Written By Barbara O'Brien
In my last column I told you that my parents had finally given into letting me take riding lessons. The farm was owned by an elderly widow named Lois Villaume who had been teaching area kids to ride for years. It was originally built as a summer home for a prominent St. Paul businessman, but it had seen better days. The out buildings were a faded gray and the riding ring fence had not seen paint for some time. The house was a big old farmhouse with bay windows and huge oak trees. Looking back, it was like a woman who lost the beauty of her youth but still maintained her dignity. It didn’t matter to me. All I could think about was horses.
We pulled up to the house and three kids tumbled out, followed by Mrs. Villaume herself. She was dressed in jeans and a white tee shirt with a men’s plaid shirt over that. She wore her long gray hair in two tight braids that she coiled, Swedish style, around her head. I was a little frightened of her at first, she seemed stern and gruff but then she smiled and her blue eyes sparkled. “You must be Barbara” she said and welcomed me to the farm. She introduced the kids, who were her grandchildren, and then dismissed my parents.
She led me to a small bay mare that was tied up to the white fence eating grain out of a black rubber bucket. “This is Babe,” she said, “she is thirteen years old and she is a Morgan. Now, I have two other girls riding her this year so don’t fall in love with her."
She could have not made a more ridiculous demand of me. Not love her? How was that possible? The moment I felt her smooth shiny coat and scratched her under her chin I knew that I was completely, hopelessly in love.
So it began. From the summer before seventh grade until well into high school my dad dutifully drove me to the farm every Saturday where I would work in the morning doing chores in exchange for riding time in the afternoon. I learned to build fences and take care of all kinds of livestock ranging from chickens, cattle and sheep to three very naughty goats that always seemed to be getting out of the fence I had so painstakingly fixed the week before.
I knew in my heart that Babe was not truly mine. But for those few golden hours every week when I got to ride her, it felt like she was.
Like most kids I had my share of crisis, both real and imagined, and the farm was my place to escape. I couldn’t wait to get Babe out of the pasture, feed her, brush her, and tack her up, all the while telling her about my week. As you fellow horse people know horses really do listen and understand. In school I felt big and clumsy and rather foolish but when I was riding Babe it was like I was finally graceful and perhaps even beautiful as we floated over the ground, her mane brushing my face as she carried me away to a better place.
As I grew older and had more school and work responsibilities, I had less and less time to go out to the farm. I was working as a waitress and involved in speech and theatre at school. I missed Babe and the other horses. It seemed like a part of me was missing when I wasn’t with them, but I had to grow up, right?
Now this is the part of the story where the paths of most horse crazy girls split. The true devotees never give up. They work hard and their parents let them get a horse and they just manage to hang on all the way through. Some of them even go on to become trainers or breeders or vets. The vast majority of them have to let go, as school, work and college become more pressing. They just do not have the time, money, or in some cases interest, to put into horses anymore.
I clung to what I could. Although my visits to the farm were few and far between my senior year, I still managed to get out and see Babe at least one a month. It was like nothing had changed when I was there. Babe was still herself, a chubby, somewhat cranky, Morgan mare that loved to toss me by stopping too fast when I was riding bareback and Mrs. Villaume was always the same, her long gray hair neatly parted and wrapped in two long braids around her head and her face filling with laughter as we discussed boys and life and the future.
On the first day of college I saw a boy in my Minnesota History class that I just could not take my eyes off of. He was tall and had green-blue eyes with a shock of black hair that would not stay in place. He wore a forest green turtleneck sweater and jeans and appeared to be older than the other freshmen in the class. Of course I chose a seat next to him. I kept stealing glances at him hoping he would notice me so I could talk to him.
He didn’t look at me, but he didn’t look at anyone else that day for that matter, so I didn’t get to talk to him. I figured he was older and already had a girlfriend so I tried my chances with two other boys those first few weeks of school. The first boy told me was already taken and thanks but no thanks and the other boy, who was better looking than he deserved to be, looked at me aghast and loudly said “No!” when I asked him out.
That rejection got me thinking about the cute boy in the green sweater in my history class. I soon discovered that he wasn’t stuck up at all like I had first thought, but was instead, incredibly shy. He was 20 years old and worked nights and weekends at a hardware store. His name was Kevin, and yes, he would love to go out with me sometime, and, oh yeah, what is your name again?
