The Braided Days of May

It’s been a week since my last blog post and the days have been filled to the brim. Sydney’s school year is gradually winding up. After six years of homeschooling, she has made the decision to attend school next year. It’s an exciting time of transition, and I’ve been talking with her about “finishing well.” She had her last online history class and her final history test, she finished up her online English class along with an “argument” paper. She also had her final piano recital, after seven years of taking lessons with our beloved Miss Dot. Next week, she’ll finish up her online physics class and work on her final revision for her third novel. She has a handful of algebra lessons to finish with Joel and she has a few more chapters of Latin to study. She’ll continue her weekly Spanish class at least through part of the summer. But her schedule is freeing up, which will give us more time at the barn.

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Sydney with Miss Dot, her piano teacher

Last week, our ring was finally finished. We’ve waited through many days of rain for sand deliveries. Now that it’s all behind us, I can hardly remember the angst we felt when we were promised sand would be delivered by Friday, and it didn’t arrive. Then we were told it would be delivered through night (we even called our neighbors to alert them), yet woke on Saturday morning at 6:30 a.m. at the sound of one load arriving. By the end of Sunday, the fifth load was finally dumped.

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Piles of sand in the ring waiting to be spread.

Workers came and spread the sand on Tuesday, and, to my chagrin, we didn’t have ENOUGH sand. So we asked for three more loads to be delivered, fearing the worst (more rain or simply more delays). But the next round of sand came without issues, and the workers showed up the next morning to finish the ring — for good, this time.

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Getting ready to try out the ring.

On the same Saturday that we awoke to our first sand delivery, I learned that my dear friend Gilda lost her father after a long illness. She had just returned from a book tour in her hometown of Syracuse, NY, where her father still lived. Gilda had been on my heart all week. On the following Wednesday, when our last three loads of sand were being delivered, our poetry group gathered to discuss and read poems about fathers. Though back in Syracuse, Gilda was very much present, in our thoughts and prayers. On Thursday morning, as the sand in the ring was being spread, she bid her father goodbye in a traditional Italian service.

The loss of Gilda’s father helped me put my frustration over the ring in perspective. And I was reminded of how different people and events are braided throughout our lives. I can’t think of my own father without thinking of the hand he had in my experiences with horses. He first promised me a pony when I was nine and we were on the brink of moving to the Panama Canal Zone, a move I was none too interested in. But my father must have known what he was doing, because after a couple of years in Panama, I didn’t want to leave.

This excerpt from my memoir reveals my father’s influence in my life with horses in Panama:

Daddy delivered the pony he promised during the first month of our move to Panama. On Saturdays, the family piled into our wood-paneled station wagon and drove to the Fort Clayton Riding Club, a stable built from the remnants of a burned factory, to see Charlie, a light bay bush pony with a ragged black mane.

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Me with Charlie, 1970. I wish I had a picture of my father from this time, but he was always the one behind the camera.

Daddy paid Mac, the Jamaican groom, a dollar to teach me how to groom and tack up. I soon preferred petting Charlie to riding. When I was in the saddle, he would snatch the bit in his teeth and take off, dropping me on the gravel drive between the ring and his stall. In a couple of months, my fear made me reluctant to go to the stables until my father traded Charlie for Cochise, an older white pony, with a quiet disposition and a reputation for taking care of children. By this time, my brothers had found other activities and I had Cochise to myself. I spent long hours brushing him and whispering into his feathery ears.

I knew by the way his large dark eyes followed me that he understood and accepted every emotion that went through me. Cochise and I were companions. On trails through the jungle, I rode bareback, feeling the warmth of his body under my legs. During the next year, I met Gill, a young British woman who had grown up in the horse world and had exceptional ability as an instructor and trainer. She taught group lessons at our stable four days a week and offered a great deal. For twenty dollars a month, kids could take as many lessons as they wanted. My father, always one to appreciate a bargain, signed me up. I took lessons with Gill every day that she offered them and quickly became part of a community of horse-loving girls. Under Gill’s instruction, I began to learn dressage and how to jump. I was at the barn every day except Thursday, the day my mother insisted I spend at home. On Saturdays, I spent from morning till dark at the stables. When I was done grooming, riding and bathing Cochise, I’d hang out with the other girls, listening to Gill talk about riding in England. Sometimes my friends and I would set up jumps, pretend we were horses and do the course on foot, counting our strides and practicing our form. In the afternoon, we’d ride our horses a second time.

