The year I turned five, Dad and I set the parameters of our relationship. Huge piles of snow figure prominently in pictures of that 1966 winter. I have seen a picture of me, unrecognizable bundle on dad’s best mare, next to him astride his favorite gelding, snow piled all around, with a caption reading “pretty cold for a four-year old”. I was born in March of 1961. My earliest memories do not include any of my three older sisters, or my Mother. My earliest memories do not include anyone else at all. It was solely Dad and me. I have no memory of my oldest sister, Christine, graduating from high school that May. I remember being aware that she went to some mysterious place called “college”, which no one ever explained to me. I thought I would never see her again. I know now that Mom and my sisters were gone to town, 45 miles away, for school during the week, and came home on weekends, roads permitting. Dad filled up my world, my consciousness, my existence with his reality. So, my earliest memories are only me and Dad, a barn, and horses.
Dad had no choice other than taking me with him wherever he went. I do not remember learning to ride, but then I do not remember learning to walk either. I rode his buckskin mare named for the forties song “Mairzy Doats”. I didn’t know the words then: “mares eat oats, and does eat oats, and little lambs eat ivy. A kid’ll eat ivy too, wouldn’t you?” I simply heard the words mashed together into Marezydoates. She was already old and experienced by the time I came along and she taught me more about riding and myself than any horse or human ever did. I rode her that year, my feet in thick socks stuffed into cheap kids’ boots. I have dressed a few stubborn four-year olds in winter wear before, so I imagine the conversation every morning that winter could not have been particularly … easy for either of us. I cannot now say how Dad acted towards me on those mornings, getting me dressed, fed (he told me I wouldn’t eat oatmeal), ready for a big girl day. I know he expected much from me and perhaps because of that I have never considered not doing any necessary difficult task. I recall the usual argument about wearing my cowboy boots of course, but it was too cold. I recall bulky outer wear, a scratchy knitted hat with a hood over it, and itchy tights under whatever snow pants I wore. I hate tights to this day. It seemed like I was always cold. I was either born tough or thought it was important to be tough (there is a damned thin line between tough and stupid) or maybe I was merely proud and willful and stubborn. Snot and tears were frozen on my face, but I would not admit being cold when Dad asked. I never admitted needing to pee either. If you are cold and miserable and a couple of miles from home horseback, wetting your pants does not improve your situation. I did that once. I do not remember doing it a second time. Finally back at the barn, Dad would lift me off. I would be so cold and stiff that my toes, fingers, and cheeks were all numb, but I would hang out with Dad just the same while he unsaddled the horses and tended the tack. We rarely got back in time to enjoy the late afternoon sun slanting into the barn’s south door, cheering and warming the interior, but I was always glad to be in it.
Dad purchased our barn from a place up in the Bear Paws Mountains — hills really. The wonders of the barn, a simple structure of substance, included a hayloft, a bronc stall, cow stanchions added by Dad, and numerous carved brands from long gone cowboys. It was situated away from the prevailing winds so the large heavy wooden sliding doors were north and south on either end with stalls along the east side. It had wide boards as saddle racks nailed high enough to the heavy studs of the walls so that horses could walk along without knocking the saddles down. Milk cow calves would sometimes suck on the saddle strings or latigo ends. By the time I was six, I was tending to my own horse. I would prop my saddle on its horn, wrestle it onto my head, stand, and from there lift with both arms and jump to reach those racks. That winter, Dad would tell me to go on into the house to get warm. I would stay with him though. Of course, he still had chores to do because we needed supper and then he would do the dishes. There were probably cows to milk too. There may have been warm baths, but I don’t recall that. I must have been whimpering or crying loud enough for him to hear in my own bed. He came and brought me to bed in his room. I remember wanting very much to snuggle next to him, but I felt afraid to touch him. He was never demonstrative, and so like still water that reflects the sun and the stars and the moon, I have never been either. I would lie stone still next to him as close as possible. His broad back radiated warmth, and, like the barn, loomed strong and secure next to me in the dark. It was like falling asleep next to a stove.
March may be the cusp of spring, but it doesn’t always materialize as one might like. By the end of January, I am tired of winter. If I were snow skiing or ice skating or snowmobiling, it might be different, but following bovine around all winter with the added effort of staying warm and making equipment run is exhausting. I remind myself that Dad did it without equipment or electricity. Dad had a team and wagon and forked the hay on and off. Sometimes he had to sling bags of feed over his saddle horn and together with the ax ride out to the cows. Dad did it because he loved the life style. But that was before my time. Sometimes, I think it has all been before, or outside of, or beyond my time. The winter of 2013 was mild but particularly awful as Dad was unable to leave the house easily. Going about the chores took on a lonelier cast with no good-natured banter between us. Without the support and companionship of my sisters, it could not have been born. Every year, Dad expected a February thaw and promised it to himself as much as to me. Perhaps not coincidentally, he died smack in the middle of February on a day that reached fifty degrees. It had been warm for days before. The snow in the mountains released a glut of water and the creek rose and eliminated that ice chopping for the cows.
Dad had chosen his own burial site on Grandpa’s homestead. Mom and Dad had moved there, a mile and a half from my childhood home, after Dad’s parents died. They had moved the barn as well. The day we buried him was bright, clear and cold, and there had been a nasty little snow storm a few days before. I found it remarkably suitable to follow on horseback behind Dad’s casket on a horse-drawn wagon to that site. It felt appropriate too leading his last best mare, his spurs buckled through a cinch ring chinking when she jogged, almost as if he were there. It was eminently fitting as well, I suppose, that I was cold and stiff and shivering, with tears and snot on my face and my feet stuffed stupidly into my cowboy boots. A few hundred yards northwest of the buildings, the site allows a full view of either road coming into the creek and close access to first calf heifers grazing by amiably or muzzling in nearby feed bunks. A hard, bitter wind beat at us the day we scraped an old wagon and some other deteriorated horse-drawn equipment out of the frozen ground in our best attempt at preparation. Dad would be pleased we got rid of the junk.
That day, after the burial, the task completed, Dad would have told me to go to the house and get warm but he would not have been the least bit surprised if I had stood stubbornly there while his grandchildren covered the casket. But this time with that watery half-light of a winter’s late afternoon slouched around the south-facing door, I went back to the barn without him. My feet like blocks, his coat sloppy around my shoulders, to tend the horses, remove the tack and spend a minute with his gear, comforted by horse smells and sounds, in the first best place I knew him. A place, no doubt, I will visit more often than the grave site to discover what I will do now in my own time, and who I will be without him.