A Sylvan Wonderland

Sometimes we come upon a certain place which remains forever clear and wondrous in our memory. Such a place is now gone, but did exist right here in my hometown of Downey.We were 13 and in junior high school when Elizabeth, Ruth and I met for the first time. Quickly thereafter we named ourselves "The Three Lusty Cheers" and formed a lifelong bond. Elizabeth became Lizzie or Liz, Ruth was Ruthie, and I was Sallie. Lizzie's large white house, set amid orange groves, was on Gallatin School House Road. Her aunt and uncle's home was on the south end of the property. The two families shared a tennis court and a rustic swimming pool which sloped up from Granny's Green, a lovely spot of lawn shaded by large old trees. Lizzie's grandmother sat out there on pleasant afternoons, reading or doing needlework, the white wooden chair made comfortable with colorful cushions. The Lusty Cheers were in many of the same classes in Downey Junior High School. They socialized at school and after classes at each other's homes. Occasionally Ruth and I were invited by Liz for a game or two of tennis and to swim. We had just emerged from the pool one very bright summer afternoon when Lizzie, carrying a canvas bag, led Ruth and me on a walk down Gallatin Road which separated acres of orange groves. Our wet suits dripped water into our sandals as we trudged east to the end of the narrow paved road where it disappeared into a jumble of green at the edge of the dry San Gabriel Riverbed. The town of Downey in the '30s had many large orange groves and orchards of other citrus fruits. When temperatures dropped below or near freezing, smudge pots beneath the trees were lit to warm the air and save the fruit. During those times, Lizzie's natural platinum hair turned a strange shade of grey-green from the soot generated from the pots. Living in the midst of an orchard she got a concentrated dose of the dirty stuff. When we reached the edge of the riverbed, Liz led us down a rough path which wound deeper around tall trees and rich undergrowth. A tangle of vines and brush were pushed aside as we snaked behind our leader. I was amazed that not far from my house existed this secluded, green retreat. It was one of the most magical places I could imagine. There was a dreamlike quality to it, both mystical and ethereal. The sun made moving patterns on the path as breezes moved the leaves of the lofty trees. We walked further into this secret green place. The only sounds were from birds and buzzing insects. The place seemed more and more enchanted as we walked into a small clearing where a wooden table, four chairs, and a bench had been placed. I could see they had been there through many seasons. Our hostess invited us to sit at the table as she took from the bag she had carried a tin of homemade oatmeal cookies and a thermos of iced tea, and three paper cups. Ruthie rose to gather a few blooming weeds which she placed in the center of the table. Afternoon tea in Nature's Sanctuary - that is how it seemed to me - a place almost holy. Remember, I was 13 years old. I thought how fortunate Liz was to live near this place - to walk to it with a book or a dream and to immerse herself in its natural, quiet beauty any time she felt inspired. Today, nestled deep in the recesses of my mind and heart is the memory of our camaraderie and of that magical sylvan retreat which seemed very far from reality. And to think it existed not in some remote, exotic location, but right here in my hometown.

********** Published: April 3, 2009 - Volume 7 - Issue 50