May his memory be for a blessing.
Dad died almost three years ago, in a car accident on his way back from the track. I like to think he'd won a bundle and was racing home to tell the good news.
I like best to remember the times I was with him around horses.
When I was around eight, he used to take me to Four Hills Country Club in Albuquerque. We didn't belong to the Country Club, of course. Jews weren't allowed. But they did let us rent their stable horses, to me as noble and beautiful as show horses. And the trails were the most spectacular, laid out like a long ribbon that wound and curved and curled around trees and through streams winding and sloping, lined by poplars and shaded by cottonwoods and willows. Four Hills was the most special place in the world, and the only person I ever went there with was my father.
Poplar leaves are shiny on one side and dull on the other. When the sun beamed through the trees down into the arroyos on a hot day, the shiny side of the poplar leaves looked like the aluminum-foil panels dad used to hang on our pear and peach trees to keep the birds away. He knew about those things. He knew about lots of things.
They put me on Brandy, a real pretty roan, and we rode from the stable at a walking gait (dad taught me all about gaits) till we got well away from the barn. I snapped a poplar leaf off a tree along the way, held it in my right hand and flicked it back and forth, shiny side/dull side/shiny/dull like a spangle; and closed a light fist around the reins in my left hand and let my horse clip clop slosh slush push and heave us through the stream slow and steady, rocking side to side until the enormous weight of his chest lifted us up and over the bank and he shuddered and shimmied and I let myself have the full lurch of him deep in my saddle.
Once we crossed the stream, the trees moved apart and the trail opened up wide, the ground not too soft and not too hard. Willows hung around us like lacy green curtains. I liked the little lift when my horse stepped lightly over an occasional fallen log. The trail stretched ahead and curlicued up a rise. Sometimes at the top of that rise I'd watched dad stop astride his horse, rest his hands on the mane, look outward, and sit there silent and solitary. He must have been thinking real deep thoughts during those times, and I always made sure not to disturb him.
When we came onto the wide-open part of the trail, I trotted up ahead. I liked the grown-up feeling of riding in front. I'd learned how to ride sitting in the saddle with my father. Dad said I was no bigger than a fly on a horse's back, but I rode with confidence and a "healthy respect for the horse," as he also used to say. I lifted my reins, clucked my tongue, and put Brandy into a canter. I was sitting the canter without bouncing, and then something must have spooked Brandy because he bolted into a full-out gallop. I couldn't slow him down or turn him around. I tried pressing my thighs tight against Brandy's sides, but my hold slackened, and I was bouncing like Jell-O and sliding over to one side.
Then -- out of nowhere -- dad came racing up alongside me. When his horse's head was even with my horse's neck, both running full out, dad leaned over and grabbed my bridle full into his huge hands, pulled us to a skid and commanded firm but calm: Whoa there! Whoa boy. Take it easy. That's it. Brandy whinnied and shook his head and danced around. Dad said, You all right, baby? To answer, I sat up straight in my saddle, and he smiled and tousled my hair.
That's when I felt myself warm from the inside out and rose slightly in my saddle, thrilled at the recent memory of having been rescued by my father. It was just like on TV when the hero rescues the pretty girl. But now, looking back, I feel sort of ashamed that I felt thrilled that he rescued me. That's because of the next memory of my dad and me around horses, the one my mom ruined.
I was a college freshman and had come back home for the weekend. Now I'm a senior. Dad won't get to see me graduate. He'd have been real proud, that's for sure.
I was sitting at the breakfast table putting up with mom cleaning around me. I lifted my legs to let her mop under the table. Why she couldn't wait until after we were done eating I'll never understand. Sometimes she actually tried to be annoying, mopping up if someone dropped a corn flake. The old linoleum only got duller. She was shuffling about in her sloppy bedroom slippers, making flip-flopping noises, when dad appeared in the doorway, gleaming. He smelled like Old Spice. A freshly laundered light blue cotton shirt lay smooth across his wide shoulders and his ruddy Russian jowls glowed.
