I. Self Portrait in the Room of Childhood
Iknew which pictures Mom had made because once when I was a girl I went from piece to piece asking. The oil crayon bowl of fruit? The watercolor of lilacs in the E Room? The charcoal of pines above the bookcase? Yes, yes, my grandma said.
In my grandparents’ house, there was one piece in particular I wanted to be hers. A canvas of different breeds of horses on the slope of a valley, the grass glowing, pale and smooth, like something you’d find through a wardrobe. To get to the painting, you took the wooden stairs down to the basement and turned right. There. On the wood-paneled wall above the VCR. Yes, Grandma said. Mom had painted that the summer after she’d given birth to me. Grandma knew the names of the horses, too—That’s Ginger. And Legend and Sugar. Spring Lightning, Roper, and there’s Hacha Baby.
I knew Mom’s horses were Legend and Roper, and that Roper had died. I knew Legend was a Connemara, a horse with freckles like me. I imagined my grandparents’ farm back with all those horses, the hills I could see if I stepped outside and ran down to the river plain, alive with hooves shaking the ground, manes blurring. For most of my childhood, there were only two, Legend and Hacha, the pony with a rust-colored tail and markings on his body like clouds.
As a girl, I put myself in the painting, saw my ten- or eleven-year-old body climbing the hill, my habitual hunch morphed into shoulders-back confidence, my long dark hair side-braided and music video shiny. A climbing, capable self. A cresting of the hill, and lo and behold, there were horses. Whose were they? Where did they come from? I got closer, quiet, the way you have to be with deer. The horses didn’t seem to mind me there. The gray one, I decided. I’d befriend the gray one whose coat looked like the birth of stars. I greeted him telepathically—Hey boy, hey—then reached out to touch his neck, placing my hand firm and feeling under his hair, the warmth and quiver of him.
▴ ▴ ▴
I was nine when Mom lost custody. It was 1992. My little sister was in second grade and I was in third. I had known we could be taken from her. There were threats—the word court thrown around, the word lawyer. Mom said it herself: They could take you away. A pattern unfolded. The front door locked when Dad dropped us off from his weekend visits and Mom wasn’t home, Mom didn’t show up for hours. Dad waited in the van with us, fuming. There were uncommunicated absences from school, signs that Mom had been drinking. When Dad came to our classrooms at the end of the day and said we’d be living with him, I wasn’t surprised. What struck me as we packed our school supplies from our desks was the border: a line, so easy to cross. One day we took the bus home and lived with Mom in her apartment, the next she was in La Crosse an hour away and we were in a valley on our dad and stepmom’s farm.
Looking at Mom’s art helped me when she was away, helped me before the custody decision when she got in trouble with the police for driving drunk or when she fought with Grandma and Grandpa. Even now in my late-thirties, when I inhabit my child-self, I feel her art’s importance. Her still lifes, her landscapes—these were parts of her I could stand up in, parts of her everyone was proud of. I wanted that story—my mom, the talented artist. I wanted to be proud.
In my dad and stepmom’s farmhouse, I lay awake in my bunk bed, trying to send messages over the hills to her, saw them traveling up like light. Good night, Mom. Sitting on the hardwood floor of her living room, braiding her hair, long and dark like mine, she’d hear my voice and know I was thinking about her.
▴ ▴ ▴
To give us comfort and to provide a place for Mom to visit if she chose, every other week Dad took us to her parents’ farm on Friday nights. There in the barn, scooping grain for each cow, I tried to decide what I thought. Should we have been taken away from her? Should Dad be so strict, requiring supervision when Mom saw us? Mom used the word neglectful. That’s why the judge said we had to live with Dad. The word made me think of unbrushed hair and dirty clothes, her not in the apartment when we got home from school, her eyes not watching.
But when I thought about why I wanted to be gone from her, I didn’t think of that. A yellow feeling came back. The honey-colored light in the RV when she and Norma were loud and slurring words and bodies. The time my sister and I came down from Norma’s kids’ room to be with Mom on the corduroy RV couch. It had gotten late. My body had turned itself into a clock, used a stomachache to keep track of how long she’d been down there without us. Too long. But I couldn’t tell her that with Norma there. Norma would call me spoiled, would tell me to get out. I pressed myself against Mom, tried to disappear into sleep while the adults talked around us. Maybe men were there, maybe Norma’s husband. I tried not to look. Laying my head on Mom’s bony thigh, I sent words through her jeans. Home. Now. Please.
