Bibliophile: Horsetalk with Robin Van Auken

By Robin Van Auken
The Wholehearted Author

Today, I’m talking horses. Our son invited us to visit for the weekend, and join him and his sweetheart at the Charles Town Races in West Virginia.

I’m a huge fan of horses, and the racetrack is attached to a casino, of which I’m not a huge fan. I abhor casinos. It’s not the gambling, which I don’t partake, but the fact that these are massive, noisy, stinky buildings filled with people and are meant to do one thing – separate people from their money with deceit. I don’t mind separating from my money. I’m a bit of a spendthrift. It’s the people I mind – they’re crammed into one big building, smoking cigarettes and cigars and playing slot machines, huddled over gaming tables, focused on something. I don’t know what. I don’t get it.

I’m happier outside where the racetrack is next to the turf and the thoroughbreds are walked sedately to the paddocks before ambling to the post. I enjoy seeing the gorgeous animals who receive the best care from their owners, trainers, jockeys and stablehands. Horses are made to run, and those who run fast and free are my favorite.

Today’s episode is short and I reminisce about my youth, spent daydreaming about horses, reading books about horses, drawing pictures of horses, even studying a veterinarian’s handbook about horses. When I was 9 years old, my grandfather suffered a stroke. My mother decided she needed to care for him, as his only daughter, and she packed up the family, sold our house in Miami, Florida, and moved to Virginia to be by his side. He was a grouchy, mean old man, and he didn’t much care for Mom’s children. We avoided him when he could. About the most interesting thing when visiting him was his tall stack of mouldering National Enquirer tabloids, where I learned human horror stories – like the boy who was chained to the washing machine in the basement for years. Or the calf with five legs. Or the secret volcano under Yellowstone Park.

He also had a shed in the backyard, another den of horror. Inside were the skinned pelts of squirrels, skunks, foxes and rabbits. Rusty, disused gardening tools were propped against the wall, while weeds grew to the height of the dusty windows. It was a great place to play and explore while he sat on his back porch visiting with Mom, his cane propped against the table as he smeared Planter’s Peanut Butter over Nabisco Honey Graham Crackers, and gummed them.

A few months later, he died. I didn’t like him, this frowning, angry stranger who would raise his cane at us threateningly when we approached Mom to nag her about leaving. On the day of his funeral, while all the grownups crowded in the front room, I wandered the overgrown garden and pinched my face, trying to dredge up tears. It didn’t work. A creepy cousin-in-law accused me of laughing. I should have laughed. We were finally free and could move back to Miami!

Only, it didn’t work that way. Mom had sold the house, quit her jobs and we were stuck in Virginia. It turns out, there was another set of grandparents who needed looking after. Although my Mom was a single parent, she still loved her in-laws, and decided we needed to stick around and care for them until their son retired from the Marine Corps. Seven years later, that magical moment had arrived.

But, before my 16th year and the exodus of the grandparents (not mine – I was the product of my Mom’s second marriage), we spent many years bopping around between Petersburg, Colonial Heights, Chesterfield and Richmond, Virginia. Mom introduced us to Virginia history and her other relatives (I thought it was only Mom and me and the other four kids!). Turned out there was a clan in Greensboro, North Carolina, where Mom was born. We would visit occasionally, spending the weekend as Mom visited another old, grouchy person, Aunt Maude. She was the sister of the grouchy grandfather who threatened us with his cane. It appears the sentiment ran in the family.

Aunt Maude lived on a farm and had a couple of old barns, crammed with cool stuff for exploring. Not only that, but her granddaughter lived with her, and Diane had two horses! One was a black and white Shetland pony named Tonka. I had a photo of that pony I kept for years, and would look at it longingly. She had a chestnut gelding, also. I don’t remember his name. I was infatuated with Tonka and loved riding that pony!

