Thursday, July 9, 2009

Peach Stories

My grandfather raised peaches in Modesto. Back in my high school days, it was my sentence to spend Augusts at the ranch, helping with the peach harvest, in hopes that it might inspire in me a love for the farm. Sadly for my parents and grandfather, but happily for me, that dream never worked out. The experience of being up on a ladder picking peaches in triple digit heat, with sweat running down, furiously itching peach fuzz down my neck and body, did not convince me that this was a life I wanted.

There were, however, a lot of good things about that month in August. By trial and error, with tractor, truck, ancient Chevy sedan and farm pickup, I learned to drive through the orchards. My aunt and uncle also came for the summer to work and help my grandfather manage the harvest. They were only about ten years older than I, and sometimes allowed me to tag along to the drivein movie, or more frequently take me to this wonderful ice cream parlor in downtown Modesto, name now long forgotten. Bluits maybe? My uncle gave me my first plane ride in a local crop dusting biplane. They gave me glimpses into the larger world, only a blurry image from our remote tv lacking national park home.

I got to sleep on the enclosed porch, the closest thing I ever had to my own room, and had one of those old table radios, shaped like sort of an upside down heart with a flat bottom and flat sides. The dial was about two inches square, but The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid and a myriad of other programs of that era came in well. I liked getting up at 3 am because the irrigation water was available then, and my uncle needed some help or at least pretended he needed it.

The time with my grandfather was something special. He had a stern visage, but it was gone when he taught me about peaches, how to do a bud graft, how to look at the base of the leaf and identify the small glands, how to know the different varieties, how to find the one sweet freestone tree in an orchard of clings. He had a few branches that had turned into new special peaches, sweeter, and/or brighter colors, ripened earlier, later, etc. These he grafted onto other trees, looking for a new variety, maybe one that would carry the family name.

And there were always peaches. We didn't pick them from the trees; those were for the harvest, but we could get the ones that dropped on the ground from ripeness. My grandmother always had a peach something going - pie, cobbler, canning. But the one thing we always did was peel the peaches. Near the harvest time, and throughout the year I can remember the men who lived on the ranch and did the hard work, out on the spray rig in their yellow slickers. I remember the bags of pesticide in the barn, and the repeated caution from the adults: "always peel the peaches, remember, they've been sprayed". This memory and caution has stayed with me all my life. Till Susan. She washes them, but eats them skin and all. I still held back for years, willing to eat nectarines with just washing, but never peaches. Now, finally with the advent of organic peaches, I am finally eating and loving ripe juicy skin enclosed California peaches.

And just to give the blog thieves a little more work: ©2009


  1. Beautiful glimpse into your earlier life.

  2. What a beautiful memory. It almost feels like I was there.

  3. And after your sentence, your younger cousins spent summers working there - all of mine up through the end of college. I remember finally having the seniority to get that back porch room with its creaky screen door, the faint smell of the soil clinging to the work boots left there, and behind that a hint of peach around the work sink or the kitchen next door. I recall how you learned - for survival as a kid - to divide up the day into optimistic bits: 8 AM - great! we're already half way to the morning break, less time ahead than behind! And learning to drive a tractor with a trailer of props between the trees - and get it unstuck when you've cut a corner too close - was a starkly effective preparation for a life in urban traffic. But late in that era in a lovely turnabout, it was MY uncle and aunt - your parents - living there so that evenings after a long day - and a great meal - were my opportunities to know them. As a nexus for extended family through several generations, and evidently a similar experience for kids of similar ages in different times, I lament its passing....

  4. The ranch was finally sold to a developer several years ago. My parents had died a few years before that, and I never wanted to see it again, associated with memories as it was, let alone covered with housing.

    Finally this year we had to spend some time in the vicinity, so I drove by, just to get it over with.

    As I drove out the road there was the remains of another peach ranch on the other side of the road, untended, withered in the hot summer heat, and I dreaded the next mile, either mass housing or a dead orchard.

    Then I began to see green. As I passed the old property, the trees were lush and green, loaded with peaches, the fields were tended. My grandfather would have approved. The developer had postponed building with the current housing market, and had leased the orchard to an obviously caring rancher.

  5. Great post, Timecheck. Thanks for sharing this.