The Blacksmith’s Daughter

Still struggling to find time to write or blog.  Working on the new middle grade novel.  Thinking a lot about the countryside I grew up in.  This led me to think of posting pieces of a memoir I wrote many years ago, since again today I can’t find enough hours in the day to write something new.  So here it is, a little chunk of memoir:

The Blacksmith’s Daughter

I am what I come from–eighty acres of flat land, overgrown woods, unmended fences.  I’m huge piles of rock hauled out of the fields by hand, generations before me.  I’m an old barn with high lofts and a bad foundation, wind rushing unimpeded across empty fields in January, the endless murmuring rustle of dry corn stalks in an October breeze.  I am my father and my mother both, and maybe my own self besides them.

My father was a blacksmith, a farmer, a school teacher, a trainer of crazy, bone wild horses.  In memory I see him bent over a horse’s hoof, his black felt hat jammed on his head, his arms sinewy and corded with muscle, his hands–big capable hands with blunt square fingers and on his ring finger his wedding band, a circle of weathered gold against his brown-as-earth skin–balancing the horse’s hoof on his knee.  Just off to the side, there I am.  At six and eight and ten I’m fascinated by the hammer and anvil and forge, the smell of coal, the clang of horseshoes being fitted.  I have the same dark tan as him and stand with my boots planted firm on the ground, my thumbs hooked in the belt loops of my cut-offs, my long brown hair braided to be out of my way.  I’m waiting for the day when I can have my own hoof pick and knife and rasp and file.

At five and ten I’m devoted to my father.  I’ll tell anyone who asks or doesn’t, If my papa says it’s so it’s so, even if it ain’t so. I intend to learn everything he knows and I love what he loves:  books, dogs, horses, work, sweet corn, strawberries.  I follow him all over the farm and back into the house again, always curious what he’s up to, and he’s always up to something.

We sit in the kitchen training a coon hound–Bell, as in a bell that rings and also short for Beller, as in She sure does beller when she trees a coon, what a voice she’s got–to sit and speak and shake hands.  We give Bell a little scrap of bologna just about every time she obeys us but not every single time.  We don’t want her to think this is about bologna because it isn’t.  It’s about learning to be a good coon dog, a good dog, period.  She learns all right, her mournful hound dog eyes follow everyone lovingly, her big bellering voice howls out at the moon on clear nights, and when you say Sit, Bell, she sits right down.  Dad lets me tell Bell Sit in a firm deep voice a few times and then feed her the meat which she licks up with a soft eager tongue but then I am too lax and Bell and I both forget we’re in school and my father takes back over.  Sit.  Speak.  Shake hands.  Good, good girl, there you go now, and another chunk of bologna is eagerly sipped from his fingers.

I wear a red and white checked dress, very pretty and ruffly, along with brown and orange plaid pants and my beloved blue suede shoes.  This is my favorite outfit, one I’ve designed myself and am totally at ease in.  It never dawns on me that there’s anything odd about it.  Dad wears oxfords and jeans and a blue plaid shirt, tucked in, the sleeves buttoned closed at the wrists, the front done up to one button short of the collar.  He always wears a white undershirt beneath.  He looks scholarly and serious in his black horn rimmed spectacles.  He is Bell’s teacher as much he is the teacher of roomfulls of eleventh and twelfth graders.

Another day, we run a horse on a lunge line, circles and circles trotted into the dirt, teaching it to follow orders of voice and hand.  Walk, trot, canter.  Whoa now, whoa.  Walk.  Trot.  Hup now, trot.  Chk chk, canter.   I could do this forever with him.  I watch how his hands play on the leather line strung between him and horse, somehow making them just about equal to one, not two separate beings.  It is nowhere near as easy as it looks but I’m going to learn.  Most of our horses are crazy and already ruined and can’t be trusted.  They have ominous names like Itick and Arab, but the worst of them all is Sugar, a smart albino mare with one pink eye and one blue one.  They have bad habits and checkered pasts and no loyalty, but they more or less fall in line for him.  I’m going to be able to handle wild horses that same way, someday.   I see how he is with them.  Endless patience, slow and firm.  Don’t ever let them think they’ve got the best of you because then they do.

The fact is, my dad was not a patient man.  He told me years later that I was a good trainer and that he’d never been.  He’d learned to break horses as a young man on a ranch in North Dakota, and he said that most of his life went by before it occurred to him that bronc busting might not be the only way.

The other fact was, you couldn’t let anyone else near most of our horses.  Anyone in their right mind would’ve sent them to the dog food factory, but Dad saw something in them, so I did too.  Mainly they were horses and that was enough, they didn’t have to be anything else.  Plus they did behave pretty well for him, less the odd buck and their chronic breaking down of our poor fences.  And, they were all he could afford.

Same with the fences–poor man’s fences, all he could scrape together, none of the miles of crisp white-painted boards I yearned for.  Ours were made out of barbed wire and metal poles and tree trunks and always sagged.  Dad had to shoot one of the best foals he’d ever bred when it careened through a fence one spring day and ripped its front legs off.  I was sent to my room so as not to see the gun go off, but I heard the shot.  I  cried and carried on, which seemed my right somehow and was as much for myself as for the colt, who I’d named Blaze On.  What I couldn’t realize then was how horrid Dad must have felt.  He was soft-hearted about animals and prone to regret and guilt.  If only he could have afforded those safe wooden fences.

I remember Dad building a gate out of an old bedspring and the pole of a juniper tree.  He’d have bossed whoever was helping around briskly, but as a little kid I wouldn’t have minded.  Hand me those pliers.  Run and get me another bunch of nails.  Hold this. No!  Like this.  Get me that bunch of smooth wire off the feed binNo, no!  Not that one, the other oneNo!  Ah, I’ll get it myself.  An hour or maybe two or three hours later we’d finish, because Dad never stopped work on anything midstream, not until a thing was either finished or completely beyond repair.

Maybe it’s later that evening, he lays stretched out on the sofa reading a book and I sit on his chest, playing some game or another, content.  I am happy and safe, on top of the world.  I adore my papa, he adores me, and we love the same things.  I am just about to start badgering him to read out loud to me, which he will do.

Category: Today's Special 6 comments »

6 Responses to “The Blacksmith’s Daughter”

  1. Cheryl Airgood

    Such wonderful memories of the farm. We were the city kids, but we couldn’t wait to come visit you guys. Everything about the farm is still embedded in my memory. Those times, indeed, were the best of times.

  2. Pamela Grath

    Coincidence: Last night we saw the documentary called “Buck,” about a horse trainer who learned from his foster dad how to shoe horses. You’d love it, Ellen. Did you ride horses as a girl?

  3. ellenair

    Pamela, that sounds interesting!

  4. ellenair

    Oh, Cheryl, those were happy times, weren’t they?

  5. Mary Ann Potter

    I can’t wait to read more, Ellen! My father was born and raised on a McBain farm and always wanted to move back to that area. He learned some blacksmithing while he was in high school but ended up as a bacterioligist for the Michigan Health Department. He shared many of his memories of farm life with me and eventually with my son, who still recalls some of the stories. By the way, I LOVE your first novel! It is so UP-ish and atmospheric! You have truly captured the essences of the place.

  6. ellenair

    Thank you for these wonderful comments and memories Mary Ann!

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