Daddy! Good morning. Even at 18, I called him daddy. He kissed me on the cheek. Good morning, angel, my favorite of his many pet names for me, since forever. I wanted to wrap my arms around his neck and let him lift me off the floor and twirl me around, like he did when I was a little girl. Instead, mom poured his coffee and brought up the subject of tuition money -- again. She'd already said something about it last night, then nudged me to.
That housecoat -- pink faded almost to beige, button holes unraveling -- and her graying hair completed the overall look: American Dowdy. Pouring him another cup of coffee, she directed her eyes at him for a moment. Well! Aren't you all spruced up this morning!
Goin' to the track today! he beamed, even as she glowered at him.
To the track? Shoshanna's only home from college for a couple days and you're going to the track? His cheeriness didn't dim a tint. Instead, he brightened, looked at me across the table over the basket of bagels and said, She's coming with me. Aren't you, mommela?
I was flattered -- beyond flattered -- flabbergasted. He'd never asked me to go with him to the track. I felt myself flush, sort of like that time at Four Hills Country Club.
I don't know....
I glanced toward mother, still flip-flopping across the kitchen floor. The button at her bustline had twisted out of its frazzled buttonhole, she oblivious to the exposed bit of brassiere.
Mom, do you want to go? The shuffling stopped.
Go with you?
Yes. Do you want to go the track?
What would I do at the track?
Maybe have some fun! At least get out of the house for a while!
Nah. I've got too much to do. Have to clean up. The girl's coming.
Mom! What good is it to have someone in to clean the house, if you have to stay home so she can clean the house? My voice crescendoed. A guilty pause hung in the air.
You two go. She slipped another few slices of fried salami onto dad's plate. Dad had high blood pressure; how could she give him fried salami?
Mmmm. Fried salami, dad said. My favorite. He dipped a slice of the salami in his egg yolk.
What? Ahh, don't worry about me. I'm fit as a colt. Like a colt, I tell ya. He patted himself under his ribs. Here. Hit me in the belly. Go ahead.
C'mon. Hit me hard as you cant
For the first time that morning, mom looked at us attentively, and smiling -- Go ahead, she said. Give him a good shot in the stomach. She continued to watch, still smiling.
He patted his midsection again. I rammed a clenched fist into his hard belly. He didn't flinch. We all laughed lightly. The smile disappeared from mom's lips and she turned stoically back to the sink and resumed her shuffling back and forth.
Now. Can I enjoy my salami 'n eggs, which your mother makes only when you come home? Like the brisket she's cookin' up for tonight? My daughter comes home, and I eat like a king. The rest of the time it's knockwurst and sauerkraut. He winked at me behind mother's back, and smiled conspiratorially, only I didn't know what we were conspiring.
Dad slipped on his sports jacket. Gotta go! Don't wanna keep them ponies waiting!
Mom unclasped a chipped black vinyl pocketbook and drew out a blue and white checkered wallet, dotted with cheesy golden studs. She fished out four quarters.
Here, she said, placing the quarters deliberately into dad's out-turned hand. Play a horse for me. Bet on one named rose, like Shoshanna's name means. It was a funny thing about mom -- When you were home with her, she couldn't leave you alone for a minute. Yet she never seemed to mind being left alone all day.
Dad jangled the four quarters in his sports-jacket pocket. I'll bet a long shot for you, Idale. And Shoshanna will bring me luck. He winked at me, his good luck charm, and I followed him out the door.
The drive to Ruidoso Downs, 150 miles southeast of Albuquerque, took us past high chaparral, up red-rock buttes, into the Manzano Mountains and climbing up to the White Mountains, until we could see the desert floor below. Big cumulus clouds were stacked on top of each other, like columns of boulders holding up the turquoise sky. Later those columns of clouds would collapse and release warm rain over ponderosa pine. Then sun beams would fan down through the cottony clouds and shine on the pines and the whole world would smell like wet pine needles. It would be glorious.
