In February of 2021 I came home to Pittsburgh in the middle of one of the most chaotic times of my life.
It was almost a year into covid, and that year hadn’t failed anyone yet in its presentation of one wrecking ball after another.
That January, my mother had a stroke not long after the Capital Riots, and it was gutting. For many parties involved, myself included, the only way to explain your emotions in the midst of that kind of situation, is that you feel essentially like you are breaking in half. And that neither half will be able to do the things that you need to do. My father had passed away 8 years earlier, and as my sister told me what was going on over the phone, I flashed back once again to feeling so horribly far away and helpless in my Boston life.
Coordinating with my siblings, I found a week that would perhaps have the most opportunity for me to help. Driving to appointments for Physical and Occupational therapy, and general as-needed assistance as my mom learned and re-learned elements of her day.
And I left for Pittsburgh, somewhat briefed as to what to expect. While things were better than I had expected, it is always quite jarring in its way to return to the place you grew up, particularly under severe circumstances. It is these spaces where who you are is who you were. And who you were was who you thought you should be.
As you read this, please know that my mom is doing wonderfully, and knocking it out of the park from a recovery standpoint. We are extraordinarily fortunate, and her very “determined” personality (we shall say) was never so appreciated. The experience in its entirety however, left an unexpected impression on me that I feel compelled to share.
One morning during my stay, I went down to the basement to try to clear out some of the remnants of my childhood left in boxes and storage containers. Grades from High School were in folders, notes I wrote about my “ideal” friend, or drawings from kindergarten. And then, around a corner, there they were – waiting for me as always. All of my toy horses from when I was very little.
They had been downstairs for the last 20+ years, carefully packed away in boxes when I thought I needed to be a big girl, I guess. But that day, something in me finally snapped. Maybe it was the year of isolation. Maybe it was the legit fear I’d lose my mother the previous month, but I didn’t relate any longer to the person who thought they needed to put them away in boxes all those years ago. And I started bringing those boxes upstairs, one by one.
I slowly unpacked the ponies, and put them together on the dining room table to try to get a sense of the scope we were dealing with here. And then I took a step back.
It was quite visually striking. This collage of color, and hand-painted tones of clay and spots, greys and chestnuts.
I think initially my mom purchased a set for me when I was maybe 5 or so, after I had come back from another eye doctor’s appointment, which I always hated. Maybe I had just had a surgery, I can’t quite remember. But I just loved them. I loved them so much that their legs broke off when I made them gallop too much. So much that their paint rubbed off in places where I’d held them in my hands so many times. So much that many had new color patterns on their coats from my discoveries of acetone on their beautiful paint.
Over the years, I accumulated quite a few. But I knew all their names and personalities as soon as I opened these boxes some 20 years after putting them away. I remembered each one that was a gift and from whom, and I remembered my dad’s favorites – the draft horses. Most specifically one he’d named himself – Big John the Clydesdale. He could point to him by name in the massive herd.
From time to time, I’d considered unpacking them and putting them up for sale. But their value essentially is what you’ve given them yourself over time. At slumber parties and play dates. At story time with a parent. The personalities and lives you’ve imbued in them, that come flooding back no matter how long it’s been since you’ve seen them.
And as I stood in the dining room, my mom in a nearby room remembering different horses herself, I found that as crazy as it may seem, I couldn’t give them away. Not yet. The past year had already taken so many things. I didn’t want to give away my childhood to the world right now as well.
And just as carefully as I had unpacked them, I dusted each one off and gently repacked it in a storage container momentarily. I’ll start looking into shipping soon. And I don’t know if that is completely insane, I really don’t. But in that moment, it felt calming. It’s like having some piece of yourself return to your orbit after feeling like all you’ve held onto for years has been fragments.
My mom used to have a quote that she’d say, and over the years neither she nor I could remember the opening phrase of the thought. But at its core, the saying was that many parts of the world slip away in your mind. Their form, movement, and way of being fade until their very essence can’t be put to paper any longer. The second line however, seared onto both of our brains even now, will always surface. And it seemed somehow to tie together the entire experience taking place that week.
“…But horses I can draw from memory.”