younger sisters and me squeezed behind him.
That's my only picture of Grandpa. I look at that picture and can taste those nuts, see those pigs, and feel the bounce of the tractor as I balanced on some piece of metal by a back tire and hung on to the back of Grandpa's seat. I look at that picture and can see Grandpa using his hammer to crack a black walnut for my older sister, who loved them. (He did that on the good coffee table in the living room. It's a wonder he lived until I was eleven.) I look at that picture and hear Grandpa telling that sister and me stories after we'd gone to bed one night when he and his wife and my uncle and aunt and cousins were down for a religious convention in the area. That picture is a box of walnuts in a cold garage, it's half-gallon milk cartons labeled 'nuts,' it's the joy of a perfect half shell and a little boat whirling away down the stream in the gutter after the rain. It's the dirt of the orchard dappled by the sun that filtered through the leaves of the walnut trees and the juice of a perfect pear still warm from the sun.
That picture is love, because we were HIS grandchildren and he was proud of us.