Now let me stop right here. I suppose some of you are thinking: Hey? Isn’t the guy supposed to ask the girl out? Well this was the eighties, you know, and if Mrs. Villaume did teach me only one thing it was to ask for what you want. There is no harm in asking, she said, as long as you were willing to give back when asked yourself.
So I started dating that boy with the black hair and the green sweater. He came from a family of dog and cat lovers, so fitting in was really easy. I remember the first time I had dinner at his house and his dad fed the dog the food off his plate with his own fork. These were my kind of people!
Kevin had never been around horses, but I quickly remedied that with trips to the farm where he grew to appreciate the horses and especially, Babe. Mrs. Villiume liked Kevin too and thought we made a good couple. His feet were always firmly planted on the ground while I was always up in the clouds. He was stable and steady while I was erratic and impulsive. If we were dogs, I would be a Border Collie racing from chore to chore always wondering what is around the corner. He would be more like a German Shepherd. Fiercely loyal, protective, always ready to do what needs to be done, but not wasting energy on foolish things. It’s no coincidence that all these years later I have both a Border Collie and a German Shepherd.
In the fall of my junior year in college, after Kevin and I had been dating for about a year, Mrs. Villaume approached me with the idea of moving into the upper apartment in her big farmhouse. Are you kidding me! I could actually live at the farm. I could see Babe everyday if I wanted. I would have to help out with the chores once in awhile but I was used to that. “I’m in!” I said.
She laughed and shook her head. Not so fast. I don’t want you and Kevin playing house up there. You are going to have to get married if you want to move in.
Married? Don’t get me wrong, I loved the guy, but I hadn’t finished school and was only employed at as lowly assistant manager at a boutique cookie store. I wasn’t really ready to get married.
Thinking about it now, it was all Mrs. Villaume’s fault. She dangled the thought of independence from my parents, horses, the farm, and dear sweet Kevin in front of my face like a bucket of oats in front of a fat pony.
How could I turn all that down? Here was my chance to be free. To live my own life, make my own choices. I could even decorate the apartment the way I wanted.
It all, of course, depended on if Kevin wanted to marry me in the first place.
I knew he loved me and we had talked about marriage, but it seemed years away. I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a career yet and he was still working as a clerk at the hardware store.
We met after work that day and we went to our favorite place to eat, a little restaurant called Chesters. Our conversation went something like this.
Me: Hey, I can move out to Mrs. Villaume’s if I want. She says I can have the little apartment upstairs. The rent is $250 a month, so that’s not so bad.
Me: There is just one thing, though.
Kevin: What’s that?
Me: She says we have to get married.
Kevin: OK. And then a moment later, When?
I almost spit out my coffee. He would marry me? Just like that?
“How soon?” He asked.
“How soon, what?” I replied, still a little shocked.
“How soon do you want to get married?”
“Right away. I can move in right away. It’s empty right now.”
Kevin looked at me, “Now?” he said. Reason was beginning to creep across his face and I was waiting for the reality to hit us that this was really a crazy idea.
“Well”, he said slowly, “I love you and I would marry you tomorrow if you want, but that wouldn’t be fair to you. You should have a real wedding, you know, with a dress and a reception and presents and all that.”
I thought about it for a moment and then I realized that all I really wanted was to marry him, ride horses everyday and live at Mrs. Villaume’s farm forever. I told Kevin that and once again he said “OK."
So right then and there we made list on a napkin of pros and cons on whether or not to get married as soon as possible.
Pros: We love each other and why wait to start our life together. They say two can live cheaper than one, so we had that going for us. I would get to be around horses all the time. We would get to move out of our parent’s houses and be on our own.
Cons: People would think we got married because I was pregnant, but that would prove to be false soon enough. Our parents would be upset, but we felt they would get over it. We would have to work more hours to make the rent but we could do that. We would have to move out of our parent’s houses and be on our own. That part was scary; I had never lived away from home before. But I loved and trusted Kevin so I felt it would be ok.
And so it was decided. I imagine we could have told our parents about our plans, but we feared they would try to talk us out of it. We were, after all, only 19 and 21 years old. Did I mention before that I could be impulsive? We went to the county and applied for marriage license and a few days later we were married by a clerk of court with my older brother, who was sworn to secrecy, and his wife as our witnesses.
We moved into Mrs. Villaume’s house that night with only a twin mattress to put on the floor and a few boxes of clothes between us. It didn’t matter. We were together, we were in love, and I had the horses. Now, 28 years and four sons later, we are still together, still very much in love, and I still have the horses.
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