Dixie Lee (Dixilee) Wright: Pushing Past All Expectations with Laughter and Strength
Stories about the role of music in my mother’s family began to recirculate when my Uncle Dave (David Gage) found an old home recording on an aluminum record —— made in 1948, when my mom (Dixilee) was 15, her brother David about 12, and brother Danny 3. It was an audio time tunnel through which we heard distant laughter and music come alive in the present. While Dixilee grew up, her father often invited musician friends to the house, to “make a joyful noise” and have fun —— with guitars, fiddles, banjos, sometimes a gut-bucket bass or rhythm washboard; the whole family joined in. These “hoots” planted creativity, playfulness, and gregariousness within her that became wonderful gifts to all.
Dixilee was born to Cecil Royce Gage and Geraldine Elaine Young on Hallowe’en, 1933 in Nebraska. After a few years in Seattle, where her brother David was born, the family settled in Salinas, CA. There five years later her baby brother Danny was born.
Dixilee was a protective older sister. Sometimes this meant beating up neighborhood boys who picked on her little brothers, something neither brother would let others forget. This fighting spirit and fierce protection of family stayed with her throughout life.
As Dixilee entered her teenage years she followed her ambition and competed in activities that ranged from typing contests (she won first place in her region and second statewide) to modeling contests (after graduating from Salinas High in 1951). This ambition led her through several successful careers, which ranged from selling her artwork at formidable prices in the 1960s; having her own dressmaking and tailoring business, and making jewelry, during the 1970s; to founding and running a successful mortgage company in the 1980s.
Still, as active and on-the-go as Dixilee was, one of her primary passions in life was family. Brother Danny recalls fondly how proud she was —— living in Salinas with first husband, Bill Horsley —— when she brought home her first son, Michael Horsley. Bill and Dixilee went on to have a second child, daughter Cali Jean.
In a second marriage, to Eric Otto, Sr., she bore her second son: Eric Otto, Jr. With three children in tow, Dixilee excelled in college classes —— while working as a stenographer and legal admin. She continued to be creative during this time, and let this creativity flow into child rearing. Cali recalls many art projects, fun outings, and even Bohemian gatherings at the beach, where the first-wave hipsters had intellectual conversations around bonfires. Dixilee and Michael enjoyed playing word games —— matching wits and vocabularies.
In her third, final, longest-lasting, and dearest marriage, she gained a new step-daughter, Kerin Wright (Kerin Garrett), and with her husband Jim Wright adopted their son Jaime Wright in 1972. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, they raised, bred, and trained quarter horses and were active in the horse and ranch communities in San Martin, CA. and later Gardnerville, NV.
In the early 1980s, Dixilee was diagnosed with breast cancer. This would be one of her toughest fights. After a radical double mastectomy and chemotherapy in 1984, the cancer that doctors had been skeptical she’d survive was subsiding. By 1989, her cancer was considered in remission.
Only a few years later she began the first bypass and angioplasty surgeries for major circulatory problems. By the end of the 1990s she’d had surgery on nearly all her large arteries and a return of the cancer, with terrible pain. She suffered frequent ministrokes, chronic anemia, severe macular degeneration, and scoliosis, as well as heart failure —— but was never a complainer. Rather, she kept pushing past doctors’ expectations. She attributed this primarily to her Christian faith —— which resonated with her kindness, and even as she went through many health battles she always strove to “be there” and help humans (and cats!) in need. For her, “service” was less an event held within the walls of a church and more an activity: actively serving others.
In her final eleven years, she continued to push forward on new projects. After moving from San Martin to Sparks, she and Jim took over the Senior Nutrition Program in their small community of Rainbow Bend. Together they revitalized an ailing program and brought many seniors out of their homes for fellowship and lunch —— but in 2003, only a few years after their move and new role within their community, Jim lost a decade-long struggle with cancer. After that, Dixilee continued to work for the Senior Nutrition Program, even getting a new building ready for the program. She also became the founding Queen Mother of the “Rainbow Ruby Chapeaux” chapter of the Red Hat Society in Rainbow Bend, making many new close friends in that group.
Yet, the years without her dear husband were taking their toll on Dixilee. She suffered from loneliness and depression. Guided by her technologically savvy daughter, she met Peter Lippman on Match.com (an Internet singles service). They hit it off and quickly became a happy, loving couple. At 72 and for the next five years, she loved short rides and long getaways to the coast on Peter’s BMW motorcycle. They also flew to DC and New York City, places Dixilee had always wanted to see but never seen.
As I, her son Jaime, write this I remember one of my mom’s favorite activities with Peter: providing fine throaty alto harmonies to his baritone melodies —— whenever he seized his ancient guitar and let loose an old folk or hobo song, hymn, or silly ditty from her youth. The very same songs her father had belted out with his friends 60 years before.
Usually, we would be sitting around Peter’s big round table having some wine or a beer, when they would begin, harmonizing beautifully. One night, after sipping sangria between songs and stories, he lit into “La Cucaracha.” My mom and I sang that song with all the grit we could muster. We laughed at ourselves until tears streamed down our cheeks. That’s the way we would all like to remember my mom, our mother, our sister, our friend Dixilee.
Dixilee is survived by her brother Danny Gage, her sister-in-law, Margo Gage (married to her late brother, David Gage), daughters Cali Moore and Kerin Garrett, sons Michael Horsley, Eric Otto, and Jaime Wright —— and their spouses Lisa, Dan, Teri, Annette, and Lisa; close friend Peter Lippman and his uniquely supportive assistant Shaliene Sitzer Ray; Dixilee’s grandchildren Paul and Joe Hinchberger, John Schroeder, Stephanie and Christopher Horsley, Chris and Heather Garrett, Roy Sapp, Alissa Otto, and Mario Puentes; several great-grandchildren; and many surrogate daughters, sons, and grandchildren who loved the silly and wise things she would say, her laughter, and her Hershey-bar sandwiches.