For three-quarters of a decade, I have kept these dried flowers on a bureau in the hall, in a place where I could see them from my office. For a period of time they gave me comfort. They reminded me of my mother, who loved nature and the outdoors. I would glance at them as I was working on my memoir and think of her. But a year or two year ago, I began to feel like it was time to clear out the old and replace it with something new. It suddenly started feeling a bit morbid to have dead flowers from my mother’s funeral still in the house. Every week or so, I wiped away another handful of disintegrating dry petals from the surface of the bureau. My mother died in 2007.
But I didn’t want to just throw them away. I knew the flowers were a representation of my mother, not her ashes. But still I wanted to “let go” of these dried bouquets in a way that would honor her. So, during one of the cold days of winter, I came upon an idea. I held it in my mind for a while, caressing it for any rough edges. My idea was this: On Mother’s Day I would take the dried flowers to the graveyard on our property. We have several animals buried there: a beloved kitten named Spunky that wandered into our barn when it was first being built, three horses — including my beloved Crimson — and various other pets (some owned by others). At the back of the graveyard is a magnolia tree that Joel and I planted. It was a gift from my dear friend Lyn after one of my miscarriages. I imagined sprinkling dried petals around the base of this sweet tree that blooms each spring.
As the days gradually warmed, my idea evolved. I would take some of the flowers and leaves and distribute them around our farm. After all, Mom was (and is) ubiquitous in my life. I remember her walking around the property, waving her arms and exclaiming at the beauty of the woods the same way she exclaimed over the beauty of her beloved Lake George. I spent 20 years writing a memoir about her. And, yet, there is so much more to say. Her kindness, her gentleness, her tender heart are all things that bring me to tears. I missed them after she had died and still do. Even though, over 10 years before her death, she had descended deeply into Alzheimer’s, her gentle spirit was always present. But, still, it took time before I remembered the mother who had been there before the illness.
Gradually, as the weight and exhaustion of care taking lifted, the layers of who she was began fluttering through my mind like loose leaf pages. She was disorganized, but spontaneous. Ready for an adventure at a moment’s notice. She continually expressed pure awe at God’s handiwork. She was at home on the water. She loved sailing and canoeing, watching the sun set over the glistening waves. She enjoyed the occasional mountain hike or a roadside overlook, encouraging her children to pause and take in the views, listen to the birds. She was a lover of words — writing weekly feature stories for her town’s newspaper for years. As I think about it, one reason I think her stories were so appreciated by the community was that she really and truly wanted to know her subject. She found people endlessly fascinating and complex. But she approached them with no judgment whatsoever.
That quality of “wanting to know” may be what I most miss about her. To have a parent truly “want to know” you is a gift. My mother listened intently, cared deeply. She did not always “get” me. I suppose that is not unusual, maybe even a necessary stage in the mother/daughter relationship. And I realize, all these years later, that I was not exactly someone who was easy to know. But she tried, and she was always present to whatever was going on between us. Is it any wonder that I tend to idealize my mom? Maybe it’s no wonder that I kept the dried bouquets from her funeral on my bureau for seven and a half years.
So, finally Mother’s Day arrived. I looked at the dried flowers half dreading, half thrilled to be getting rid of them. I had told Joel a few days earlier that I wanted to save the pink contoured vase holding one of the collections of dried flowers. Both the color of it and the curves delighted my eyes. I also loved knowing that caring friends or family members had bought this particular vase filled with flowers and given it to us during the time of my mother’s death.
Joel presented me with a beautiful bouquet on Mother’s Day morning, and the roses would look gorgeous inside the vase. Our family went to church that morning, then Joel and I spent a leisurely afternoon — napping and taking a walk. Sydney, who wasn’t feeling well, went to bed early. The sun was just beginning to go down when I remembered that this was the day I wanted to dispense with the dried flowers. I smiled to myself, thinking that my mom — who rarely followed a plan that was laid out — would understand. Still, I didn’t want to wait another year!
So, I quickly emptied the bouquets into two plastic grocery bags. Then I had to put the flowers Joel had given me into the pink vase. Voila! They looked as beautiful as I had imagined.
As I stepped out of the house, I wandered around the foliage in our yard, placing a dried bud here, some disintegrating leaves there. I walked down the driveway in the gradually fading light. I dropped a few flowers into the woods, knowing I’d forget where they were, but liking the idea that they were there…or at least the remnants of them would finish decaying on my well-worn path.
