She writes the name of her horse, Florida, on a piece of shingle she found in the wood pile. Then she asks if I can hang the shingle and she shows me two roofing nails she uncovered in the backyard. I retrieve the hammer and follow her to her stable, Horseland.
Horseland is better known as Juniper Park. It stands at the far west end of our driveway. Four behemoth juniper trees anchor four corners and shade an area large enough and open enough to park a car. Branches layered to the ground conceal this haven where, long ago, we placed a sandbox that’s seen little use lately. North of the sandbox, a pile of long yellow grasses awaits Florida. I’d noticed Arden pulling up the grass an hour earlier, after she’d asked if we had any hay. I’d pointed at the yellow grasses bending in the wind on the hillside below the driveway.
She touches a branch that stretches out over the grass. That’s where she wants Florida’s nameplate to hang. Rake and shovel are propped against the trunk of one of the trees, ready to muck out the stable.
A moment later, the shingle hung, she beams.
“Mom, do we have any oats?”
By the end of the week, there are nine more nameplates: Fire, Sage, Rapunzel, Star, Sunflower, Tropical, Jewel, Flora, and Bluebell. As she decides the location of each stall in her stable, she weighs which horse will fit in the space allotted as well as each individual horse’s personality. Fire needs to be separate, as he can be a bit unpredictable – after all, he is part dragon and can breathe fire. Star is tiny and fits under the low branches defining her stall. I stifle a laugh as Arden sighs and mutters, “I guess I can pretend that Bluebell will fit there,” in a tangle of branches that is that only remaining unoccupied space.
I love that my work schedule and my daughters’ school schedule coincide and that we get more than two months together every summer. Two months to do a lot of nothing if we choose. When I chose teaching as my career, I never really considered the riches it would offer me as a parent. We have the luxury of time, which means that I get to sit in the shade of Juniper Park sharing lemonade with my daughters after spending the morning clearing low branches and nailing nameplates. I get to do this without my brain telling me I should be doing something more productive – and I realize the irony, for what could be more productive than encouraging imagination?
The obsession with horses began a while ago, coinciding with the waning of the obsession with unicorns. While Dan and I were in Maui a few weeks ago, the girls stayed with their grandparents. Grandma took them for walks each evening, carrots in hand to feed the neighborhood horses. And so Arden is now determined to own her very own horse. I don’t dare tell her that her chances of having her own horse right now are about as slim as her having her own unicorn.
When I was a child, my family spent a lot of time on the Crown C Ranch in southern Arizona, where we visited people we loved as family and rode horses. We also learned high etiquette for the dinner table (Encarna, the servant, will always serve you from the right – don’t serve yourself while she’s attending to your brother), some of it the hard way (don’t swing your still-too-short legs at the table, or Lhasa, the dog, will bite your toes). It was a magical place to be a child, and we were allowed to roam freely and explore. I shared a cozy, four-poster feather bed with my sister, and read The Wizard of Oz in bed below the light that was attached to the headboard.
But most of my memories there involve a fort my siblings and I created in a dry creek bed in front of the huge ranch house. While I don’t really recall the games we played in the fort, I do remember collecting acorns from the massive oaks that shaded our fort and separating their beret-like caps from the nuts. I remember my brothers kicking me and my sister out of the fort from time to time because we were girls. And I remember when the runoff from a huge thunderstorm raced down the wash and completely cleared away our fort and the toys we’d stashed and buried there.
I have a lot of childhood memories of unstructured time to play, to read, to imagine. I stopped reading only once in my life – after graduating with a degree in English literature I was too burned out to find any pleasure in it. I’d been reading three or four novels a week for my classes – and intensely, mind you, but after a six months hiatus, I began devouring books again. And at some point I stopped playing, thinking I was too cool for childish games. Somewhere, I fear I stopped using my imagination. Or did I?