In Whittier, we always had the Fourth of July dinner on the edge of the orange grove, under a pepper tree that must have been one of the largest in the world. There was one just as big in front of the house and its branches met the tree in the back, weaving a canopy over the entire house. And it was a big house. The living room was 24 feet by 32 feet and the kitchen not much smaller. The bedrooms, small rooms, were stuck on all four corners of the house, almost as afterthoughts.
The house was about 75 years old, fronted by a wide brick porch that went the length of the house. My husband, Doug, and I always seemed to have the big parties, the ones that overflowed with people's cousins and neighbors and an occasional house guest.
That was because we had the most room, and the grove was a great place for any number of children to play. The living room never seemed too full. Tim was the only kid in the first grade at St. Mary's Elementary School who could leave his electric train up all year. It wound around and underneath the buxom legs of the Decker & Lowndes square grand piano. There was room for the train, the village, the tunnels and trestles and yards of track.
Fourth of July was always the same wonderful, overstuffed day, with the children asking continually when it would be dark enough for the fathers to set off the fireworks.
Doug always barbecued steaks for the grown-ups and hamburgers and hot dogs for the kids. Not because he begrudged them the thick, succulent steaks but because they preferred the things they could eat in their hands.
Doug always carefully instructed me to have Don pick out the steaks. That was Don Nixon, whose family had a grocery store about a mile farther out on Whittier Boulevard.
With the steaks, of course, there was potato salad and corn and sliced tomatoes. The corn came from Mintier's, about half a mile away. When you drove down their driveway, you almost always had to wait a few minutes for someone who was just coming in from the field with a load of corn. I usually went to get it after I had put on the big pot of water to hold it. That corn was fresh as a bright summer morning.
Jean Milhaus Sharpless, who lived two groves up the road, introduced me to her cousin Don, who worked in the grocery store. Jean's husband, Ralph, had several horses and the four of us used to ride up into the Whittier Hills on long summer evenings, with the smell of sage, mesquite and mountain scrub making a sharp incense all around. Although there were many summers spent in the pine and fir forests of the high mountains, the fragrance of the Whittier Hills will always be California summer to me.
Ralph always had a freezer full of trout. Those two years on the grove in Whittier all seemed to be tied in with wonderful food. Ralph owned a field planted to alfalfa just south of our grove and used to work it with a pair of mules, Pete and Dolly. Good man that he was, he let Tim ride astride one of the huge animals as they made their way up and down the field, hauling the cultivator or the mower, depending on the season.
Those still, hot summers come back to me now because Barbara Maple was talking to me about Don Nixon. "He was the nicest, most thoughtful man I ever knew," she said.
Barbara and her husband, Earl, were the first people we met when we moved into that great, gangling house and they remain treasured friends now, with their blue shingle house on the ocean side of the Balboa Peninsula.
"Don used to drive down to the desert and get a car full of those Coachella ruby grapefruit and fill great big sacks with them and drive around and give every one of their friends a sack," Barbara said.
She and Don's wife, Clara Jane, have taken lots of trips together, places their husbands didn't want to go, like an antique tour of New England.
The last time I saw Don and Clara Jane was a couple of months ago. Their house is on a Newport Beach channel with the front patio right on the water and planted by Don with every beautiful flower in profusion.
In the courtyard in front of the house is every kind of shade plant. Don Nixon was the only one I have ever known who could grow maidenhair fern in rich, lacy clumps.
That day, the last time I saw Don, I gave him my evil recipe for barbecued lamb marinade. It has such unspeakables as butter and brown sugar and melted mint jelly and will make even avowed steak eaters ask for more.
Don Nixon died the other day after a long and arduous fight with cancer. He was a gentle, sweet and kind man, and those who really knew him will rejoice in the memory of his friendship and in his escape from the final pain.
I'm going with Barbara to see Clara Jane one of these days. I hope she has her lemon cream cake. I don't think I'll try maidenhair fern again, though. Don was the only one who could do that.