She compared the golden palomino mare that had comforted her through her difficult childhood to Pegasus.
Posted in , Aug 26, 2020
Phil and David and I crept along the yard fence on our bellies and elbows, like soldiers on a battlefield. In the lead, my older brother, Phil, gave a hand signal for us to lay low while he proceeded.
Within minutes, David and I were scrambling up on the golden palomino mare as Phil untied her from the fence. Our older sister, Pat, came blasting out the screen door into the front yard.
“You little brats!” she screamed. “She’s my horse.”
“Just ’cause you’re the oldest doesn’t mean she’s yours,” Phil yelled as he jumped on Maybelle and kicked to get us going.
Maybelle trotted toward the back pasture of our farm with the three of us bouncing bareback and clinging to one another. Sis pursued us on foot. As we passed the barn, I turned and could barely see her, a speck near the creek. After a few minutes I heard the screen door slam. Phil pulled the mare to a walk, and we rode off toward the blackjack thicket that surrounded our Oklahoma farm.
“She’s a good old babysitter,” Phil said, patting the mare’s neck.
“I’m no baby,” David said, with a pout. “Don’t need no babysitter.”
“Phil just means that Maybelle is calm and can be trusted,” I said. “That’s what Dad says. He calls Maybelle a natural babysitter.”
“Mama will be comin’ back soon,” my younger brother proclaimed. My four-year-old brother had remained adamant that our mother would return to the farm.
Phil pulled on the reins, Maybelle stopped and all of us slid off into the knee-deep bluestem grass. He tied Maybelle to a low-lying limb, and the three of us walked through the weeds up over the pond dam. Grasshoppers jumped up around my bare legs. At the sound of our approach, a pair of wood ducks flew off the water and bullfrogs splashed into the muddy pond.
“Mama won’t be coming back to live with us,” Phil said. “She and Dad got a divorce. But we’ll see her sometimes.”
David stamped his foot, sending blackbirds flying from a cottonwood tree. “I’m mad at her.”
Embracing the truth that our mother was gone for good seemed too much to bear. “Well I’m mad at God,” I blurted.
Phil grinned at me. “That a girl, Sissy, go straight to the boss.”
It irritated me that he always remained so calm about the disruption that had rattled our world. I picked up a dirt clod and tossed it at him. “Know-it-all.”
He pulled fishing line and hooks from his shirt pocket. “Let’s catch some grasshoppers and fish.”
While the boys distracted themselves, I returned to Maybelle, untied her and crawled up onto her back. I held the reins loosely so she could graze. I leaned forward and let my arms dangle around her strong neck. I listened as she pulled the grass and munched, as she blew out her breath and switched her tail. I thought about the day Mama cried, told us goodbye and left the farm. Now Dad worked his railroad job, farmed and stayed in a bad mood.
“Got ya!” Sis screamed in triumph, grabbing the reins.
“Don’t take her, Sis. I like just sitting on Maybelle as she grazes.”
Sis motioned for me to scoot back. She grabbed a handful of long white mane and used her bare feet to climb the mare’s front leg, then slid in front of me.
“I like to sit on her too,” Sis admitted. “Makes me feel safe somehow.”
There was a long silence between us. At 13, my older sister had taken on the responsibilities of the house after Mama left. Together we’d burned cornbread and learned to fry chicken. We had stood in the kitchen of our small farmhouse, peeled potatoes, sliced peaches and made cobblers. Sis talked of school and boys, and I talked about my dog and the other farm animals, but during all that time, we’d never discussed Mama’s leaving.
“It’s hard to feel safe sometimes,” I said.
“Yeah. A friend of mine who lost her folks in a car accident says a person can talk to God and it helps.”
Talking to God interested me. “Do you ever do that?”
“Sometimes,” Sis allowed. “When I’m by myself on Maybelle.”
Phil and David came charging over the hill. “Let’s play chicken,” Phil yelled, grabbing Maybelle’s reins and leading her toward a ditch.
Phil squeezed up behind Sis, in front of me.
“Why do I always get stuck in the back?” David wanted to know.