When I woke up Mom was rising, walking, getting close to Norma, arguing. She held her gut, took a breath, her face flushed. She was puking, throwing up on Norma. Norma was quiet at first, but then she unleashed: You bitch.
Mom tried to apologize, but Norma said, No. Get the fuck out, you fucking bitch.
Come on girls.
We crossed the street. Mom turned back to the RV and yelled, You’re the fucking bitch, Norma.
I tugged at her hand. She turned. We walked, block after block, cutting through lawns, passing dark windows. We took alleys and jumped through sprinklers until we were home.
▴ ▴ ▴
Sometimes I’m grateful Mom lost custody. Not because the change in households made me safer, though for a period of time it did, but because it gives me a shorthand. The phrase, “lost custody” helps people understand right away the loneliness of a girl without her mother.
I go around and say my phrase. Meanwhile I know another truth: I was without her before Dad stepped in and went to the courts, before supervised visitation, before actual weeks I could count since I’d seen her. On those nights she stayed out with Norma, I had to confront this knowledge: my mother had turned her back. The knowledge arrived without words, completely embodied. It was like I carried a river at night—all that uninhabited space, and where was I? Where was I?
Overwhelmed by constriction of throat, by the pressure at the crown of my head, I told myself I wouldn’t cry. People seemed to be impressed by that—the quiet, placid face. I wouldn’t cry and I would figure it out. How should I feel about my mother? What was going on?
After Mom lost custody, we went for long stretches without seeing her. I don’t know the details about why. Somewhere in there she got a DUI, and maybe after that, she passed on supervised visits at Grandma and Grandpa’s. Looking back, I see how it would have been hard to be the daughter with so much judgment floating around, so much shame. I think about the way time passes in the span of a human life. She was twenty-five when she had me, twenty-eight when she came out and got divorced. Then at thirty-four she lost custody. What did those six years feel like? Did she fear it was all crumbling—the life she’d been trying to build?
My sister and I helped Grandma and Grandpa with evening milking, feeding hay, mixing formula for the calves’ bottles, tearing newspapers into rectangular pieces for cleaning udders. After walking back from the barn, we ate dinner at the big oak table then watched a movie. I could feel Mom especially in that quiet before the movie started—the living room lights off and all of us anticipating. I sensed she knew we were together without her. I feared she knew I’d wished her absent so I wouldn’t have to deal with a fight between her and Grandma and Grandpa, or—harder for me to admit—so I wouldn’t have to confront my own anger. If she came, I’d have to see the pain in her face, her sorry constant in her tight jaw, her puffy eyes—and what was I supposed to do with my anger then?
On the walls, her paintings stared out. I’m sorry, Mom.
On the wall in the guestroom, a watercolor with Legend and Hacha looking out over a hill, a good place to start a fantasy. While my little sister tried to fall asleep, I concentrated, gave all my energy to that one strand of imagining, cutting off logic and doubt. Fantasizing, I could ride Legend. No matter I was scared of horses and their ability to charge, of their large jaws that chomped apples in two with one bite. No matter Mom wasn’t there to teach me.
▴ ▴ ▴
In a way, I knew Mom loved Norma. As soon as I was old enough to know my shapes, Mom showed me how to draw the lesbian symbol she had tattooed on her hand. Two intersecting circles, two crosses to represent bodies underneath the round heads. Two women, together. Mom tattooed Norma’s name right next to her tattoo of this symbol—a small cursive script in blue ink held by the snake looping around her fingers, the moon and stars.
It’s a way to honor her, Mom said.
But Norma hadn’t liked it, said she was married, said Mom had to get rid of it or she wouldn’t see her anymore. Mom waited for the tattoo to heal and covered her name with a crow, but I wasn’t fooled. I knew Norma was there, underneath the feathers.
At one level, I took Mom at her word, that Norma was her friend. Mom was living as an out lesbian; I knew she wanted to be with a woman. But I thought when someone told you no, a sort of wall came down from the sky and stood between you and the person you had wanted. At the same time, I felt a charge when Mom talked about Norma. I saw her giddiness when she came home after the two of them went shopping for lipstick. Mom couldn’t say no to her. Maybe, when it came down to it, loving didn’t matter as much as choosing. Norma was the one Mom chose.
