The urge to lace up my hiking shoes, tight, to explore, to rid myself of unbalance drove me to the hills. During the hike my mind cleared and I thought of poetry.
I usually keep a small notebook with me and jotted some lines down whenever I took a break. After the hike, I felt the weight of current events fall away, my shoulders relaxed, my mood lightened. I can tackle another week.
Each photograph inspired a poem:
Trails layered themselves, invited me up, to clearer air, brighter vistas.
The glassy blue ocean behind me, the zig zag paths lie before me,
behind me an ocean breeze, a snap of frigid air.
Trees appear sprouting limbs, haphazard grasps for sky.
I need to see those trees, sun myself on the fallen log nearby.
Rocks tumble beneath my feet, pebbles slide, until I reach the pinnacle.
Handkerchief sails make their way to Chumash lands,
ancient islands, ridges of a dinosaur back submerged in the ocean.
Glossy ravens, red speckled beetles,
a hawk circles on a parasail of feathers above.
Rock people gather in homage to the sea.
Remind me of balance even with sharp edges on round surfaces,
A couple of months ago I wrote about Ekphrasic Poetry. There is also such a thing as creating a story from a photograph, or Ekphrasic Prose.
This story is based on a painting housed in our county library. The Ortega Adobe is a California landmark that still stands 160 years after it was built.
House of Dreams
María Conception awakened with a sharp intake of breath. Why did the man in her dream try to grasp her hand? He was a shadow, but his presence familiar.
The sun burned hot through the muslin curtains covering the window. She pulled her damp nightdress away from her chest and rose slowly, allowing her arthritic knees time to acclimate to movement. The clatter of pots, a knife chopping against a heavy board, and the kettle whistling sounded through the room.
Her legs moved slowly, shuffling towards the nightstand and the pitcher of water. After a rinse of cool water on her face, she stroked wet palms over her silver mane, twisted a rope of hair to the nape of her neck.
“Buenas días, Doña María.” Her new daughter-in-law wiped her hands on a faded blue apron before she took an earthenware cup from the cupboard. “The coffee is ready.”
“Maybe today,” Maria Conception said noticing lines of worry across her daughter-in-law’s forehead. She sat heavily on the wood chair, its seat smoothed from years of use.
Both women cast glances towards the kitchen window, searching the sky for answers, wondering if bad weather approached or the bloated clouds were passing through. “I hope they return soon,” her daughter-in-law said.
Woven baskets filled with chiles sat next to the charcoal brazier, ready for roasting. “Canning day,” María Conception said. Soon, the familiar scent of burning coal and the sting of chile vapor rose, filling the home, before escaping through open windows.
María Conception instructed her daughter-in-law on the correct way to make chile sauce and the virtues of canning. She needed to know the Ortega family’s cooking secrets so she could provide for an unstable future when it arose. She began with the telling of the family history.
Their adobe, given to them in a land grant, stood on Chumash land spanning the years between Mexican territory and California statehood. Emigdio, María Conception’s husband, built the house.
She remembered the day he returned with his horse sweaty from pulling the carreta filled with redwood beams he found in an abandoned adobe in Rancho Sespe. Their river rock foundation would now have an equally sturdy roof. “A good home,” she said.
They raised thirteen children who worked their fields, tended the goats and provided for their needs.Their adobe withstood the flood of 1867 and the fire which burned their rafters of giant reed cane tied with rawhide. The odor lingered for months. The rugged beams survived, slightly scorched. “A miracle,” María Conception said.
Minutes passed to hours as the chile roasted, was peeled, and plucked clean of seeds. Unspoken anxiety stretched in the space between the two women. María Conception rocked in the oak chair her husband carved decades before. The rhythm, a comforting pulse, creaked to a stop.
A knock on the door boomed and paused, followed by rapid taps. María Conception looked through the window where Mr. Sanchez stood, his hat in his hand, and she knew what her dream meant.
This story is fictional however some of the characters are based on fact. Emilio Ortega, Emigdio and Maria Conception’s 11th child, established the Ortega Chile Packing Company using his mother’s recipes. The company has a variety of products on the market.
Most Sundays I visit my mother. When you spend time with your parents or elders you never know what story they’re going to share.
Mom came into the kitchen from the backyard holding what I thought was a grapefruit.
“From my tree,” her smile and voice triumphant.
She opened her hands and a boulder of an orange rolled onto the kitchen table where I sat reading her Sunday newspaper.
“That’s huge.” My awe not only resulted from the size of the fruit but the fact my mom has a dwarf orange tree making its size more incredible.
The scent of sweetness and tang sprang into the space around us.
“This is a 220,” she said, smiling with every flick of the peel. “At the packing house, we sorted 220’s from 200’s, 210’s.”
“I’m guessing that’s the weight?” I asked.
“Don’t know, but the 220’s were the best of the best. We wrapped them in Sunkist tissue paper before we put them into a special box, all nice.”
“Like those Harry and David fruit boxes?”
She continued peeling, clearly not hearing my question. Not only is she legally blind, but she has significant hearing loss, not that anyone can really tell of either impairment since she’s so vivacious.
“Ufff, the conveyor belts filled the warehouse, running above us, on the sides, everywhere. There were the regular oranges, the unblemished ones for supermarkets, not a spot on them, and the perfect ones for shipping. And the not so pretty ones for juice.”
I wondered if the beauty of the perfect oranges became a horror at the end of an eight or ten-hour shift where she stood the entire time. Did they still appear beautiful after a thousand oranges rolled by on the conveyor belt?
“Most all the women in the neighborhood worked there. Lots of chisme (gossip) and jokes, the time passed.”
My memory flashed to a summer job I had during college. I worked the graveyard shift in a similar packing house in Oxnard, California sorting strawberries. The women were not so talkative during the night shift.
The conveyor belt rolled at a quick pace while I snatched bruised or overripe berries off the belt and plopped them into the running stream of water alongside the pulleys. The best were shipped to Japan, the worst sent to be made into jelly.
The frigid air reeked of earth and berries, the cold keeping us awake at three in the morning. At the end of the shift, the berries looked like hordes of crawling red spiders.
I finished the strawberry season but that was the last time I worked in a packing house. Mom and her sisters worked in several fruit and chile packing houses for years: Sunkist, S & W, DelMonte.
She often came home, lugging her plastic apron and gloves to wash, reeking of California green chiles, berries, or fruit oil depending on the season. How did she do it? I’m sure she’d say, “You do what you got to do, as long as it’s honest.”
“Now, let’s see if this 220 is sweet,” Mom said. She sectioned the orange with her fingers, piece by piece, working her fingers down the crevices, picking off the white residue of webbing.
She offered me a wedge before she bit into her own piece. Her eyes fluttered with delight. “Ah, a good one.”
My own piece dripped with sweetness. I smiled, not only for the piece of orange but for my mom’s story and opportunity to visit her past.