My godmother, aka my Auntie Kiyo, was originally from Fresno. But after the war, she ended up in New York, and I remember her always as a widow who lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Fort Lee, New Jersey. I loved visiting her place with my parents. She was the only grownup I knew who had life-sized stuffed animals (poodles) on her bed. She had a gold bedspread, which I found very elegant. In her living room, there were endless Japanese knickknacks to explore. A lacquer box filled with smooth black pebbles. Porcelain dolls with exquisite hair and kimonos. The summer that I turned seven, Auntie Kiyo invited me to travel with her to her family home in Fresno, California.
This was my first introduction to California. I felt like I was in paradise. Her family owned a huge fruit farm and stand on the side of Kings Canyon Road. I remember how hot and dry it was, the dust that kicked up from my sneakers. There were acres and acres of fruit trees and crops. I got to ride in the watermelon truck. I knew freedom. I wandered from the fruit stand to the “old house” where Auntie Kiyo had grown up, to the succulent garden, the greenhouse, to her brother Bob’s house. I remember the delicious blast of air conditioning when I stepped in from the back patio. The black dog and his enormous aluminum dish. Blackie.
Auntie Kiyo and Uncle Bob had another brother — Uncle Yo — and he had a pharmacy in town. He was married to an Aunt Mary, which I thought was amazing, because I had another Uncle Yo and Auntie Mary back home in New Jersey. I loved going to the pharmacy. I had a little Kodak camera (that probably was used to take this photo) and I’d pick up my prints in an envelope at the drugstore. They came with a regular photo, and another smaller, bonus photo that was attached with perforations, so they could be separated, and the little one fit into your wallet. At the drugstore, I’d get my photos, and a comic book (Archie) and a candy (Sugar Babies). It felt important to know the owners, to be peripherally related, even though we were unrelated.
I remember the record player in their living room. Herb Alpert and Sergeant Pepper albums. Tuna sandwiches. Auntie Masako, Bob’s wife, wore blue jeans and plaid shirts. She was tanned brown and wiry, and so strong. She let me haul watermelons and crates filled with enormous tomatoes. Peaches that poured juice down my arms. She showed me how to make big signs — FRESH CORN. STRAWBERRIES. — with stencils and cardboard and a can of spray paint. I helped customers carry cartons of produce out to their cars, and sometimes they’d give me a quarter tip. I remember pulling open the walk-in refrigerator and getting a glass bottle of Fanta soda. The woosh of the vacuum door opening, and the plastic drapes fluttering around my face.
Auntie Kiyo had nieces and nephews who treated me like a little sister. They brought me to Disneyland for the first time. It’s A Small World made me delirious with joy. Every summer I went back, and eventually Auntie Kiyo moved back herself, to a house next to her brother’s. We visited Kings Canyon and Sequoia National parks, and saw the giant trees, climbed through underground caverns. Stalactite. Stalagmite.
I got to ride on the back of a motorbike through the orchards. I got to pick strawberries the size of my fist. Fresno was my first taste of California, and for many years, my only taste. I longed for Fresno. I dreamed of it during cold winters in New Jersey, where I refused to eat pale tomatoes from the A & P.
When I drove cross- country to California at the age of 22, my first stop in the state, after camping for a week in Sequoia Park, was the fruit stand at the edge of Kings Canyon Road. The tomatoes were warm and plump, their skin like an infant’s. I cradled them in my hands, happy to be in Fresno.