They ended badly, of course. A year after Mom lost custody, right after my tenth birthday, Norma invited her to move from Wisconsin to North Carolina, to live with her and her husband in Durham. In a matter of weeks, Norma was in some house down there giving Mom bruises. After that Mom ran to a shelter. That’s where she called Dad’s from, where she asked my stepmom if she could talk to me. I stood in the kitchen, the phone cradled to my ear, the curlicue chord between my thumb and forefinger. Your Mom’s beat up, she said. Norma beat me up.
On the white of the stove, I drew cursive capital L’s. I thought how they looked like swans.
I wanted to say the right thing, the big enough thing. Oh my god, I said. Are you okay?
I entered the role of supportive daughter, told Mom I missed her, that I was glad she was coming back soon. It wasn’t that these things weren’t true, only when I said them, they were hard to fully feel.
The shelter bought Mom a Greyhound ticket. Before Christmas, she barreled bus-seated through harvested cornfields, the cut-off stalks sticking up through the snow. She’d stay at my grandparents’ farm. I wonder if she thought of her horses waiting for her there.
I have fantasized that on her first night back, she went out to the nearest pasture and met her white horse, the Connemara named Legend. Bundled up in hat and coat, taking her mittens off to hold Legend’s face in her bare hands, she sings Bob Marley in a snowy field lit moon-blue. Don’t worry about a thing.
I wonder now how this fantasy relates to my anger, my loneliness. The image of my hurt mom singing to her horse comes gentler than my claustrophobic frustration with her. I marvel at the two reactions side-by-side—yes, it hurt me; yes, I see you hurt too. And how fitting that I imagine Mom singing—a voicing that eased my loneliness too.
▴ ▴ ▴
After Norma, Mom rented a series of apartments in Madison: in fourth grade, one with a shared bathroom without a lock; in fifth, one with a downstairs landlord Mom didn’t trust, and that same year, one in a basement with a gravel floor and men who drank upstairs and laughed and shouted. On visits there, I lay on our mattress and held my pee, afraid to pass the men in order to get to the bathroom. So at the beginning of sixth grade, when Mom said she’d move into the Little House on Grandma and Grandpa’s lawn, I saw it like a storybook. We’d have the shiny pine loft and the varnished slatted stairs leading there. I could wrap myself in the bedding Grandma bought from JCPenney. My little sister and I could swing on the front porch. We could walk whenever we wanted on the old farm land across the road, empty now of cows, but dotted with wildflowers in spring and summer. A landscape of steep paths and views that rewarded with popcorn clouds, the old barn as seen from a distance, fading red paint on sun-kissed wooden slats.
The Little House had been an accident. Grandma and Grandpa had agreed to let two entrepreneurs build a model home on their farmland across the road, but they’d built it on the lawn on a weekend my grandparents were away. Grandma and Grandpa took what advantage they could and ran the little cabin as a bed and breakfast before offering it to Mom. As a child, reading the guestbook, I was impressed that rich people had stayed there—lawyers, and once, a news anchor. And now we’d live there. We could feel like that too, confident and weightless with our brightly-colored futon.
In the Little House, Mom started to care for the horses again. She brought them from the pasture across the road and walked with them to the hitching post at the bottom of the lawn.
I asked her how they were.
It’s good to reconnect with Legend, she said.
▴ ▴ ▴
That summer when Mom put on her baseball cap and said she was going to get the horses, I knew it was an invitation, but I didn’t want to move. I would have been twelve by then. I lay on the futon reading fragile, used paperbacks from Grandma and Grandpa and dipping into naps. To stand was effort; to walk across the lawn, an exhaustion. Guilt is what made me go. The custody arrangement had solidified into us spending our school days with Dad, along with every other weekend; our time with Mom was limited.
I dragged my bare feet to where Mom had tethered the horses to a wooden hitching rail and sat in the grass a good distance away. I told myself this proximity was enough. My body on the lawn with her, saying, I want to be with you, enough to soften the jaw still held tight. Enough to say I forgive you, or if I don’t forgive you, I’m working on it. I’m here.
