The Shame in Bare Shoulders: Part 16 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

Jenny, Eleanor and Zara (front row center)

Jenny, Eleanor and Zara (front row center)


On my seventh birthday my friend Zara gave me a sun dress with red, white, and green pinstripes. It was the most beautiful dress I had ever owned. I loved it the moment I saw it and wore it as often as I could. In my candy cane stripes and with my hair twisted into cinnamon-rolls like Princess Leia, I felt beautiful.

A heat wave hit Salt Lake City, driving the temperatures up well over 110. The heat made breathing painful. Each breath came like the drag of sandpaper over skin while the sunlight was so bright it blinded. I walked to school in my sundress under the shade of the box elder trees. I felt happy. The world was bright and warm and nature buzzed and shifted like a symphony around me. I walked into school, set my lunch bag in the bin and walked to my desk.

“Eleanor.” When I looked up my teacher was frowning at me. “Come here.” Rising from my desk I walked to her. What had I done wrong and why was she looking at me like that. “Girls are not allowed to show more skin then a tee-shirt reveals. You know the garments rule don’t you?” This last question assumes I’m Mormon, while questioning how I could have forgotten the LDS rules of modesty. I feel confused.

“I’m not a Mormon.”

“The garment rule still applies to you.” Her response is terse, her eyes sharp. “Mrs. Smith, please take Eleanor to the lost and found and find her something appropriate to cover herself with.” Mrs. Smith, our classroom aid takes my arm as if I’ll run away and forces me before her to the office. Inside the secretary rises, her eyes concerned. By the look on her tired old face I can see that my shoulders have upset her.

“Eleanor forgot to wear a sweater over her sun dress. We’re going to take something from the lost and found.” I don’t rise my eyes. I’m too ashamed. My little striped sundress with its pretty spaghetti straps is a humiliation. I feel too naked and too ashamed to look at the ancient secretary as she leads us into a side room labeled lost and found.

I watch Mrs. Smith sort past tee-shirts and hooded zip up jackets until she finds a knee length cable knit wool sweater. “Put this on and do not ever wear that dress to school again without a sweater to cover your shoulders. It is immodest and ungodly to show so much skin.”

“But it’s hot out.” I look at my feet, my voice imploring her to take pity on me. “Couldn’t I wear a tee-shirt over it?”

“No. You’ll wear this sweater. It will help you remember the garment rule.”

Sliding into the sweater I find it itchy and hot. Mrs. Smith buttons it down the front so that my shameful little sundress disappears beneath it. Not even the hem can be seen at the bottom. I watch Mrs. Smith roll up the sleeves before sending me back to class. When the bell for recess rings I unbutton the sweater and walk to hang it on the peg.

“Put it back on and button it up.” Mrs. Smith walks towards me, her fingers grabbing at the sweater, forcing me back into it.

“But it’s hot out.”

“Which will help you remember the garment rule!” I’m forced to watch Mrs. Smith button the heavy sweater up to its last button, the rough wool scratching my chin. Then I’m forced out of the air conditioned school and outside, but I can’t run and play with the other kids. I can’t even walk out into the heat. I stand at the shaded entrance, too sick with heat to step out of the shade.

“No loitering at the entrance. Come out please.” Looking up I see Mrs. Smith standing five feet before me. I walk to where she stands at the top of the playground stairs and try to keep my eye sight from blurring. I’m so sick with heat that it’s all I can do to stay on my feet during recess.

“Why are you wearing that heavy sweater?” A girl asks. She touches the sleeve, her fingers recoiling from the rough wool.

“The garment rule. My dress shows my shoulders so I have to cover up.” No one else talks to me that day. I’m shunned for breaking the rules, for being immodest while the reality that I’m not a member of the church sinks into more than one mind. When the final bell rings, marking the end of school, I try for a second time to take off the sweater but am told I can wear it home and return it the next day.

When I’m safe at home I am sweat drenched and covered with red scratches and hives. My mother stares at me in confusion the moment I step through the door.
“I showed my shoulders.” I tell her. “I broke the garment rule.”

“I didn’t know.” She keeps saying, too shocked to grasp what’s happened. “It was so hot,” she adds, still lost in the sight of my red roughened shoulders, “I didn’t know.”

