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Deirdre woke early, just like every December 25. She tiptoed downstairs, hoping against hope that this would be the year her dream would come true. Her parents were already awake and seated at the kitchen table; that fact alone gave the young girl pause, as they were never downstairs on Christmas morning until much later.
"Morning, sleepy head," Ben, Deirdre's father said. "'Bout time you rolled outa the hay!" When Nancy, Deirdre's mother, tried to hide her giggle behind her coffee cup, Deirdre knew something was up.
So began the short story—or some variation—that I wrote every year growing up. It was my dream to walk downstairs Christmas morning and find a paint horse tied outside the picture window. I, like most girls, was obsessed with horses. Usually that obsession passes like any other fad. Mine didn't. In fact, it set down roots so firm that not even marriage to a "nonhorse" man could pull them up.
Every year I wrote a similar story, "Dreaming of My Paint Horse," and gave it to my parents, hoping that they would get the hint. It seemed they never would. Every year I looked out the picture window to find an empty yard and disappointment, a vacant space where my horse ought to be.
We were never deprived as kids, far from it. But I'd have gladly relinquished every toy, every item of clothing, even every horse statue and book for that Dream Horse.
My childhood passed, as did many of my interests. Tennis? Too much work. Knitting? Knot! Horses? Now that was the constant passion in my life. I read about them, wrote about them and even joined a 4-H club that taught about them. Of course, I also dreamed about them. My own horse, though, was always out of reach.
My two older sisters each had a horse when they were younger, but in the words of my parents, "They lost interest in the horses as soon as boys came along." How was that my fault? I didn't care about boys. Boys were dumb. This was my mantra even through my teen years, until the unthinkable happened . . . I met Ron.
Ron and I came from similar working-class backgrounds and became best friends shortly after we met. Ron was perfect in every way, except that he barely knew the head from the tail of a horse. This, I thought, I could deal with. I might even teach him a thing or two. We were engaged within six weeks and married a year later. Some things you just know.
We marked our fifth anniversary, then our tenth, and then suddenly we were looking forward to our twentieth anniversary. Through all the years, my obsession with horses lived dormant—below the surface of other goings-on, but it was present nonetheless. Ron dealt with this quirk of mine the way he dealt with most things: with a quiet smile and an "oh, well" shrug of the shoulders, thinking I would get over it someday. But someday never came.
The Internet, however, did, and its information superhighway allowed me access to horses. A voyeuristic approach, I admit, but one which at least gave relief to some of my desire. I discovered a myriad of websites that listed horses for sale, and I haunted them all. I searched for paint horses, torturing myself looking at horses I knew I'd never own. Until one day in December when I found a website owned by Sealite Paint Horses in Ijamsville, Maryland. I immediately searched the Foals page. There, my pulse quickened from a minor trot of anticipation to a fullblown gallop at finding so many paint foals, from weanlings to long yearlings. I was drawn to three in particular: two yearlings and a weanling, all beautifully marked and all fillies. My heart dropped into my shoes.
On impulse, I phoned Kim Landes, the owner of Sealite, although I felt as if I were doing something illicit. We chatted for nearly an hour about horses in general and her paints in particular, and I was thrilled when she invited me to visit. I told her about the fillies that had caught my eye. She said that all three were still for sale. The news was both a blessing and a curse.
As much as I wanted to be horse shopping, Realist Ron made an excellent point when he asked, simply and softly, "How could we afford a horse?"
"So we'll just go for a drive," I said, "look at pretty horses and that's all. We'll come home right after. I promise." I knew the truth, though.
A few days later, we loaded our two corgi dogs into the back of the Jeep and began the three-hour drive to Maryland, the home of my dream. Ron has a gift for keeping me leveled, so to speak. I am impulsive; Ron is pensive. It's been this way between us since we first met. I can see how this difference may cause grief in some marriages, but for us, it created a balance.
While we drove, I chattered on about how beautiful these foals were, how much I couldn't wait until I saw them in person, how exciting it would be to raise and train a baby and how sweet a paint's disposition is. Ron nodded a lot and spoke little.