Mom asked if I wanted to help, nodded toward the brushes in the shed. I creaked the door open to must and leather. The shed was small, just enough room to turn around in. I scanned the old life jackets and cushions hanging on nails. Across from them, stacked saddles, brushes, blankets, and tools. Wasps circled in the dark. The round brush on its nail, a metal spiral with blunt teeth and bits of horse hair. I grabbed it quick so I wouldn’t get stung.
Legend’s back presented itself like the hills, gentle yet massive curves. I brushed softly, afraid she’d buck or snort. The comb’s teeth divided her freckles, revealing threads of black and auburn mixed in with the white. New lines formed across her body, grooves. Plowed fields.
You can do it hard, Mom said. It feels good to them.
I added more pressure, thought about talking. Good girl, I tried.
▴ ▴ ▴
When Mom asked if I wanted to ride, I felt the risk in her question. She’d already been told no too many times. By Norma. By the gas station that fired her for having “bad BO.”
I don’t know, I said. I’m scared.
She didn’t push me further, just said, Kay, in a soft voice, then mounted Legend.
I gave myself a pep talk. I could start small. I could quit whenever I wanted. It would make Mom happy. Plus, if I rode, I’d be impressive. If I rode, I could take somebody with me—a boy, a girl, a friend, a romance. As an adolescent, what pulled me forward were wishes to be seen as unafraid. I lived in fantasies of being with friends or romantic interests freely, for no other reason but pleasure and mutual admiration. To be admired, I needed to be a girl who said, I can, I did.
Okay, I told Mom, my eyes shifting. I’ll try.
I asked if she’d lead the horse first. She nodded, her gaze lingering, like my fear was an animal she was watching.
As I got closer, the air became horses, the grass they’d eaten filtered through sweat glands, hair, and skin. I put my hand on Legend’s back.
Can you get on? Mom asked. It hurt, this asking. Couldn’t she see it was impossible? That I wasn’t strong enough?
Pull yourself up and swing your leg over, she said.
I told her I was afraid of hurting Legend.
You won’t hurt her.
The pressure of tears in their ducts. I spurted out, I can’t. I’m not strong enough.
Mom offered her hands interlaced like a stirrup. Won’t it hurt? She shrugged. It won’t be for long.
I put my foot in her hands, fell out.
She unlaced her hands. I got my breath. Her hands interlaced again. I stepped, she hoisted. You’ve gotta grab on, she said.
I lifted my leg, grabbed onto the neck, hard. Would she bite? Would she buck? I was on, half of me hanging off the side. I pulled, grunted, straightened my back.
I was going to fall. I held Legend’s hair.
Mom started leading. I let out crying sounds at first, then breathed, performed the absence of fear, imagined Grandma and Grandpa were looking through the window. I rearranged my body so I could feel like someone who’d done this her whole life.
▴ ▴ ▴
We worked up to walking the hilly fields, tried saddle and bareback, talked through the pros and cons of both. Probably my sister was riding too, getting her own lessons. I took little interest in her progress. She wasn’t part of the story I was telling myself about my courage or about Mom and I getting close.
Who do you want to ride? Mom asked. Legend was taller and harder to get onto, but she was also gentler, less stubborn, a more reliable listener than Hacha. On the other hand, Legend was Mom’s. For almost twenty years, Mom had been brushing her hair and talking to her. If I chose Legend, I wondered if the horse would resent me on her back. Then again, Hacha didn’t seem to like me much either.
I chose Legend, mounted her hesitantly. We headed down the old tractor path, turning at the fence to climb the hill. On the incline, I felt myself slipping off her back.
Mom, I said, I’m falling. What if I slid right over her tail, landed hard on the ground? Mom turned her head, told me to squeeze with my thighs.
I am. I’m still falling.
I squeezed, slipped, hung onto Legend’s mane, told myself I wasn’t pulling her hair. Please god, please, please, please.
By the tree line, Mom looked back. An acknowledgement that I’d made it? A congratulations mixed with I told you so?
From up there, the narrow river and Grandma’s lawn shone back, cheerful and oblivious.
Legend veered toward the trees with low-hanging branches. Was she trying to knock me off? A branch hit my chest. I twisted away, bent back. Mom, I yelled. What should I do?
Use the reins. Pull her away.
I don’t think she likes me.
She can tell you’re afraid. She doesn’t like that you’re afraid. Talk to her like you’re in control.