The brightly colored pinstriped dress hung in my closet reeking of shame and licentious transgression until I finally outgrew it and gave it away. The dress is gone but I feel the shunning and the shame like I felt the hair shirt I was forced to wear on a 110 degree day; it burns, and it hurts to this day. So I cut the necks out of my tee-shirts. I wear bare shouldered gowns. I refuse to bend to self-righteous people who say that a girl who shows a shoulder is a bad girl and I won’t give an inch to buttoned-up self-righteous people who shame and injure others in the name of religious propriety. We are as god made us. We are glorious. We are women.

The Sanctuary of a Story: Part 15 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

green world

Everything is safe in a story. Stories have beginnings and middles and ends. If the storyteller is kind then the story ends well. Though not all stories end the way we want, a good story, a story worth the telling should leave you with something that makes you think, makes you feel, and makes you see the world in a slightly different way. The very best stories leave you awake, aware, nourished; feeling fully connected and alive. I know stories, I live in stories, I hide in stories when the world becomes too shrill, sharp and blinding.

I sit on the edge of the world. As far away from humanity as I can hope to go, while my shaking fingers twist thin willow switches into ornate braids. Today I am an ancient girl, a timeless nomad, making what I need from the bounty of a vast green country. The air is cold, fresh, and pure. I taste the wind, feeling it as it wriggles in the folds of my gown; its rough spun wool smelling of grasses and smoke and earth. I am a part of the earth. The earth is a part of me. Together we make beautiful things.

The bracelets I weave are a gift. They calm my nerves, help me to breath, and fill me with a silence that restores my peace. I take a smooth black rock from my pocket and place it in the middle of my braid, twisting the thin willow switch in circling patterns around it. When the stone is secured and centered I tie off the ends. This braclet is for my mother. I lay the strip of willow and black stone on the ground with the other two I have made.

Girls walk towards me. They whisper in low tones, their bright modern colors destroying my illusory peace. I’m forced to sit up, to smile, to act…normal.
“What are you doing?”
“Making willow bracelets.”
“Can we see them?”
“Yes,” I look down on the bracelets that lay on the grass where I sit.
“They’re beautiful. Can I have one?” The girl is kind. She’s always been kind. Her name is a memory I can’t catch. I lift up a bracelet with a pink stone and help her tie it around her wrist.
“Why don’t you come play with us?” Her expression is curious, not judging. I would like to play with her but just being forced to speak to her has constricted my breathing, sending my stomach into knots. I need to be alone, in silence…free.

“Thanks but I like being here.” The kind girl smiles softly, her right hand sliding over the pink stone bracelet like a gesture of understanding. I watch them walk away, whispering and wondering why I sit alone. I try again to remember what it was to be timeless, to be alone in rough spun fabric I made myself, to be unindebted to a world without center, but the time has gone. With the ring of the bell I am forced to gather my things and head back to class.

Kids run with soccer balls, girls laugh, skip and play. I walk with my head down, trying not to see all the colors, feel all the noise. My mind grasps at a vanishing blue sky, an endless, enfolding expanse. Wispy clouds call to me through aluminum edged windows as block walls separate me from my true self, my green self, my free self. The story I embodied retreats, is saved for later, buried deep. Yet its memory lends me calm in the riot of noise that only stills when the teacher calls the class to silence.

Being Enough: Part 14 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

late bloomer
I’m drowning in the reality that I’m not good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, kind enough, or thoughtful enough. I thought I was a little girl but they tell me I’m a “late bloomer?” There’s even a book they read me. It makes me angry and sad at bed time. So every day I struggle to be more…. If I can become more then I can feel ok. I can bloom. But when I’m messy, stupid, or outspoken, or hungry, then she notices. She is my Mother and my Mother is a Goddess. I’ve seen her put Daddy down like an old dog, and burn our world to scorched earth with a look. Goddesses are tricky creatures. Please them and they’ll ignore you. Upset them and you’ll see how quickly everything you thought you were gets singed to ash.

I’m not enough. Daddy isn’t enough either. Together we let the team down and that makes us embarrassing. I’m his because I have his hair, his eyes, and his shape while Sis is hers because she is thin, red haired, pale, and universally adored. Sis is a Goddess in training. I am a late bloomer!

This reality divides our house into the reds vs. browns, thins vs. fats, petted vs. rebuked. In Mother’s corner is Sis and a tenuous, uncertain me – wishing to please and be accepted. In Daddy’s corner is Daddy, looking alone, sad, confused, goofy and often outright obnoxious. I drift to his side now and again but scorned Goddesses are never merciful.

