Last night, as I lay in bed trying to sleep in spite of my spinning brain, enjoying the fluffy heaviness of the fresh bedding but resenting the oppressive season that necessitates it, my thoughts escaped to summer. Half-dreaming by then, I found myself transported back to my preteen years, galloping my escape from the frustration and awkwardness of junior high social life over dirt roads and fragrant fields, bareback atop a not-quite-used-up quarter horse who had in her prime borne circus clowns.
It was a privilege to grow up around horses; one I wouldn’t recognize until much later. I don’t come from what most people would recognize as the Equestrian class. I’m the child of a construction worker and a homemaker, who both come, ultimately from hardscrabble immigrant farmers and toilers. But my maternal grandmother came into some money in the early 1980s, out of a nightmarish family tragedy, and after a few years, brought a couple of American Saddlebreds home to the family dairy farm.
She’s never been one to talk about her inner life with me, or maybe anyone, but just now, sitting here thinking about the basic, taken-for-granted realities of my family’s history, I see something I hadn’t before. She took that money – money given in legal recompense for my grandfather’s untimely death; money that could never replace the loss of life, love, or years – and she lived the life he would have wanted her to live. She went out into the world and she did things, excellent things, even when she felt broken inside. Because in expressing her best self in the world, his love for her lived on.
She bought horses, and showed them. Eventually she remarried, and moved off the family farm to a nice hobby plot on a hill overlooking a private lake. She started breeding her prize mare, and one of the fillies she raised and trained ended up on the cover of a magazine. She played piano and organ at church, and continues to challenge herself with new instruments. She took up flower gardening, and even now, into her 80s, she keeps up a glorious summer yard, though the horses are all gone.
The afore-mentioned quarter horse, Galazar, was purchased for us kids, because Saddlebreds are not known for being gentle or patient. My aunt, the baby of my Grandmother’s eight children who is only a year my senior, was my constant summer companion. She was a trained equestrienne, and had shown with my Grandma from an early age, and thus had her own horse; and Arabian gelding named Prince.
At Grandma’s house, we were rarely supervised, and basically ran free in a way that would give today’s overbearing parents a heart attack. I thought about this, lying in bed last night; riding bareback through fields in shorts and tank tops, barefoot, without helmets – Hell, we didn’t even know helmets were a thing at that point. It might have been stupid, but God damn, it was fun. We were so alive in those fields; almost unhinged. Free from all of the aspects of “real” life we felt closing in around us as we approached adulthood. And yet, we could have died doing it.
But nothing worth doing is entirely safe. The truest joy in life steps toe-to-toe with death.
This is a core piece of who I am, and I see now that I am, at least in part, my grandfather’s death and my grandmother’s life. And, for better or worse, I’ll ride my bike without a helmet and drive too fast for as long as I can.
And definitely spend more time with my grandma.