Saturday, December 1, 2012

Margaret Granger and the School of St. Thomas Equinas

The story I wrote about Margaret Granger is below the picture (below) of Miss Margaret. I wrote it around 1990 when I could still remember all the details, but it took me until 2012 to type it out and post it here. After I posted it, to my great surprise and delight, someone else who knew Margaret Granger well responded to my posting. Her stories about Miss Margaret certainly show her in the same light I in which I saw her!  I thought I would post them in this update first as a sort of introduction to my story. She also sent this wonderful picture of Miss Margaret in her overalls feeding her horses. She was a memorable as well as remarkable person. I am glad so many of us remember her! (Mimi Hanson aka Mary Freeman)

Hi Mimi,
My sister sent me your essay about Miss Margaret featured in The Circle.  We lived just up the road from her farm and my brother hung out at her barn too, although he was there in the mid 60's.  His name is Chris Carter.  I loved you essay.  I think the black family you were writing about is the Wells family.  One of the stories I have heard often about Miss Margaret is that she went to the stock yard and was such an animal rights advocate that she took a whip to the men who were overseeing the cattle, because they were inhumane in their practices.   In the late 1960's interstate 64 threatened to cut her farm in two.  It literally did, the interstate ran between her cottage and her barn, but not before she gave a good fight. She stood out in the field with a gun and backed the construction workers down. 
When Miss Margaret was ill, I followed my mother down the dirt road to take her some ice cream.  I loved her farm.  We went to her funeral and she was buried up on the hillside to the right of her little cottage.  The hearse had quite a time getting up that hill.
 Attached is a xerox of a picture of Miss Margaret. My sister had written a paper about her in college and had borrowed the picture from somewhere.  My mother smartly make a copy for each of us and I would like to share it with you. 
Taryn Carter Whitlark
miss margaret.jpg


On the outside it was a horse farm--“The Shrine of St. Thomas Equinas”--but it was really Margaret Granger’s homestead in Charlottesville, Virginia, and beyond that, her home. I know that now, looking back, but I did not know that then except peripherally.  What I knew of her no one told me directly (she spoke to me rarely), but I watched her and listened a great deal. She called me “Tom cat,” or simply “Tom,” because she had a nickname for everybody, and I had brought her an orphaned tomcat kitten which she took in. Officially she took in horses--that was her business; and she was well educated--so Mrs. Harriot, my friend’s mother, told us.  She would say things in Latin sometimes, for emphasis it seemed. My mother laughed at the pun on Aquinas, trying to explain it to me.
“Miss Margaret,” as we called her, wore overalls, the heavy duty denim kind meant to last, every day that I saw her, and she was working--working hard--every moment I ever saw her. I saw her talking to people sometimes, usually about business, about horses. She said little to any of us:  we were the current crop of thirteen and fourteen year old school girls who were hung up on horses and could think of no place we’d rather be than working for Miss Margaret.
I can’t exactly remember being hired, I certainly wasn’t paid, and when I first arrived I didn’t even know how to ride, but I spent every afternoon or weekend I could there until it seemed I had a place of my own in what was going on. We fed the horses and rode them down to the spring for water; we groomed them, fed them, shoveled out the stalls and got them ready for paying customers to ride. After I could ride well enough myself, I took people out on the trails, guided them to the fields where they would want to gallop. In the hot afternoons in Spring we would take the horses down to the creek where they would roll over in the water, cooling off. Once, doing this, I felt a sudden ache in my toe and pulled it out of the water to find it slashed almost in half by a piece of glass, and my blood darkening the water all around.
Another time I fell off Heather Ann, a bay mare with a crew cut with a mouth like leather, when she decided to run away with me. She galloped back to the barn across terrain filled with thickets and holes in the ground, ivy vines, and vast clumps of honeysuckle, at a speed I had not dreamed possible. Of course I fell off.  As I landed I saw her hoof come down less than six inches from my face. I limped back, shaken and hurting, to the barn where I can’t remember if Miss Margaret had anything to say or not. I doubt it actually. She rarely spoke, because she was too busy to talk most of the time, which may be why I so clearly remember almost everything she ever said to me directly. I wore my neck in a brace for a month after that.
I really knew little about her. My mother said she was a descendant of an old Southern family whose house had been burned down in the war, though I don’t know how she knew that. Maybe she just guessed--it seemed a good guess, for she owned a great deal of land and had a black family and a poor white family living on it too. We just did what she needed us to do, which was anything which needed to be done. Some of her horses belonged to other people, but I doubt they knew that.
