June 2020 Featured Article
Often, writers will use a fictional locale for the setting of their novels. It makes sense given that readers are quick to spot inaccuracies. However, if the locale is all in the writer’s imagination, there is little chance of this happening. Although I created fictional aspects of Placerville for my Apple Hill Series (Bella Cucina restaurant and Hangtown Café), the town is real.
Apple Hill sits just above the town of Placerville, California—in the heart of Gold Country. I’d like to say it was the history of this location that drew me, because that would seem more writerly (it’s really a word, I promise) than sentiment, but that would be a lie. When I was ten, my grandparents had their retirement home built in the middle of fourteen acres just off of Apple Hill Drive. For my sisters, brother and I, it was paradise. We traded suburbia for the country.
My brother (older by a year) taught me to fish in the year-round creek that ran through my grandparents’ property. Grandpa was often frustrated with Mike, because he had a knack for catching pregnant trout. I never quite figured out how Grandpa expected Mike to tell which fish were pregnant and which weren’t. But it didn’t matter, because we all adored our grandfather. He and my grandmother grew all their own vegetables and had a pear orchard. It was there I learned the love of gardening and how to properly pull a weed (did you know there’s a wrong way to do that?)
Grandpa (Rudolph Frederick Duncan) was quite the character. Someday, I’ll write a book about his life. He was born at a U.S. naval air station in the Philippine’s, near Manila, but moved to the states when he was six. He longed to see the world and wanted to join the Navy, just like his dad. But his father wanted him to go to college and become an electrical engineer. So, when he was sixteen, he went to a navy recruiting office in San Francisco and joined up. He lied about his age, lied about where he was born, and told the recruiting officer that his parents were dead.
The way Grandpa told it to me, his father was a customs inspector who roamed the docks. Everyone knew him. So, that night, when Grandpa showed up at the dinner table, his father addressed Grandpa’s mother and said, “You know, Valeria, we’re supposed to be dead.” After a rousing discussion about spreading false rumors, his father capitulated and took Grandpa down to the recruiting office so that he could legitimately join.
Summers and holidays were spent picking blackberries, creating fantasy worlds in the woods, and riding Grandpa’s lawn tractor. But the most memorable times we had were gathered around Grandpa’s piano while he played for us. We’d shout out requests like, Alley Cat, Mack the Knife, or Sentimental Journey. He was an exceptional pianist who never learned to read music. He could hear a tune once, and then play it. For eighteen years, while he still worked at the naval air station, he was the piano man for the prominent Pleasanton Hotel in the Bay Area.
My grandparents were married for sixty-two years before my grandmother died of cancer. At the age of 85, Grandpa remarried and continued to live a full life until his death at the age of 100. When he was 89, I interviewed him for a humanities class I was taking. That eighteen-page paper earned me an A, not because of my excellent student-skills, but because the subject matter was so interesting.
It’s a bittersweet experience to think back to those days. The passage of time moves much too fast and the losses we experience can be heavy on our hearts. But the beauty of writing is that we can relive days gone by, the emotions they invoke, and recreate the stories on our hearts.