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.

Trip West 1960 (241)

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.

Indiana 1967-70123Indiana 1967-70125Indiana 1967-70210BYU II UT 1970-064Indiana 1967-70211

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


15 thoughts on “Cattle Truck Diva

  1. Your writing is always beautiful, but this was absolutely exquisite. I am a relatively new blog follower who has been meaning to email you since finishing your book – I may get to that at some point, but in the meantime, I think you are a kindred soul, for your writing always leaves me touched and changed….and wanting more!! Thank you.

  2. “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.”

    I can’t begin to express how much I love this–the entire post (and your magnificent mother).

  3. Melissa: Thank you for writing such precious stories and memories! You have such a great gift to entertain, inspire, and motivate us all, and to be edified! I, too, did a double take when I saw pictures of your sons, and how much they resemble your Dad, and his Dad! Yes, I remember that your grandfather, Oliver, was a much respected and admired Bishop in that church on main street! Did they paint the truck red since your mother likes red? I loved reading about their beginnings and how they sacrificed for their educations! Makes me appreciate what I have and to work harder. –Thinking of your family members who have passed on, makes me think of Parker, and how he passed away. I have read and reread a book by Betty Eadie (maybe you have too) called “Embraced By the Light”. In it, she says it was made known to her that we don’t experience traumatic deaths–but that our spirit (the real us) leaves our body before that happens. We have a fear of death so that we won’t want to die before our mission is complete. It really IS like going from one room to another. We are out of our body before we know it. And, we realize there was nothing to fear. So many people say the same thing who have NDE’s. Even if your body show signs of life and for a long time such as those in comas, your spirit can be elsewhere. This is especially brought to mind in Lance Richardson’s book, “The Message”. I think the thought is very comforting and peace-giving–that death is really ‘sweet to the righteous’. What matters is how we live. The all-encompassing love, peace, beauty, security, and opportunities that await us there make me want to do my very best seeing how it will all be worth it, and the rewards unimaginably great!!!
    –Jessie Dalton had velvet lined drawers that smelled of perfume? That sounds just like that beautiful, gracious, elegant, and cultured lady!!! And, when I see you in your beautiful, elegant, luxurious, expensive, exquisitely gorgeous, and cultured homes around the world, that’s another way you remind me of your grandmother–a true queen through and through!!! Thanks again for sharing of yourself, and of your great talents, and gifts! I so much admire how you take the time to respond to others comments, and feel like they have a real friend! Thank you for gong out of your way to be so very, very kind!!! Love, Gena

  4. I just picked Ben up at the train station and the first words out of his mouth were, “Have you read Melissa’s new blog post?!!” He related most of the story on the way home, including your dad’s Ensign article, with great enthusiasm.

    Oh how we love you! And my Ben can scarcely wait to meet your parents (shall I tell him to practice his viola in preparation?). Much love, M

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