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.

Hefthelton Farm: Part 11 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

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 Hefthelton 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. Hefthelton 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


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

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 troops 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 tree lined 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’d 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 we 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 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.

Moose with Marlon Brando on the set of One Eyed Jacks Moose with Marlon Brando on the set of One Eyed Jacks

Bonnets, Buggies and Blaine: Part 4 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

buggy pic, old
Old mare never had a name. Mommy found her when she was an emaciated foal who could no longer stand. My mother paid 50 dollars to save her, which was fifty times what the dying foal was worth in 1960. With no horse trailer, Mommy put the filly in the bed of her pickup truck and drove slowly towards her two acre ranch in Simi Valley, California. Bottle fed and hand raised, the filly grew up eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while she watch TV from behind the sofa.

Filly became Mare and Mare became Old Mare. The first time I sat on her back was the week I learned to sit-up. Now I’m just tall enough to push my little English saddle onto her back, synching it loosely because I am too small to really pull it tight. Getting the bridal on is easy because old Mare always drops her head for the bit. Yet for some reason, I can never get the reigns over her head the first try.

In the dark isle of Blaine Carr’s boarding stable, I haul myself onto her back. Old Mare turns her head and watches me, her expression one of amusement. I ride her to Mommy who scolds me for riding a horse with a loose girth and reigns on only one side of my horses head.

“Why don’t you put the reigns over her head when you put the bridal on,” she says, her thin lips pursed in disapproval. “This is a dangerous way to ride.”

“Because then I wouldn’t have a reign to lead her to the mounting block.” And so it goes week after week. I groom, tack and mount my little Old Mare and Mommy adjusts, teaches, and scolds me into becoming the horse woman we both dream I will be.

The sun bounces off the white sand of our arena as I ride in large circles looking up at the Wasatch Mountains that loom so large to the East. My sister plays in the shallow creek with Blaine’s grandson while mother saddles up Flashy Cookie, a friend’s sensitive thoroughbred. I ride around the arena a few more times, picking Old Mare up into an easy trot until Mommy and Cookie walk in.

When my mother rides I have to stay in the middle or leave the arena. Cookie is huge and emotional and I can’t be where he is. When they come in I ride towards the barn, making a small loop around three of the things I love most about the Carr boarding stable. One is a black covered buggy from around 1900. Another is a buckboard whose wooden sides are so bleached by time and weather that they gleam a greyish white. The third is a sleigh that Blaine built himself. He’s rustled mustangs from the prairie and once rode the west when it was still wild. He’s a true cowboy and a real gentleman.buggy

“Don’t get too close to those buggies,” Mommy says. She looks beautiful on Cookies back.

I look down at my tiny fat mare and wonder what it would be like to ride Cookie, a horse that seems to float more than stand. Cookie is like a rushing wind poured into a horse shape. Everything about him is a potential reaction, so everything we do with him has to be slow, soft and quiet.

I step Old Mare back a few steps to make Mommy happy and then gaze down at the sleigh. Blaine hitched his old gelding up to it last winter and took us all for a ride. My mom, my sister and I sat in the back under a blanket while Blaine drove the horse through the snow. We moved so silently and with such speed that it was like flying. I’ll never forget the whooshing sound the runners made or the way the snow flew up behind us. That was one of the best days of my life. Gazing up at the Wasatch Mountains I feel that deep sense of connection, of belonging to a place. Like the avenues and my little house at 86 M Street, this place and these mountains are home.

I see a movement in the dark isle of Blaine’s little barn, the place where he keeps his horses and tack away from the big barn where the boarders are. Blain walks out into the light, his thinning reddish hair combed and parted neatly to the side.

“Do your girls have bonnets and calico dresses?” Mommy answers his question with a puzzled look. “It’s the Days of 47 parade next Saturday,” he adds. “I’m going to drive a team. Your girls can ride in the buggy if they like.”

As a Salt Lake City girl, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t own a bonnet. There are pictures of me toddling through the garden wearing nothing but a diaper and a blue bonnet.

“I have a bonnet.” I say, walking Old Mare over to Blaine. “And I have a calico dress. I’ll ride in the buggy.” And turning to look at Mommy I add, “I can ride in a parade just like you did in L.A. mommy.” Mommy looks at me and then over to Ali who is still playing in the trickling stream.

“I’ll have them ready.” Mommy answers after some thought. Blaine nodes to her before disappearing back into the darkened isle of the little barn. Swallows swoop in and out of the shadows while Mommy picks Cookie up into a rolling canter, his beautiful neck arching as he moves into my mother’s gentle hands and onto the bit. Mommy used to ride side saddle in big California parades wearing a Spanish ladies dress with a Mantilla comb and a lace veil. She represented California’s heritage the way I will get to represent Utah’s.

