A Wild Child Nurtured by Mild Skies

A Wild Child Nurtured by Mild Skies

Chef/author Julia Child’s sunlit Pasadena childhood helped forge her lifelong taste for pleasure.

By Karen Karbo 11/01/2013

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Live in a temperate climate. Money makes our childhoods so much easier, except when it screws us up; were it not so, the phrase “poor little rich girl” would never have entered the vernacular, nor would the hearts of the nation go out to Suri Cruise, with her tiny designer heels and peculiar father.

But no one can argue with the salubrious effects of nice weather, in this case in Pasadena, California, pre–internal combustion engine. Here, then as now, there are no brutal seasons to interrupt the fun, no frigid winters paralyzed by blizzards, nor humid, daze-producing summers. Those old adages that worriers from other, harsher climes live by have no meaning in Southern California. “Make hay while the sun shines” and “Save your money for a rainy day” is advice for someone else, someone whose world is not their oyster.

If you have a good childhood, it’s a very good one in that climate, where the weather cooperates to the extent that the world seems benign and supportive of all human endeavor, where you can play outside all year long and no one ever yells, “Don’t forget your mittens.” In Pasadena, 12 months a year, excluding three rainy weeks in February during an exceptionally wet season, you spend your entire life outdoors, bombing around on your bike. The world, with its golden light and dry air, does nothing to impede your desire to play. The message is that nothing in the natural world, aside from perhaps an earthquake — which is short, to the point and cannot be predicted — will ever get in your way.

The fine weather colluded with Julia’s mother, Caro, to support the girl’s junior-anarchist style. She was a freewheeling tomboy who loved to hike, swim, play tennis and golf. Julia was the girl in the neighborhood who could pitch a softball overhand. 
“Jukes” was full of ideas for adventures that were rarely evaluated for their merit. The point of her young life seemed to be to make something — anything — happen, regardless of the outcome. I should stop here and say there’s a flip side to living in such an agreeable climate. Living in a world unmarred by the threat of impending weather, cloudy on occasion but with no chance of snow, ice or sleet, does make a kid feel that if anything exciting is going to happen, she’s going to have to be the one to make it so. 

Above all, Julia loved not knowing what was going to happen next. From the time she was a girl, her eyes popped open in the morning and one of her first thoughts was How can I have fun and make some trouble today? 

She was the ringleader of the neighborhood group of kids who, completely unsupervised, rode around the oak and pepper tree–lined streets, up into the scrubby hills, down into the dusty arroyos and over the newly built bridges, where they would stop only to drop mud pies on cars passing below. (On second thought, maybe Jukes’ mom did try to force her to learn how to cook, and that’s how she found herself doing all this cool stuff.)

They routinely stole material from construction sites and broke into vacant houses in the neighborhood. Mrs. Greble, the neighborhood “witch” (she yelled at Julia for hiding out in her oak tree, smoking Pop’s purloined cigars), was the target of Julia’s pranks. Once they broke in and stole a chandelier and buried the crystal prisms.

Sometimes Julia would get caught, and then she would get dutifully spanked by Pop, but did it make her feel bad for what she’d done? Did it make her refrain from stealing Pop’s cigarettes, cutting the braids off the head of the pastor’s daughter or hanging out with the hobos down at the train yard? Not at all. For Jukes getting spanked was simply the price of doing what amused her.

By the time she was a preteen, Julia had developed a habit of stealing Pop’s cigarettes, and also the cigarettes that belonged to the parents of her friends. Pop, who by this time had recognized the futility of traditional discipline, instead gathered his kids for a powwow. He promised that if they stayed away from cigarettes until they were 21, they would each receive a thousand-dollar bond (worth $13,218.11 in 2012 dollars). Julia, recognizing a great deal, abstained until the stroke of 12:01 a.m. the day after her 21st birthday, then smoked a pack a day well into middle age. She gave it up briefly on July 26, 1954, and took it up again on July 27, 1954, failing to see any reason then why she should deny herself the pleasure. 

Excerpt reprinted with permission from Julia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring Life by Karen Karbo (Skirt!; October 2013).

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