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The Orange Sea

March 30, 1995|MICHELLE HUNEVEN

I am haunted by orange groves.

A few years ago, I was working on some fiction and I noticed how I wanted to give each character an orange grove. I couldn't say why. I liked orange groves well enough. And I lived near an orange grove as a child.

Orange groves were a mysterious, beautiful, forbidden place we children took every opportunity to enter, and once we did, a certain wild kind of play would happen. We could throw things, climb trees, run screaming, have a snack and quench our thirst without going home.

In the story I was working on, I had a female character named Camille, who lived in Monrovia and owned one of the last orange groves there. This was fiction--I was making it up out of thin air.

Still, in order for a story to be believable, it has to be possible. Were there any orange groves left in Monrovia? At a certain point, I began to lose confidence in my own conjuring. Perhaps I was making up nonsense. So one clear, cool afternoon, I put the dog in the car and drove east to Monrovia.

*

It was the day after a rain; there was snow on the mountains, the sky was pure blue, everything had a scoured, bright look. I chose a Monrovia exit off the 210 Freeway and drove north through quiet suburban neighborhoods, guided only by the sense I had in my story of where the groves might be.

I came to tract homes from the '50s and '60s, neighborhoods actually built in what were once citrus groves. On some blocks, I could trace an old row of lemon or orange trees allowed to remain as landscaping.

Beyond the tracts there was new hillside development, huge ungainly homes waiting to be inhabited. But no orange groves. What had I been thinking? This was the '90s: anybody who had acres of land in this town would not want to keep it in temperamental, low-profit trees.

Still, I kept driving, bearing east. I rewrote my story in my head: Perhaps Camille and her husband were in Monrovia because they bought one of the big ugly new homes on the hill, which meant they had money and no taste, and I began to hate them--and the story too.

An arrow indicated a sharp right turn in the road. I slowed down, and making the turn I came upon the trees I'd seen in my head: the grassy orchard floors, the orange fruit hanging heavily in the dark-green foliage. The shock of recognition was so strong, it brought tears to my eyes, and an enormous, if mystifying, sense of relief.

*

I did not stop and find out who actually owned the groves. I did not trespass. Somehow, it was enough to know that there were some orange groves left in these foothills. I envied the children in the neighborhood who surely, once or twice a year, must run, screaming and crazed with freedom, through those shady rows.

A few days after this little excursion, I spoke to my sister on the phone. She had just returned from a vacation in Italy. After she gave me the news of her trip, I said: "By the way, do you ever think about the orange groves by our house?"

There was a silence. "It's so weird that you should ask me that," she said. "I have been thinking about them. Around Florence, there is a lot of ugly, sprawling development that's gobbling lovely farmland. And I remembered how sickening it was when they cut down our grove and built those hideous tract homes. I count that, and Grandma Ida's death, as the two great losses of my childhood."

As she spoke, the past came back to me too: How for-sale signs went up, followed by sold signs, then neighborhood notices for zoning variances and pending development. Families on the street tried to stop the developer, but they had no real grounds: Single-family dwellings on ample lots was the best we could hope for. Daily, walking to and from school, we watched as the trees were cut down, the stumps uprooted, the acreage slowly transformed into a cul de sac of stucco ranch-style houses.

*

Until I went away to college, I refused, on principle, to befriend a single child who came to live on that new street.

My sister called it "our orange grove," but technically, the orange grove in question belonged to an absentee grower named Goldsmith. Years ago, to the west of Goldsmith's orange grove was a preventorium, a residence for tubercular adults who did not want to infect their children. Some of my father's relatives lived in that preventorium, and their uninfected families lived nearby. Some were buying an orange grove just to the east of Goldsmith's.

Lured by the promise of mild winters and good job prospects, my grandpa Harry also invested in this property. In 1923, he sold his house in Meriden, Conn., sold or stored most of his possessions, bought a 1922 Model T Ford and, with his wife and three sons, drove out to Altadena. My father, at the time, was 8 years old.

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