Remembering a Farm Christmas

Where old and young blended together, and diversity was natural, not conscious.

The pre-1968 decade is often written off today as a quaint, if not toxic world of white male supremacy, replete with homophobia, sexism, and racism, and without the material benefits bequeathed to us by Silicon Valley or the secular enlightenment from higher education. I remember life 60 years ago differently, at least as lived in rural America on a small farm, a 135-acre vineyard and orchard southwest of Fresno. The chief cultural differences from today were family intimacy and proximity. We all lived on the same farm on different corners of our small spread and had no notion of boundaries or space.

In a world without smart phones, videogames, and the Internet, old and young blended together, at least in the sense that the role of us in our preteen and teenage years was on a moment’s notice to act as guardians of our grandparents — climbing up trees to pick them persimmons or oranges, or to go under the house to fix a leaky pipe or to chauffer them to Masons and Eastern Star. Their jobs in turn were to caution us of the dangers of too much exuberance — so my grandmother’s “You’ll catch a cold without your coat on,” or “did you say ‘Thank you’ to the host when you left the Christmas party?” Sometimes they reminded us what life on our farm was like before the turn of the century, as in growing up without electricity, indoor plumbing, or gas engines.

I realize today that we kids were what we now call “free-ranged,” in the sense that we had no locks on any of the doors of our farmhouses. Even at seven in the morning we simply took off into the orchard and vineyard and by late afternoon might end up anywhere we pleased on the farm, without much worry about checking in with our parents. Everyone was a guardian of everyone else. Certainly, there then were few of the problems — with gangs, chop shops, and meth labs — that characterize the Central Valley of today.

We instead were terrified as seven- and eight-year-olds about childhood fantasies of large golden eagles and red-tail hawks on the farm picking us off our bikes and whisking us away to huge nests in the cottonwoods near the pond. If we went barefoot and ended up with feet full of goatheads, our collective parents — my grandparents, aunt and uncle, and two hired men, Delmas and Manuel George — would laugh about such “a fool thing to do” or “stickers are a good way to learn to wear shoes.”

Diversity was natural, not conscious. Our farm neighbors were Japanese, Punjabi, Armenian, Mexican American, and German. Stereotypes were far more positive than biased. So my grandfather would say in admiration, “No one can farm as well as the Japanese,” and “The Punjabis work into the night”. My aunt would learn recipes for Armenian food and say, “Why cannot we eat such delicious food?” and so on. So-called WASPs were rare in our rural neighborhood.

Solidarity instead was by class rather than by race. Everyone griped about Sun-Maid’s “final price” for raisins, or the pitiful percentages of government-regulated “free tonnage” that could be sold inside the U.S. We all both worshiped and hated the co-op. The “packers” were stereotyped crooks, taking the place of the black-hat railroads of my grandparents’ day. The neighbors called the local Safeway “the crooked S” because they paid five cents a pound for plums and sold them for 29 cents. Populist anger was unchanged since the days of the Mussel Slough Tragedy, a few miles south of us, and memorialized by Frank Norris’s The Octopus.

I grew up with the dreaded talk of the “mortgage,” and therefore of the need to get along “with the Federal Land Bank,” and with the paranoia to pay all your taxes and your bills within a day or two upon arrival.

My grandfather never quite made the full transition from horse to tractor power. In the late 1950s, the barn and shed were still full of reins, harnesses, and horseshoes. I do not remember my grandfather ever driving a tractor, a task left to us and the hired man. He knew as little about starters and points as he did quite a lot about matched teams. The farm’s avenues and turns were always far too narrow, given they were laid out for wagons, not Cases, Masseys, and Olivers. When I was ten, our Native American hired man Joe Carey taught me how to drive the Ford Jubilee hands-free with my feet on the drive rods, and warned me about “hoop snakes” that could catch their tails in their mouths and roll like wheels faster than my bike — and who knew what they would do when they caught us.

To a small boy it seemed that siblings, cousins, uncles, aunts, neighbors, workers, and friends drifted in and out all day long, especially during Christmas holidays. There was no such thing as being unwanted, much less any need for invitations. Fear of strangers was absent. People just showed up and my parents and grandparents shoved coffee and desserts in their faces and pulled up chairs. There was no concept of “private space” or “downtime,” much less “quality time” at all. To the contrary, the worst fate was “living alone” or “having no one to visit” or proving inhospitable.