A well-to-do Englishman we all called “Engy” owned the horse I used to take care of and ride the most:  Crayla was her name. Miss Margaret said she was a descendant of Man-o-War and pointed to the streak down her nose. Back when I first arrived, and had been there a few times, I was told to go down and bridle up a horse named Pony. When I got there he didn’t cooperate. He clamped his jaws down tight, threw back his head and circled around in his stall backwards away from me, so that just when I had it ready to jam in his mouth, I’d miss and he’d back away and go around again. It was awful. So I went back up to Miss Margaret and told her I couldn’t do it. She just said “Well, go on back down until you do.”  So I did. I finally exerted more force on the horse (despite his name he was a real horse) and was quicker, the mouth opened, the bit went in, I got it buckled around his ears, and I led him up. It wasn’t long after that that Crayla became “mine.”
I thought of Crayla as mine, even though she thought she belonged to Miss Margaret, and it was Miss Margaret who was paid by Engy to take care of Crayla. Engy owned Crayla, and he hunted with her (she could jump), but I don’t think she knew she belonged to him. In Crayla’s mind she was Miss Margaret’s horse, and she allowed me take care of her. I rode Crayla across the fields for miles once, with others, to take her to a hunt for Engy, jumping four foot fences and walls on the way, scared to death, but having to believe she would just do it. But oh! You have to gallop and get up enough speed to do it. It was Miss Margaret who told me I would have to lean way forward when she jumped, so she could keep her balance, when I first tried (not then). You have to be careful not to disrupt the horse’s balance. By then I was a good rider, I could ride bareback, and jump up on her back, which was seventeen hands high, from the ground flat-footed; but I was still scared of all that sudden strength gathered. A horse preparing to make a jump is under its own control, and momentarily you sense how much a horse’s own strength is, apart from what it is willing to do for you. You have to be grateful to a horse after all that, for doing it and not killing both of you.
One girl was so good with one very high spirited horse who constantly bucked that Miss Margaret commented that so-and-so (the girl) had a “bubble of balance” about her. Then, as though she felt compelled to, she began telling each of us what we had about us, the way so-and-so had the thing about balance. When she came to me she said “Tom...well, Tom knows how to work!” (Tomcat was shortened to Tom, or occasionally lengthened to “Thomas” by then.) I have learned since to appreciate the accuracy of her evaluation.
No one could work like Miss Margaret however. Miss Margaret was so strong she could throw whole bales of hay up into the loft of the barn. She looked tall, about six feet, but she probably was a little shorter than that. She had straight white hair, always tied back in a bun. She looked and was very, very strong. She was always moving, always working. She took care of her very old mother, who was bedridden and stayed where they lived in a little house in the shade of the woods near the spring where we watered the horses at the base of the hill--the barn stood at the top.
She was always up at the barn working, or talking to people who came out to hire horses, or she was down there attending to her mother, who would call and ring a bell for her to come. Miss Margaret would shake her head back and forth, looking down at the ground as she strode down over and across the rocks to the path through the woods to the little house, muttering to herself as she went, sometimes laughing at the mistiming of the call; but she always went. She had hammers and pliers in her back pockets occasionally, and always a handkerchief which she would use to wipe off the sweat on her forehead. She looked about sixty to me then. But considering the strength she must have had, to do the things she did, it seems impossible she was that old. Knowing what I know now at forty-six, how it slowly leaves you, however strong you once were, I think she must either have been much younger, or much stronger than I suspected.
One day I couldn’t find my sweater, and when I told her so, she said “Well, if that’s all you have going wrong, you’re doing pretty well.” I didn’t understand at first what she was saying to me, so I thought about it. I always felt humble near Miss Margaret. I was shy, and polite (by nature and habit) but this had nothing to do with that.
I never saw her ride very often, but she knew everything about horses and loved them. She knew what to do when Crayla’s colt almost strangled himself trying to eat oats. (That’s when I found out horses can’t vomit--Miss Margaret told me this.) You had to work it, stroke it down his throat from the top and outside, and be careful he didn’t do it again right away. He was teething, she said, and didn’t know any better because he was so young (he was half grown then, taller than me) trying to eat the oats too fast.
She knew about horseshoeing, though she had a blacksmith come regularly to do it, and about delivering foals too, knowing how to look for the signs which told her they were about to arrive. She had us put blankets over the horses at night in cold weather, and I listened to her tell someone about how Big Red (who was her horse) had been beaten over the head until he was almost blind from it in one eye, before she got him, and that was why he wasn’t too bright. He loved her and definitely seemed much brighter when she was around. “Good horse....good horse!” she would say to him with obvious, deep affection, and he would tremble with joy, standing with his great neck arched, his one good eye on her. We all looked at her that way too, though we probably didn’t think of it that way then. We just did everything she told us to do, gratefully.
