Monday, April 14, 2008

My Father's Indian Pony

My father was a quiet man who never talked much until my mother died. She always pretty much used up all the air in a room and he didn’t seem to mind. Maybe he didn’t have anything to say because after she was gone, he continued to be sparing with words -- at least around his children.

In many ways, my father was terra ingognita to me, unknown and unknowable. By the time my mother died, I had moved from Tampa to North Carolina, returning to visit only a few times a year. And still he wasn’t inclined to talk about the past.

I knew he’d grown up part of a pioneer Florida family, working -- grudgingly, according to my mother -- at their dairy in Tampa. Though most of his (our) kin lived nearby, he was not close to any of them and seemed to have no fond memories of growing up in the late twenties and early thirties. And that was all I knew. I was ready to snatch at any crumb of his past.

On one of my visits to Florida, my father, my boys, and I were driving along Tampa’s elegant Bayshore Boulevard with its six and a half mile sidewalk, and Daddy mentioned how, till the mid-thirties, there had been no fancy balustraded sidewalk and seawall– only mudflats.

“I had a little Indian pony,” he said, “and used to ride down here all the time.”

That was it; the moment passed. Probably one of the boys asked a question that changed the subject. But a few years later, after my father’s death, I remembered that simple statement and, from it, constructed for him a more interesting and happier youth.

He probably kept the pony at the dairy, I decided, and when he was done with the morning milking, he’d saddle up his horse – it had grown to a small spotted horse in my mind now – spotted, to account for his calling it an Indian pony. I pictured him riding along the glistening mudflats of Tampa Bay, trailed by neat crescent hoof prints, his blue eyes sparkling like the sun-kissed water. A happy, even romantic boyhood, only slightly marred by cows. I felt as if by discovering this story about my father and his long-ago pony, I had found some key to who he really was.

Recently my brother came to visit. I told him about Daddy's Indian pony and the long rides by the bay back when Tampa was still unspoiled, feeling slightly misty-eyed as I did so.

My brother looked at me in some amusement, " I don't think you've got it right. What Daddy had was one of the smaller motorcycles made by the Indian Company. It was called a Pony."

How many so-called memories, I wonder, do I carry around, never realizing they’re imagined – only figments constructed on a foundation of what might have been? Hard to know -- I'll think about it another time but just now I'm busy reconstructing Daddy's teenage years as a prototypical Marlon Brando -- a la "The Wild One."
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Tammy said...

I like your version better. :-) It is amazing how much a person can take a single thought or bit of information and build it up into a glorious fact. Thanks for sharing.

Vicki Lane said...

By the time I'm 80 or so, I'll have worked out a truly wonderful family history. It is, after all, a cardinal principle of Southern story-telling that one should never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Arrgh! It's just beginning to sleet! (True)

Pepper Cory said...

In contrast to your taciturn father, mine was extremely voluble. I think he made up family mythology as he went along and sometimes his mouth outran his brain. As in your case however, he never let facts dampen good fiction.

Vicki Lane said...

Hey, Pepper! Good to hear from you! I'm going to sidle over to your website and check out your quilts.

Vicki Lane said...

Blogs, that is. Gorgeous quilts!!!