I paused at the creek and sent a few dried petals floating to wherever the creek empties, knowing my mother, although tied down with a military husband and four children, also enjoyed her freedom.
I stopped by the barn and placed a dried flower in the door of Foxie’s stall, thinking of how my mother had loved my pony Cochise and that she must be smiling down on Sydney and her horse. I continued on, stopping here and there, including at the big rock we jokingly call “Joshua’s Rock South” in honor of the place “up north” deeply connected to my mother’s family’s heritage.
Eventually, I got to the graveyard. I had forgotten that Joel had not yet mowed it this year. I was in shorts, and prickers and Poison Ivy were everywhere. Once again, I remembered how my mother would toss her head when coming to an obstacle and light-heartedly move in another direction. She would understand, I thought, as I left a small bouquet at the entrance of the graveyard.
On the way back to the house, I paused at the places I had been, smiling and sighing. It felt good to relieve myself of these dead flowers, to spread their husks into the world, allowing them to be remade over time into something new. As I was approaching the big creek, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. It was a bird. Not just any bird. A robin.
The bird was dusky with a definite tint of orange on her breast. My mother loved all birds and would exclaim over every cardinal or blue jay or purple martin that she saw. But robins were what I considered “our birds.” My middle name is Robin. And each time she spotted one, she said it was “Little Robin Red Breast,” and mom would look at me tenderly, as if the bird and I were one. Over the years we spotted many robins during our spring, summer and fall walks, or my mother would call to me when she noticed one outside her kitchen window. There were many sightings.
This little robin on the driveway was a messenger, a gift, a reminder of my mother’s love and the fact that her spirit can not be contained in a few bouquets of dried flowers. I needn’t feel bad that I was letting this tangible reminder of her go. Reminders were everywhere. The woods were full of them. And somehow setting myself free from the burden of holding on, allows me to feel the joy of her life. In the darkening light, the robin stayed with me, never more than a few yards ahead, as I walked. I thanked God silently for this amazing little bird and for my mother, all that she was and always will be. When I reached the house, the robin flitted towards a tree (for safety or to build a nest?) as the dog came running up to greet me the same way life rushes in.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Before the sun came up, I woke with a sense of peace like clean gauze wrapped around the oozings of my heart. My mind had wanted to race in circles last night, but I slowed its galloping with a reminder: things often look new in the morning. And in this damp drenched April dawn, I sense a settling, the way pollen clings to grass or how magnolia petals that blossomed pink and surprising in March gradually turn brown and drift to the ground. Whatever it is my mind wants to force into place has eased, leaving a sweet trust that hides in the sleep-freshened branches of my mind.
My daughter and I, along with two dear friends, worked on cleaning out the barn this weekend. The girls cleared out two stalls on the right side of the barn that were filled with old hay and sawdust. One stall will be used to store new hay, and the other stall will be an extra, just-in-case stall. They worked for hours without a break. Do you think they’re excited about horses coming?
Sydney and her good friend, LK.
Last weekend, my husband, a young man from church and a friend’s barn worker installed rubber mats in the other two stalls. My husband, a golfer who does not particularly care for barn work, threw himself into this task and many others in a big effort to help get the barn ready for horses. He is awesome!
My dear friend Karen helped me tackle the tack room, a room that was filled with spiderwebs, dust, dead insects and who knows what else. We took everything out and wiped off shelving and storage bins, cleaned the walls, swept the floor and mopped. Then we gradually put things back in. Now that’s a good friend!
Thank you, Karen! I couldn’t have done it without you!!
The tack room — orderly and clean!
All of the above was done on Saturday. Karen and LK came back to help us late Sunday afternoon. The girls walked the pasture and cleared brambles from the fence line while Karen and I cleaned out the feed room. When the girls came back to the barn, I gave them a huge tub full of leather tack to clean. They worked until they were done. After Karen and LK left, and Sydney caught a ride up to the house with her dad, who was returning from playing nine holes, I had fun putting up nails and organizing all the barn implements.
A few photos from my early morning walk on Saturday. The clouds were amazing everywhere I looked…so I just kept taking pictures.
