Saturday, June 26, 2010

California - part 1

June 1st arrived after months of anticipation and weeks of planning; finally, we were off for a week's vacation in California. We made the same trip two years ago, going to see Jeff's extended family in Ventura as well as visiting our friends the Grants in Valencia. Two years ago when we headed west, we were bringing the baby Leo to meet his namesake - Leo Vanoni, Jeff's maternal grandfather, as well as the lovely Grandma Rita. We never knew how lucky we would be to return again this year with another sweet babe, our Pax, for the Vanonis to meet.

Last spring when we were discussing a possible trip to California, Jeff and I had agonized over the price of airfare, the cost of renting a car, and the angst of traveling with three small children - one of whom we had yet to meet. Initially, we decided against the trip. But come wintertime, we were both struck with the same revelation - money is nothing but paper when it comes to a journey like this, a chance to see a family legacy like Leo and Rita Vanoni. Leo turns 95 this August; Rita is 89. The cost-benefit analysis yielded that the trip would be priceless. Without further hesitation, we called the relatives to reserve our room, booked the flight, and wrapped the airline tickets up as a gift for the kids to open on Christmas morning. (Okay, fine, we didn't really wrap up the tickets since everyone who's in the know flies paperless these days, but you get the picture.)

I can safely say this now that the trip is behind us: travel has never been easier for the Carter family. Travel went so smoothly that during our layover in O'Hare on our way out, Jeff and I were even able to sit and enjoy a beer at the airport bar while Aidan and Leo nursed lemonade and Pax.... nursed. The only point during our travel that was less-than-wonderful was when I was sitting between Aidan and Leo on the plane, each of them with their heads on my lap and (finally) sleeping. With a shriek, Pax decided he had to nurse that moment, so I balanced him across his brothers' heads and fed him while Jeff relaxed in his seat across the aisle, read his magazine and listened to his ipod. (I felt certain I deserved some kind of a medal for that, but I didn't get so much as a pair of flight wings!)

Our smooth, happy, enjoyable experience traveling became the theme of the week. We collected a thousand sweet memories from our time with our family and friends; the most pervasive and enduring feeling for me of our time in Cali was joy. Some of our best moments include:

Grazing. The fabulous Aunt Laurie could have spared herself the effort of cooking scrumptious meals for us, for, as much as we enjoyed every bite, we might have been as easily satisfied by simply being turned out to pasture to graze at the bounty on the ranch. We ate more than our share's worth of avocados, grapefruit, oranges, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, loquats, and lemonade made from lemons straight off the tree. When I was young, my mom nicknamed me "Fruit Bat" because of how much I love fruit. Truly, the ranch was a taste of heaven for me...

It's a funny thing about the lemons on the ranch, though. They inspire much mischief among children of all ages, and they are not regarded by some with the reverence they deserve. One of the stories I hear most often from Jeff and every one of his 9 cousins is about the lemon fights they used to have in the orchard, seeking out the most rotten lemons to hurl at each other, covering one another with sticky-sweet juice and bruises they wore as badges of honor. Lo and behold, the first photographs we have of our trip are of Leo and Aidan, hurling rotten lemons at each other, regarding the most rotten finds with near reverence. Jeff was so proud!! Cousins Matt and Mark were equally excited to hear of the lemon fight and regretted that they missed out on throwing putrid fruit at each other.

Aunt Laurie, on the other hand, does not realize what a precious crop she has growing outside her door. Here at home, lemons run $0.48 on a good day and usually closer to $1. In order to make Grandma Rita's Famous Lemonade, we must buy at least 10 lemons, making that half-gallon of nectar cost $5-10. Accustomed to carefully preserving every bit of the fruit back at home, I carefully sealed my leftover lemon in a plastic baggie after slicing a wedge for my water. Imagine my dismay, then, when Laurie arrived home from work, found my lemon, and scolded me for saving it! "See this? We don't save lemons. You can use it to clean something, but after that, it goes into the compost." We harassed her about this endlessly, only to find out that Uncle Charles routinely uses lemons as packing material in boxes he ships - they're free (to him); they don't burst open; they are good cushions for what's inside.

We had a wonderful day with many cousins and second cousins at a beautiful beach/park in the heart of Ventura. Pax dipped his toes in the Pacific Ocean, and Leo and Aidan built terrific sandcastles. That night, Gwyn, Mark, Teagan, and the 5 Carters enjoyed a fabulous local brewery, the Anacapa Brewing Company in Ventura. I didn't think the night would get any better after my first taste of their Nut Brown Ale, but then it did. I have no idea what got into my children that night; maybe it was the cute waitress they were trying to impress. When she asked them for their order, they each told her what they wanted - grilled cheese for Leo; chicken strips for Aidan. She gave them a choice of lemonade, soda, water, or milk - and they chose milk. She asked them if they wanted fresh fruit or french fries - they chose fruit. Jeff and I gaped at each other, picking our chins off the table just in time for the waitress to look at us and say, "How refreshing! I never meet kids who choose the milk and fruit." (I almost said, "Yeah, I don't either," but decided to grin at her as if to say yeah, they do that all the time, aren't they amazing?)

I have a set of heirloom pearls from my paternal grandmother, and I cherish them for their beauty, but more so because they were worn and loved by her. Grandma Rita handed me a small bag and said that Marie (Jeff's mom) mentioned I might enjoy having this. I opened the package to discover a beautiful necklace of smallish brown nuts, professionally strung and clasped by Charlie's wife, Jeweliy. Leo explained that he had gathered macadamia nuts from his tree, all about the same size, and gave them to Jeweliy to string together. He presented them to Rita some years before, who wore them and loved them. She was passing them on to me. The necklace is absolutely perfect, and I cherish it like I cherish the pearls. Only a man like Leo Vanoni would think to make his bride such a unique gift; I am honored to have this token from them both.

Saying goodbye was the hardest thing we've done in a long time. Finding the words to describe the joy of seeing them mingled with the pain and sorrow of saying goodbye is difficult. It was especially hard to part from Grandpa Leo, who is in poor health. My tender-hearted Aidan cried along with the rest of us as we said farewell. The love in the room was palpable, tasteable; like the bountiful avocados on the ranch, I wanted to sink my teeth into it and carry it away with me - yet my heavy heart knew the avocados wouldn't taste as good off the farm, and the chance to express our love fades with the distance between us.
This entry is breaking one of the cardinal rules of blogging - keep it short - so I'll finish our California adventure trip in a second entry.

If you want to see more pics from the Ventura part of the trip, click here...

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