The track was oval, smoothed-out red clay set in a valley surrounded by ridges feathered with evergreens.
Ain't that a sight, sweetheart? Like a ruby mounted in emeralds. Did you know this track has the biggest Quarter Horse race in the whole country? One of these days your old man's gonna pick that winner!
Once through the turnstile, we entered another world -- his world. Clean-shaven men in sports jackets and scraggly-bearded men in wrinkled T-shirts called out. Sammele! Boychik! Sammie! Some called him Mr. Bernstein. He had his own table in the Turf Club.
Guess just about everyone here knows you, don't they, dad?
At the track, everyone's equal. He winked at one of the ticket ladies. We're all just trying to catch a little Luck. Or a lot of Luck.
He believed in Luck and entreated her through an intricate ritual. Every race, he wagered at the same parimutuel window, the one farthest to the right.
Sure glad it ain't Pearl at the window today. That dame talks too much. He chanted a litany. 50 on 2 under 4. 20 to wheel 9. He smiled at Catherine before he put down his money; she handed him his tickets or exchanges. He slipped his tickets into his left breast pocket and waited for her to silently nod him away.
If we were going to summon up Lady Luck, we had to adhere to the ritual, and that included not talking from the time we made our wager until we got back to the table, sat down, and threw out a cavalier comment about the sky or the smell of the rain-cleansed air or the Kelley-greenness of the turf, to take attention off Lady Luck, and catch her unawares.
Trumpets blasted over the loudspeakers, and the horses paraded to post. And then the announcement: The horses are AT the gate.
The grandstand stirred. Dad snapped tickets against his palm. Despite the occasional New Mexico gusts sweeping through the turf club, drops of sweat he didn't bother to wipe off formed on his forehead.
AND THEY'RE OFF.
Ten horses crashed out of 10 metal gates.
There's nothing in this world more beautiful than a racehorse running all out, dad marveled out loud. Those 1500-pound beasts just up 'n fly! And when they aren't flying they're balancing on the head of a pin!
The first few races were shoo-ins. He won the Daily Double. He bet straight and won the third and fourth. After that, he parleyed his winnings on an exacta and a trifecta, which he explained while sketching diagrams and figuring all permutations with his pick. I tried in vain to read the racing form, its columns of figures, stats, coded abbreviations.
Now mommela. Keep your eye on that number six horse. She's a little sweetheart. She's ready for this mile and a quarter run, by God. And no one's gonna bet on her 'cause she don't look good on the board and the handicappers ignore her, but she's gonna win this one for your old man! He penned a bold star beside number six and keyed her to every horse in the seventh, explaining the math, sketching a wheel with spokes and jotting down numbers.
He relished risks, I thought. He literally walked out of Russia, eluded pogromchiks, turned his back on all his "meshuguna" Orthodox relatives back East and came out West with nothing to his name but a wife and baby. I like to have a lot of room, he always said. I'm too big a man to live in one of them tenements tied up in t`fillin.'
His voice, huge and tremulous, electrified the air around us.
GO NUMBER SIX, GO. GET UP THERE!
Number six won. Dad's jubilation lasted only a few seconds, before he took up his pencil and racing program and started figuring and sketching again. Just before they opened the gates, he glanced up at the tote board. I don't like those odds ... he muttered. A favorite he'd bet on came hard-driving up on the inside rail and won by a nose. He threw down his exchanges.
That wasn't the horse you wanted to win, was it, dad?
The question was too direct to answer. One had to be subtle around Lady Luck. A question like that could send her away, wings fluttering. Dad simply reached inside the left inside pocket of his sports coat -- I guess he kept a reserve-money clip in there -- and in that money-clip was a wad of new bills folded neatly in half. He drew it out surreptitiously.
I walked proudly beside him. Everyone could tell he was a winner, though he never boasted or flaunted his winnings. He had way too much class for that.