The next day, I tried firmness: Legend, no.
But the only way I knew to sound unafraid was with meanness, the meanness I’d heard in all adults at one time or another, the meanness I promised myself never to use.
I used it. I did my best impression, but the fear flowed underneath. Could Mom hear it? Could Legend?
I started crying, audible engine-stutter cries that would make Mom look. She glanced, stopped our horses, asked if I wanted to stop. I shouted a raw-throated No.
I thought I sensed Mom’s impatience when we rode, her judgment and annoyance. How could she be so gentle with Legend but not with me? Couldn’t she see what she was asking me to do was akin to magic—to pluck fear out, to make it disappear?
My conundrum: to make our relationship okay, I thought I had to pretend forgiveness. But by pretending, I shut my mom out. I prevented her from giving me what I craved: finally, her seeing my hurt. Did I know this? Twelve-year-old me?
This is what I knew. The source of ache was secrets.
This is what I believed. I could handle that ache. I could carry us through.
▴ ▴ ▴
I brushed Legend and looked into her eyes in an effort to make her love me. I love you, I thought into her body.
There must have been days when she didn’t try to knock me off the branches. There must have been because we sang up by the tree line. After a rain when the valley looked party-dressed, when the dirt announced itself in little flares that became one pungent cloud, Mom sang, I’m on top of the world, looking down on creation, and I joined in. Then it was my turn, and I started in on “What a Wonderful World,” letting go of the reins with one hand to give Legend a scratch. I liked the sound of my voice spreading over the grass, resonant like a singer on an old record.
Legend’s mane, in the right light, had rainbows in it. Riding her, I bent over, put my cheek to that mane. I talked in a low voice. Good girl.
I was relieved she hadn’t tried to knock me off, and I wanted to tell her I held no resentment. I thought, Thank you. I got a buzz talking to her like that, all the care gathering in my chest and channeling into a force that might connect with her. The care and its release left my skin pricking with a foreign energy. I sang with it, ran with it.
▴ ▴ ▴
Riding with Mom was never easy. I snapped at her, rolled my eyes. And yet neither of us ran away. We finished our rides; before she led the horses back to the pasture across the road, we thanked each other. Thanks for the ride. Thanks for riding with me. I sensed we were patching us, but that we were doing so in a vigilant way, constantly checking, putting the essence of us on a scale. Our riding was a fact I could point to, a sure good thing. At the same time, Mom still got drunk some days, her smelling of sick. How much did that weigh?
When she picked us up from school and I caught the scent of vomit, I was certain in all my nerve endings she was leaving us again.
Then, when I was in eighth grade and my little sister was in seventh, Norma came back to Wisconsin. Mom told us she wanted to see her. I was stunned that she could still be under her spell, that she wasn’t afraid. When I heard Norma had come back, I wondered if the police could protect us.
My sister’s rage manifested outwardly. She yelled, raised her arms and let them fall. Her voice trembled. I became the observer, ready to soothe where I was needed. My sister said Mom had to choose—us or her.
Mom said, Don’t make me do that.
There was nothing to do then but wait for the inevitable. The sound of the screen door sliding closed. I couldn’t look. The sound of the car engine. Hearing her car go, the air in my ribs grew mass, expanded out. I heard my sister up in the loft, weeping, and thankful I was needed, thankful I didn’t have to look at my own thoughts yet, I went to comfort her.
I hesitated to put my hand on her shoulder, even over the covers. I watched my arm move in slow motion, touch down gently. I asked what was wrong, what I could do.
She just made sounds. I kept my hand where it was, told her I was sorry.
I want to be alone, she said. Just leave.
I went across the lawn to Grandma and Grandpa’s. All I had to say was she left. They fed me, didn’t ask me more. When it got dark, my sister came over and the four of us watched TV.
What good was riding then?
I don’t remember when Mom came back. The next day? That night? My sister and I asked if we could sleep at our grandparents’ house so we wouldn’t have to hear her if she came home, wouldn’t have to see or smell.
When I went riding after that, the riding hurt. I didn’t want to heal, didn’t want to give Mom anything of myself, and yet, it would be worse to say no, to see Mom’s rejected face. So I suspended myself between punishing and forgiving. Unable to make eye contact with my mom, I patted Legend on the neck. None of this was her fault.
