The Bellingham launch of my book, The Gift of Laughter: The Story of a California Mennonite Family, took place Sunday afternoon, October 1. There was laughter and music amidst a gathering of family and friends. Also there, Ruth and Paul Buxman. Paul is the artist who painted the scene that was used on the cover of my book. They drove up from Dinuba, California in a van loaded with Paul’s art and some of the jam they make on their fruit ranch.
Paul set up a lighted display of eighteen of his oil paintings. Those paintings were behind me when I presented my book. People could finally see what I saw in my mind as I wrote my words. I wish that conjunction of words and Paul’s paintings could take place whenever people read my book. That is not possible, but there is something I can do along that line.
I’ve decided to start posting his paintings here on my website on a regular basis, a new one on the first Friday of each month, one that shows what the California landscape looks like during that month. This month’s painting is one whose golden light speaks October. Below words from my book that speak about the landscape Paul painted:
Even though settlement was well underway when the Willems family arrived in California in 1919, the San Joaquin Valley was still pretty much a land of wide open spaces. The vast shallow lake which once filled the bottom of the basin between Fresno and Bakersfield was now dry, reed-filled wet lands replaced by enormous cattle ranches. The waters of the Kings, Kaweah and Kern Rivers had been diverted to irrigate the fertile land on the eastern slopes of the Sierras. All the rivers were on the on the east side of the valley, fed by the deep snow pack of the high Sierras. The western side of the valley was completely dry. There were a few big cattle ranches, but no towns.
All the towns were on the east side of the valley. Farm towns, the same towns I saw when my mom, dad, sister Nita and I drove Highway 99 down from Stockton to Dinuba back in the 1940s—Modesto, Turlock, Merced, Madera , Fresno and all the little hamlets in between whose order I never bothered to memorize. My father’s family passed through those same towns in the train that took them to Reedley in the fall of 1919.
October is a golden month in the Valley. The grass that covers the roadsides and non-irrigated land is golden brown. Even the light is golden, coming in at an oblique angle, shimmering off the grass blades, creating shadows behind the stalks. There is almost no rain in October, just day after day of cloudless blue sky. The days still get hot, but the mornings and evenings are deliciously cool. The air coming through the open windows of the train would have been warm, but comfortable—not the blast furnace of open train windows in the summer months. It was a good time of the year to see the land for the first time, a good time to arrive at a new home.