Cattle Truck Diva

Oliver bought her, cared for her, loaded her with heads of cattle and drove her from livestock auction to livestock auction up and down the state of Utah.  In places like Sanpete, Spanish Fork and Santaquin, she rolled in on dirt roads like she had rolled out of The Grapes of Wrath, only with a fancy new paint job. Fire engine red and nearly as big as your average city fire truck (though in his life Oliver had never lived in a big city, and had probably not seen a big city fire truck), she signaled far and wide to farm folk that Bishop Dalton, as they called him, was passing through. Rough hands shook over mottled heifers with molten eyes, and the red cattle truck trundled off, dust and trust billowing over the transaction.

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Jessie was Oliver’s wife, the Belle of Springville and mother to four lanky farmhand sons, who chewed on wheat shafts and the ends of their sentences, and grunted submission when she hollered to “scrape that manure off those boots of yours before you enter my home!” She tolerated the red cattle truck in the driveway.  But only if its bulkiness didn’t make contact with her manicured rose garden or prized lilac hedges. Fragrance –– from homegrown flowers to flasks of perfume she kept in the velvet-lined drawers of her dressing table ––marked the borders of her domain.

Donna and the lilac hedges

Donna and the lilac hedges

Donna would become Jessie’s daughter by marriage. Originally come north to Utah from the deserts of Arizona, Donna was raised by Mildred who had worked long, dull hours in a citrus-packing plant to fund the great dream: college, for all her six children. Donna was at university with one purpose, to sing. And it was while singing that she’d fallen for the blonde guy on the fiddle, the one who led the orchestra’s string section accompanying the choir concert where she soloed.

Donna with Oliver and Donna's parents, Leland and Mildred and the red cattle truck

The red cattle truck and Donna with Oliver and Donna’s parents, Leland and Mildred.

This was David, one of Oliver and Jessie’s cud-chewing farmhand sons who had shown just enough talent to set his heart on a future as a violinist. David had also set his heart on the brunette soprano standing in the university choir’s front row.  And as they say –– at least they said it in the1950’s –– the two ended up making beautiful music together.

David and Donna in concert

David and Donna in concert

They also ended up making for the due east. Leaving desert and Rockies, lilac hedges and red cattle trucks, they set out to study music at the finest schools and conservatories they could scarcely afford to get into.

Heading east

Heading east

Graduated couple

Graduated couple

In Vienna, Munich, at the Eastman School of Music, Indiana University – the two studied in tandem, parented in tandem (three daughters were born while they completed these studies), and finally, they built parallel careers. And a home. In tandem. In Utah.

Homebuilding gallery with the red cattle truck

Homebuilding gallery with the red cattle truck

FAM 1972 build house 079Donna became a melding of her two mothers, Mildred and Jessie, a thick crust of grit and workhorse filled with the sweet cream of cultivation and topped with a bright diva cherry. For a visual of her humility, tenacity and scope, imagine her pregnant with her fourth child, my younger brother, driving to and from opera rehearsals in the only second vehicle my frugal parents had: the red cattle truck.  Imagine her humming Puccini or Strauss while turning, with two hands the massive key that controlled the truck’s motor, a motor that grumbled, hissed and clunked like an apoplectic B-52 bomber. Then see her rappel, practically, down from the driver’s seat, slam the huge metal door, brush the dirt off her backside, and stride off to take to the stage.

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A defining shift in my life occurred when I understood for the first time that not every mother practiced Italian arias while re-caulking shower tiles.  And that few ladies wore corsets and Renaissance wigs to their workplace after having hauled and laid bricks all weekend long.  And no one – I mean no one – in our neighborhood wore a paint-splattered denim mechanic’s jumpsuit to re-shingle the roof in the afternoon, then donned a purple paisley kaftan at dinnertime to stand out on the sidewalk and sing their children’s names on a high note and at the top of their lungs:  “Oh Daaaaaaaaltons!  Come to diiiiiiiiiiinneeeeeeeeeeer!”

