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More Stories - The Way We Were
Orange Blossom Special & Tropical Holidays
My paternal grandmother, Ellen Annis Church Williamson, was a person of intelligence, will and indomitable spirit. She was a Victorian outside of that era. In her thirties she was diagnosed, possible incorrectly, with multiple sclerosis. She decided that if she never stopped and never gave up, it wouldn't get her. At one point she was so crippled she had to climb the stairs on her hands and knees and sometimes crawl around the house to do her housework, but she kept on doing it. Eventually whatever it was ceased its attack, although she was left with significant stiffness, muscle loss and nerve damage for the rest of her life.
Grandma was almost twenty years younger than Grandpa, the Rev. Linn Williamson, an age gap that was much more common at the time. It resulted, however, at her being widowed in her fifties during World War II (See More Thoughts on Fats: Remember Oleo?). After the war, she picked herself up and took a job with The Child Evangelism group in the Tampa, Florida area, visiting public schools to give Bible and morality lessons (and give the teachers a break). This was a big geographic departure, as we were all "Yankees" from the western New York/ Pennsylvania area. In between teaching, she took college courses, wrote poems, painted, canned food, played the piano at church, sewed and traveled the USA.
In reading stories of bygone days, children today may not see the significance of an orange or tangerine in a Christmas stocking. This was indeed a rare treat years ago, when citrus was very expensive or unobtainable in the northern climates. An orange might have been something to be saved, savored and remembered for weeks, a tropical token of the promised spring. Scurvy and other diseases caused by lack of vitamin C were fairly common in the colder climates. Even an occasional orange or other citrus fruit during the winter could prevent the disease and boost over-all health. This discovery caused limes to be imported and shipped out on all English seafaring vessels to stop the scourge of scurvy among the sailors, the use of which remedy caused them to be nicknamed "limeys".
Grandma's gift to us all each year for ten years was a huge basket of citrus fruit, sent by a Tampa fruit shipper (this was a really big business years ago). Although citrus was somewhat more available in northern climates in the forties and fifties, the arrival of this basket was still the high point of our Christmas. We weren't allowed to open it until Daddy came home, but we could peek in the cracks and sniff the aroma. Rarely was his arrival anticipated with such excitement! Full of bright oranges, sweet grapefruit and a few lemons or limes, the basket also contained a number of coveted tangerines plus some pungent kumquats. Frequently some small twigs were included, sometimes with a few blossoms. I always dried and saved these keepsakes, smelling them once in a while and vowing one day to live in Florida. Apparently my father was affected the same way, as eventually he pulled up stakes and moved us all to Florida's west coast (Chili Weather).
I have a key lime tree, a kumquat and a prolific calamandon (small sour-orange) just outside my door. They-- and the smell of orange blossoms-- may soon be history in South Florida. (They are now only a nostalgic memory.) A fruit-destroying disease, citrus canker, is causing the razing of hundreds of thousands of trees. Whole groves are being taken down, and still the illness is spreading north towards Central Florida's million-dollar citrus industry. Plans are afoot to take out every existing citrus tree in Dade and Broward-- and maybe Palm Beach-- Counties, although that's not confirmed yet. South Floridians are so outraged, there have been cases where the poor citrus inspectors were shot at. One Broward man held the inspectors and a SWAT team at bay with a shotgun for some hours, apparently in a vain effort to protect his doomed trees.
I usually take for granted the sounds, sights and smells of Florida, but once in a while when the citrus trees are in bloom and I pop out of my sterile air-conditioning into their sweet scent, it takes me back half a century to my first impression of Florida; the overwhelming smell of a tangerine tree in full glistening bloom, laden with brilliant ripe fruit amongst the blossoms and buzzing with honey bees on a dewy Florida morning, (See Florida Cuisine) just outside Grandma's front door.
We don't have snow and fir trees to celebrate the holiday season. It takes a little getting used to for most snowbirds. During the holidays I break off small blooming citrus sprigs and tuck them amongst the plastic evergreen and it takes me back, oddly, to snowy landscapes and Christmas stockings hung by the fireplace (or at least near the furnace grate). I hope this fragrant reminder of my younger days isn't about to be taken away from me.
People may fantasize now of traveling to the Amazon, the Orient or even the moon, but for many in the first half of the century, the big dream was to get on The Orange Blossom Special, leave behind the slush, icy wind and deprivation of northern winter climes and disembark two or three days later in sunny Florida. This Seaboard Route traveled through many orange groves, and in days before air conditioning this was a heady experience for the passengers.
Seaboard's " Orange Blossom Special" railroad train was called an "Air Line" because they installed air conditioning, a true luxury at the time.
According to a query answered by Larry Goolsby in the ACL & SAL HS Archives:
You can bet the meals served in the Orange Blossom's dining car were fantastic, too. I'd like to see a menu!