Yellow mustard flowers surround me. I am hidden. I am free. My friend Aimee and I have come to our favorite orchard about a half mile from my house in San Jose. We bring cardboard and blankets. We walk into the middle of the blooming mustard fields in April and pick a spot for our house that day. We start laying down the cardboard to push down the mustard plants and keep picking up the cardboard and laying it down again, as we create hallways, and then bedrooms and then a place where we can lay on blankets and have lunch and lay still and disappear from the world. The bright yellow flowered mustard plants, by April were at least four feet tall, so when we crawled around, no one from the nearby busy road could see us. Also, pesky little brothers and sisters could not find us and best of all, parents could not yell at us and make us do household chores. We were hidden and we were free.
Aimee sometimes brought a transistor radio to our hidden spot and we would listen to the top tunes of the 70’s. “Blinded by the Light” and “Turn to Stone” by ELO were some of our favorites. We would lay on our blankets and stare up at the cloud formations and tell each other what we saw in the clouds. We would play in the mustard field for hours. Sneaking apricots out of the trees, watching the bug world like traffic controllers, within the green stalks all around. The smell of the flowers was not especially pleasant, like a rose or a plumeria, per se, but it is an aroma that wafted on the warm spring air all over Santa Clara County in the spring. In the 70’s, when fruit orchards were plentiful and the mustard grew from February until the farmers would hack it down in May, April was a time the mustard would be in full bloom and height and we would bask in the sun, hidden in a yellow and green carpet and each other’s friendship, surrounded by the tiny golden flowers.
I was in junior high school, while Aimee was still in the local elementary school when we would have our last spring in the flowers together after five years of creating rooms of flowers and play spaces of grass. I remember one day, when we both were in need of time away from our rather dysfunctional families, before the farmers cut away the plants, that we brought our radio to our space and had a dance party on our knees. We played Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” and made up a choregraphed routine to it. This was during the same time I was trying desperately to make the cheerleading squad for the summer before my 8th grade year and was trying to find some grace and style somewhere.
So, there we were in the mustard singing, “I remember when rock was young, me and Suzy had so much fun” and we were laughing so hard coming up with the dance moves for “I never knew me a better time and I guess I never will.”
I don’t think we really knew that when we walked out of that mustard field in May of 1978, that we would never build our private spaces there again. They cut down all but a few of the trees and paved over the entire area and put up a Der Weinerschnitzel and a strip mall. I DO remember years later, as we were in high school, we went to another nearby orchard, slated for a new highway, to sit in the mustard and realize that life was changing all around us. For ourselves too, as now I was headed to college in the fall and Aimee would still be in high school for a few more years. We knew our friendship would stay strong, but it would change with the distance, as I was moving into the dorms and also with new friends and experiences in front of me. I would like to think that we stared at the clouds one more time together and came up with funny images that were not really there, but ones that would make us laugh together.
Over the next twenty years I spent in the Bay Area, the orchards and mustard fields disappeared. By the time my daughter Caylin was six, there was only one orchard left in my area that bloomed with mustard each spring and it was really just part of a housing development that kept a few walnut and cherry trees to remember the farming history of the valley.
I parked out in front of the development one day with Caylin on our way home from her kindergarten and I took her into the mustard and had her squat down and see that we were hidden. She said, “Mom, this is nice, but I am getting my shoes muddy, and its hot and there are bugs everywhere”. I realized how lucky I was to have found my friend Aimee who walked barefoot with me in the moist soil and did not mind the occasional bees and bugs that would tend to their business nearby. Caylin gave it all of five minutes. I took her picture and told her the story of mustard in my childhood, hoping to share my love of nature and finding bliss and entertainment under the shade of a fruit tree in the warm spring sun of Silicon Valley.
I wish I had taken my younger son to explore the field when he was growing up, but by then the “too busy days of parenting” and the dark days of the recession had set in. I lost my memory of the peace that I found there, lying in the sun with the tinny sound of the radio playing and the stalks of flowers above me. I had lost contact with Aimee, too and we were living different lives, mine as a parent and a wife, she with a high tech job and mustard fields seemed very far away.
Perhaps, one of these days, I will go back and see if there is any open land left in the Silicon Valley and make it point to go in late spring to once again lie in the mustard, under that gorgeous clear blue sky and remember the days of private spaces, Elton John and Aimee.
(It's Aimee's birthday today, so I am sending this to her through Facebook (our virtual mustard field) to remind her of long ago days and very happy memories.)