Watching her ride, I remember that when the pioneers arrived in the place that would become Salt Lake City they looked around and said, “This is the place.” Mommy says the women wept because they were standing in a desert where nothing could grow and life would be hard. She never sees Utah the way I see Utah. How can she when her heart lives in old California, in Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley and Topanga Canyon. She remembers a land of sunlight and orange blossoms, of Spanish stucco missions and movie stars. What she doesn’t understand is that for me, right now, this…is the place.
a bonnett

The Namesake: Part 1 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

Eleanor with balloon on her head
I sit on the worn wooden stairs of my front porch and think about my name. It is a heavy old name. A great grandmother’s name. A name for old maids and librarians. I wish somehow that I had been called Jenny or Jessy or Kelly. Anything that ended softly would be nice. But Eleanor is a family name and I have been told to be proud of it. But I’m not. The great grandmother for whom I was named was a tyrant, a bitter “couldn’t be bothered’” sort of person who’d managed her family with a matriarchal fist. She’d married a world war one soldier, the only New Zealander from his regiment to survive Gallipoli, and then spent the rest of her life surviving his drunken abuse. She’d raised a family of PTSD alcoholics and survived them as well. Now only the grandchildren and great grandchildren are left. It is this hardened, battle scared old woman who calls me namesake.

Eleanor is not a name to be proud of. It is a name to survive. I have asked to be called Leah or Ella. Ella has a sweet sounding ring to it. Ella is soft, playful and endearing in a way that Eleanor can never be. And, Ella will fit in nicely with all the Jenny’s, Jessy’s and Kelly’s at my school. Above everything I need to find a way to fit in. I needed to be pretty and sweet and liked, to be shielded and made innocuous by acceptance. If I were called Ella things would be better. When I ask to shorten Eleanor my mother invariably says, “I gave you a strong name to make you strong. I named you for a queen of France and England and a first lady who led the country in war. Many great woman besides your Nana have been called Eleanor. Never let anyone shorten it. Never let them take it from you.”

“Stop mouthing words when you think. It makes you look like a crazy person.” I didn’t hear mother’s approach. Mommy usually moves through the house like a buffalo but somehow she’s managed to creep up on me only to bulldozer my thoughts with her words. “You look like you’re talking to yourself. You look like one of those lunatics I used to take care of at the nursing home.”

“I was just thinking.” I suck in my lips, clenching them between my teeth so they won’t move again. I can still feel my teeth biting into the soft flesh, my seven year old body tensing at the sound and meaning of her words. It is so sunny out, so sunny I am nearly blinded the moment I look up. Through squinted eyes I find my mother, a dark figure outlined by sunlight, a contoured shape in a tight tee and bellbottom jeans. Mommy is violently beautiful. She wears her thick red hair in a pile like a crown on top of her head. Every strand sparkles in the sunlight. When it’s loose and free it falls all the way to her feet just like Crystal Gail’s. Her eyes are sharp and piercing like a hawks eyes and her jaw is strong and hard. She is strong and hard. I look away, my eyes stung by sunlight and an internal comparison I’ll never find peace with. My own hair is thin and as plain brown as baby poop. I have my father’s hair, my father’s large sad eyes and his round plump body. Glancing up again I see Mommy’s small waist, round hips and large breasts. She is beautiful in a way I already know I will never be.

“Go and play with the other kids.” I look across the street to where my sister plays with Jenny and her dozen brothers. Getting up, I walks slowly towards the picket fence thinking how My sister’s name is also a heavy old name. My sister was named for a library because Mommy wanted her to grow up wise. But unlike me, my sister is allowed to shorten her name. She is called Sis; like Kelly and Jenny, Sis is a soft and friendly name.

Still just inside the gate I stop to look at the Shasta Daisies that line the picket fence. Their fully flowered heads gleam so bright white it’s hard to look at them under the hot Utah sun. A bee floats lazily from one head to another, drifting slowly passed me and over to the old mounting block that stands to the right of the walkway. If my Old Mare were here I would lead her up to that stone block and use it to climb on her back. Then I would ride all over the avenues. I would ride past the old Governor’s mansion, past the red brick mansion with its rot iron widows walk and matching coach house. I would ride all the way up to Lyndsey Gardens, past the cemetery where the Civil War veterans are buried. Sitting down on the old raised stone, I imagine it is my horse I feel beneath me, the heavy Boxelder trees shading our ride with thickly leafed branches that hang over the heat drenched streets. Clip clop, Old Mare moves through the Avenues as, lost in my imaginings, my lips begin forming each silent word I think.