“Because it’s the natural order of things, little brother,” Phil said. “It’s called seniority.”
Our game began as we thumped our bare feet against Maybelle’s sides until she took off in a fast trot, up over the first hill then down, red dirt flying into our faces. The object of the game was to be the last one remaining on Maybelle—which seldom happened, because when one of us started to slide off we clung to the one in front until the pair of us were goners.
As Maybelle scrambled up out of the second gully, David slid to one side and tried to use me to save himself. I clung to Phil in front of me, but David had managed to get me off balance and drag me over with him. We hit the ground with a thud. Phil and Sis lasted just one more gully, then the four of us lay strung out on the ground in giggling heaps as Maybelle calmly stopped and waited for us to remount.
After that conversation with Sis about talking to God, I began to ride Maybelle off alone any chance I got. I’d take her to the deep woods and sit in the shade with the summer sun blazing out across the farm and the locusts humming. I’d been to church only on a couple of occasions with my grandmother, who lived four hours away. The only prayer I’d ever said was the “Now I lay me down to sleep…” prayer, which Mama taught us and Dad seemed to have no time for.
Once, while in Sunday school at Grandma’s church, the teacher had insisted we all pray out loud. Around the circle she came, laying her hand on the shoulder of the one to pray next. I was scared and had no clue what to say. My face burned with embarrassment as the teacher waited behind me and I remained quiet. After an eternity she moved on around the circle and left me with my humiliation.
In spite of that early failure to connect to God, I became determined. Maybelle would help me! As I sat in silence on back of Maybelle and hugged her with my bare legs, I made a number of efforts that didn’t go far. But one day, I blurted out my feelings.
“I’m mad at you,” I said in a whisper. “How could you let our Mama leave?” The words loosened a damn of emotion, and as I continued, the tears rolled and with them came an immense relief. I had the clear feeling that someone was listening.
After that day, I held daily visits with God. I talked to him about my worries. That the four of us would somehow survive on the farm without Mama. That Mama would be okay. I’d talk aloud as Maybelle munched grass and grabbed overhead at the turning leaves. I talked as the crows called out from the pecan grove in the distance.
One day I was in the barn when Sis came in crying. I hid behind some bales of hay, watching as she slid up on our horse and the two of them trotted off toward the far pasture. I asked God to be with my sister and to wipe away her tears.
On a glorious autumn day, when the four of us were scheduled to meet Mama at the cattle guard that bordered the county road and get introduced to her new husband, Hank, it was David who suggested we ride Maybelle to the meeting place. “It seems safer,” my little brother said.
Dad wouldn’t allow Mama and her new husband on the farm, but had agreed we could meet them outside the property near the cattle guard. The four of us, spit shined and polished, mounted Maybelle that morning and started off. Halfway to our destination, Sis pulled Maybelle to a stop. In the distance we saw Mama’s station wagon driving slowly down the county road toward the cattle guard.
“I don’t wanna meet him,” David confessed.
“I’m not all that crazy about it myself,” Sis agreed.
We sat in silence for a moment. The wind made the colorful red, gold and brown leaves dance overhead. By then I’d gotten real comfortable with God. I swallowed hard, took a deep breath and squeezed my bare legs against Maybelle’s great belly for inspiration.
“God,” I said, “please be with us today and help us be kind to Hank.”
Phil shouted, “Amen.” He kicked Maybelle gently. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
That was the start of a long road for us kids, with high points and low points, growing up on the farm. I was a freshman in college before I really explored the memory of that day all of us rode on Maybelle’s back to do something we didn’t know if we were strong enough to do. The old farm had sold and Maybelle had passed. Sis was marrie and Phil was in the Air Force. David lived with Dad and his new wife in southern Oklahoma.
It was a picture in my college mythology book that got my attention, the picture of a grand horse with wings. Transfixed by Pegasus, I considered our Maybelle, who had been so much more than a babysitter. After all, it was while sitting barelegged on her broad back that I had entered into a relationship with God. The golden palomino with a white mane and tail had carried me through difficult days and onto the faithful road I continue to travel, safe in God’s care.
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