There I was in Reno, kissing Red Skelton on his cheek. Red was watching his wife practicing for a horse show taking place that evening. I’ve shaken hands with Liberace during his show in Las Vegas, and spent two hours talking to Martha Raye as she performed at the Theater in the Round in Valley Forge, Pa.
However, none of these people had an affect on me as much as sweet, unassuming neighbors of mine in Fresno, Calif., named Mildred and Owen. Owen was manager of a fruit ranch just outside Fresno in the late 1960s. Between the ranch manager’s home where these two nice people lived and our home, was an experimental orchard for ranch owner whom I’ll call Mr. G.
Mr. G and Owen told my husband Van and me that whenever we wanted to pick fruit from those trees to help ourselves. You can’t believe the size of the apricots in that orchard. They were the size of large oranges, and delicious and sweet too. I don’t remember exactly when I first met Mildred, but we became friends very quickly. She told me about her past with only an eighth grade education and a love of life.
Mildred’s sense of humor was the first thing I noticed. It held her in stead when she realized she’d never have children, something she so desired. Owen was quiet and hardworking. It took time for anybody to get close to him. But my retired Marine husband Van got to know him quickly. Van always found the best in everybody. In no time at all Owen knew this and they became fast friends.
Owen had Mildred on a very tight food budget. This sweet unassuming lady told me just about everything that happened in their home. It always worried her as prices went up. It surprised me one night when Van and I stopped at their house to take over a piece of my homemade pound cake. We found them preparing dinner. Owen had worked late – it was about seven – and was waiting for his dinner.
Mildred was about to cook a steak. With prices what they were, this was very unusual. She had a huge pan filled almost to the top with oil or melted Crisco. When I asked her what she was doing, she said, “frying the steak.” Van and I had dear friends who also cooked steak that way; but I simply had to stop my friend. Mildred had no trouble allowing me to take over.
I showed her how to fry that precious steak in an iron frying pan with a minimum of grease. Cooked medium rare, Mildred put it on a plate along with a baked potato and peas, and then took it out to Owen. Folks, I kid you not. This quiet man, who wouldn’t compliment anybody, looked up and smiled. He said — and I quote — “this is the best steak you’ve ever made.”
Mildred began to say something. I gave her one of those “just keep quiet looks” and grinned. Later on, sometime during a late September evening, Mildred and Owen were sitting in their living room when they heard a noise, as if something was brushing against the side of their home. Looking out of the window Owen said he saw a huge pile of items that were pale blue.
Owen looked at Mildred and told her that he knew he was right, she’d been using entirely too much detergent doing the laundry, and there were all those bubbling soap suds outside proving him right. Mildred called us over and Van and Owen went outside to see exactly what was pushing against the wall. What they found was a huge bundle of pale blue balloons stuck together on twine.
Later, we found that a local school was having some kind of pregame pep rally, and evidently a bunch of their balloons had gotten loose. There’s so much more to tell about Owen and Mildred I’ll need to follow with more about the olive tree, Mr. G. and his I told you so attitude, Owen’s retirement and their mobile home, but for now this is enough.
I loved those two friends, the kind of good, plain, ordinary hard working people that make this country exactly what it is, one helluva great place to live. We lost Van first in 1984, and shortly thereafter, Owen, and then Mildred. I cherish these memories of my dear friends “Down in the valley.”
Edna Van Leuven is a Churchill County writer.