BY KIM HINSON
A Fresh Start with Wild Horses, Three Daughters and Gumption
North Carolina 2000
“So should we buy a horse first?” I said, glancing at the divorce and financial documents scattered on the living room floor. It was all I could do not to snatch up The News & Observer and rifle through the classifieds.
“Well, how much money do we have?” Megan said, thirteen years old, but squinting over the jumble of papers like a Wall Street analyst.
We sat on the floor of the huge sunken living room looking at a list of numbers I’d scribbled onto a scrap of printer paper innocently labeled “Income.” The label might have been a bit of a stretch – savings and Retirement accounts were right there under “Income.”
“We probably should buy beds first,” said Megan. “My bed has that weird canyon all the way down the middle. Your bed makes your back hurt, and Celina doesn’t even have a bed.”
We both looked at three-year old Celina, playing with her Beanie Babies on the stairs, and Megan said, “She’s been sleeping on that little pullout couch in your room forever.”
With a guilty twinge, I thought, Of course!! Why did I not think of that!? All I could think about was ‘How can I make this more fun? How can I make this divorce more FUN?!’
I should not be in charge of our money. Megan should be in charge of it. Her name should be on all the accounts. The Good Parent Police Squad should fire me, and Megan should be the Mom.
A white marble fireplace, floor to ceiling bookcases, and painted wainscoting fancified the living room where we sat in, but the lack of furniture made it look like we were squatters. Though my soon-to-be ex-husband earned a chunky six-figure salary, his priority during our 20-year marriage and his 21-year professional career had been to save, save, save. “Just pretend we don’t have any money,” he’d often said. “That’s what I do.”
Leaning my back against the empty bookcase, I smiled at Megan and said, “I think we can buy beds and a horse at the same time!”
Megan grinned, whisked up The News & Observer and turned to the horse classifieds. I watched as she scanned the ads, her eyes bright and all but sparkling. I knew I should be thinking about our money situation. I knew that was the grown-up thing to do. But that sparkle in Megan’s eyes brought back all the longing I’d felt for a horse at her age. My thoughts drifted back to that Minnesota morning in 1969, some 30 years ago, when I was eleven and first talked to Mama about getting a horse.
“I want to get a horse,” I told Mama. “A horse that’s never been ridden,” I added, thinking about La Bruja, the wild and wary, one-man mustang in my favorite book, The Wild Heart.
“We live in a gas station,” she said.
She leaned over with a grunt, picked up a small, braided rug with one hand, opened the office door with the other, and shook it outside, still half stooped over.
“Where would you even keep a horse?” she added, straightening up, the shaken rug dangling from one hand.
I had to think about that one. Not that I’d forgotten we lived in a gas station. Just that I didn’t see it as a problem.
Living in a gas station meant that our front yard was gravel with two pumps for gas and one for diesel. A long, thick-walled air hose was rigged up across the entire driveway, so that when a car drove up to the pumps a bell ding-dinged in the office and in the attached, bunkhouse-style living quarters where we lived. Instead of a family room, we had a greasy, black pit where Daddy worked on cars.
But best of all, our back yard was a junkyard. While other kids in town played on swing sets and trampolines, I jumped on the hoods and roofs of junk cars, sliding down slippery cracked windshields. Bouncing up and down in the driver’s seat of those broken down cars, I steered real big like I was going places, even though they were hunkered waist deep in thistles and goldenrod. Our junkyard was my own personal Treasure Island, and I had the sticky hands of a career junkyard kid, poking my fingers deep down the cracks between busted seats to get at the good stuff. Some things, like a foot-shaped gas pedal, and five chipped dinner plates, I stored in a battered cedar chest for years, planning to use them when I grew up, kind of like a redneck dowry.
There was barn-shaped welding shed at the top edge of the junkyard, so I figured that if Daddy moved a few junkers away from the building, I could put up a fence, clean out a corner of the welding shed for a stall, and my horse would be all set. I’d name him Rango and take care of him by myself. He’d be my best friend.