Oliver has been gone for many years, as has been Jessie. My mother is now 79. My father turns 80 in a few days.  And today I am older than the Donna who hoisted two-by-fours and power saws, wore a brocade costume for a Wagnerian lead, sang for many years in the Tabernacle Choir, and drove a cantankerous hand-me-down monster truck. That red cattle truck, I suppose, has long since been turned to scrap.  The scrap has been melted down, poured into other uses, uses that will carry cattle. Or bricks. Or maybe an opera singer carrying a son. Or daughters who carry stories, and the stories carry us all.

Donna, my mother

Donna, my mother

 

So Much Depends Upon the Red: Thoughts on My Mother

image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

My mother is everywhere. In my father’s fifty years of personal photo archives, for instance, she shows up in the majority of the shots. Sometimes she’s the sole subject. Other times, she’s the single fleck of red in the corner of a frame.

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She wore a lot of red as I was growing up – a striking contrast to her rich black hair that became, over time, a crown of silver braids – and got used to carrying a red something-or-other to add that pop of life in pics dad would be shooting.

TRP7 1994 & 2000 Iceland152Decades before amateur photographers carried their self-focusing, self-editing, smart instruments in their breast pockets, he was carting a suitcase of lenses and tripods in one hand while wearing a big clunky Mamiya slung around his neck. They traveled the world. He shot it all. Mom was his favorite subject.

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His shots captured both the minuscule and the majestic, and often, when he went for the grand sweep, he asked mom to stand “right over there, Donna,” in her red. Hat. Sweater. Coat. Shoes. Lipstick. Wearing red, she’d be the spot that heated things up with the shade of energy, of regeneration, the place a discerning eye first landed when scanning a photo.SA18 1977 Slz CZ DDR091

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Today, I look at these shots – a colonnade, a hillside, a bench, a snowfield – and my head might register that I’m seeing a colonnade, hillside, bench, snowfield. But when I ask my deeper senses what they recall, the answer’s fast. They remember my mother’s red.

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In these thousands of images that chronicle our life, you could be fooled into thinking this mother of mine is a mere accessory. A lovely addition, but peripheral, a parsley-like adornment to the real, main thing. But that’s wrong. Her presence is no simple trimming. Because she doesn’t just complete the composition. She is its lifeblood.

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One of my closest friends buried her mother over the holidays. We two had spoken on the telephone on a Wednesday, and when I’d asked about her mom, my friend had mentioned her mom was a bit under the weather –– nothing radically out of the ordinary, though, she added, exhaling lightly.  My friend had to run. She was taking her car to the garage for some repairs before the projected winter storm slammed through town, and said she’d keep her cell handy, waiting for a text from a sibling for an update on their mom. Just in case.

Within 76 hours from our phone call, my friend’s mother was gone.

She wrote about her mother to me today, the day which happens to be my own mother’s 79th birthday:

“A package that she mailed to us for Christmas is still sitting in a stack in my entryway, waiting for the time that we can Skype a belated Christmas morning gift exchange. How could she be gone if I still haven’t opened that package? If I still have questions for her? If I still see things that will delight her?”

And I shut my laptop to the sound of my heart cracking down the middle.

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To reflect on my mother’s vivid red lifeblood trail, of all that has delighted her, still delights her, delights me about her, of all that we have yet to delight in together, especially when another mother’s trail has run dry on this earth’s crust, is to plug into an industrial strength power source, twist the ribbed metal knob of my emotions all the way to the right, and brace myself. Things start rumbling then shaking – I feel it – and soon they’re shimmying and skidding across the floor.

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So I’ll save myself from dismantling, and will ratchet down the intensity, rein it in, by closing for today. I promise to write more about my mom and what her motherhood has meant and still means to me, and how her red bleeds into my motherhood still. For now, I leave you with a twist on William Carlos Williams, and some images of my magnificent mom-in-red, a color that runs through me.

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The Red

so much depends
upon

a red
mother

glazed with
lightshadow

beside her
children.