So on holidays I never found it odd that an array of relatives, friends, and neighbors were at the door or in the driveway. On Christmas Eve, single men and women in their sixties and seventies seemed to appear from out of the air, longtime family friends and friends of friends of friends and with even vaguer connections. My parents often had us in our teen years taxi them from and to their homes with packets of food. I recall a few arrived via bus or train to Fresno from Los Angeles or San Francisco. Most had grown up on farms in the 1920s nearby and regretted “selling” or “losing” “the place”

People, not price, adjudicated commerce. When we died, the undertaker Mr. Page buried us. When sick, “Doc Nielsen” poked us with a huge medieval reusable steel syringe. You called “Ivar Johansen” the rural constable when one of the neighbors got too drunk. Mr. Brightwell (fitted out with green shade hat, elastic-band sleeve supporters, and smelling of strong fruity cologne from large jars on his counter) cut all our hair. When the pump or the power went out, we called the same men, the Sharpses or Coxes — at least if the chatterboxes and snoops on the “party line” of about ten farm families would free up the shared telephone.

Once my grandmother rushed to the phone when the operator rang to announce a “person to person” and “collect” call from a distant relative in extremis. I thought she had gone to heaven. I remember Mr. Thompson, the local Ford mechanic, coming out late at night to fix the fuel pump on the little Ford 8N stuck out in the orchard. He was African American, 6′ 4″, solid muscle, and a mechanical genius. My dad, about the same size, and a good mechanic in his own right, went out to help him. The Thompsons lived a couple of miles away; I think four of his ten children were either valedictorians or student-body officers. Most assumed that the Thompson kids were smarter than most everyone else.

Work was curative, the harder and more, the healthier for all. On Saturdays, we picked up moldy walnuts, or tied vines, or sprayed Johnson grass with “weed oil.” I remember the 1960 smokey, secondhand blue chain saw (“bluey,” we called it) always as a terrifying accident waiting to happen.

Even during the Christmas school break, I cannot remember a day when anyone just “sat.” If you were caught sneaking in to catch a game on the small black-and-white TV during the day or even reading in a chair, my father would roar, “This isn’t the old-man’s retirement club, let’s get to work on the farm.” That usually meant my brothers and cousins did the work that was not hired out, or at least the dirty sort of labor that saved us money, such as pumping out the septic tank far out into the vineyard (illegal now, of course), then climbing down into the empty tank to scrape the grease and stubborn excrement from the bottom and hoisting it up in buckets, or walking down vineyard rows next to the road, picking up cans, bottles, and “wet” garbage. Priming the ancient gas pump could mean an occasional blast of sewage in the face.

In an age before sophisticated medicine, 19th-century folk remedies (my maternal grandparents were born in 1890) ruled during the holiday flu season. Colds came from being too cold, vomiting always from bad food. My grandmother had strange tall dark bottles of things like alum, castor oil, Mercurochrome, iodine, and codeine cough medicine high up in the cupboards, and drawers of hot-water bottles, enema bags, and scary reusable syringes and droppers. I still remember neighbors who “suffered bouts of melancholy” or “had the rheumatism.”

One talked of someone’s “toughness” or “sickliness.” You were judged likely to remain healthy based on your posture or “color” — the presence or lack of blood under the skin. Doctors could not do much other than cut and stitch. My father had about seven major operations, most from old football injuries or wear and tear on the farm. Relatives talked in saintly terms of “Vitamin B-12,” which meant less liver to be forced-fed.

The degree to which these often dangerous surgical procedures were successful hinged on our “will power” and “constitution,” as if by sheer force of nature the patient decided that the removal of a crushed disc, the patching of a bulging hernia, or the fusion of a crushed elbow depended on one’s own choice to get well. When I was five, the older family still talked of having “a cancer”; by 15, we of the modern generation were lectured about the miracle new “chemotherapy.” Either way, it seems most of the women on the Davis side of my family died of cancer before between 30 and 65.

What I remember most, until my two parents landed good off-farm jobs when I was in primary school, was the sense of calm despite the lack of money on the farm, albeit characterized by the constant refrain “If we make any money this year, we will . . .” or “If the harvest is good, then we will buy” this or that. But the harvest rarely proved adequate, it seemed.

One “had” money based on parsimony, not income. My grandfather lectured me at eleven on the need for “responsibility,” defined solely in terms of the need to cut back, hoard money, spend nothing, and then step up generously but stealthily to pay the tab at weddings, funerals, and general catastrophes. That is, to have the wherewithal “to keep it all going” and thereby “to save the farm” for the rest. And he did, too. The point, I guess, was always, as he said, “to last one more day.”

