When the snow piles up against the house or its grey and ugly outside; when the Salt Lake City inversions turn bright summer sunlight into a grey haze, it’s then that old memories turn gold bright and beautiful. If I close my eyes and turn my face towards the florescent sink light I can almost see the golden light Mommy describes when she talks about her early life in California. There are Orange trees and swimming pools, fast horses and English sports cars.
We cruise through Topanga Canyon or old L.A in a convertible Triumph TR3. At a stop light we look right as Mommy describes seeing Goldie Hawn in the convertible beside her. She waives and Goldie waives back. It’s the 60’s and everything is alive with movement.
Then we’re off to Griffith Park to ride Saddlebred horses through hundreds of miles of California trail. Mommy eats handpicked oranges from her saddle bag, her friend, the one who looks like Kim Novak, rides beside her. Picking up the pace, they gallop up a hill, stopping at the top to look out on endless blue sky, golden chaparral and red brown earth. Mommy’s palomino rears like the movie horse he was and they laugh because even when he’s bad he’s beautiful. Moose is wild and dangerous; he is exactly the kind of horse Mommy likes. She talks with pride when she tells me they had to drug him when he was a movie horse on Marlon Brando’s film One Eyed Jacks. Moose half killed a groom but it was Mommy who broke him when no one else could.
Now we’re hiking through Topanga Canyon. There are scorpions and wild flowers, old mine shafts and rocky cliffs that we climb with just our bare hands. Carefully, we look for rattle snakes and spiders as the door creeks open on an old cabin where the Mexican General, Pancho Villa, hid out with his men. She tells me about the cougars that drank out of the swimming pool on the Topanga canyon ranch and of the deer and the wild fires.
I hear the roar and crackle of fire as it eats up miles of Canyon, its speed increased by the seaward rush of the Santa Anna winds. When the fire gets too close the horses are freed from their paddocks to run from the rolling brush fire down towards Malibu and the sea. Every last horse thunders to safety accept for the old mare called Chunga, who goes to stand with the fire fighters because she’s too old to panic and too smart to leave the safety of people.
Mommy’s life is a movie, its color and imagery are brighter than any world I’ve ever known. Her stories, the good and the bad, are my stories because I have lived them over and over all my life. Once, she even met Marilyn Monroe. I see Marilyn as Mommy saw her, at the ranch wearing a stained white blouse and blue jeans. She laughs and is sweet in a way that makes everyone else instantly comfortable while a kind of angelic aura magnifies her unearthly beauty.
“When did you go to school, Mommy?” I ask, because we never talk about the normal stuff, the day to day stuff.
“I didn’t.” She says, “School was dangerous. There were gangs and girls who cut tattoos in their skin in the bathrooms. I loved going to Sana Monica High but when they made me change schools I stopped going. No one made me go. No one cared because I was a girl and I didn’t need an education. Being pretty was enough.”
She suddenly looks sad under the glare of the florescent light as if unearthing this new injustice hurts even more than the other ones she tries to hide. Watching her, I realize she’s thought too much, remembered too much. I watch her hands maneuver through soap suds while her face and glorious red hair are reduced to dark shadows in the bad light. I glance from her to Ali, a knot already forming in my stomach. My sister sits in her high chair, her face and chubby fingers covered in smashed banana. I feel the wave of grief that comes sometimes like a tidal wave off my mother. Mommy is like her horses. She is wild and wild women like wild horses may be broken but never tamed.
I understand Mommy. I’m not like her but I understand her because I understand horses; especially the wild ones. She could leave us if she wanted to. Like a wild horse, her need for freedom is stronger than the family ties that bind her. She could break free and go back to California, back to Malibu, movie stars and Griffith Park. She could buy another English sports car and wreck it the way she did the others. She could swim with sharks or with Kirk Douglas’s two boys the way she used to. She doesn’t have to stay, a fact she’s told me to my face. I look from her to my sister feeling the old fear, the one that says we’re on our own because Mommy can’t be trusted. Yet she’s here, right now. She hasn’t run yet and she may never go. Though our bond is tenuous at best, I need to believe that she, like her memories, will always be near.