II. Landscape as Vision Board
I have the stay-leave list Mom wrote when she was still a young mother, when she was trying to decide whether to divorce my dad when my sister and I were toddlers. On one side of the paper she wrote Stay and Leave, on the other side she wrote “Fun w/ Mike” and “Fun w/o Mike.” Under “Fun w/ Mike” she wrote Teach Aurora and Zenda to ride horse. This desire is not listed under the Fun w/o Mike column, as though she didn’t see it fitting into her vision of leaving. Probably she had many visions of what leaving could mean. What’s significant in the end is not what column the teaching fell under, but that horse-riding is the only item on the list that indicates a desire to pass something down.
When my sister had her own children, this desire of Mom’s came back. She would teach her grandchildren riding. She and her partner have harnessed their resources to make this vision a reality. They bought two new ponies and they’re fixing the old sheep barn on the property. When my mom texts me, it is often about horses:
Our ponies walking with us to the top of the hill. Set free they raced each other kicking into the air. Obviously happy.
It’s as if for her, horses are another word for joy—wind on a forehead, pulling hair gently from the scalp—the grace and flight of it, moving through tall grass, the pleasure of befriending an animal with giant lungs, legs, and throat.
This is what Mom wanted to give me.
And yet when I look back honestly, I have to lay difficulty alongside beauty. My sense of accomplishment mixed in with feelings of inadequacy, a nervy gut, a tight-set jaw. I don’t know what these experiences add up to inside of me, but I have to admit that since Mom and her partner brought the new ponies onto the land last year, I haven’t taken her up on offers to ride.
Perhaps it’s telling that after eighth grade, I can count the number of rides with my hands. Life made it so I didn’t have to tell my mom No. The summer after ninth grade, I attended a science camp and the summer after that, I traveled to the Czech Republic with my dad and stepmom’s church. In one sense, I was free of the obligation of riding, free of vigilance over my mom and our relationship. But I also lost the regular seeing of my mom’s back as she rode, her tentative smile as she looked down on the valley and her horse’s head simultaneously. I lost that regular check-in, that way of saying I’m here. When you grow up watching out for your mom, I wonder if you ever lose your sense of vigilance. While I was at science camp and in the Czech Republic, I seized up with guilt when I thought of her and my sister back on my grandparents’ farm. The two of them in the long, stifling daylight of summer, my sister riding the lawn mower as she’d taken to doing, Mom kneeling in her garden. Was Mom okay without me? Was my sister? Did they feel I had abandoned them?
In adolescence, I wanted our rides to mean togetherness; I took her leaving to be with Norma to mean rift. But if I focus on her intention—obviously happy—the gift remains beautiful. There is never just one truth. Our rides could never be only burden. For a while they were our language of assurance. If we went, it meant we hadn’t broken. We couldn’t trust each other completely, so we needed the assurance that our anger and mistrust was not complete rejection.
Our healing was not once. How could it be with the human tendency to not only make mistakes but make the same ones again and again? Still, our bodies wanted evidence that another healing was possible. Enter riding. Together on horseback, I had space, room to rebuff and reclaim, to close off and to open, hour after hour.
And now, without riding, I remember the rhythms. I will be afraid. I will loosen. And yes, I will lash out.
In my thirties, Mom asked me if I was angry. I didn’t like her question, but I recognize now that she was giving me what I needed: she was seeing me. She told me it was okay if I was. I responded that I wasn’t angry, I was hurt. What is the difference between these words to the body? We’re talking about a landscape inside the skin—the river at night. Once I’d admitted my hurt, Mom started speaking her remorse out loud, and I was able to look at her, to let her know I heard her words. Perhaps most importantly, as I became less ashamed of my anger, I was able to hold it differently—to understand it not as a rebuffing of love but as an essential part of it.
My mom and I will move away from each other. We will come back and listen. I will walk up the paved road without her, but I will walk back again, enter her living room, find her drawings of horses. I will hurt her; she will hurt me. We will hurt especially because we love, because we don’t want to lose what is precious.
