With days growing longer—and hotter—and the kids about to be out of school, I find myself remembering sweet summers of my childhood, when I ran wild and free at my grandma’s house in Cottonwood, California.
My mom and I spent many vacations at Grandma’s together, but from the time I was about 8, during summer vacation I spent at least two weeks, sometimes a month or more, at her house on my own, without my mom. (Strangely, even when Grandpa was living, I always thought of the Cottonwood place as “Grandma’s house.”)
To get to Grandma’s house, we drove for at least eight hours, winding through flat farmland from our home in Southern California, to Cottonwood, population 3000-plus. I opened my car window to smell the alfalfa fields and watched the road signs eagerly, counting down the miles until our exit. Once I saw the Bowman Road sign, I could barely contain my anticipation. It would only be a matter of minutes until we reached Grandma’s house.
The tires crunched on the gravel driveway where we parked to unload. I would jump out of the car eagerly, running through a gate in the white picket fence. The little white house, trimmed in barn red, nestled there, like a hen sitting on her nest.
At home, I had only a tiny yard to play in. At Grandma’s house, I had 22 acres in which to roam freely. For a city girl, the cows, chickens, dog and cats held deep fascination. Accompanied by my grandparents’ dog, Taffy, I explored nearly every inch of the property, from the straw-yellow hills behind the house to the sweet-smelling cow barn, to the irrigated cow pasture where I tried to make friends with my grandparents’ beef cattle. Though I could never convince Grandma to get me a horse, I pretended to ride one—or pretended to be one—while exploring.
When I tired of galloping through the pasture, I swam in the irrigation ditch that ran behind Grandma’s house like my own personal river, caught frogs for frog swimming races, or stretched out on a beach towel on the wooden bridge that crossed the ditch, baking myself in the summer sun. Or I would read in a lawn chair under the huge oak in the front yard, listening to the soothing sound of chickens softly clucking while they searched a flower bed for tasty bugs. Occasionally, the rooster’s crow broke the quiet of the afternoon.
Grandma was a great cook and I ate slabs of her homemade bread covered in fresh butter or homemade jam all day long. I reveled in peaches and watermelon purchased from local produce stands, or plums picked right off the tree. For a special treat, sometimes Grandma would make boysenberry cobbler, the purple berries oozing juices through the crumbly top crust.
Grandma’s mother, Great Gram, lived across the street in a tiny, pink house and many evenings I’d go play Rummy with her. (One of my first lessons in sportsmanship came at the card table: You can’t play cards with the grown ups if you cry when you lose.) I loved to play cards with her, but I admit to an ulterior motive as well. She made the best milkshakes I’ve ever had. She’d pour canned Hershey’s syrup over several scoops of chocolate chip ice cream and icy milk, then mush up the whole concoction with an old-fashioned egg beater. It was so thick, I had to eat it with a spoon.
My mom and step dad live in the house with the red trim now. Sadly, we don’t get to visit very often, since we live 2500 miles away. But when we do make the trip to Cottonwood, I’m reminded that I was once a girl with no cares, running wild through a cow pasture and slurping up milkshakes without a thought of their calorie count.