Friday, May 16, 2014

The White Pony

When I graduated from college, lo, a quarter-century ago, my parents threw a small backyard barbeque in celebration (I was getting married in 6 weeks so we didn't want a big party.). Most of the guests were relatives, but some were old family friends, including my Grandma and Grandpa Ford.

They weren't actual kin to me. When I was born prematurely, my doctor told my mother I couldn't possibly be put into group day care until I was a year old. A friend who worked with my mom suggested that her mother, who was nearly finished raising something like eight children, might be willing to watch me for a little while. That little while turned out to be every day for four years, until my brother was born; I loved them wholeheartedly, and they loved me, to the extent that I used to go camping with them, and visited them regularly for years. I last spent the night in their farmhouse when I was a senior in high school.

They lived on a farm, but Grandpa had years back leased his land for cattle and gone to work at the International Harvester factory in town. Sometimes Grandma would take me to the barns to look at the cows. Every day we walked the length of the front pasture, empty except for the apple tree on the corner, to pick up her mail at the end of the drive. They hung a tire swing for me on the tree in their front yard, and taught me to slide down their bannister, and, on nights when I stayed over, took me down to shower in the old-fashioned cellar, where salamanders lived under rocks.

At my graduation party I was surprised by how much they'd aged. Grandpa was almost entirely deaf, and even Grandma moved slowly. After four years at a women's college on the east coast I felt like a different person than the girl that had stayed so often with them; I wanted them to know the new me, but couldn't figure out how to convey how much I'd changed. (That I'd thought I'd changed, and that I thought it was important, shows how very young I was.) Finally I said, "I learned to ride horses in college. I learned to really ride." It had been the greatest joy of my life so far. I'd always dreamed of riding horses--always--and had never had the opportunity. The college I'd attended had had its own barn, and good instruction, and I'd spent all my extra hours learning to clean stalls and sweep the aisle and make hot bran mash like I'd read about in books.

I thought they'd express polite interest, but Grandma just grinned. "That don't surprise us none," she said, "Does it, Grandpa?"

"EH?" said Grandpa.

"SHE SAYS SHE LEARNED TO RIDE HORSES, OUT THERE AT THAT SCHOOL. I SAY, THAT DON'T SURPRISE US NONE, DOES IT?"

Grandpa's face creased into an angelic grin.  "Oh, no," he said, slowly. "No, it don't. I'd forgotten. All those years ago. That white pony."

"What wh--" but then I, too, remembered.

It had been a magical summer. Looking back it had to have been the summer before my brother was born, which means that it was the summer I turned three at the end of June. All summer long the Fords loaned out their front pasture to the neighbor's white pony.

He must have had a name, but I never knew it. He stood contentedly in the knee-high grass, chewing, and I brushed his legs--all I could reach--with an old wooden brush Grandma gave me. I held the brush in both hands. Sometimes Grandma picked me up so I could brush his long smooth back, and once a day--no more, no matter how much I begged--she would put me on his back and lead me around the pasture while I held his mane.

Every day after lunch, Grandma would set down with me in her big rocking chair and read to me from a book of poems by James Whitcomb Riley. Then she would tuck me into her bed in the first-floor bedroom, across the landing from the family room. I didn't have to sleep but I had to stay in the bed and quiet while she watched her "show,"  As The World Turns. As soon as that was over the afternoon was mine, to be with the pony until my mother drove up the drive.

Grandma sat on the porch step while I brushed. Brush, brush, brush. The pony stopped chewing sometimes to look me in the eye, and I patted his nose even though Grandma said he didn't like that. While I brushed him I pushed his legs sideways, closer and closer to the fence. I had an idea that if he would stand right against the fence, I could climb it and then swing aboard the pony and ride him without Grandma leading him. It never worked, because the pony was too clever. He'd move closer and closer to the fence, and then, when I went to climb it, quickly sidestep away.

Once when I wanted to switch sides I went right under him. Grandma saw and levitated off the porch stop, hollering, "Kimmy! Don't you do that! Don't you ever do that again! The pony's liable to kick you in the head!"

I knew the pony would never kick me, but after that I checked first to see whether Grandma was looking before I ducked beneath him.

Years later I found myself saying to my own young son, "When you're finished brushing him on the one side, I want you to walk around his front to go to the other side. Do not go underneath him. I don't care how much easier it looks, I don't want you doing it."
My son gave me a mulish look. "I am onto you, boy," I said. "I catch you ducking under that pony and you'll owe me two weeks cleaning stalls before you ride him again."

"How do you know?" my son asked.

I tried to tell him, about the magical summer with the small white pony, but at the time he was too young to understand.