The relationship I already had with Cochise blossomed into something deeper as I learned the subtleties of how to communicate and direct my pony under saddle. The hours I spent under Gill’s watchful eye paid off in the show ring. I earned high scores on my dressage tests and started winning ribbons and trophies. Gill found other horses – many who were young and unschooled – for me to ride when it was clear my abilities had outgrown Cochise, and she coached me through the process of training them. With less time for my pony, my mother stepped in, brushing Cochise on occasion and enjoying his sweet nature. To my surprise, Mom began going on weekly trail rides under the tutelage of Mrs. Moxon, an older, low-key instructor. When Daddy, who had become President of the Fort Clayton Riding Club, saw me developing competence as a rider, he bought Chancellor, a sixteen-hand, retired race horse. I was no longer a child on a bush pony, but a teenager astride an elegant thoroughbred. I felt at home on horseback. Riding was what my friends and I did; it became as natural as breathing to me.

Under the hot, pulsing sun, my father’s eyes followed me as I walked, trotted and cantered my horses around the dusty ring. Leaning back on his elbows in the wooden bleachers, Daddy smiled under his Panama hat. He had made it all happen.

                                     (excerpt from Motherhood: Lost and Found)

Along with my father, Gill, my instructor was also braided into my life. I have had her on my mind so much as I’ve been moving back into the horse world. It’s her voice that I hear coming out of my mouth as I lunge my daughter and call out, “Shoulders back! Heels down!” The hours I spent under her nurturing tutelage made me into the horse woman that I am today. Eventually she moved to the Dallas area where she opened up a large show barn, a place I visited a few summers during high school and college. She gave me the opportunity to ride and train dozens of horses. It was a life I loved. Now, thirty-some years later, I’m so thankful to be in touch with her again through Facebook. She celebrated a birthday this week, and seeing her photo made my heart swell.

Gill, my wonderful riding instructor from Panama.

Last week was also filled with phone calls to doctors regarding my brother Richard’s health. I received a call from his assisted living facility as I was wandering through the aisles of a consignment tack sale, perusing the used equipment for a girth and a few odds and ends. I stopped and listened as the woman on the other end of the line told me that Richard’s doctor was recommending cataract surgery. Along with this surgery, he wanted to insert a stent in my brother’s eyes to help ease the discomfort of his glaucoma.

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Sydney and Richard several years ago.

Richard has been mentally handicapped since birth, so these kinds of phone calls are not uncommon. But I was still startled by the thought of my brother’s vision clouding over, the fact of his body deteriorating as he ages. Despite his frequent medical issues, he has remained relatively stable, even fairly active, participating in Special Olympics, playing golf and going bowling over the years. Each medical event requires communication among my siblings and me, talking over procedures, asking questions of the doctors, making plans for visits and after-care. The phone call was a reminder for me of how joy and difficulties are so often intertwined. At that moment I wanted to push away the sadness of my brother’s condition and remain in the joy of these special days with my daughter. I think I also feared the eclipsing of joy that happened when my mother was on her downward spiral with Alzheimer’s. But somehow I believe that things will be different this time around.

I am actually amazed that I have another opportunity to “finish well” myself. A chance to support and love my brother. A chance to hold pain and sorrow in one hand and joy and expectancy in the other.

A few days after I had spoken with Richard’s eye doctor and the surgery scheduler, I received another call about my brother. This one was more and less of a surprise. He had fallen in a volleyball game, gotten up and everyone thought he was okay. But a few days later, he was unable to put weight on his hip. Was it broken? The x-rays were unclear, but something looked “funny,” according to the doctor. He was at the ER awaiting possible admittance after a CT scan. I thought with relief how grateful I was to have my siblings to call, to know that they understood (as do I) these unexpected, but expected phone calls. Suddenly, the elective cataract surgery with the additional stent implant did not seem so major. As it has always been with Richard, we must deal with the top level concern first. Nothing moves fast in his life. And he is patient.

I was also reminded of how I am not in control, even when things appear to be going my way. How often I live under that illusion. And how often the illusion shatters. The shattering is painful because I think I want to maintain that control. But as I wrest my tight grip away, there is always a gift in the release. A sigh of peace in the surrender.

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Sydney and Foxie

So as I grieve for my brother and for my dear friend Gilda, I also relish the moments with my daughter at the barn. Sitting in the aisle as she brushes Foxie, I delight in their presence, my daughter’s energy, the horse’s lowered head, the breeze wafting through the barn, the scent of leather. Memories of my father and Gill and all the horses I have loved sift through my mind. I am amazed and filled with gratitude at the connection between Sydney and Foxie as she presses the curry into her golden coat and white hairs flutter around us.

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A kiss for Foxie

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