“I’ll ask Daddy if I can set up a place next to the welding shed,” I said.
Mama flicked the rug back in place, grabbed a rag, an aerosol can of Lemon Pledge, and cleaned the bread rack, the pop machine, and the candy case all in one swoop. I could hardly see her for the dust.
“And,” she added, wheezing a little from exertion, hard thinking, and pulling the purse strings of her mouth taut, “you need to buy it yourself, so that means you need money.”
“I’ll save up,” I said, thinking that I already had a head start from finding money in junk cars and hunting for old coins. One of my friends in the neighboring Shady Acres Trailer Court showed me how to look for dates on the money to find the best ones, worth more than their face value. I had no idea who’d pay me more than a nickel for a nickel, but I saved them anyway, just in case.
“Plus, some kids get allowances,” I said.
“You should be paying us to live here,” said Mama, getting out her dust mop. “My folks made me pay them once I got out of high school.”
“But I’m only eleven,” I said, tears welling up.
“Still,” said Mama.
I opened my mouth to speak or whine but Mama got there first.
“Plus you’re only eleven,” said Mama. “You need to be at least in your teens before you can get a horse,” she added, thinking up rules on the fly.
“Do you promise I can get a horse when I’m thirteen if I have enough money?” I said, hoping for a guarantee.
“IF you have enough money,” said Mama, grabbing her broom.
My thoughts were deep but not defeated. Judging from Mama and Daddy’s whispered nighttime conversations, I knew that money wasn’t easy to come by. But I also figured that if I kept at it, little by little, I could earn enough for a horse.
Mama might not have been a comforting and supportive refuge in my childhood nor taken much loving interest in me, but I’d seen her work at the station and at the library, setting an example with a tough-minded, singleness of purpose. I had become thoroughly self-reliant young as a result of Mama’s determination to hurry me through the dependent-young-child part of my childhood. Because she asked a lot of me, and because I saw the grit behind her determination, I grew up not expecting my heart’s desires to be plopped into my life without any effort. Mama’s underlying, I-can’t-wait-until-you-grow up attitude also gave me an almost limitless capacity for problem solving and spunk and hopefulness. I didn’t wait for someone to come along and help me, and I didn’t count on anyone else to make my dreams come true.
So I decided that I just needed to get busy working and saving money until I turned thirteen – Mama’s random old-enough-for-a-horse number. As I saw it, lack of money was the only obstacle in my path to getting a horse. Many people might think horses and horse ownership so expensive as to be completely impossible for all but the very wealthy, but it’s possible to get good and even great horses for very little money, and sometimes even for free, if you know where to look. You can bet your bottom dollar that little gas station girl knew where to look.
I thought about our gas station home, and realized that I’d never seen Mama let any obstacles – including Daddy, doctors, and the whole darn world – get in the way of what she wanted. Her ramrod will dominated my life in many ways, and I felt the stirrings of my own resolution, dogged determination, and the growing fires of horse-crazy passion.
While Megan looked for horses in the newspaper, I took another look at the income I’d listed on those papers. It wasn’t a lot – about fifty-thousand a year – but it was enough to pay the bills and, with the savings, definitely enough to buy a horse. I felt a sense of security and hope.
“Can we call about some of these horses now?” said Megan, looking up from the paper. She’d circled several ads and she looked ready for takeoff. “One of them is an Arabian!”
I glanced at the ad and said, “Oh, honey. We probably don’t want an Arabian.”
“Mom,” said Megan, the reasonable one – maybe even the grown-up. “Not all Arabian Horses are wild and unpredictable.”
I looked at her sweet, freckled face, deep into her hazel eyes, and there it was – resolution, dogged determination, and the growing fires of horse-crazy passion.
Kim Hinson is an outside-loving, forever optimistic, yet chronically worried writer, professor, and mother of three daughters. She believes that finding a home – a capital-H Home – and having a good horse are what life’s all about. Add a lot of great books to that mix and Poof! It’s Heaven on Earth. Find out more about Kim and see lots of pictures at kimhinson.com.