Kelpie was another one of her horses. She always let him go out in the alfalfa patch, he was so old. He was thirty-two, Miss Margaret said. She was always respectful of Kelpie and we thought of him as the leader of the horses there, which he probably was, though he was sway-backed. I remember now--it was Kelpie she rode when she rode. She had had him a long, long time.
Miss Margaret was laughing one day about a lady, who was foreign--maybe from Sweden--who couldn’t pronounce “alfalfa.” She’d call it “alfa-alfa,” which is what Miss Margaret called it too, laughing. She seemed to laugh to herself a good deal, despite her seriousness--and always brought out those Latin quotations to make a point. I didn’t understand the Latin, but I could usually get the point she made.
At the Shrine of St. Thomas Equinas, Engy would come out and talk to Crayla as though she belonged to him. He was about thirty and a bachelor. My mother always thought he would be interested in me. I thought that was embarrassing. I certainly wasn’t interested in him:  I was thirteen and fourteen then. He would talk in his strong English accent, telling us stories to amuse us--Miss Margaret was amused by him and seemed to enjoy him a lot. I never knew how Engy acquired Crayla in the first place, but Miss Margaret told us she had been trained once for a circus. It was true. If you dug your heels into her ribs, high up, and pulled up the reins short, she would buck. If you leaned way back and put your feet out in front, she would rear. After I found out she would do this, I would try to make her buck and rear many, many times. Finally Crayla grew annoyed at my doing this and flattened her ears and swung her head around to bite me each time I tried. She tried to bite me in the neck once too when I was in the stall with her. I was sure I was going to have blood streaming out of my jugular. I almost told Miss Margaret, but didn’t because I realized she probably would have said something like “Well, it looks as though you’re all right,” and gone right on with her work.
Engy would come out in his hunting clothes, with a crop in one hand, in a riding coat with jodhpurs. He always talked to Crayla with affection and authority, but Crayla would try to bite him too. She would never bite Miss Margaret.  Miss Margaret said ponies were more apt to bite than horses. She knew about things like that--for instance, about horses stepping on your foot and leaning with all their weight when you were trying to brush them. She said when they did it, they did it on purpose. I believed it. I learned to push back, and fast, before my foot got crushed to death.
I spent one whole year learning to ride bareback, and after that never rode any other way, even jumping or rounding up Miss Margaret’s cows. Miss Margaret had a bull and some cows. Horses hate cows she said. It was true:  Crayla was constantly snaking her neck out and trying to bite them, her ears flattened back, when we went out to round them up and drive them back to the barn. Curly, the bull, would lead his cows (they would follow him single file) through dense thickets of briars, which would catch at our legs and scratch us up as we followed them.  Miss Margaret said he did that on purpose. It was hard work. One day I realized I was being a cowboy! One of my greatest wishing-bone dreams had come true, and I hadn’t even realized that this was it! It was nothing the way I  imagined it would be.
Learning to ride bareback was like that. You fell off as soon as the horse started to trot, and it was only easy cantering. Horses love to run away, so when you fell off that’s what they would do--though sometimes that order is reversed. You have to be very crafty, and slow, and pretend to have something to give them to eat to catch them again while you sneak up and get close enough to grab their reins. Also, once you catch them, and you’ve been riding bareback, you have to devise ways to get back up from the ground, especially if there is no stump or boulder available. You never do appreciate just how strong horses’ necks are until you learn to straddle their necks facing forward while they are grazing (which is most of the time) and let them give you a sliding, jolting lift to their backs when they raise their heads to see what’s going on.
We got a chance to go to some horse shows too, and be in them. I signed up for some trotting and cantering classes, the usual thing, but never won even honorable mention. I did get second prize in the costume class once--I went as one of the three musketeers. The best part really was getting to eat the fried chicken someone’s black cook was serving out of the back of their station wagon. She was so friendly, and kept offering me more and more. I have never tasted chicken as good as that was since.
