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.

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Attributes of a Magical Grandmother: Part 5 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

grandmothers-hands-todd-fox
Granma is probably my most favorite person in the universe. She dresses up at Halloween, throws banquets at Christmas and takes me bowling on Saturday mornings. My Granma is different from other girl’s Grandmothers. She bakes and cooks and does things other Granma’s do but not for the same reasons. She doesn’t take care of people or baby people. Instead she makes them strong. She teaches them how to navigate the world by being fully and perfectly alive. She is alive. Every day she finds things to do that I find magical.

Magical Granma Attribute one would be her incredible tackle box. Imagine opening a box filled with every fishing lure you can imagine. Note the smell of salmon eggs and other assorted fish bate. Together we cast, reel and become patient while full size rainbow trout circle near by.

Magical Granma Attribute two would be her sewing box. From the contents of that sewing box I have learned to embroider, bead and do needle point. During the war Granma embroidered in air raid shelters while other people counted the seconds between explosions, controlling their fear by trying to predict where the next bomb would hit.

ATS-4

Magical Granma Attribute three are these stories of life and death that haunt my young mind. She begins,

“During the war…” and the room falls silent. Her words are spoken matter of fact but their meaning makes pictures so rich with color and scent that they are a part of me.

“During the war the bombs fell…” thousands of them rained down on her life as they did so many British lives.

There was the time bomb that slipped silently into the wreckage of a bombed out nurses ward. Granma and her fellow nurses had returned to the area to gather what supplies could be salvaged. They worked quickly and efficiently in the wreckage at Portland Bill, until a voice yelled out. “Look up,” the voice called. “You silly girls. Get the hell out.” And there it was, swinging above them on the ropes of its parachute. When I imagine the bomb it always looks like a giant deadly watch, its long arms spinning towards death. Granma says it didn’t tell time that way. It just counted down on its own, never telling anyone when it would go off.

Magical Granma Attribute four is her garden. I love her garden. There I find a purple eggplant the size of a football. Granma says I shouldn’t pet it but its smooth purple skin is too beautiful not to touch. The air in the garden is filled with the scent of roses, huge beautiful carnivorous roses, their thorns gleaming sharp and deadly in the bright Utah sun. They are carnivorous because they scratch me when I get too close and they eat our fish, at least all the bits we don’t eat. I walk behind Granma with my little trowel and help her dig small graves below each bush. This is why her roses are the largest and most beautiful. It’s because of the fish.

Magical Granma Attribute five is time. Time moves slowly around her, it smells of ham and roses, fat lap dogs and long stories. I sit beside her on the steps of her front porch and listen to the birds in her cherry tree. Here there is time to remember, to watch, to notice the butterflies, count the tomatoes and just be together. There is no rush or hurry because there is no one else in this world who can stop time like Granma. A day lasts a week in her garden, so filled with food and story that I don’t grow tired and I never want to go home. Through brightly colored memories, we walk her father’s farm in England and drive her pony and trap down through the fields to bring lunch to the men. Closing my eyes I feel the English sunlight. I see the endless green down lands stretched before us, their curving flanks dotted with sheep. Somewhere over the next rise men plow with draft horses, harvest timber and gather watercress. Just over the next hill our people work the earth and they are hungry for their lunch.

Dorset

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

Death of the Shopping Cart Man: Part 3 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

shopping-cart-in-snow
The Shopping Cart Man is dead. The news spreads in whispered conversations held over garden fences and rose hedges. A butterfly lifts off a snap dragon to the left of the porch step and flutters silently into the air as I realize I will never see him in his ragged old blue sweater, patched brown jacket and battered slacks again. He was one of us. An avenue man, a collector of cans, bottles and abandoned shopping carts. A character, a neighbor, a man we called ours. The Shopping Cart Man is dead and the world feels suddenly different.

Mommy wheels the chrome and yellow stroller out of the house. It has vinyl seats with yellow and orange flowers. I watch her lift Sis into the stroller, my sister’s beautiful red hair casts light like a burning match.

