Fraidy-cat

My father and I riding. In this photo we're visiting the Crippled Children's Hospital where my brother was staying.

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.

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Corn and Watermelon

Intro: I love the fancy traditional meals that we’ve been enjoying over the holidays.  Here’s a story about expectations  related to food.   And just maybe, it’s a longing for summer foods, in this, the coldest month of the year in Saratoga.

Good stuff.

When I was nine, my family moved to Calgary, Alberta. Horse country. Big cattle ranches. Rodeos. In Calgary, you can saunter down the street wearing a cowboy hat and fancy cowboy boots and not feel foolish—even if you happen to be a teacher or a construction worker or a poet.

In Calgary, my father made a new friend, an ex-bronco-riding, calf-roping cowboy named Slim. Dad bought two horses from him, a big feisty buckskin and a gentle bay mare named Talullah, a horse for him and one for me. Why just me, you say? Well, my little brother was a toddler. My older brother came down with polio and couldn’t ride. My sister thought that horses were smelly and disgusting, and my mother didn’t care to ride. So it happened that my father and I rode together, almost every day, for several years. Good years.

Every once in awhile, our horses needed shoes. And he and I would ride on paved streets around the edge of Calgary to the blacksmith’s shop. I loved everything about the shop. The strong warm smell of the horses mixed with the burning smell of the fire. The flames that lit up the room, casting shadows on the plank walls. The massive iron tongs, hammer, and anvil. The hiss when the hot iron shoes hit the water. I even liked to see him pare the hooves and nail on the horseshoes, reassured by my Dad that it didn’t hurt.

When I was not quite thirteen, my father was posted again, this time down East. Before we left Calgary, the blacksmith and his wife invited us to their home for a farewell dinner.

Their house was next to the shop, but I had never been inside. I wondered—I worried—that the house would be the same as the shop and the lot. I liked the look of the place, but what would my mother say? The blacksmith’s shop was a dilapidated, ramshackle place in need of paint. It always reminded me of the Ma and Pa Kettle movies I watched on Saturday mornings. Outside, in their dandelion field of a yard, was a shed with a purebred stallion that the blacksmith put out to stud; another shed with cocker spaniel puppies for sale; stacks of wooden crates, in case he wanted to start a mink ranch some day; and goats. I was quite sure this was all irregular, something my mother would not approve of. I also wondered what kind of meal they would serve. I have always been a person passionately interested in food. And, even then, I gave much thought to the meal we would be given, and I worried…would this eccentric couple come up with a meal my parents would find acceptable?

We didn’t eat at other people’s houses very often, but I knew what was normal, expected, and proper in a meal in my world in 1956. There must be some kind of meat: roast beef, roast pork, roast chicken, meatloaf, hamburgers, pork chops, maybe ham. There must be potatoes: boiled, mashed, baked, scalloped, hash, or potato salad. And there must be some kind of vegetable, probably canned. Canned peas, canned green beans, canned wax beans, canned corn. Maybe canned corn with pimentos, something fancy. Maybe we’d have molded jell-o with grated carrots or celery. Maybe a salad with iceberg lettuce. And for dessert—well, my father might hope for pie—but as for me, I preferred cake. Spice cake, yellow cake, white cake, upside down cake, tomato soup cake, wacky cake, marble cake, blueberry cake, gingerbread are all good. But I was hoping for devil’s food cake–with sweet seven-minute frosting.

One August evening, we went to the house and were invited inside. I looked around. None of the rickety chairs around the dining table matched. Nor did the plates on the bare wood. And other than plates, knives-forks-and-spoons, glasses, salt and pepper, and butter, there was nothing on the table.

The blacksmith and his wife were both behind the kitchen door.

“It smells funny in here!” my kid brother blurted.

“SHHHHHH.” said my mother. And she whispered, “It’s the goats.” She sniffed in shocked disapproval: “And she used to be a nurse!”

I understood the message. Nurses, taught to be acutely aware of hygiene, should not have a house that smells of goats, even after they retire.

A few minutes passed. And then the blacksmith opened the door, and the blacksmith’s wife came in carrying a big galvanized steel tub, the kind people used to wash clothes in years ago, the kind people carry ice and beer in, to the patio nowadays. But this tub was filled with neither. She sat it down on the wooden table. It was almost full—of corn on the cob. And that was it. No meat, no potatoes, no canned vegetables. Just corn.

I like corn on the cob. We had it a few times every summer. My mother would give us one ear, one and a half, maybe two. Never more. But today we could eat as many ears of corn on the cob as we wanted to, all slathered with butter and sprinkled with salt. I ate many.

When we’d all had as much corn as we wanted, she took the galvanized tub away. I looked sideways at my parents, looking to see their reaction. Only a minute or two passed before she came back through the kitchen door, holding the door open with her hip, both hands wrapped around a huge watermelon.

I also like watermelon. And we had it every summer too, once or twice. And we would be given a big slice or maybe two. But as much watermelon as we wanted? That was something else. And that night I ate a lot of watermelon.

My parents said their good-byes to the blacksmith and his wife. I sat in my place in the back seat of the Ford, nervous, waiting to hear what my parents would have to say after they were out of earshot of the blacksmith and his wife. Would they be outraged? Mocking? Would my mother say,

“What kind of dinner was that? Ridiculous! Can you believe it?”

I hoped not. That would spoil everything.

My parents looked at each other. I waited.

“I told you they were eccentric,” my father said. They both laughed.

“Good corn,” my mother said.

“Good watermelon too,” my father replied.

I could relax. The meal would not be marred by their disapproval. I was free to enjoy it completely.

It was the best meal I ever ate.

*

Copyright by  Margaret French

Changing reality, one story at a time

This week I’ve been working on a story about a blacksmith and his wife who invited my family to a farewell dinner when we moved away from Calgary, Alberta. They served us a strange and wonderful meal. The story is for a program I’m doing on May 1oth with Betty Cassidy, another Saratoga storyteller, of stories about the 1950s and 60s. It occurred to me, as I thought about that bizarre meal and my parents’ unexpected response to it, that some of my notions about my parents must have been wrong. My parents would not have been friends with this couple if they had been as uptight as I remember them. They would not have handled the situation with such (relative) aplomb.

Maybe it’s time for me to adjust my reality yet again.  I’m pretty comfortable with a few solid facts.  2 + 2 most always equals 4. Gravity still seems to be in working order. Probably.  But most everything else seems forever to shift depending on my point of view. The older I get, the more I’m convinced that I’m sure of nothing. And the more comfortable I am with this uncertainty.  Oh well.

In this blog, I’ll write mostly about my storytelling, which I love with a passion.  And because my storytelling is always about my trying to figure out the people in my life and this shifting thing we call reality, I’ll write about them too.

Margaret