He had wagered right and parleyed strategically in six out of 10 races, I figured as we walked back to the car. Lady Luck had hovered often near his side. Maybe I had brought him a little luck. When he slipped his wallet out of his pants pocket, I looked away, so he could count his winnings, in private.
I decided to bring up the question of tuition money on the way home, casually, only once, and at just the right time. Watching mom, I'd learned all about bad timing. In the middle of these thoughts, I began to hear his voice, resonant, masculine and melodic:
When whippoorwills call And evening is nigh, I hurry to My Blue Heaven.
I joined in:
Just Molly and me, and baby makes three. We're happy in our blue heaven
Dad snapped his fingers and quickened the tempo: So --
Grab your coat and grab your hat, Leave your worries on the doorstep, Just direct your feet To the Sunny Side of the Street --
and it was a medley of sunshine and flowers for a hundred miles until the moon rode along with us and night wrapped itself around the car and tucked us safe inside.
The next morning, we all waited in the front yard for the airport shuttle, scheduled to pick me up at 10:30. I'd insisted on taking the shuttle, rather than having my parents take me to the airport. I wanted to make my goodbyes at home, and I liked the grown-up feeling of fending for myself at the airport. The sun shone brightly, spattering the lawn with shadows from the leaves of the umbrella elm, under which Mom stood, in its circle of shade.
Dad lifted my suitcase to the concrete sidewalk andset it down on the diamond- like sparkles. He stood facing me, and I felt my lips quiver slightly. He smiled and stepped forward and hugged me. If I could have, I'd have stayed right there -- safe, sheltered in my father's arms.
I'm proud of you, mommela! Now you go back to that university and show 'em what you can do! He loosened his hold and stepped away. He glowed from yesterday in the sun.
He drew his wallet out of his pocket and flipped through a neat fan of bills, slipping out five and placing them firmly into my hand: five ten-dollar bills.
That reminded me about tuition. And that's where things started getting kind of mixed up and confusing.
Tuition? How much is that, sweetheart?
$800, daddy. My scholarship covers books and the dorm.
Well, mommela. You go tell the people at the university that you need a little extension -- a week or so.
I can't do that, daddy. It's due now. Tomorrow's the last day.
Well, honey. They're just gonna hafta wait till I make it up.
I didn't understand -- make it up. Make what up?
Those ponies took all but my last hundred, and I just gave you half of that, mommela. But I'll win it back. He grinned, and winked.
But, but I thought you won, so many times. And that last race, you, you....
Well, sure, angel. Sure I won. But I won on lots of favorites, and the odds were real short, and I parlayed everything on that last race, but it didn't make up for what I'd lost earlier. You win some and lose some. Luckily, I win more'n I lose. But yesterday, well, I lost some. Next week ...
This is when my mother took the blessing away from my memory of him. She stepped out from under the shade tree, unclasped that ugly black pocketbook, took out the worn blue wallet with the cheesy studs -- and carefully counted out some bills.
I've been keeping this for you. Take it. She stuffed the bills through my fingers into my palm. I looked down: seven one-hundred dollar bills.
Give her your other fifty, Sam.
His ruddy cheeks paled. Before he could regain his dignity, she snatched the fifty out of his hands and pressed it into mine. He slipped his back into his pockets and slunk back under the elm. When the shuttle drove up, mother lifted my suitcase to the curb.
A gust of wind quaked the elm branches, turning my father into a blustery shadow. Mother cupped her hands over her eyes to block the sun, but sunlight got caught in her hair, and the gray glistened to silver. And that's how I left them -- he standing slump-shouldered in the shade of the elm tree, and she -- squinting and glistening in the sunlight.
LAURA BERNELL is a Bay Area writer whose non-fiction and essays have appeared in magazines and newspapers throughout the US, particularly in the Jewish presses. For more than 20 years, she has taught writing and literature, specializing in Jewish-American literature, to college students in Northern California.