III. Still Life of Altar Objects
When I was in middle school, Mom and I had rituals against loneliness. Every week, Mom got books from the library. She checked out one on Amazons by a lesbian author. Lesbians are Amazons, she told me. Mom illustrated herself and her mom on horseback, in Western garb, looking out over the valley. It was part of her Amazon series, along with the Mayan goddess and the Vietnamese warrior by the waterfall with skulls stacked by her feet. Meanwhile, I burrowed between the sentences of the yellow-paged books—Catcher in the Rye, East of Eden, Gone with the Wind. I stayed up later than her and my sister and played DJ with CD’s from the library, dancing in front of the mirror, finding the angles in which I was beautiful.
But what is ritual against the force of a story you’re trying to push back?
When Mom talked about wanting a friend or a lover, she held herself near her elbows and tears made paths to her chin.
I tried to bolster her. You have us, I said. And Grandma and Grandpa. And Legend.
Immediately I wanted to take Legend back. Would Mom want to hear that? A horse in the role of human friend?
But she said it too. Legend is my friend.
When I watched her clean out the horses’ hooves, I took note. She could wield a pick without hurting them; Legend and Hacha never kicked while she held their ankles, breaking the clumps of dirt from the bottoms of their feet. Later when Mom stood in front of her, Legend butted into her chest. Mom smiled full, without effort, and looked lovingly into her face.
▴ ▴ ▴
Loneliness oscillates. Sometimes we can hold it at bay. Mom did sit-ups and pull-ups, swam with us and put up a rope swing. I fantasized about Brad Pitt’s car breaking down on our road as I picked wildflowers. When we weren’t there, Mom drove around looking for vistas to paint, valleys of bergamot, thistle, and Joe-pye weed, electric blue skies planted with thunderheads. She kept moving. I kept still. While she worked part-time at the candle factory, then part-time at the nursing home doing dishes, I wrote the names of classmates like a teacher would, arranging in my lavender notebook, seating charts, always with special attention to the group I’d be in—the peers who would see me as if for the first time.
With her paychecks Mom bought paints, fixed her car, treated us to frozen ravioli from the food co-op an hour away. When she felt good, her space became my refuge away from the judgments of my stepmom and dad, away from my middle school peers clawing around in the pecking order. With my stepmom especially, an air of hostility pervaded, forcing me inward. I either moved at her command, hurrying through my chores so I could retreat behind a bedroom door, or—on rare occasion—I raged at her, screaming my protest down the stairs. At Mom’s, my body eased. The Little House was tiny, one room that was den, bathroom, and kitchen, and a loft where all of us slept, but sometimes I was energized by this lack of privacy, my mom and sister and me so close.
While Mom did dishes in the kitchen nook, my sister and I sat on the floor a few feet away, holding the lyrics for Sergeant Pepper’s and singing along to “Fixing a Hole.”
▴ ▴ ▴
A bad night, a bad day, Mom’s mouth pulled back. I asked what was wrong.
I’m lonely can be said in a number of tones, but the one most prominent in my memory is angry. I made a constellation of causes: her parents didn’t understand her, the community of back-to-the-landers didn’t invite her over for dinner, she couldn’t shake the hurt.
What was wrong?
I had asked a stupid question.
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I relaxed when she went for her horses, when she was with Legend, who she could gallop on, Legend who she could brush and squeeze.
Mom said sometimes she thought Norma cursed her, and that’s why she was alone. I rolled my eyes. The idea rubbed against my assumptions. Mom was alone because she was a lesbian, and out lesbians in rural Wisconsin were rare. It was obvious, wasn’t it? Or crueler, Mom was alone because of something in herself, some weirdness that people picked up on, her car without a muffler, her armpits without deodorant, her manic energy.
I didn’t go there with myself—didn’t go to my fear which was that this weirdness, this curse was in me too.
One summer Mom decided she and Legend should learn to jump. Down in the old campground by the river, she set up hay bales and planks, and the two of them galloped through the unmowed grass. The threads of Mom’s cut-off jean shorts flew back on her never-shaved, muscular thighs. Her braids whipped up and down. Her smooth, assertive commands went through Legend—her body responding to her horse’s body.
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Mom’s horses are inside her. She’s written poems about them, painted them on chartreuse backgrounds. She gives drawings of horses as gifts to her grandchildren and credits her first pony, Roper, who died after her divorce, with turning into a spirit to protect her.