When we arrived, I was breathless, either from my incessant talking or overgrown excitement. We met Kim, her husband Chris and the Sealite gang. I felt like I'd found the Holy Grail, or like a sixteen-year-old who gets a brand new car for her birthday. All of my senses were on overload as I tried to absorb each of the dozen or more paints all at once. Then I saw her. "Oh my God, Ron! Look at her!"
Ron followed my gaze. Off beside the run-in shed stood Sky, one of the black-and-white overo fillies I had seen on Kim's website. "Wow," was all Ron could manage, and I had to agree.
Large, brown eyes looked at us from her blazed face. The side closest to us sported a white patch that nearly covered her ribs, and on her neck was what could only be described as a bleeding heart. Her four white socks were of varying lengths, but best of all, she seemed to be very well balanced in her conformation—her graceful neck tied perfectly into a powerful shoulder, and from her back came a strong hip and rear, giving her the perfect equine engine.
As we stood looking at Sky, some of the youngsters became curious about the newcomers and warily approached us. Among them was Lacy, who promptly decided that she could fit in my back pocket. I gave her a pat and told her how pretty she was, all the while keeping an eye on Sky.
"She wants things on her own terms," I whispered to Ron as I dipped my head toward Sky. "I like that."
"Uh huh." Without seeming too obvious, I walked over to Sky. "Hey, sweetheart," I whispered as she smelled my hand. "How are you, baby girl? Over here all by yourself. You're not antisocial, are you?"
Sky's ears flicked back and forth like an air traffic controller's paddles as she assessed me, too. I scratched her withers, a favorite itchy spot of most horses, and saw her head lower and relax. I was hooked. Sky was independent and refused to beg for a scrap of attention from us mere humans. She was not easily spooked or skittish; she just approached new situations on her own terms. This was a familiar quality, as I too tended to set and adhere to my own terms in most situations. I wanted to see how she might do on her own.
We took Sky away from her herd mates so I could watch her move in a round pen. Her tail became a flag, and her nostrils became air horns as she floated around the pen, head held high. She trotted and cantered beautifully, and her eyes spoke volumes. They were animated but not wild, a thing I loved about her. Sky was so full of joy that it was obvious this filly loved life.
I talked with Kim about Sky's price, and I could tell that Ron was not, at this moment, loving life as much as Sky. He went off with Chris for a few minutes, then casually called over to me, "I'm going to check on the corgis." That was Ron's cue to me that he wanted to go, now, before I did something foolish like put a deposit on this horse.
It's fair to say that Ron would never say these things aloud, but living with him all these years, I've learned how to read his nonverbal clues. But this private message between us provoked me for some reason, even though the tiny voice of reason was knocking inside my head. Usually I'm good at ignoring that voice, but I overrode it and began to talk not just price with Kim and Chris but also transport, shot records, farrier care and the myriad details concerned with a new horse purchase. Ron stayed at the Jeep during this exchange, eyeing me warily. Eventually, I bid Kim and Chris farewell with the promise to be in touch.
Ron, predictably, didn't say a word as we started our drive home. "Tell me what you're thinking," I queried.
"What I'm thinking?" he asked. "About what?"
"The weather, Ron! What do you mean 'about what?' I mean about Sky!"
"Oh, she's nice, I guess. I don't know . . ."
"Nice?! She's gorgeous!" How could he not see this?
However, that pronouncement was met with more silence. Silence that lasted many more miles until I brought it up once again. "But she's special, Ron! And I know Kim and Chris would negotiate on her price."
In typical Sensible Ron fashion, my husband pointed out what I already knew in my heart but did not want to hear: "We can't afford a horse."
I couldn't really argue with this. The purchase price of a horse—any horse—is the easiest expense to meet. Maintaining an equine for the twenty-five years or more of its life is where the economic strain comes in. Ron was right, as he usually is in all economic matters. We could not afford a horse, period. I tempered this acceptance by adding silently, "Not now, anyway. I'll take the coward's way out and e-mail, rather than call, Kim tomorrow to tell her." These last words caught in my throat.