I loved those shows. I would watch the high jumping class, amazed that horses could jump that high, more amazed that anyone would have the courage to try to stay on them when they jumped. I watched a man preparing his horse to jump once with Miss Margaret standing next to me. They would hike the bar up so high, then have someone jump him over it.  Just as he had cleared the bar with his front hooves, two people on either side would suddenly raise the bar so that he would knock his hind hooves on them. He was a very young, and very high spirited horse, a wonderful jumper--it scared him when they did this to him, his eyes all white and his coat foaming with sweat. They did it, Miss Margaret commented to me, seeing my expression, to make him jump higher next time, and they ought to be taken out and shot. I had never seen her so angry. Some people laughed at the “trick,” and some just sort of wandered away looking embarrassed. Miss Margaret went somewhere directly then, probably to get the man in trouble. At least I thought she must have, because the man wasn’t allowed to enter the horse in the next class.
But there comes a point when it no longer will do to look back at Margaret Granger and the world she shared with me and the others (perhaps generations before and after me) simply through thirteen and fourteen year old eyes. That experience, the impressions made then, played against my own as the decades following slowly rolled on. I saw it all with new eyes and with new meaning, looking back, as I encountered my own kind of hard times. I remembered watching Mrs. Harriot giving Miss Margaret two new pairs of denim overalls for a Christmas present the last winter I was there, before I returned to Maine for good. Since then I have recognized something in that scenario I did not then consciously think about as I watched--I just watched then.
Mrs. Harriot was a southern aristocrat and so was Miss Margaret, though she had fallen, apparently, on “hard times;” i.e. she was poor. They were, I saw, social equals. Miss Margaret, however, was nobody’s person but her own while Mrs. Harriot was married to a very wealthy man and seemed alone a good deal of the time, perhaps even lonely. It would have been ridiculous to think of Miss Margaret that way. Miss Margaret was much more than “alone:” she was an entity unto herself and yet always involved with everybody else who came out to do “business” or, like us, to work and be around horses. She nailed her independence in with every hammer swing she too, with the way she made her life.  What was her work? I could have asked myself that question a million times and never known really. It was not her work which was important, anyway; it was her life.
On her land lived a black family with lots of children and puppies.  She was their mainstay, clearly. To their minds, she was still running the plantation. She knew it and treated them with kindness and humility--better, as equals. She wore their clothes and worked alongside them--they were her extended family. On her land also was a sharecropping family whose oldest son spent every moment by Miss Margaret. To him alone fell the great honor of riding Satan, Miss Margaret’s black, beautiful high-spirited mare. He must have been about twenty, and we were all in love with him, although he was clearly “poor white” and said “cheer” for “here” and “hain’t” all the time. His language was crude, he looked (to us) like Elvis Presley, acted like him, could have been his cousin, but there was Miss Margaret teaching him everything she knew. My mother said Miss Margaret was probably going to give the whole place to him someday--leave it to him. It was probably true, though I don’t know how she knew that. I believe he would have died for her. Someone told me his family was rough, that they beat the kids with a belt. I don’t know if this was true or not, but I know he was the only one who could maneuver Satan from a walk into a cantor with no trotting in between. I also knew that Miss Margaret had taught him everything he knew.
It doesn’t matter that I don’t remember anything at all from the classrooms and corridors of the school I attended during that period of my life (though I do remember a solitary essay I wrote--it was called “Pity the Poor Horseshoe” and observed life from the perspective of one). What matters is that the memory of the Shrine of St. Thomas Equinas is clear, and for me now recognizably constitutes an educational experience of exceptional quality. The “teacher” will be thought of immediately as Miss Margaret, but I wonder if that is accurate. Weren’t she, her world, and the life she lived all my “teachers”? She merely lived within that given context admirably--and allowed me to share it. She was, in fact, far too busy to have “taught” us in the traditional sense, with intention. I learned in those two years, however, lessons of character, perseverance, humility, self worth: all the foundations needed for living a life of meaning, as well as everything anyone really needs to know about horses. I doubt if any of it could be found in a curriculum proper today. The curriculum proper was, simply, work and learn. But these simple concepts, integrated as they were with the things we did, modeled by someone whose life filled that domain with love and meaning, not for our sake but for her own, translated into loving to work and learn, a far greater educational offering in total than any of its parts could have proffered in isolation.
As an educator looking at an educator, a supreme educator, I see nothing but an admirable human being who allowed us to find a place in her world. The little world she occupied, the life she lived within it and derived from it, was enough of a microcosm to allow us to transfer what we learned there to worlds we occupied later. This should be how schools are conceived
Most enduring for me was the image of a strong, independent woman whose love and caring made life better for all those she touched, simply by including them in it; and the impression of what it was that made her endure and be whole as a human being, not in respect to money, but in respect to living. In its barest essentials, she offered us love--why else would she have let us hang out? And the barest essentials were all that were needed.

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