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Plunk, plunk, plunk.  The unopened carnation buds fell softly into my empty bucket as the morning sun beat down on the whitewashed greenhouse panes overhead. It was going to be a hot one, a judgment I could make in this second week of work at my father’s nursery right before I started high school. I glanced at my watch — 7:40 AM, about two hours until my first break, then the blaring of the noontime bell, and finally at 4:00, the welcome second bell that marked the end of another day.

This was a typical summer day for me back in the 1950’s when working at the nursery was de rigeur in my family, a sort of rite of passage. For years I’d watched as the time came for each of my two older brothers to begin their initiation into the family business, waiting for my turn to come.  Each weekday morning in the summer, they gobbled breakfast and jumped in the station wagon with my dad, off for a day’s work at San Lorenzo Nursery Company. I looked forward to taking my place in the scheme of things, leaving behind domestic chores such as washing up the breakfast dishes, making lunch for my dad and brothers who always came home for this meal, and helping my mom take care of my younger siblings, a brother and two little sisters.

Well, that day finally came. I could hardly sleep, wondering what job my dad had chosen for me, his eldest daughter. Would he want me to help him in the office? Maybe a driver of one of the little motorized carts that got people around the nursery’s many roads? I carefully laid out my clothes the night before — old jeans, a cotton shirt and jacket. That morning I savored my new place in the family hierarchy. Mom was serving me breakfast! Dad left punctually at 7:20, whether you were ready or not, so many mornings we were running out the door, toast in hand and mouths full of egg. That first day, I joined the procession to the waiting station wagon and almost broke out in song: “Heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s off to work we go… “ but kept my enthusiasm to myself.

Our nursery in Torrance, California, was about a ten minute drive east of our house. Spread out over about 20 acres, endless well-kept greenhouses housed carnations, our main flower crop, orchids, and seasonal potted plants such as Easter lilies and poinsettias, close to 800,000 square feet of plants under glass. We turned onto the long gravel driveway and pulled up to the large packing house and in front of a wooden door, marked Office.

Already, the nursery was alive with activity. As I got out of the car, I was greeted by a long line of Issei ladies who had been working for my dad since before World War II and had come back to the nursery when Japanese Americans were allowed to return from far flung internment camps, located in desolate parts of the country. Mrs. Osa, all four and half feet of her, stood at the front of the line, her perennial cigarette already hanging casually from the side of her mouth. “Ami-chan!” Her gritty low voice was a mismatch with her petiteness but went with her deeply lined, brown face. Her smile was so big I wondered how her cigarette stayed put. Up and down the line, huge smiles met me as these women, most who’d known me most of my life, bowed quietly, letting me know they were proud and honored I was taking my place in the family business.  They were a tough, smart and kind lot. Up until now, I had been little Ami-chan; now I was big Ami-chan, ready to do a full day’s work, at minimum wage, I might add.

Soon my dad emerged from the office, and everyone scurried off to their jobs. “Follow me,” was all he said, and we took off. I had hoped to at least ride on one those motorized carts, but, no, we walked and walked and then walked some more. Finally, at the outermost edge of the property, Dad slid open a greenhouse door where we started walking again. The air was thick with humidity. He slid open a second door to an adjacent greenhouse and then another. In every greenhouse, rows of gray-green carnation plants spread out as far as one could see. Planted in foot-high raised bed benches and with about six rows of plants across, each plant stood upright, held in place by what looked like a 3-D tic-tac-toe maze of wires and string. Rows upon rows of benches filled the greenhouse. Explaining to me that each 120 foot long by four foot wide bench produced 1000’s of cut flowers through successive cycles a year, Dad picked up a bucket and a stool and walked the length of the first aisle, finally stopping.

“Annie, (my family nickname) this summer you’ll be working as a disbudder.” A what? I thought to myself. “See,” my dad continued, “for every carnation we cut, only one bud gets all the water and nutrients, so it grows big and full. To do that, all the buds below the top bud need to be disbudded.” With that, he expertly and gently held the top bud and quickly moved about a foot down the stem, snapping off the four to five remaining buds with a quick snap of his fingers and dropping them in the bucket. Plunk, plunk, plunk. “When your bucket is full, take it out at the back and dump it. Any questions? See you at lunch. Don’t be late.” And he took off. I watched as he grew smaller and smaller down the long rows of carnations and listened as he slid the door open and closed it. Quickly, the once innocent carnations plants took on a different meaning: endless disbudding the whole summer long!

