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2012-10-01 - 10:04 a.m.

the things we do to maintain ourselves

looking through old photo albums, it's easy to see when my grandmother stopped caring. at three, my mom was bright-eyed with ringlets and a big smile. by the time she was four, she was dirty, suspicious and shy, dressed in ill-fitting clothes handed down from her older brothers. in the pictures, you can see the steam of people's breath in the air, and yet no one had checked to see that my mom was wearing shoes.

* * *


when my mom was in high school, she loved horses. she was state reserve champion in dressage - there's a trophy in the breakfront in my parent's den - and i grew up with some awareness that my mother was a serious equestrian.

i have only recently realized that this was something extraordinary.

nobody had ever taught her, through words or by example, how to be responsible with money. but my mom saved up to buy a horse, and she worked at a deli before and after school to pay for his tack and care and boarding. it was smart to stay out of my grandparent's house as much as possible.

she and her brother met and befriended a solitary and eccentric genius who lived back in the woods. he provided them with world-class riding instruction. at other times, he would play the piano with impeccable precision but little expressive effect. his home was full of african violets, and in the spring, the hill behind the barn was carpeted with narcissus. when i was a little kid, he would ask me to pick one just one of each variety, which i would do quite seriously, arranging them in a zinc bale canning jar according to size and colour.

when my mom didn't have correct turnout for competition, an acquaintance at the riding club offhandedly gave her a set of dress boots and a hand-me-down coat. later, she discovered that these things had cost more than her first year at college.

my mom's family had a reputation for being shifty and disreputable - the bad kind of poor. teachers warned her to stay away from my dad, who was a track star at the top of their class. instead, he asked her to marry him.

so, a poor kid from an abusive home works hard and follows her dreams. with the help of some picturesque characters, she bests the privileged at their own game and marries the hometown hero. genre-perfect, as far as it goes.

but my grandfather never received any retribution appropriate to a man who often behaved like a monster. my grandmother never apologized and eventually lost the capacity to apologize. mom gave up her riding scholarship, had kids young, never really had what she wanted. my dad blew out his knee and missed the olympic qualifiers. real life is more bleak and complicated than fiction.

and moreover: all non-fiction is creative non-fiction.

* * *


on the weekends in the autumn when they were still in high school, my mom and dad would go out on the trails together. she would ride and he would run ahead, and the little cocker spaniel would trot along behind, tags jingling on her collar. later, my sister, brother and i would ride triple on our pony through that same golden sunlight. mom would lead us on a shorter trail, and dad would run the long loop and meet us on the way back. would that be a happy ending, if it were an ending?

* * *


reading: the letter killers club, by sigizmund krzhizhanovsky.
listening to:
working on: autumn dyepots - alkanet for purple or dove-grey, jewelweed for peachy orange, black walnut hulls for olive brown, osage orange sawdust for golden yellow and eventual overdye.
in the garden: the firebush is starting to change colour.


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