At fifty, she moved from Wisconsin to the Bay Area. In Oakland, she found a loving community. She joined drum camps, had art shows, performed at open mics. She met and committed to her lover. Finally, she wrote me at age fifty-five, lesbian. But when she moved back to Wisconsin, she committed again to horses. I have a memory of her walking up the hill, leaving the rest of the family in a circle of lawn chairs. She came back lit from within, confessed, I’m still a horse-crazy woman.
I wonder if I have anything that makes me happy the way horses make my mom happy, anything that I could say is inside me like that. Perhaps poetry. Perhaps milkweed pods and maple trees.
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I’m twelve or thirteen when Hacha decides to run. Or I steer him wrong, and we are running down the hill. He’s spooked. He bucks. The world wobbles, and I hit. My back slams the earth. Hacha’s front legs go up in the air and I’m too shocked to scream. His legs hit the ground several feet away from me. Mom stops her horse, asks if I am okay.
I get my wind back, tell her I think so. Adrenaline courses through me. I get up, brush off my butt. Oh my god, I laugh.
In my late thirties, I connect the scenes of my half-life, note how falling felt like it did to have the cops stand in Mom’s house when I was little, when they came to look for drugs or to take a description of Norma when she threatened us with a knife. Falling and rising from the fall: how it did when Mom called from the battered women’s shelter. The size of the event hits first, the cinematic arc of the story.
Only later do I notice the fear seeped into the body, wonder where it came from.By the time Legend’s health started to go, I was in college. Mom had moved again from the Little House, back to Madison to have art and a lesbian community. When she got news of Legend’s Lyme disease, she drove out to see her, to touch and hold her, to talk.
What stands out in my mind, though, is her calling to say Grandpa shot her to end her suffering.
I was too guarded for full sorrow. I pulled out my nurturing tone. Oh Mom, I said, I’m so sorry.
Mom cried, sternum-stung. She was my best friend, she said.
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What do you say to a thing like that? I carried the sentence around. I knew some of what it meant, my best friend.
How do you build a loneliness? Start with a room. Mom in her last Madison apartment behind the Russian Orthodox icon shop. Maybe the TV is on, or maybe she’s sitting in the reclaimed institutional chair with its duct-taped vinyl upholstery. Maybe she’s staring into space. Zoom out. See the walls of the single-story building, the siding mud-splattered from tire spray. A human through a small kitchen window. My mom is thin. Does it help to know that? Does it help to know that her jeans are too big, that when she’s cold she slips her hands between her thighs? Keep going, see the whole city, taillights and people outside bars under neon marquees. The roar of them.
It wasn’t that Mom didn’t have friends. In the Little House, she joined a bar volleyball league, was friendly with the neighbor down the road. When she lived up north, there was the Universalist Unitarian church. In Madison she connected with artists—a woman who filled canvases with colored wax, a man who made intricate mosaic collages with paint and small rectangles cut from magazines. There are friends, and there are friends you can call when you’re alone on a Friday night and don’t want to be.
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When I ask my grandma about Mom as a girl, she says she was shy, painfully shy.
With a horse, there would be no fear of ridicule or condescension. It would be a simple I see you are afraid, let me help you. I see you are a being with feelings, let me love.
Legend’s remains stayed on the back pasture land. I walked past the bones with Grandma and Mom, midway up the hill, near the trail. If you looked down, you’d see raspberry bushes and gulch. Up, you’d see forest and sky. She was a good horse, Grandma and Mom agreed. We were never a family with lots of words around death.
Legend’s bones stayed on the hill and vultures ate from them. Coyotes, and maybe raccoons, and crawling bugs. Her bones bleached in the sun. Her teeth and jaw, which I’d seen mulch carrots, lay unmoving in the snow.
But why am I talking about her bones? Mom didn’t keep her skull.
I imagine Mom thinks of her and Legend jumping, of their running down by the river, close to each other’s smells. A mess of legs. Thick white mane and tail poised to paint the air she moved through. There she was on the back of the horse she’d known since before she said out loud that she wanted to be with women, the horse she’d known at seventeen when she got drunk and had sex with a boy for the first time. The horse she returned to after her first semester studying art in college, after marrying Dad, after giving birth to my sister and me, the horse she rode after kissing a girl, after seeing New York and San Francisco, after Norma beat her up, after she lost custody. Did Legend feel these changes or know her only as her essential self?
She’s back again, and we’re running. She’s back again, my friend.