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Her Fingers Were Stained Black


I was a little girl when my grandparents had their walnut farm in Le Grand. My grandparents were down-to-earth, simple, hard-working folks, and for many years, my great-grandmother lived with them. They moved a lot. I think my grandmother must have had a bit of a gypsy soul because she seemed to crave the adventure of a new place. I definitely inherited this. But, no matter where they went or where they lived, they worked hard and led an honest and simple life.


My grandpa was a barber and my grandma did administrative assistant work, commonly referred to as a secretary in those days. At some point when I was a kid, they moved to Le Grand and bought a walnut farm. I have no idea what drew them to that area since I believe this was when they sold their home in Santa Barbara to move to the hot, arid location outside of Fresno. My cousins and I would visit for weeks in the summer. They had a kids’ dream for our room that was accessed by stairs that pulled down from the ceiling. It was like having our own tree house, pirate ship, or anything our imaginations conjured up once we were up in the converted attic space.


Nonnie, my great-grandma, moved with them, of course. I remember, even as a little girl, my grandma explaining to me that the walnut sales paid for their property taxes each year. This is my earliest memory of learning what property taxes were and my first lesson to understanding that there is yet more to pay once you own a property and home. It was so much work, but Nonnie didn’t have another job to go to, so she husked those walnuts by hand for many hours each day leaving her fingers and fingernails stained black for as long as they lived at that property.


I was walking through a walnut grove yesterday since I’m staying at a walnut farm while I’m traveling this week, and I was flooded with fond memories of the time my grandparents lived there. They kept a little farm with white Silkie chickens, had a dog named Brownie that sounded like she was talking in conversations with us, and bought a pony for when my cousins and I visited; Sparky. There was a railroad track across from the farm and grandpa showed us how to leave pennies on the track and run back to get them after the train had gone by. It was so fun to retrieve our railroad-track treasures; shiny, flattened pennies and take them back to our secret hideout at the top of the pull-down stairs.


Dinner was always familiar and comforting. It usually consisted of something like roast beef and potatoes, applesauce, and canned pickled beets, and there was always a loaf of sliced sandwich bread and butter on the table every night. She called it supper. Grandma made us red velvet cake each time we visited too. I loved it, and made it for many years once I had my own kids until I could no longer bring myself to pour a bottle of red food dye in my batter once the information about red food dye #40 was well-known.


The other thing I remember distinctly about Nonnie is that she made the best oatmeal of anyone on the planet. I’m not sure why it was so good and extra creamy, but it wasn’t instant or quick oats, that’s for sure. It seemed like it was on the stove for longer than I ever wanted to wait. Later in the day I would play Kings in the Corners with Nonnie, and she would watch Lawrence Welk in the evenings, after supper.


Sparky, our pony, was such a highlight for my cousins and I. I’m pretty sure every child wants a pony. We would take turns riding Sparky around the little farm. One day, I was walking Sparky on a lead rope and hopped over a small ditch, but when Sparky came down from his little hop over the ditch, he landed on the side of my ankle, his hoof digging into my skin and bone. Of course, I cried and ran into the house, and was most likely cheered up with a piece of grandma’s red velvet cake. That always made me feel better no matter the ailment, or if I was feeling homesick.


I’ll always remember those summers at my grandparents’ walnut farm and grandma’s red velvet cake. And, I still have a strange fondness for attic stairs. Although it hurt a lot when Sparky landed on my ankle, it sure didn’t keep me from walking that pony around the next day. And, I noticed later when Nonnie and I were playing Kings in the Corners at their next home after they had sold the farm and moved on, that her fingernails were no longer stained black. Her oatmeal was still the best on the planet.

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