“They’re opening up his house.” Mommy says, pushing the stroller before her. My mother loves it when anything happens in the neighborhood. Every neighborhood event means a walk. The only event that isn’t celebrated with a walk is the occasional escaped prisoner from the mental hospital. On those days she quarters us inside, listening to the radio for news of an arrest.

“Open the gate, Eleanor.” I walk before the stroller, my fingers flipping up the latch quickly before the pain of the heat can register. The sun is so hot on a Utah summer day that every piece of metal burns. We walk north to East 2nd and then cross M street to follow East 2nd west. The day is so hot and dry that I am already thirsty. We slip from tree to tree, grateful for the shade as the stroller rises and falls over the broken sidewalks that have been fractured by the ever reaching tree roots. Four blocks west and we are there.

People mill around quietly. Mother’s trailing children push strollers past the red brick house, their eyes locked on the opened door as two men in suits look but go no further. Unembarrassed, Mommy joins the crowd of onlookers.

“He died at Holy Cross Hospital.” I hear one woman say, her words interesting me because that is where I was born.

“They can’t even walk in,” another adds. We watch another man walk up. He disappears inside the house only to re-emerge shaking his head.

“There are newspapers stacked so high that if they fall a man could be smothered.” Now I’m fascinated.

“And he lived here all this time?” Mommy shakes her head as we gaze at the dilapidated three story brick mansion. We’ve passed it a hundred times on our walks. We’ve commented on the state of its roof, the trash in its gardens but somehow we never noticed the collection of shopping carts that sit waiting to be returned to the store.

“Why are there newspapers stacked so high?” three pairs of eyes turn on me. My mother’s mouth tightens, her eyes turning back on the house.

“Some people save things, they stack them up and keep them because throwing things out is…hard.” She adds the last word as if she understands.

“Why is it hard?” I ask, looking up at her. Mommy doesn’t answer right away. She is thinking.

“Imagine that you’ve had to go without. That you’ve been hungry or cold or poor. Then later when times are better, imagine that you can buy things and keep things and everything you have seems important and valuable. Everything, every cent, every dollar you have is valuable. When everything seems valuable then throwing things away becomes impossible. That’s how it must have been for the Shopping Cart Man. Every newspaper must have felt valuable.”

I nod my head because in a small way, I understand. Every toy I own is valuable, every bit of food we grow or buy is valuable. We don’t waste because mother survived the war and the memory of past poverty stalks us still.

“Was he in the war like you Mommy?” I ask Mommy who is young and beautiful not old and shabby like the Shopping Cart Man. The look she gives me tells me I’ve made a comparison that should not have been made. So I listen and in listening I learn that for five cents a cart a wealthy man who wore rags wandered our avenues collecting abandoned shopping carts, discarded bottles and aluminum cans. In the cold of winter, in the heat of summer, in the chill and blusher of spring and fall he collected, pulled and pushed the weight of metal shopping carts to the store before returning to this stately home that had been in his for a very long time.

In my mind I see the newspapers and other assorted objects that crowd every space inside his home. They leave a thin maze like isle that winds from room to room upstairs and down, filling every space in that grand old house. Through neighborly reports and subsequent walks I learn of a large bank account, of valuable furniture uncovered, of silk rugs and Limoges dinner wear that hadn’t seen the light of day in fifty years.

A young nephew inherits the estate. The house is repaired and the world forgets about the Shopping Cart Man. But each time it snows, each time I see a discarded shopping cart, each time I hear the rumble of small metal wheels on pavement I think of him and wonder at the type of depravation that creates that kind of poverty.

Through the window: Part 2 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

lace curtains
My life began on M street, that charming avenue of craftsman homes and brick apartment buildings where Box Elder trees give shade to the heat drenched streets and sidewalks. A multitude of children played then, as they do now, beneath their ever spreading bows. M street has never been a grand avenue, not like the more historical streets with their mansions with widow’s walks and coach houses. Those lay farther north and east along the gently sloping foot hills of the Wasatch Mountains.