Daddy has always been the odd man out. He wears his constant rejection like an old sweater that is too shabby to bring comfort, yet too familiar to be taken off. So he says and does things that make everything harder, needing to be loved while he gives us reasons to push him farther away. I feel his need to be loved like I feel his need to be accepted. I want him to be loved and accepted; to be better, thinner, smart, and funny in a way that will please her, but he doesn’t try like I do, so I, too, am ashamed. In being ashamed of him, I become ashamed of me, ashamed of us.

So here we are! It’s a hot, sunny summer day and my uncle is complaining that the meat we bought for the barbeque is too cheap a cut for him to eat. Mother makes food and ignores him, while wearing a tee-shirt two sizes too small; her low cut bell bottom jeans flaring in all the right places. Sis is in her bikini looking equally radiant, while I wear my one piece, the only kind of swimming suit this round bloomless girl is allowed to wear.

Daddy fills the paddle pool. Then he fills up water balloons and before we know it a neighborhood-wide water fight has begun. Hoses reach under boxelder trees, are pulled across M St., while buckets are filled and balloons smashed. Pop! We shriek, laugh, scream and run but not fast enough as buckets of water are dumped over our heads. In minutes we’re all soaked, laughing and happy.

Cold water turns to steam that rises off hundred degree concrete, filling the air with that most succulent of urban scents: hot wet sidewalk. It’s a memory scent that makes me happy every time I smell it. I’m lost in the scent, in being happy, in the sparkle of puddles on scorched brown lawn. It’s the yells of men that makes me look up. Daddy has the hose but Uncle and another man have hold of Daddy. In a second he’s dragged across the lawn and thrown down in the paddle pool face first with Uncle and this other man landing on top. Daddy is pinned to the bottom of the baby pool and the fight is over.

Everybody laughs. It’s funny? It doesn’t feel funny! It feels mean! When they let him up Daddy’s half drowned and defeated. He is again the youngest brother of five, the boy who never wins. I feel mad because they took the game too seriously. Like the water disappearing into the ground, all the fun’s leached out of the day.

I go in the backyard and sit alone, the sound of laughter still ringing in the air. There is no way to fix this thing I feel but can’t express. No way to take sides in this invisible battle that no one ever talks about. All I can do is try to be better, to be kinder, to be a lady, to be enough. If I can be enough then maybe I’ll bloom.

The Nazis Next Door: Part 13 of Rain on Cloudless Day

fruit
Granma lives on 5th south in an old home that was once converted into a duplex. It has two kitchens and two living rooms, two bathrooms and two bedrooms. Daddy had to knock down a wall just so Granma didn’t have to go outside to enter the other half of her house. Granma’s house is magical. Like Alice’s Wonderland, it is all topsy-turvy and back to front. It has two different front doors with different shaped door knobs. All the sun floods into the south side of the house, the side with the yellow kitchen where we bake bread and make pudding.

From every window on the sunny side of the house I can watch the Nazis. From the living room I see the ancient grandmother push her push-mower in the front yard. Through their kitchen window I can see her daughter who is Granma’s age. In the backyard I hear the young daughter playing with her son, a boy my age.

Granma is in the garden pulling up weeds and gathering vegetables. When the basket is filled with food we walk over to the Nazi’s house. I feel a chill go up my spine every time the old grandmother looks at me. I’m so filled with the stories of war that I’m always a little afraid she might want to shove me in an oven. The click, click, click of her old black push-mower comes to a stop when she sees us. Her toothless smile and the black scarf she wears tied tightly under her chin, draw the wrinkles and folds of her face into a new symmetry. She wears an old black dress that reaches to her ankles. On her feet she wears black leather boots. Her fingers grip the push-mower and are gnarled and twisted from almost a century of hard work.

She only speaks German. Granma says she’s too old to learn English and doesn’t need to. I hear the creak of the front door as the old grandmother’s daughter comes to greet us. She takes the basket from Granma and welcomes us into her garden. She picks apricots and peaches, apples and tomatoes, placing them into a second basket that she gives to us. Looking around, I see the boy wants to play. We think up a game while Granma and her friend talk. The click, click, click, of the old push mower picks up again and the hours slip by in the easy flow of a long hot summer day.
ww1

When the sun casts long shadows I am thirsty with running and pretending. Going into the house I walk behind my friend who fills two glasses of water. We wander into the small front sitting room to rest. On a table beside the old Grandmother’s chair sit two pictures, one of a very young man in a World War I German uniform and the other of an equally young man in a Nazi uniform. Both pictures are black and white but as crisp as the day they were taken. These pictures remind me of the black and white picture we have of Granma. In it she is twenty-two and wearing her ATS military uniform.

