The childhood memories are many and vivid.
There were the sweets; sugared mulberries and raspberries on top of vanilla ice cream, butterscotch candies, the nectar from honey suckle blossoms, boxes of oranges and grapefruits at Christmas and thin ribbon candy.
And the countless hours I spent at Grandpa’s house, sitting in the branches of the long-gone willow tree, watching him work on engines — scouring the gravel driveway for lead weights from tires (an early form of sidewalk chalk).
Inside the house, now much smaller than I remember it being, the adventures were endless. There were the steep, winding stairs to the attic. And Grandma’s huge salt and pepper shaker collection from years of world travel peered out from the hutch in the dining room.
I could spend hours tracing the designs on the meticulously beaded Mahogany stool from Africa or stroking the Zebra skin.
And when I looked at the little statue of “monkey-hear-monkey-see-monkey-do” on the dresser, I always imagined it to be a portrait of JoJo the monkey from Grandpa’s travel stories.
Then there was the printing press and darkroom in the basement. Grandpa’s drafting tables, light tables, timers and stacks of paper blended with a mixture of metal, red light, dust, ink and chemicals — the smells of which to this day spin me back through time.
He never shooed me away or lost patience with me.
I can still hear him singing goofy commercials, like “the corniest flakes that anybody makes is Kellogg’s,” crooning at the end, “don’t be cornfuuuuused…”
When I saw his return address on the box, I heard his voice calling me “Snagglepuss” and smiled.
Digging through the blue Styrofoam popcorn, my hand ran into a hard object wrapped in bubble wrap.
As the bundle emerged from the box and I saw the shadowy figure of a marbled gray and white onyx horse, in one split instant all those memories, all those smells and tastes were there.
The birthday horse…
I can’t think of a year passing without a birthday horse of some form or fashion from Grandpa.
In recent years there have been DVDs of his trip to see the wild Chincoteague horses or re-mastered classic horse movies.
In years past, a bronze change dish with a foal curled around the brim, or a little black iron horse with a western saddle on a small marble base, a bronze statue of a trotting horse, a trip to the national horse show, a walk through the stables at an Army base to look at the Cavalry horses and books about show horses or encyclopedias of the horse —Always with a little note written on the inside of the cover.
And the cards, usually with a dollar tucked in, “to put toward the horse you’re going to get someday.”
The adults in our lives play a huge role in who we become as we grow and mature and they give us many gifts through their example, their love and wisdom, lectures and even discipline.
But they don’t always remember or value what is uniquely important to us.
Yet those birthday horses were and are the special little touch that let me know Grandpa remembered my dreams.
In good times, the horses are a symbol of confirmation and in the rough times, they serve to remind me, “Hey, don’t forget your dreams,” and whether he knows it or not, he won’t let me forget.
No matter where I move or how distant family or normalcy may seem, those horses — tucked throughout my home and lodged in memory —serve as a thread that ties and grounds me.
And I don’t care how old I get, a birthday just wouldn’t be the same without Grandpa’s horses.