We were born into a 900-square-foot, one-bedroom house, in which the five of us lived until I was eight. Then my father had a grand idea to build by himself a new house next to the existing old one (my father had bought our tiny frame house at an auction and had moved it on to our farm).  

He finished half of the new house— at least up one side to the crest of the planned pitched roof — with three bedrooms and a bathroom, but never completed the second half. (In his defense: He fell ten feet off the roof and destroyed his arm on the cement.) So, from then on, we always lived in two houses, eating and talking in the tiny old farmhouse and then walking outside fifteen feet away to the “new,” unfinished half-house to sleep. My twin brother still lives there, I down the road in our grandparents’ house, built by our great-great-grandparents in the 1870s.


To this day, wherever I am in September, whether in Palo Alto, Michigan, New York, or overseas, I seem to become physically sick at the sight of clouds and rain. For most of my life I have grown up with thousands of raisin trays drying on the ground between the vineyard rows (until the late 1950s, on wooden trays, thereafter on paper), an entire year’s work predicated on hot clear drying weather between September 1 and 15. A single unseasonable storm on four occasions ruined everything we had, through torrential downpours that rotted the half-dried raisins (“frog bellies”) and left a hundred acres smelling like distillery. A good Christmas hinged on having all crop saved and the “sweat” boxes of raisins delivered to the co-op.

I still remember the 1958, the 1976, the 1978, and the 1982 tropical storms, when the family ran out into the vineyard to “roll” the half-dried grapes into “biscuits” (rolled up paper trays) to ride out the weather, keep the half-grape, half-raisin fruit dry and perhaps salvageable with the return of good weather, and at least stop the omnipresent mold. In 1982 I scolded my mom, then 60, and one of California’s first female appellate-court justices, for getting in the mud on her hands and knees with my dad to “roll.”

It was only when I was in college that I realized how strange my grandfather had been to mortgage his small farm in the early 1940s to send his three daughters to college. (Two received law and graduate degrees from Stanford). He believed that, without sons, and with various dependents, his daughters must have an education (or as a sort of lifelong dowry, perhaps) to “save” the farm after his demise.

Educational pretension was taboo. Degrees meant nothing if you could not do farm work and fix things. The onus on the college graduate was to prove to others that you were as good as farm workers, not for them to prove that they were as wise as you thought you were. Stupid was not knowing how to weld or to disc 20 acres; smart did mean having read Camus.

World War II still loomed large. I was born eight years after its conclusion. My disabled cousin Beldon who suffered brain damage from Dengue fever while serving in the Pacific biked out from town to help during the harvest. He sometimes talked of his brother Holt, killed in Normandy, and pointed to his head to suggest where the German sniper’s bullet entered. My father began suddenly drinking late in life, when I was in high school. I enjoyed some of that because for the first time in minute detail he just as abruptly began describing 40-some missions in a B-29 over Japan.

Almost every male over 40 in the environs had various war stories. My grandparents often referred to the neighbor “who was at Pearl Harbor,” the banker “who bailed out over Germany,” and the constable “who was with the Marines who took Guadalcanal.” We were outfitted with War-surplus coats and caps, camped out with retractable green shovels and canteens, and stacked up dozens of treated green wooden ammunition boxes full of bolts, nuts, and screws in the shed.

I was taught to keep quiet and learn farming from the two hired men, usually misfits who found a home with our oddball family, which many of our neighbors thought we were. (When I was 26 and farming, an elderly neighbor visited to explain that my misguided family all left the farm to “get schooling” and then came back and made less money than those who never left. Or, as she put it, “Does it take a doctorate degree, young man, to prune vines any better?”)

Christmas seemed to start in early December, when my parents brought out different ancient ammo boxes of handmade ornaments and first-generation ancestral electrical lights, wired to huge fuses, and patched with electrical tape, that often shorted out and sparked when plugged in. We still had to fill brown paper lunch bags with sand and candles, and on foggy nights in December lit them as Christmas beacons along the dirt driveway.

Christmas catastrophes never stymied my mother and father, the cooks, and host at huge family dinners. They were amused by holiday disasters. When the fuse box inevitably blew owing to the Christmas lights (always shorting out) and oven on all day, when three of four burners on the stovetop were out, the cesspool overflowed from too many guests, or one of us threw a baseball or shot a BB through the living-room window, my mother would laugh and say to no one in particular as she pulled out the turkey, “Wouldn’t you know it would all happen on Christmas Eve.”


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