I hate going to bed at 6:00 on a hot summer evening. I lay amongst twisted sheets and listen to children play. Close by a girl laughs in bright hot sunlight while a boy answers, his words lost in the constant hum of the cicadas. In my mind I see the sun lit flowers, hot sidewalks and heat blasted grass turned brown at the tips. To feel the crunch of that summer grass under my bare feet would be heaven.

Slipping out of bed I walk to the window that leads out into the back garden. There are many ways to escape 86. My favorite is through the windows. Even when the doors are open I prefer to travel by window. There’s a sense of excitement, of freedom, of going wild when you duck under the lace curtains and swing one leg at a time through a window. Looking out I see that the children in the apartments are playing hide and seek.

I know some of the children who live there. There is my friend Trina, and her brother Opa and there are the divorce kids who visit their father on the weekends and evening. Unfortunately there are more adults than children. Mommy hates the man she calls him the ‘itsy bitsy teensy weensy yellow polka dot bikini’ guy because he plays that same song every day on his record player.

The children who play hide and seek are the divorce children. The boy is hiding along our chain link fence. It’s not a good hiding spot. If he went back just five feet he could fit between the back wall and the apartment’s covered car park. I like to hide there. That’s where I found a dead ruby throated humming bird. It was the tiniest most beautiful thing I’ve ever found. I wanted to have it stuffed but Mommy made me bury it.

I slip through the window into the back yard wearing only my night dress. It’s made of beautiful green silk with lace flowers at the top. Mommy says it’s mostly plastic but I pretend it was made by silk worms. Of all the things I own, it’s the most beautiful. My cat Lilly sees me from where she’s been sleeping in the shade. She’s only a year old but she’s smart like a dog. She rubs against my leg the moment I drop down from the window. The yard is darkened by the shadow of the house and by our two cherry trees. Both trees are old. I imagine they were planted by the people who built our clap board queen Ann in 1910. The bark on the trees is shiny and smooth. Our Bing cherry is my favorite tree for three reasons. One it gives the sweetest fruit of all the trees in our yard, two it gave me an Abraham Lincoln commemorative coin which I found buried in its roots and three, its easy to climb. I walk around the Bing cherry, my bare toe outstretched, tracing the place where I found my coin. What if more coins lay buried under the trees?

I walk to the pie cherry and examine its base. I hate this tree. I want to cut it down but Mommy says I can’t. Its cherries are bitter tasting. She says they’re meant for pies. Apparently, their flavor only comes out when they’re cooked in sugar. I don’t understand fruit you can’t just eat. The only good thing about the pie cherry is the color of the fruit. I climb up onto the first branch and pick two sets of cherries. Each set I hang over my ears like long red bead earrings. I feel pretty in red. It’s like magic. Put anything red on me and I feel instantly pretty. Someday I’ll have a red evening gown and wear it to the opera. I’ve forgotten about the Divorce kids. They’ve gone quiet. I feel their eyes on me.

“What are you wearing?”

“An evening gown.” I answer with perfect nonchalant.

“You’re showing your shoulders.” Looking down I examine my shoulders and the thin lace strap that lays over each one. If I were wearing my red evening gown there wouldn’t be straps at all. “It’s immodest to show your shoulders,” they add as if I haven’t heard them.

I hear them but I ignore them because my mother is an L.A. hippy and my father is a knowledgeable Satan and I don’t have to live by church rules. Instead, I lay down in a thin patch of evening sun and close my eyes. I dream of red dresses and opera houses with crystal chandeliers and curtains as red as my dress. I feel the divorce kids watching me. Their worn old tee shirts and knee length shorts hiding their bodies from the evening light. If they bared themselves no one would be shocked, no one would reproach them because they live as outside the church’s grace as I do. The divorce will blacken them as much as my father’s excommunication has blackened me. So I lay in the sun, my shoulders bared while in the shadows of my room, Mommy finds an empty bed.

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.