Later that evening, we stopped for dinner along the interstate. I don't know if it was the holiday decor of the restaurant or the Christmas section of the attached gift shop, but suddenly I was transported back in time. It's Christmas morning. I race down the stairs and offer the brightly lit tree only a quick glance, for just past the tree is the picture window. It can't be! I shake my head and rub my eyes, certain that my mind is playing tricks on me. I look again, and it—she—is still standing there. Sky is standing in the front yard of my childhood home, her glistening black-and-white coat a stark contrast to the glimmering white Christmas snow.
My husband's voice brought me back to reality.
"What? I'm sorry, what did you say?" I asked.
"I asked what you were thinking about. You've been really quiet, but you smiled just now," Ron said. That's when I realized that in nearly twenty years of marriage, I had never shared the story of The Dream Horse with him. Over dinner, I recounted the tale, with a bit of sadness in my voice that I just couldn't hide. Ron's normally brilliant blue eyes clouded over.
"I know exactly what you mean," he said with a sigh as he reached across the table for my hand. Like me, my husband grew up in a blue-collar family with never quite enough money. He, too, knew firsthand the feeling of The Dream, but his dream was a motorcycle on two wheels, not four hooves—the iron horse.
The rest of the drive home, we remained silent, arriving home just after dark. Exhausted and disappointed, I climbed into a hot shower and then managed to read a few chapters of a book. I fell asleep imagining my beautiful new filly cantering across the field to greet me. She offered me her soft, pink muzzle, and I wrapped my arms around her glistening neck and buried my face in her mane, breathing in her heady smell. I felt the level of contentment I'd been searching for, but it was only a dream.
"Are you going Christmas shopping with me on Saturday?" I asked Ron. It was December 18, and we had yet to do any big shopping for family and friends. With our work schedules, the coming Saturday was looking like our one and only hope of accomplishing any shopping together.
"Oh, um, well . . . " Ron stammered. "We can't go anywhere Saturday."
"What do you mean we can't go anywhere? We've got tons of shopping to do!"
"Well, I'm expecting a delivery, and we have to be here when it comes. You know how FedEx can be," he said.
I was furious with him for having waited until the last minute to buy my Christmas gift. Fine. I left him to his FedEx worries and did the shopping myself during the week. I was not at all gracious about this scenario.
I barely spoke to him that week, and when I did speak, it was only in short, clipped answers to something he said first. My Christmas spirit was obviously going to be absent in the Stahl home this year. I made sure this fact was not lost on Ron.
Saturday morning, I was in the den wrapping presents. I had a perfect view of the driveway via the picture window. I would certainly see the FedEx truck when it arrived.
My anger with Ron collided full force with my eagerness to catch a glimpse of the delivery. Eagerness was winning out. Where could he have been shopping? Did he go on his lunch break from work? That would limit the possibilities. Would the shipping box offer any clues? Would I know what it is from the box that it's in? Damn!
I wasn't paying attention and cut the wrapping paper too short. As I reached for a new roll of paper, Ron's thundering feet on the stairs made me jump. What startled me even more, though, was his voice. "He's here!" Ron shrieked, hitting a pitch
I hadn't heard from him in all our twenty years together. I had no idea that Ron loved the FedEx guy this much.
"Come here, come here, come here!" Ron chattered. "You've gotta come here . . ." and he pulled me by the hand to stand in the doorway facing the driveway.
And then I did, but what I saw didn't register. White SUV. SUV? Pulling something. A horse trailer. A horse trailer? A horse trailer with "Sealite Paint Horses" written on the side!
I staggered backward, into Ron's arms, and he kissed me on the head as he draped a coat over my shoulders. "Let's go," he whispered in my ear, gently pushing me out the door.
As my brain spun circles trying to wrap itself around this image, the driver's window of the SUV rolled down, and the vehicle rolled to a stop. "Merry Christmas, Dee!" I heard the driver yell—wait, that's Chris!
I remember Chris getting out of the vehicle and giving me a hug. I remember holding my breath as he dropped down the window of the trailer. And I remember thinking, She's home, as her familiar white face popped out from behind the window. She looked at me, and her soft brown eyes reflected, "I remember you."
As I stroked her beautiful white face, I said something brilliant to Chris like, "You were supposed to be the FedEx guy!"
So how did Ron do it? How did he make my dream come true?