My Aunt Edna kept tongues wagging in my family for at least forty years. Supposedly she “stole” her brother’s ranch. He was dying and, according to the family, she arrived with a lawyer, not a doctor, “because she always took care of herself first.” Edna and the lawyer got her brother’s will changed “in the nick of time,” the story continues. Not bad enough. She then took up “housekeeping” with the ranch foreman.
It goes on and on. She drank too much. Her kids were wild. She would “do anything to break into high society.” The fact that she lived in Dillon, Montana, a place not exactly synonymous with “high society,” didn’t give anyone pause. When tongues wag, tongues wag.
Aunt Edna also gave me my first horse.
One day she called my mother and, with characteristic bluntness, she announced that she had a pony, and my mother had a daughter. “Every girl needs a horse,” she said. “Bring a trailer.”
The horse, a black Shetland named Duchess, was her gift to a child she’d never met, and, unfortunately, I don’t remember meeting her. When I arrived at her ranch with my parents, I was far too excited about the pony to give much thought to the woman. The horse turned out to be bad-tempered, ornery, and damned hard to love. It was Aunt Edna’s notion “that every girl needs a horse” that was the real gift.
Too often we believe we are smart or pretty or bad or dumb or worthless or whatever—based on what we’ve been told. However, none of that applies when you climb onto a horse. The horse doesn’t care what anyone says. The horse only wants to know whether or not you’re in control, because, if you’re not, the horse will be. In other words, the horse, any horse, will have the true measure of your character in about five minutes. And, if you stay in the saddle, or if you get up and get back in the saddle, you will too. My Aunt Edna must have known that. After they had found fault with everything else about her, the wagging tongues in my family almost always paused to add, “but she’s a good horsewoman. You got to give her that.”
Aunt Edna lived at a time when a woman’s reputation was considered her “most precious asset,” but it never was bankable. We forget how recently things have changed. It was the 1970s before laws were passed that allowed a married woman to have credit in her own name. Bank loans followed. Before that, women, like Aunt Edna, couldn’t marry “the ranch foreman,” or anyone else, and hope to stay in control of the ranch. Reputation be damned, Aunt Edna refused to climb down from the saddle. She ran her ranch, her way. However, that was the let-the-tongues-wag, lonely choice. In the end, I understand that it was just her, her horses, and a bottomless bottle of whiskey.
We like our audacious, uppity types, but we make them pay.