“Who are they?”

“This is my grandfather,” he points to the Nazi’s picture, “and this is my great grandfather.” He gestures to the World War I soldier.

“Where are they now?” I look for other pictures of the two men but don’t find them.

“They were killed. Great Grandfather died when my grandmother was a baby and Grandfather died when my mother was a baby.”

I nod my head, thoughtful. Looking up at my friend I realize that he has his grandfather’s large dark eyes.
ww2

It’s late when we walk home. I’m thinking of all the men my Granma nursed throughout the war, of all the suffering and death. Looking up I ask,

“How come our enemies are now our friends, Granma?”

“Those ladies were never our enemies. They were farmers like we were.”

“But their men fought in the wars. I saw the pictures.”

“Yes they fought.” She’s silent for a moment. “It was a terrible time but it’s in the past now. Let the past be the past, let the dead bury the dead.” Smiling she adds, “and let’s you and I make a pie.”

I smile, my thoughts turning from loss to the light crusty joy of hot peach pie. I realize in that second that Granma isn’t angry or sad anymore because Granma is too alive, too busy living, too alight with life to waste time being angry. Angry isn’t fun so it isn’t worth her time.

We make a pie and we talk about everything we loved about the day. My heart glows happy even as my eyes grow heavy because I see life, I see living, and I understand what it takes to truly thrive. When Granma tells us to have, “no regrets,” she is really telling us not to let our past ruin our present. Let the dead bury the dead, share food and friendship with old enemies, and turn all life’s peaches into magnificent pies.

The Dancer, the Dead and the Madonna: Part 12 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

Bombed_Out_Church_in_Carpiquet,_near_Caen,_July_12,_1944
Granma’s Madonna scares me. She says it will be ours one day, my sisters and mine; but I don’t want it. I want to want it but I can’t. In my heart I know it has to be my sisters because it can’t ever be mine. There is no explaining the Madonna. No way to understand it but through its history which reaches back further in time than any of us know.

The war brought the Madonna into our lives. Granma nursed hundreds of wounded and dying soldiers in the war. Granma bandaged men as they healed and held their hands as they passed giving what comfort she could. One of her soldiers was a French man. She’d nursed him for months. In gratitude for his life and all the care she had given him he gave her the Madonna, one of two he had found in the rubble of a bombed church.

Granma kept the Madonna with her throughout the war. When the air raid sirens howled she would take the Madonna into the bomb shelters. The Madonna’s hair and robe are shined to a polish with all the hours Granma spent running her hands over the folds of her plaster robe, waiting for the siren that would announce the all clear.

But when I look at the Madonna I don’t see Our Lady, the Queen of Heaven-the Mother Mary. I have been raised to love Our Lady but I don’t see her when I look on Granma’s Madonna. Instead I see the bombs, the wounded, the dying and the dead.

mother mary

Her robe is the yellow of aged plaster with traces of the sacred blue paint she once wore, caught in the folded grooves of her robe. Her gown too is worn of color; its white paint only visible in a few deeply etched places. Once, the rose at her feet was a soft shade of red. I know this because a touch of color sits between the petals. Granma’s Madonna is lined with cracks, broken and repaired, her head repositioned onto its neck, her torso and base re-sculpted with glue and plaster chips. Yet it wasn’t the bombs that smashed her.

My family fought in both the world wars and only lost one man in battle. Yet we lost two women during those wars and both died at home. The first was my Granma’s sister Eva. On hearing of her fiancé’s death at Verdun, France she fell ill and died of a broken heart. The second was my Granma’s sister-in-law, a beautiful American actress who died suddenly of pneumonia during the second war. Her name was Jackie.

Jackie was a movie actress and vaudeville dancer who supported the troops by keeping them entertained. She was healthy and young and beautiful, too filled with life to die. Our family mourned her in the same sitting room where all our dead were mourned. Granma took leave from the Portland Royal Naval Hospital to sit vigil beside her coffin. Flowers filled the sitting room surrounding Jackie’s coffin and the Madonna was placed on a table at Jackie’s head. On the final night before the funeral the room was darkened and the mourners went to bed. (This part is strange to me because the custom of our family is to sit with the lost one until the funeral.) The house was still, everyone was asleep when suddenly… “Smash…”

Granma reached the downstairs sitting room, her brother, Jackie’s grieving husband beside her while all the rest of the family made their way down behind them. Opening the door they saw the Madonna in pieces on the floor, a huge hole in the wall where she had struck it. No one was in the room. No one had flung the statue at the wall. Jackie lay as she had, stilled by death, quiet and cold in her satin lined coffin. So who had smashed the Madonna? No one knows.