One weekend, Mom took us to a nearby farm and there were wild ponies galloping through the pastures. She pointed to a while pony, it’s belly bulging with a soon-to-be-born foal, and told me that she was my horse! The baby would be my sister, Susie’s horse! We had a two-for-one deal with this pony, which cost $60 – a fortune in 1971!

I named the horse Flicka, after my favorite book, and the foal would be named Misty, after my second-favorite book. I never saw them again.

We never moved to North Carolina to live with Aunt Maude and have our own ponies on her farm. Instead, she – like Grandpa Jack – died. Mom had lost the last of her elders, and I was oblivious. Now I realize that she held onto her in-laws for the next few years because they were the only elders she had, even though they weren’t blood relatives. They were the Mother and Father she never had, since Grandpa Jack was a bit of a negligent dad. Mom always insisted that her children support each other, that we not fight (although we did) and that we be fierce in our protection of each other, because we were “blood.” It was a common saying of her’s – “you’re blood.” I have always felt that way, even though my sisters and brothers are half-siblings. We have always counted our lineage through our Mother, our fathers being absent and self-absorbed men.

I never knew my father, and grew up with my Mom being strong in both roles. My father remarried and has had three more daughters and a son, but I don’t know them. I try occasionally to reach out, but I don’t have a relationship with them. I don’t call my father either. They’re not “blood.”

Family’s funny, and the relationships we choose to recognize can be even stranger. I have siblings that are genetically as close to me as my “Real” brothers and sisters, but I know next to nothing about them. As an adult, this is on me. I could have changed this at any time. But I haven’t. And you know what? They haven’t either.

Anyway, back to horses – they were the iconic dream of my childhood. Have you ever dreamed of something to the point of obsession, only to let it go? I love to look at horses when we drive by the rolling green farms in Virginia, but the dream to own a horse ended a long, long time ago. It’s difficult to pin down exactly when, but I think it was around the age of 14 when I started thinking about other important things – boys. Are they really that different? Strange and wild beasts that I would never own or tame.

My Friend Flicka

The first time that Ken McLaughlin sees Flicka galloping past him on his family’s Wyoming horse ranch, he knows she’s the yearling he’s been longing for. But Flicka comes from a long line of wild horses, and taming her will take more than Ken could ever have imagined. Soon, Ken is faced with an impossible choice: give up on his beautiful horse, or risk his life to fight for her.

My Friend Flicka is a 1941 novel by Mary O’Hara, about Ken McLaughlin, the son of a Wyoming rancher, and his horse Flicka. It was the first in a trilogy, followed by Thunderhead (1943) and Green Grass of Wyoming (1946). The popular 1943 film version featured young Roddy McDowall and was followed by two other film adaptations, Thunderhead, Son of Flicka (1945), and Green Grass of Wyoming (1948), both based on O’Hara’s novels. A television series followed during 1956-1957, that first aired on CBS, then on NBC, with reruns on ABC and on CBS between 1959 and 1966. The Disney Channel re-ran the program during the mid-1980s, too.

Misty of Chincoteague

Nobody could capture the Phantom. She was the wildest mare on Assateague Island. They said she was like the wind, that the white “map” on her shoulders was her mark of freedom. Paul and Maureen Beebe had their hearts set on owning her. They were itching to buy and tame her, and worked hard to earn the money that she would cost. But the roundup men had tried to capture her and fortwo years she had escaped them. Pony Penning Day holds a surprise for everyone, for Paul not only brings in the Phantom, but her newborn colt as well. Can Paul and Maureen possibly earn enough to buy them both?

Misty of Chincoteague is a children’s novel written by Marguerite Henry, illustrated by Wesley Dennis, and published by Rand McNally in 1947. Set in the island town of Chincoteague, Virginia, the book tells the story of the Beebe family and their efforts to raise a filly born to a wild horse. It was one of the runners-up for the annual Newbery Medal, now called Newbery Honor Books. The 1961 film Misty was based on the book

 

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