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

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 bluster 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 family 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 deprivation that creates that kind of poverty.

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.