Yesterday my daughter met Foxie. I knew from the outset that she would fall in love. Not because Foxie is the perfect horse, but because my daughter is an animal lover through and through, and her heart is more than tender.
There was a spark. A current that ran between their eyes. I don’t think I imagined it. My daughter’s eyes are kind and brown, the color of rich earth. The mare’s eyes are brown too, a deeper shade. Both girl and horse seemed to have a softness when they studied each other. What is it that draws us close to another being – animal or person?
I have held myself apart from horses for the past many years. A month or so ago, I first allowed myself to look at pictures of horses for sale on Facebook. At first it was a test. How would I feel? Would there be a sting of grief or the ache of hardship? Would my eyes glaze over with the impossibility of opening my heart that wide again? Perhaps that was my expectation. Instead, I found myself, after a long winter, awakening. I didn’t know what I was looking for.
As I scrolled through photos of horses one picture caught my eye. It was of a large pony with a forelock splashed, across his face, and an expression that said, “Hi! Nice to meet ya!” From the comments, I could tell he had already been spoken for. I told a friend about him and how his look had touched me. He reminded me of my childhood pony Cochise. “That’s a face I can trust,” I told my friend.
Cochise, circa 1971
a couple of years later at a horseshow
The next time I saw that expression on a horse, I didn’t hesitate, but right away messaged the person who posted it. The mare was small, right on the line between pony and horse, a Palomino so pale she could have been white. She was a 13-year-old Quarter Horse who had been used in a therapeutic riding program. The barn manager said I could come and see her any time. I visited her once and brought my daughter the second time. Next week, we will bring her home to the barn for a trial.
I am old and wise enough to know that there may not be a happy ending. My daughter’s heart will break if we find a flaw we cannot live with. But we must move through this process, open ourselves to what will be, allow our hearts to beat in time with another. Wisdom is not gained lightly.
I believe in the beauty of narrative…the unexpected turns in the road. I am not the creator of this story, simply an observer documenting these days. But I believe in hope and in God’s timing. After all, today is Good Friday.
Our barn has stood empty for the last 10 years. Anyone who knows me well or has read my memoir, Motherhood: Lost and Found, knows that the years before that were filled with the grief of multiple miscarriages and the slow loss of my mother due to Alzheimer’s.
I used to teach riding lessons and, at one time, kept five horses and enjoyed a sweet community of riding friends and students. But I came to a point where the grief and exhaustion of caring for my mother took over my days and I had little energy for anything else. I had to send the horses away. Then my daughter was born and I became completely absorbed in both her care and in the miraculous blessing of her presence. Through toddlerhood and the wonderful, demanding years of homeschooling, I had little time and even less energy to contemplate the possibility of horses.
In 2013, when my daughter was 11 and turned 12, I first began to consider bringing horses back to the farm. But at the end of that year, in December, I had the first symptoms of a mysterious, debilitating illness that would last throughout much of the next year. Thankfully, my good health is returning.
Now it is early spring and the grass is greening. The sun rose at 7:10 a.m. On my walk, I took photos of the barn in the dawn and gradually the glow in the eastern sky brightened until it took over the morning. Birdsong surrounds me, red buds are blossoming in the woods, new life is all around. Tomorrow is Maundy Thursday and on Sunday we will celebrate Easter.
This week my daughter and I will go look at a sweet Quarter Horse mare. She seems to have all the characteristics of a good schooling horse, one on which I can teach my daughter the basics of riding and horse care. But time will tell. They will meet, and there will be a spark that flashes between them, a spark capable of igniting a heart – or not.
I have learned to be wary, to hesitate before celebrating. But these early spring days are calling me out, asking me to risk, dangling joy in front of me. It’s hard to imagine that I could have this second chance with horses, a return to my old life. But even as I write these words I know that nothing stays the same. Even old memories become layered with new experiences. What we think is set in our mind’s eye shifts and is recreated daily. I am fearful of being pulled back into recollections of days where barn chores were a heavy burden because of the emotional weight I carried as I grieved over my empty womb and cared for my declining mother. Am I willing to risk facing those griefs as I form a new layer of reminiscence with my daughter as we feed horses, clean stalls, scrub buckets and all the rest that comes with looking after and loving horses?
I don’t know what tomorrow’s sunrise will bring. But I am ready to move forward into a new day.