No, I do not want Granma’s Madonna. Just to think of it gives me chills. When Granma places it in my sister’s small hands I am filled with an ancient, haunted kind of fear.
fire survival

Hefelton Farm: Part 11 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

GarDen
Mommy and Daddy are going. My sister cries a little, her tears turning to a forlorn silence. They are not going in a bad or permanent way but rather on a three day marriage retreat to “work” on how to be married. I don’t understand this. Their marriage is as permanent to me as the Wasatch Mountains. Mountains don’t need work so why should a marriage? I keep asking questions but no one offers answers. Granma says the time will fly by and before we know it they’ll be back.

This is the first fracture I have seen in my family, the first fault line to run a jagged line through the comfortable security of my childhood. I see it like a dark edge cutting us until my stomach hurts and I’m gnawed by worry. They’re not all right. We’re not all right. Our marriage needs work means our world is not all right.

“I miss mommy.” I stand beside my sister on Granma’s front porch, looking at the road that took our parents away.

“I miss Daddy.” My sister whispers, her small hand slipping into mine.

We hear the trot of tiny feet as four poodles run passed us. Granma walks behind them.

“Do you miss your Daddy?” my sister looks up at our tall strong grandmother who is so wise and brave that I can’t imagine her ever needing or missing anyone.

“I miss him,” she says, her lips forming as sad, wistful smile.

“He was called Frank William,” I offer up his name as conformation that I listen, that Granma’s stories matter. “He was a farmer, a carpenter, an undertaker, and a black smith.”

“…and a sheep herder,” my sister looks up at me, scowling because I forgot.

“A shepherd.” Granma corrects her gently, “Yes we kept hundreds of sheep on Hefelton Farm. There were sheep and pigs, cows and geese, ducks and chickens. I had my pony Topsy and we had our giant Sire horses.”

“And the bull!”

“The big mean bull!” My sister adds.

“The biggest meanest bull that ever grazed on Dorset grass.” Granma settles down on the porch bench her eyes fixed on the garden, her words conjuring up a huge red bull in our imaginations.

“I had a penny farthing bicycle,” she begins, “the kind with one huge front wheel and one tiny back wheel. It was impossibly heavy, old and hard to ride. I was peddling home in a hurry on the day it happened. I’d done something terrible and was trying to make it home before anyone knew I’d even gone. Hefelton farm was so big that it was easy to lose track of people. I rode my bicycle up the lane and left it in the shrubbery to the right of the drive.”penny farthing

“Because of the geese.”

“Yes, the geese hated my bicycle. They would honk and bite at it and me, making so much noise that the men would come out of the hay fields and barns just for a laugh. Those geese gave me terrible bruises. My plan was to sneak up through the front pasture to the house and pretend I’d been in the garden all morning. I ducked through the wooden fence and ran as fast as I could for the house. The geese were in the lane grazing but they hadn’t seen me. It was then that I heard a great bellow of noise. Turning, I saw my father’s massive bull emerge from the shade, his nostrils flaring. He was coming towards me at a steady gallop, his horns lowered. I know he hadn’t been in that pasture when I snuck out. The ground shook as he ran at me, coming faster and faster. He was almost on me when I jumped through the fence, landing in a heap on the other side. The geese saw everything. They came running and honking into the lower garden, their long necks outstretched, their wings flapping. I ran for a nearby oak tree and swung up into the lower branches. All I had to do then was catch my breath and wait for the geese to go away. But then it happened. Theresa? My mother called. Looking through the branches I saw her standing by the farm house with the constable I had thought I’d outrun.”

“What had you done?”

“I had pinned a lit string of firecrackers to the constable’s coat tail. You should have seen that man jump.”

“What did they do to you?”

“I was caned and sentenced to a week of weeding the vegetable garden.”

“That evening when the men came in from the fields I was still on my knees in that garden, my arms and bottom whipped red with welts. My father laughed when he saw me there. Theresa Phillis, he said, you spend more time in that vegetable garden than you do out of it. When are you going to behave yourself? ”

“Never! I said, glaring up at him.”

“Well if you are going to be wicked I suppose it’s a good thing you’re also fast. That’s when I knew he knew about the constable and the bull. Everyone knew. I was the talk of the village and somehow that made it all worth it. I loved my father and he loved me. I loved my mother too but she made loving her hard.”

