As a child I was afraid of cows, dogs, kittens, chickens, and bugs. Anything that moved might bite, sting, kick, or scratch me.
I was afraid of water; I might drown.
I was afraid of death. Definitely afraid of suffering, death, nothingness.
I was afraid of people, all of them. This drove my tough, feisty mother crazy. When I was a preschooler, she complained to anyone who would listen about my scaredy-cat ways. Once I hid under the bed when a friend of hers came to visit. Another time I sat solemn and silent until her friend gave me a long, pitying look and whispered “Can she talk?”
My mother shot a withering glance my way, “Of course she can. She’s four years old! She won’t, that’s all.”
I can’t say that my parents ever tried to soothe my over-sensitive little psyche. Instead, they exhorted me to acquire gumption. (An approach that doesn’t work, by the way. And I don’t think it’s what child psychologists recommend.)
By the time I was eleven, we lived in Calgary, Alberta. We owned two horses that we boarded in the Army stables, and almost every day my father and I went riding. I liked riding and spending time with my father. He was a mostly silent man, but that was all right with me. I was a mostly silent kid.
I still had most of my old fears and many new ones as well. I was afraid of being kicked by my horse, Toolie, when I went into her stall. My father had told me that horses need to know when you approach them from behind. Every time I went to groom her, I talked, patted her rump and trembled as I wiggled past. As I put her saddle on, I worried that she might jump sideways and accidentally squish me.
I never talked to my parents about my fears, but of course they knew. Once my father, exasperated, had said “My god, Margaret, you’re gutless!” The words stung. Unfortunately, the few words my father did speak tended to be painfully blunt. Neither he nor my mother had ever learned how to measure and soften their words.I can’t imagine my sons or daughters-in-law ever saying such a thing to one of my beloved grandchildren. But it was a different time and my parents had endured hard lives.
One summer evening he and I went riding, out from the stable where we kept our horses, through the camp on tracks made by Army tanks, to the countryside beyond. My father had warned me that there might be explosives not yet detonated hidden in the grass near the tracks. If my horse were to step on one, we would blow up. Occasionally the massive tanks rolled towards us. We’d trot our horses off to the side and stand out of the way, until the tanks were safely past. At such times I worried about being blown to smithereens.
When we were safely out of the army camp, I watched for gopher holes. If my horse stepped in one, she could stumble and fall. My father had told me so. But gopher holes were hard for a near-sighted kid to spot from atop a horse. And even if I did, how could I get Toolie out of the way in time, especially when she was running? One more thing to be afraid of.
It was almost dusk when my father suggested we race. He would surely win because the big, Palomino gelding that he rode was faster than my little bay mare, and my Dad was far braver than I. But I urged Toolie to run until I was close behind. I still don’t know if I liked to race. I enjoyed the exhilarating feeling of running. But there were those deadly gopher holes. Greater than my fear of gopher holes, however, was my dread of my father’s disapproval if I lacked courage.
We were racing round what my father called a “yes ma’m,” a dip and a curve to the left in the narrow dirt trail, when the Palomino fell and my father with him. For a brief terrible second, the horse was on top of my father.
There was no time for me and Toolie to get out of the way. Before I realized what had happened, she had jumped over both of them. The jump was a first for both of us. I fell off in the unceremoniously easy way of kids and nothing got broken.
My father wasn’t so lucky. His shoulder was dislocated, and he was in a lot of pain. Slowly we rode back to the stable. By the time we got back, it was very late. My father awkwardly eased himself off his horse and sat on a stool near the tack room.
“Margaret, I need you to unsaddle both horses and take them to pasture.”
I did what I was told, took off their bridles and replaced them with halters, unsaddled them, brushed and curry-combed them. I was scared, as always.
“Now lead them to pasture.You can take them both at once.”
Both? At the same time?! I took a halter in either hand and began the walk to the pasture. I could feel the power of the two horses as they nudged my shoulder. I knew they were much stronger than I. What if they pulled away from me and ran away? What if they trampled me?
When I got back to the stable, my father said, “You’re going to have to go get the provost. I can’t drive us home.”
I had never walked through the part of the camp between us and the camp gates, where I’d find the provost, the military police. We lived in the married quarters beyond. Family members never passed through those gates unescorted. And it was very late.
On the other hand, on those quiet streets, no animals threatened, so I was less afraid of the walk to the provost than I’d been of the walk to the pasture with the horses. I scurried to the provost, told them my father was hurt, and they drove back with me to take us home.
My father did not recover for many weeks. When he talked about that night, he was pleased with me.
“Proud of her. She walked all by herself through the camp late at night to get the provost.”
It had not really been the walk to the provost that had frightened me; rather, it had been everything else. But I chose not to tell him so.
That was long ago. I like to believe that my parents’ over-the-top toughness helped me to learn, over and over again, that we do what must be done, despite our fears. And I’ve been lucky, for my fears have gradually shriveled up over the years and mostly blown away.
But I will always remember and treasure the night my father was proud of me, the night he thought me brave.