My mother was on the phone talking to Orville, the groundskeeper at Crowndale Farm. Mona, her stolen Thoroughbred, had foaled in the night. It was Easter Sunday of my ninth year on the earth. My mother’s face looked grim. Her voice was solemn. “Then I guess you’ll have to destroy it.” My heart suddenly began to explode against my thin chest.
“Destroy what? What is Orville going to destroy!?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“What is he going to destroy!!? What is it! You need to tell me. What!?!!”
“The foal. It was born last night. He was too big. His legs are twisted almost backwards and he can’t stand to nurse.”
“Oh no. You can’t kill him. What is he going to do to kill him?”
“He’ll shoot him. It will be over fast.”
“I’ll feed him with a bottle. You fed Jim with a bottle. You didn’t shoot him just because he couldn’t stand up. I’ll feed him with a bottle. Just take me up there. Please, please don’t shoot him!!!” I was hysterical.
“I have something for you,” my mother smiled sadly. We had waited so long for Mona to have this foal. It was to be my horse; or so I was told. I’d only half believed it, but it didn’t matter. My mother wasn’t crying because my mother didn’t cry. She looked like Betty Boop, but she was more like John Wayne. She was tough and had no sympathy for tears. I was bawling. I thought of that hungry baby animal having its brains shot out because he couldn’t stand up. My brother took ages to stand up. It wasn’t fair.
“Why do you have to shoot him? I don’t believe you have to shoot him. Why?”
“Because.” That was my mother’s answer to all my questions.
“Let me get you your present.” She pulled out a little box from her pocket. I looked at it stupidly. A horse would never fit in there. “Open it,” she smiled gamely. I opened it and cried even harder. It was a locket, a heart shaped locket, a little sweet thing. It looked like a pretty little pink ribbon on the trash heap of my life.
“You don’t like it?”
I looked at her and was horrified because she looked as though she might actually cry.
“No,” I sobbed miserably, “I love it. It is beautiful. Thank you.” I ran to my room clutching the box. In that instant, I knew her pain was as great as mine.
My father had been a captain in the Air Force and my mother had been varsity everything that involved sports. She smoked, bleached her hair blond and attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts with Dina Merrill. She might have become a great singer and actress, but she gave it up to have children for my father. My father was handsome with an idyllic beauty that both men and women admired. He had been nine years older than my mother when they married. He wanted children to guarantee his immortality. Dad was an agnostic. God did not seem a logical concept to him. When my grandmother dragged me to church, I thought it an elaborate ruse. It seemed the same as going to worship the Easter bunny. I kept wondering when they would reveal the joke as they had with Santa. I would have to find religion on my own.
I was slow to learn many things. I couldn’t tell the time, tie my shoes or know my right from my left. I was told how smart I was and became even more confused. I couldn’t read and was the butt of jokes in school when I tried to. I became a nonconformist early. I couldn’t follow directions, so why try? My parents sent me to the best private schools where they weren’t sure what to make of me. One particularly brave teacher declared I just wasn’t getting enough to eat. I didn’t understand until my own son was diagnosed many years later, that I was dyslectic. At that time, learning disabilities were poorly understood. My parents feared it pointed toward mental illness. They argued about which family had caused it. I retreated into a world of make believe.
I was happiest at Crowndale with my maternal grandmother. The house was filled with books. I eventually taught myself to read them.
Cora Myrtle was a small woman with a great presence and intellect. Because of her, I was certain early on that women were superior to men and later thought it ironic that we fought so hard for equality. My grandmother attended and graduated from the University of Iowa during a time when few women finished high school. She had majored in philosophy. I was spiritually lifted in her presence. Unlike my relationship with my mother, I didn’t care if she loved me or not. She not only answered my questions, she also shared questions and answers that fascinated me. Instead of droning along, my mind leapt and sang.
My grandfather bought Crowndale in 1934 during the depression, when my mother and uncle were in their early teens. The estate in north central New Jersey had belonged to the Balantine Beer family but beyond knowing that it had a two-hundred-year-old history, we knew little of it’s past.