I was all by myself, an ant in a sea of gray-green foliage. I could die of heat stroke out there and no one would know. I could scream but no one would hear me. Histrionics aside, I went to work. What looked so easy in my dad’s hands proved harder than it looked. I broke enough carnation stems that day to affect the nursery’s bottom line. At first, each time I broke a stem and watched the top bud topple over to its demise, I found myself looking around to see if anyone saw me. Fat chance. I hid my mistakes under the pile as best I could. Mid morning, I heard the door slide open. I could hear someone walking but couldn’t see who it was. Soon, at the end of my row I saw Mrs. Osa, a bottle of coke in hand, shuffling toward me, her pigeon-toed, familiar gait a holdover from growing up constricted by a kimono. Her big smile was like a life raft to me that day.

After giving me the coke, she looked in my bucket, murmured something disapproving in Japanese and told me to watch her. I learned a lot about the power of modeling during those few minutes. Then it was my turn. Lo and behold, the little buds were snapping right off. “Jozu, jozu, Ami-chan!” she growled with approval and she was off, having used her break to check to see how I was doing. Finally, the lunch horn sounded and I hurried off to the car where Dad and my brothers were already waiting impatiently. We ate a quick lunch at home and it was back to work. Toward the end of that first day, Dad checked in, took a quick look at the pile of buds outside and at me, and said, “Not bad.” My brothers and I had long known that that was the closest we’d ever get to a compliment.

I lasted through that first day and the long summer weeks that followed. While my romantic image of summer work at the nursery ended that day, it was replaced by better things. I came to love the solitude of my job and the rhythmic snap and plunk of the buds, inducing in me an almost meditative state. I even came to savor the warm humid air, laden with the earthy smells of good dirt, fertilizer, and carnations. I liked the feel of the smooth carnation stem in my hand and the softness of the pillowy buds, often splitting them open, curious to see the color of the flower. I also found satisfaction in getting good as a disbudder, sometimes timing myself as I raced along a row, bumping my little stool with me. I came to know manual labor and the value of small gifts such as a drink of cold water and the cool still air of the morning. I also learned that being the boss’s daughter didn’t mean a cushy job. If anything the opposite. We all started at the bottom (with my brothers later rising to the top). My dad made sure we learned early on that no job was below us but how you did the job was what counted.

One downside, if you can call it that, of my life as a disbudder was that when I wasn’t at work, I felt compelled to disbud any flower in sight, no matter where I was. I had to control the huge urge to do so in friends and neighbor’s yards, in flower arrangements at church and in flower beds in parks. To this day, a carnation with its buds still on is like a magnet to me.

That summer came to an end. The money I earned went into a savings account for college, and the next summer I graduated to the orchid division — but that’s another story.

©Carol Tateishi, 2014

Carol Tateishi, former BAWP director, retired in June 2009 and continues to savor the luxury of time to explore her interests and just enjoy life. She loves vegetable gardening, local hikes with her husband John and dog Esme, traveling, reading and keeping up with old friends. Since retiring, Carol has worked with BAWP TCs and partners in Asia to conduct BAWP Young Writer’s Camps in South Korea, Singapore and in summer 2014, China. Recently, she joined Bamboo Shoots, a group of Asian American women who like to write together. 

3 Responses to “Learning to Work by Carol Tateishi”

  1. Tom Says:

    Carol, I loved your carnation story and I await the orchid sequel. You were a disbudder; I was a pollinator in a hybrid corn research field for six summers. We both know something of endless rows and hard work. I wish that I had met Mrs. Osa!

  2. tateish Says:

    Thanks Tom. I had no idea we shared a history as youthful agricultural workers in the trenches! I bet you have lots of stories/memories from your pollinator days.

  3. amomnextdoor Says:

    The implications of your relationship with Mrs. Osa/your family’s relationships with the company workers are so subtle and powerful in the line “having used her break to check on me.” I loved reading this story!

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