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Volume 3, No. 3: March 15, 2006

Girl Riding Into Town on a Pony

I think I see a girl riding into town on a pony. A few minutes ago she wasn't there, and now I see her in the early sunshine of an October morning, and I begin to imagine what I cannot know.

She sits easily on the animal as it trots alongside the gently rolling road to town from the crossroads where she lives. She is small in stature, but from the look of her, I can imagine her climbing a cherry tree and eating the fruit right off the branches. She has the bearing of a person who is a concentration of energy, and easy though she rides, there is an aura of a hurricane tightly compressed inside her, enough fire to fuel her through many travails. She is a hurricane-girl riding effortlessly into town on a pony. As she approaches, I see that she has dark, dark hair and prominent cheekbones. She will be a beauty.

I imagine she doesn't ride into town on her pony every day. Her parents must allow this only when there is no morning fog on the ground, no rain, no ice, no darkness. On days like that, they drive her into town. She is their only child together, though one of her two older half-sisters lives with them and rides a horse of her own, a high-spirited black one named Billy.

What is her pony's name, and how old is it? It must be exceptionally reliable, and she must be expert in riding it, because she rides alone in this early moment between breakfast and the start of school. Her father has paid tuition to send her to the New Egypt school. She is the only student in the school who rides a pony into town. She leaves it at her grandmother Pierce's house and walks from there to the school.

girl on a ponyThis isn't Mom, but I wonder if she looked like this.
I'll bet the pony was small, like this one..

I imagine she is eleven or twelve years old, not yet heading in the other direction to the Allentown High School. How did she get that pony, I wonder, as she passes and heads into the distance, the yellow and red trees in the background, and the sky a brilliant morning blue. Did she argue that "Millie had one, so why not me?" Did she simply ask to have it for her birthday or for Christmas? Or did her father take the initiative out of thanksgiving that her life was spared a year or two earlier when she was sick the whole summer long, confined to her room upstairs and developing a sore elbow from propping herself up in bed so that she could see the outdoors?

She had gone to a church picnic in Jacobstown, her mother's home town, with her two half-sisters early that summer, gone without her parents, as I imagine it. Some of the church women made fresh chicken salad, as they always did. They had washed the chickens with water from the well next to the cemetery, and everyone who ate the chicken salad became seriously ill. A sick ward was set up in the building next to the church to make it possible for a doctor to see all the sick people quickly.

The girl's aunt, trained as a nurse, deduced after a time that the stricken were suffering from a combination of ptomaine poisoning and typhoid fever. Some of the sick people died; some had blackened legs. Her half-sister Gertrude, who lived with her Aunt Cora, developed fistulas. Her half-sister Mildred had severe joint pains. The girl on the pony developed boils on her head and was sick in bed for eight weeks.

Antibiotics were unknown at the time; it must have been about 1923. Her father grieved over her wounded head and called on his skill as a veterinarian. He applied a salve used to treat dog mange to heal her head.

A girl riding into town on a pony. Every now and then I catch the sound of hooves on the side of the road.

Fourteen years ago her mother became a widow at the age of 22 after a five-year marriage. She had no way to support her two daughters and faced a terrible necessity. Her sister-in-law, Cora, who was childless, took the younger child, two-year-old Gertrude, and raised her as her own. The mother, who everyone called "Lizzie," found work as a chambermaid in the hotel in Cookstown, where she was allowed to keep her older child, Mildred, with her. Aunt Cora lived a few miles away.

By and by she was courted by a young man she had known earlier in Jacobstown. His name was Bill and he had learned about veterinary medicine from his father, John Grace Feaster. He had become a veterinarian by taking a correspondence course from McGill University in Montreal. He achieved legendary status among the farmers in that small part of central New Jersey where a line of towns with Old Testament names – Jobstown, Jacobstown, New Egypt – had defined his family’s world.

At the time he courted Lizzie Challender, he lived on a farm at a crossroads named Dog Town, a few miles from the rail depot in New Egypt. New Egypt was the commercial center of that small region, and it had also been a minor resort, a place with a small lake and the fresh air of dairy country where people came to "take the air" in the late Victorian Era when Bill and Lizzie were children.

During this courtship, Bill had a photographer in New Egypt make a picture post-card of himself in a buckboard. On the back he wrote an invitation to Lizzie to come visit at his home on the weekend. The post-card was one of her lifelong keepsakes.

Bill married Lizzie two years after Frank Challender died, and the girl on the pony was born two years later, in 1913. She was to be their only child. On her first birthday, her mother began a daily practice of keeping a diary. I don’t know why, of course, but as I watch the girl ride her pony toward New Egypt, I imagine the diary marked a point in the young mother’s life when she could re-place herself in the world by a daily ritual of writing.

Bill Feaster was not just a gifted veterinarian, he was a natural businessman. He had a knack for seeing opportunities in the farming and harvesting world he knew, and he could work out complicated transactions quickly and in his head. He developed a trucking business to transport tin cans from Baltimore to the cranberry factories of central New Jersey, and to carry out the cranberry products to the markets in Philadelphia and New York. When he began making annual winter trips to Florida, he realized that he could turn a profit by picking up tomato plant seedlings in Georgia and selling them to New Jersey tomato farmers, helping them get the jump on the season. Later in the season he would go out in the early morning to buy the choicest tomatoes and sweet corn from those farmers. He would bring the produce back to a workforce of women he had organized to clean and polish the tomatoes and corn and place them carefully and perfectly into small, fresh baskets. Then he would deliver them for a premium price to the top New York restaurants before the dinner crowds arrived.

The girl on the pony is growing up in a world of constant motion, of trucks into and trucks out of one of the most fertile places on the continent. Her sister Mil is already caught up in that world, skipping high school to drive the trucks whenever possible. But the hurricane-girl on the pony is intended for a different world. Her mother is becoming a writer, a transcriber of the details of the day. Her father is a person of innate enterprise. Unknown to anyone, he hopes his only child will grow up to be a doctor, as he did, or perhaps a lawyer. That is why he sent her to the better school. She will be the first girl in her line to attend high school and then college. He already has this idea in a secret place in his mind.

But she doesn't have any future in mind yet. She won't prepare for college, but her ability in high school will propel her there, and once there she will take an interest in the world of business and commerce and will develop a taste for urbanity. She will become a transcriber by profession, an organizer of workplace business, and an avid reader. She will somehow come to know the tune of Bizet’s "Toreador Song" from Carmen, and will hum its opening phrase to herself while minding her two toddlers in a future she cannot begin to imagine.

I think I see a girl riding off toward New Egypt on her pony, though I can no longer hear the sound of hooves. A small figure on an amiable mount, moving easily toward my home town. Edna Feaster. Toward the end of a war no one can imagine on this day, she will bring me into the world.