When I was eleven, my mother’s parents took us to Ireland. Us = me, my brother, and my mother. My grandmother was the Irish in our family, née Rosemary Magonigle.
We were there a month: two weeks with the grandparents, two weeks just the three of us. Those last two weeks may be the best weeks of my life.
After her parents returned to the States, my scared-of-horses mother rented a horse-drawn caravan. I didn’t question this at the time. In the midst of my horse-mad phase, I drew them, read about them, learned their anatomy, and talked about them. The only thing I couldn’t do was ride them: no access.
Darkie was big and tall and, yes, dark in color, with a white star on her forehead. She was assigned to lug our gypsy wagon through the Irish countryside.
Despite her fear, my mother took the reins and refused to let me take a turn. A physical therapist and anatomy teacher, she knew all too well the strength and potential of Darkie’s musculo-skeletal system.
But horses are sensitive creatures. My anxious mother made Darkie nervous, and less than thrilled to take orders from an Irish-American.
“Ach,” said various countryfolk at one time or another during our sojourn to the first campground, “let the child drive!”
“Yeah, mom,” I chimed in, “let me drive.”
No joy. Yet.
As soon as we reached the Philbin’s seaside farm, supposedly the first leg of our journey, we dropped anchor and turned Darkie loose in a field with other caravan horses.
We stayed for two weeks.
I immediately took over horse-care duties, filling my pockets with food. Imagine my delight when they followed me around!
In the back of our small wooden caravan, on the outside, was a trunk of sorts that held Darkie’s food pellets — a two week’s supply. She ate all of it the first night.
Not horse-people, no we weren’t. But I learned. The Philbins taught me; and John, another local, helped me ride.
My five-year-old brother followed Mr. Philbin around the farm, tending to cows, chickens, and other barnyard animals. When I wasn’t following the horses around, I roamed the country and seaside.
All of us were outdoors most of the day. As it was May, this was a very long time — the sun set at 11 o’clock. And the crystalline nights! That was the first time I saw the Milky Way.
On my dead brother’s birthday, we found a small pool in a dip in the hills, filled with sea-life: anemones, little fish, dulse. Big enough to swim in, so I did, holding my breath from one end to the other, eyes open in the salty water, drinking in the otherworldly strangeness.
Heaven. Paradise. Nirvana.
Why I ever thought I needed to live in a city, I don’t know. To this day, the smell of peat fires puts me instantly back in Ireland.
Finally, decades later, I’m in the seaside country again: no human habitation visible from my western window, and horses for neighbors. I live on a ranch, of sorts, an equine boarding facility.
Two days ago, I asked if I could help feed the horses.
“Yes!” said Barbara.
So I followed her around, toting hay, alfalfa, and food pellets; checking water levels and quality. Getting comfortable again in my eleven-year-old heart.