Coming Home: How old stories help us hold on
One of the best parts about sharing stories every week is that sometimes it compels others to share their stories, too, reminding me how closely strangers can be connected.
For the past few months I’ve been traveling on behalf of my new book, telling stories about crocus picking, old pickup driving and growing up on the back of my old mare.
Inevitably then, after the show, I get to hear a few of your own memories, the ones sparked by my recollection of sliding down the gumbo hill in the pouring rain in my pajamas, because—aw, you have a gumbo story of your own? One that started out with a pretty pink jacket bought to impress his family and ended with you and that pink jacket planted in the sticky mud after a too-close-for-comfort call with a rattlesnake den.
Yes, your boyfriend might have saved you from a nasty bite, but you never got over the ruined jacket.
I’ve never really thought about it before, but this is how I acquired a reverence for storytelling. It was all those afternoon coffee breaks I’d sit in as a kid, the ones where the neighbors would take their hats off after branding or a day spent fixing a stubborn part on the tractor again, and the recount of the things that went wrong during the day would spark a story about another time, a few years back, when a new spring opened up on the flat over the winter and he was loping along across that stretch and the ground just disappeared beneath that horse …
And that would remind my neighbor of a time they ran the outfitting business, and they were taking some guests on a ride through a narrow trail of the badlands and down slid their best horse with a dude on his back. It’s a story we all might have heard before, the ground becoming a little steeper with each re-telling, all the could-have-beens recounted over and over as they rehashed their gratitude that it all turned out OK in the end.
Can you imagine?
Last week I got a letter in the mail from a woman who used to help out a family friend who ran trail rides in the badlands for years. This is the ranch where our old Stormy spent years working as a trail horse, and after reading about how we recently lost him to the years, this woman felt compelled to write me to share with me her own memories of that spotted gelding. Included among her recollections was a photo of Stormy in his younger days, taking that cowboy through the sagebrush badlands. I put my hand to my mouth, surprised by the tears that caught in my throat as I folded up that letter, remembering that Stormy was someone else’s coffee-break story once.
Reminded, in a world that spins too quickly, stories are the only way we can really hold on.
Keep telling them.
Yes Jessie, keep on telling your wonderful stories. They remind me of my own stories of years gone by. Will the young ones nowdays have good stories to tell like ours?
In the end, our stories are what ground us and connect us to others. Because you love a good horse story, I’ll tell you mine. Several decades ago I traded a small QH for a horse that was everything I didn’t want: a young, gray, Arabian mare. However, one short ride on this mare and I knew she’d be perfect for me. I took her home and spent the next 23 years riding her everywhere. And she WAS perfect. Everyone noticed that, even my crusty farrier. She had papers, but this was long before the Internet, so my quest to find her original owner & breeder failed time and time again. By the time computers came along Tia was a senior, but I began my search again in earnest. I was determined to find the person who bred and possibly started this lovely horse I’d grown to love. But try as I might, I didn’t have any success. Unfortunately, Tia died in 2010 at age 27 and I was never able to locate her former owner/breeder. Two months later, while searching for a new horse, I struck up an Email exchange with a woman who had mentioned a gaited horse for sale in an Internet group in my state. During our exchange I mentioned that I was struggling to find the right horse and how I was finding that difficult because I was trying to replace this lovely Arab that I’d ridden for nearly two decades. The woman understood my plight and confessed she had a soft spot for Arabs too, as that was her former breed. Still grieving very much for my horse, I sent the lady a photo of the mare I’d recently lost. About five minutes later I received her reply: a grainy old photo of what looked like a young bay horse. There was one sentence below the photo. “Do you recognize this horse?” I stared at the picture wondering why on earth this complete stranger had sent me an old photo of some random horse? Was it a famous horse I was supposed to recognize? I didn’t know. I was stumped. I replied that no, I didn’t recognize the horse in the photo. Should I? Her response was swift; it was Tia as a yearling! I’d found Tia’s breeder! What were the odds? Probably a million to one. I asked her how on earth she’d recognized Tia from the photo of an old gray mare I’d shared? She said, “You never forget a baby you raise yourself.” We both ended up feeling so blessed; I got to tell her all kinds of wonderful stories about Tia and how we’d spent the last 23 years and she had the joy and satisfaction of knowing what happened to her “baby” all those years ago. (She’d tried looking for Tia many times too, but was never able to locate her whereabouts after she’d been sold a few times.) So there you have it. Our stories really are important. 🙂
Horses, somehow, help lots of us live, even when we don’t have them anymore. … When I was nearly 40, going through a sad and angry divorce, I went for a massage and suddenly, while the masseuse rubbed my right thigh, I was transported back to age 5…going down the switchback trail on the hillside in front of our house, riding Duke, our Palomino Morgan Quarterhorse. I could hear the creek, feel the sun on my arms, smell the horses and scrub brush on the hillside. Then from behind me I heard my dad, riding Lady, saying to me “hold on and remember, I know you can do this, you won’t fall and I’m right here if you need me.” Dad had been dead almost twenty years, Duke many years longer, but in that moment I knew I COULD do – anything I needed or wanted or desired to do. And Dad, and Duke, have stayed with me ever since, and because they have stayed I CAN do and be whatever I choose, and whatever I dream. Thank you, Jessie, for all the stories you tell us and for all the stories you inspire.