“Did your parents’ marriage ever need work?” I ask, still missing my parents.

“In those days there was no such thing as working on a marriage. You were married and that was the end of it. Marriages didn’t break, they endured.”

I think about what it would be like to live when Granma did. I like the farm, her pony and all the adventures but I don’t like the caning or the never ending hard work.

“Is it terrible to be a grownup Granma?” I ask.

She doesn’t answer for a bit. I watch her think, her face reflects her father’s death, the war, her exile from the village for having a war time child that wasn’t her husbands. Then there was the divorce that took my mother from her father and the immigration that made England only just a memory. All the starving and death, work and sacrifice for a life of instability and uncertainty.

“Is it awful?” my sister asks, her eyes big and sad.

“No,” Granma shakes her head, “it’s the biggest adventure you will ever have. No regrets. Not ever.”

“No regrets,” we repeat the words like a promise to her to be as tough as leather as strong as iron, as enduring as Granma? But how can we know this is a promise we can keep? After all, what is there yet to regret?
garDen veg patch

The Sacred Act of Loving Art: Part 10 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

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For as long as I can remember, Mommy has taken us to every art exhibition and museum in Salt Lake City. We tour galleries and studio openings, my mother describing brush strokes, paint layering, visual dynamics and the importance of shadow play. We have been informed that we are in the process of learning to appreciate art the way she does. And when we grow tired, hungry, or want to go home we are made polite and educated on the merits of pointillism, the modern movement and the many fold reasons as to why we should always hate Picasso.

Once while touring an exhibition on contemporary cubist paintings we broke rank and rebelled. My sister cried and I whined and we both insisted on going home. Mommy took us quietly in hand saying, “I have brought you here and you WILL LIKE IT!” These words have since become a family joke repeated in a clipped German accent. On that day however, they were far from funny. With aching feet, we walked, listened and appreciated everything until the natural, mother dictated, conclusion of our tour.

As young parishioners in the church of art, we still pay our respect, say our obeisance, utter our prayers to the masters of water lilies and sun flowers, abstracts and impressionists, while haloed saints writhe in anguish and a multitude of glowing cherubic Messiahs rest in various possess upon their mothers laps. Art is our religion, our daily practice and our saving grace. We bow down and are made humble by all that God has inspired in humans until we too feel the spirit move inside, us bringing us to our own God given gift to create.

Mommy paints, my sister has music, I write and my father makes stained glass. We live in museums, poor endless hours into fat glossy paged art books and discuss what it is to live in art-for art. My world is the world of my family, I am guided by its opinions (Picasso is bad), its beliefs (Diego Rivera couldn’t paint his way out of a box) and its rhetoric (Monet’s work is light and color perfected). Secretly I love Diego Rivera and am concerned about Claude Monet’s eyesight but to say this to Mommy would cause her opinion of me to sink which is a thing I dread. So I keep Diego to myself.

I would like to watch Mommy work. Her paintings begin as sketches on canvas, washed in with dark pigments which are then layered over until she reaches a level of such depth that her figures are alive. But she needs silence to connect with the canvas and painting for her is not a family act. Family to Mommy is order, hard work and tolerance.

Daddy is different. He is gone all day, his work is exhausting but he has energy for us. When he’s home he makes up long stories and reads out classical books, giving all the characters their own voice. But of all the wonderful things he does, I love his stained glass windows best.

I creep down into our dirt cellar where old window drawings hang pegged to heavy wood beams. Dust from the dirt walls and hard packed dirt floor coat the old wood table where his newest drawing lays. Numbers that represent color are drawn onto flower petals and grass stalks. I watch him cut green glass and place it on the jig saw puzzle drawing. The color and shape of the glass fills in the part of the picture that will be a leaf. Night after night more pieces are added until every piece of glass is cut and placed to make the window. Then the glass is soldiered together and taken out of the dirt cellar into the light.

This is why I love glass. I love the way the light shines through it. I love the way it changes the world from ordinary to magical; it makes mere sunlight turn green, blue, purple, and red. I love the way glass is molded and shaped, its rich color or prism cut edges accentuating every sunrise and passing ray of light. Glass is an art form that actively adds magic and beauty to a constantly shifting landscape.

Mommy says art reminds us why we live, it adorns our already beautiful world with more color, adding magic to the mundane. Art stirs our heart and floods us with a passion for more life, more color and more living. I hope I always see life as a blank page or numbered drawing ready to be filled with shards of color. What Mommy teaches me in our long museum marches is respect, dedication and the thousands of ways one can create. What Daddy teaches me in our shadowy dirt cellar is that art forms in every kind of unlikely place. All it needs is inspiration, intention and a little light.

