I married young. Too young. By the time I was 21, I was a mother four times over and a single mother to those four at the ripe old age of 24. Early in our marriage my then husband took me to live 300 odd miles away from Los Angeles in the farming area of the San Joaquin Valley. We lived in a little town called Snelling where I found out I had asthma due to all the trees. I loved living in Merced County. The little town we lived in was right along the Merced river and for the first time in my life, I saw salmon traveling upstream to mate. I used to take Phillip in his baby buggy to walk along the river with Albert and Bernadette skipping along. Bob wasn’t born then. There were almond orchards, olive orchards, peaches…much more. The big old Ragu plant pumped the steamy smell of tomato sauce into the air and I got my first job as a cook in a little restaurant because I was the only one in the small little town who knew how to make a chile relleno.
My then father-in-law Arturo was a long-time worker in the pisca (harvest/picking fruit) and taught me how to pick peaches without bruising them. That’s when I learned how horrible that work was. The fuzz from the peaches gets everywhere, makes you itch, gets in your lungs. Awful. I learned a lot during my time with my late father-in-law. He taught me to treat my peach fuzz produced asthma with garlic, honey and tequila (hey it was nasty but it worked), how to pick olives, tomatoes, make panela cheese and at least 100 other most useful things. We’d often spend evenings making tortillas together on Saturday nights when he’d show up for family dinners and he’d always teach me some new way of preserving the fruits and vegetables he’d bring from the field. He never showed up without a box or bag full of something: bell peppers, chiles, plums, squash, etc. I never knew what he’d bring but it was always freshly picked that day by his gnarled old hands and carefully picked over to ensure his grandkids had the best of what he had. There was so much love in those little boxes or paper bags that it always brought a tear to my eye that I’d never let him see. Arturo was a gruff old guy. He liked to seem rough and abrasive but I could see right through him for the tender-hearted and loving man he was. He was courtly too in that old-style Mexican way. When my husband was away in Los Angeles one week, I caught his car slowly driving up and down my street late at night and I knew, though I never let on that I did that he watched over us each night. He was our own personal angel de la guardia (Guardian Angel).
Don Arturo hated picking olives but he did it every year well into his old age. He was super quick at it and made ok money given how little pickers are paid. I’m not sure how it is now, but in the early 80’s pickers were paid by the pound. He wore a little belt with a basket around his waist, would climb a rickety ladder, and reach up with gloved hands to strip the olives off the branches swiftly. They’d expertly fall into the basket tied to his waist. I tried it and it was brutal. My shoulders felt like they’d fall off and lots of olives would spill, not making into my basket like his. The muscles in my neck were screaming after an hour, yet he did it uncomplaining for more than 8 hours a day, year after year. I don’t know how he did it. It was absolutely back breaking and exhausting, but he pulled in pound after pound after pound. That year, he taught me to cure them with lye and with each salty bite of olive, I had a new appreciation for the work that went into putting them on my table.
It’s a new century and Arturo is long gone, a distant but always fond memory of a truly good hard-working man that I wish my children had a longer chance to know. My little fixer upper here in North Hollywood has an olive tree sitting out front and as I teach my son and grandchildren how to gently strip the olives off the tree to prepare for curing, I tell them the story of how I learned it and of the grandfather and great-grandfather they never knew. I hope when we’re done picking and curing that they have the appreciation I do for the farm worker and what goes into putting the fruits of the field on our tables.