Saved by solitude and the old horse Dolly DOWN FROM the rugged granite mountain ridges some twenty miles north of the Mexican border and seventeen miles east of the Pacific Ocean, one can only guess at the breathlessness of the early mission padres seeing the basin below. They named the valley El Cajon. The name means “the big box” because that is how the flat valley floor seemed. The eventual agrarian heartland would prove a perfect support for citrus, avocados, grapes and barley. It was near these foothills that I learned to love solitude and an old horse named Dolly, and to devour mounds of mashed potatoes. It was also where I learned to hate tumbleweeds, tarantulas, and the effects of alcohol.

The family composition shifted when I turned seven and my big brother was eleven. Mother, hospitalized for several weeks with complications from jaundice, followed by months of bed rest, presented the opportunity for Howard to find himself a new woman. Even before the divorce papers were filed, he was gone.

So the father with the alcohol smell and piercing eyes moved to an even louder dwelling with more strife than he had bargained for. For some inexplicable reason, even knowing how abusive Howard was to my younger brother, Russell, and to me, our mother continued to send us to his place on weekends. As an adult, I presume that her choice had something to do with child support payments. As a child, I was just plain scared.

Vi, our new stepmother, was a tall, obese woman with hair the feel and color of straw. She could drink booze with the best of them. Her bulbous nose displayed little veins popping out on the sides that looked like a road map. She smelled of beer, a smell that combined sickeningly with the kind of cheap perfume I had often whiffed at the five-and-ten-cent store. Every time Vi laid her glassy eyes on me, I felt like she wanted to eat me for dessert. She was huge, clumsy, and, in some ways, hurtful towards me. Whenever she touched me, my body became rigid and my face scrunched up. When she would grab me and pull me into her massive bosom for a hug, I would hold my breath and count numbers—one more trick I had learned to use in situations that were difficult. I knew that she delighted in having me around, but her habitual drunkenness made her delight feel oppressive, and even scary. I couldn’t trust what she might do. (Excerpts from, Ragdoll Redeemed, Growing up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe)

This horse looks just like Dolly.

A very swaybacked horse: Montanabw



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