One Brave Ham: Part 9 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

ham
I can’t sleep. I could if I tried but trying would be boring. Mommy looks tired tonight. If I were smart I would go to sleep but smart doesn’t equal adventure and I need an adventure. Ali sleeps in her crib. I lay tucked in bed listening to the night. Even our old house is quiet tonight. Maybe all the activity of the day tired it out the way it has my sister. I slip out of bed, feeling the cold green linoleum under my feet. My silky green night gown glows pale green in the diffused light. The window that leads to the ally is shut tight. It’s a fun escape but Mommy would kill me if I opened it and went out. Sadly, the window to the back garden is out of reach. If I’m really quiet and careful, I can sneak out of the nursery and across the hall into the sun porch where the dogs sleep.

Quietly, I open our door and step into the hall. The old floor boards creaking out an unmistakable alarm.

“Eleanor Eva what are you doing?” Mommy sits at the kitchen table, her eyes locked on me.

“I can’t sleep. I need sleepy tea.” I look down at my bare feet, my hand resting on the nob to the sun porch. Sadie and Arrow look up at me expectantly, their tails wagging through the glass.

“So why were you going to see the dogs?”

“They looked lonely.” Dropping my hand I walk to the table and sit down.

Giving me a look that should scare me back to bed she asks, “I suppose you’ll need toast with your sleepy tea.”

“And butter and honey.” I add, carful that nothing is missed. I watch Mommy take the scissors from the drawer. We slip into sandals and walk out into the starlight, Arrow and Sadie running ahead. I love our garden. It’s magical. All gardens are magical but ours has fairies. I haven’t seen one yet but it’s just a matter of time. We walk to the fence where a giant mound of mint grows. It smells like heaven, its heavy scent drifts towards us on the hot summer breeze. We cut enough for a pot but before returning to the house Mommy pulls three green onions from the dirt.

Inside I watch her wash the mint and the onions. Mommy sets a saucepan to boil, sprinkling the fresh mint into the water. We watch it turn green. Then we slice the onions length ways and soak them in a glass of cold salt water, their green tops hanging over the side of the glass.

I squeeze honey from the honey bear onto my toast as Mommy pours tea into our mugs and we sit down together. The tea is hot, so hot that I move my face into the steam letting the sweet fragrance bathe my face. I hear the crunch of onions and looking up I see my mother with her green onions and a thick slice of cheddar cheese.

“I used to live on these during the war,” she says, holding up the green onion. “We lived off our little garden. The government rations were so small that we were forced to live off what we grew.”

“Were you always hungry?”

“Yes. We were surrounded by farms growing mountains of food but everything they grew went to feed the men and the country. Everything was rationed and shared but there was never enough. I used to steal condensed milk from the pantry. My Grandmother Eva would get so angry but I just couldn’t help myself. Condensed milk is still one of my favorite things. I can eat it with a spoon.”

“That and strawberry jam,” I say with a laugh. I’ve caught my mother several times eating jam from the jar with nothing but a spoon. “What other things do you love to eat?”

“Snickers bars and Coca-Cola?”

“I like Ham sandwiches and black tea with Granma and toast and mint tea with you.”

“I love ham.” Mommy looks suddenly so hungry she could eat a pig. “I still remember the first time I had ham.”

“Was it the brave ham?” I ask with a smile.

“Yes. Your great uncle Frank knew the villagers were starving. He went to Bovington Camp and he asked the Americans if he could have their food scraps for his pigs. They brought out a huge barrel of food waste and just gave it to him. He loaded the barrel onto the back of his milk cart and drove it into the village. Inside they found whole hams with just a few slices cut off and potatoes that had only a few black spots. The barrel was filled with food. We ate like kings off the food the Americans were throwing away. We fed a whole village.”

“And that was the first time you ate ham?”

“Yes. It was American ham, brought across the Atlantic on a U.S. convoy.”

“That was one…BRAVE…ham.” I laugh. It’s an old joke that’s been told many times. It’s our joke and our history all boiled down to a one liner that never fails. It’s why we’re here smiling over mint tea in the middle of the night. We’re here because of smart old uncles, because of brave sailors who ran convoys through Nazi subs, because of solders who fought for hearth and home and also, because of one brave ham.

The Russian who loved a Saint: Part 8 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

Clockwise from the top: Sis, Arrow, Me and Jenny.

Clockwise from the top: Sis, Arrow, Me and Jenny.


Mommy says the white and brindle Russian wolfhound we visit has bonnet ears. He will never be a show dog. We walk the long treed Salt Lake City Avenues to see him because he is beautiful like art. So while admiring the art that is the brownstone Victorians and painted Queen Ann houses in our neighborhood, we pay our respects to this artistically beautiful dog. Each day we walk to the yard where he is kept and each day my mother tells him just how beautiful he is. Her soft words coax the shy dog to press his nose through the chain-link fence, allowing us to stroke his face and crooked ears.

On one particularly hot summer day a neighbor lady sees us. She’s the nosy grey haired kind with sharp eyes and a sharper tongue. Crossing her lawn she walks to the fence that separates the dog’s yard from hers. Lifting a running hose she drops the end over the fence letting the water run into the burned yellow grass. The Wolfhound bites at the water, sucking it down greedily.

“If I don’t feed and water him he’ll die. That terrible man who owns him would let him die.” Looking around we see there’s no water dish anywhere. “When he goes away on business he locks the dog in the basement. I hate hearing the poor thing cry when I can’t do anything for him. It would be a good thing if this dog got a good home.”

Mommy doesn’t say much. We thank the woman for her kindness but the next time walk to the house I notice my mother check the driveway for a car before peering into the house to look for lights. I can’t tell how many times we pass that house and pet that dog before we spot a car in the drive. Without hesitation Mommy parks the stroller at the bottom of the steps.

“Stay with your sister and be quiet.” I nod my head and watch her walk up the cement stairs to the porch. It’s not a pretty porch, not like ours. The house isn’t a Victorian. It has a sad sort of 1950’s utilitarian look to it. Three knocks bring no one. Three more bring a man to the storm door, a look of suspicion and annoyance on his face.

“I’m so sorry to bother you,” Mommy’s smile is all charm. “I just noticed your beautiful dog and was interested to know where you bought him. I’d love to have a dog like him.”

“He’s from back east. Supposed to be imported stock but he has bad ears. He can’t be shown or bred. They sold me a bad dog.”

“Oh I don’t mind his ears. I don’t breed dogs I just like them. Do you happen to remember the breeder’s name? I know you probably wouldn’t want to part with him but I really want a Russian wolfhound.”

The guy looks from her to the skinny dog and back again. “I work a lot,” the man says, his features softening, “and I paid a fortune for that dog but honestly with those ears he’s worthless.”

“I think he’s beautiful.” Mommy takes a piece of paper from her pocket with our number on it. “If you remember the name of the breeder or ever want to sell your dog, give me a call.” The man’s eyes soften slightly.

Three nights later I watch my mother leave the house alone. My daddy sits on the porch with us as the late summer sun sets low behind my friend Jenny’s house. An hour passes and then I see something I’d never dared dream of. I see my mother walking towards us with the Russian wolfhound gliding gently beside her.

“He’s skinny.” My daddy says when he sees her come in the gate. Our big St. Bernard Sadie runs up to greet them. The wolfhound hides behind Mommy but Sadie’s joyful panting and playful personality soon put him at ease. Inside the gate he is set free to run and play with our dog. Daddy names him Arrow from a record called ‘Me and My Arrow’ because like the lyrics in the song say, our dog is, “Straight up and narrow.”

Arrow gains weight, he gains confidence, he gains a family that loves him but best of all he gains a mate for life. Sadie and Arrow run off leash in Lyndsey Gardens where Arrow preforms the magical leg trip that summersaults Sadie off her paws and onto her back. We watch Arrow go in for a pretend kill, snapping at Sadie’s tummy as if she were a real wolf. His instincts are strong but so is his love for the chubby St. Bernard. She’s up again in seconds, running as fast as she can beside him.

Wolfhounds hunt as one, live as one and love as one. Like the wolves they’ve been bred to kill, they are pack animals, loyal and selfless to the end. I’ve come to realize that the day God takes our Sadie home, our Arrow won’t be far behind her. They’ve bonded and are bound by a pack love that was born the night Mommy brought our Arrow home. To imagine Arrow without Sadie now, is like trying to imagine a blue sky existing without the sun.

California Sunshine: Part 7 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

girl with horse
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.

Triumph TR3

Triumph TR3


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.

Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa

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 and of the deer and 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 an 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.

Moose with Marlon Brando on the set of One Eyed Jacks

Moose with Marlon Brando on the set of One Eyed Jacks