Many moons ago, when we lived in the house surrounded by evergreen trees I remember sitting in the kitchen (with the olive green cabinets) with my mom and my Dad came home from the sale barn. He said, you know, there’s someone down the road that would really like to meet you and ride ponies with you. He had run into Albin Dvorak at the sale barn, and said that he had a daughter about the same age as me, and maybe we could ride ponies together. I don’t remember how we actually met, but I’m guessing it involved loading Toby in the back of the pickup, and taking him the 2 miles down the road so Julie and I could ride our ponies. Yes, that was before we had a horse trailer (and before we had a horse). My dad backed the pickup up to the corncrib alley and Toby had to jump in. That was the only ride Toby every got down that road. From then on, we rode Toby and Brownie up and down the gravel road, from our house to the Dvorak house, and back again — and despite the fact that those ponies had really short legs, they were darn good transportation. We thought we were trick riders sometimes — so we practiced changing ponies when we were riding, first walking, then trotting, and even occasionally riding backwards, and then switching ponies backwards. We could stand on our ponies and ride, but we didn’t do that where anyone could see us.
When my Dad started renting the creek pasture from Wilson for our cows – that gave us another place to ride. We watched the cows cross the creek and decided we could too — and more than once we pretended we were on Gunsmoke and raced from one side of the creek to the other as fast as our ponies would take us. (usually bareback, and wearing shorts and tennis shoes.) As our legs got longer, my Dad bought me Trixie, and Julie’s Dad bought her horse Sugar. Our routine was the same. Most every summer day (as long as I had practiced the piano first) — we would meet at the little bridge that we had decided was half way between our houses, and decide where we went from there. We had an arena at my house (behind the buildings). We had barrels, poles, and sometimes a jumping course. These were not exactly the jumps we just saw on the olympics. We had barrels, 5 gallon buckets, bales (both square and round) and a board that we had found somewhere. Clearly, we didn’t know that people sometimes break their neck jumping over things. We jumped bareback and with our western saddles, helmets weren’t invented yet. I think the tallest we jumped was a board across a 5 gallon bucket on top of one of my barrels. We weren’t just hopping around on 6 inch jumps! Sugar loved to jump — and the little creek in the Wilson pasture was way fun to jump, and gave both of us some horse training skills. We could cue our horses to jump, just like we cued them to do any other crazy thing that one of us thought of. Those were the beginning days of Yankee Riders Saddle Club, and we went on trail rides through what is now Hickory Hills park and Tama County lake a couple of times a month. Once when we were leaving Tama County lake our pickup was having trouble making it up the hills with 4 horses in the trailer, so we stopped, Julie and I grabbed our bridles, grabbed our horses, and we rode to the gate of the park bareback and then loaded our horses back up.
Our lives went in different directions in high school. When Lon got his drivers license, Julie was generally with him, and I was in a different high school and involved in school activities. After high school, Julie and Lon got married, and started their family, and I went on to college. It was always family and being near family that was the most important to her. I have always admired her for knowing what things were important to her happiness. Lon, the kids, and the critters on the farm. It wasn’t always easy. I remember going to the State Fair with them one year and somehow in the line to see the Butter Cow we lost Willis. (hard to imagine if you know him now). Mother Bear Julie came out instantly, and in a few minutes we had found Will and all the kids had gotten a lecture on what to do if they got separated from us. Later in the day, Nicole and I had stopped to watch some horses, and everyone else kept walking, and she stopped in the middle of the street. “Mom, said we’re supposed to stand still until they see us.” Julie taught us all lessons in life.
Skip ahead about 30 years, and I had moved to Tennessee, New York, Cleveland, and back, and my parents were starting to have health problems. That’s when I started blogging, and somehow Julie found those blogs and came back into my life. I saw her for the first time in years at my Mom’s funeral – she came up behind me gave me a hug, and said “Don’t worry, we’re here.” Then I went into caregiver mode for my dad, knowing that she’d be there for me if I needed her. I found out she had been diagnosed with Cancer from her sister after I saw a weird reference on Facebook, and then again — I learned to prioritize the important things in my life by watching Julie. She fought the Cancer with all she had, but she didn’t complain, and she didn’t show fear. Her faith was strong. I’m not saying she wasn’t sad. She hated knowing that she wouldn’t see her grandkids grow to adults so she taught them what she could in the time they had together.
Some time during her fight with cancer, she started ending every conversation with “I love you” instead of “goodbye”. Another lesson from Julie. Say it when you can, and make sure people know that you love them. What I didn’t know at the time, was that I would still be able to hear her saying it after she left us. I can close my eyes and hear it now. I hope her kids and grandkids can too!
Last fall we stopped at the farm after my Dad had an appointment in Waterloo, because Julie wanted to show us her pony. The doctors had told her she couldn’t ride anymore after the radiation, but she thought she could hitch the pony to the cart and drive around. She brought the pony out to show us — and this picture is when she was talking to my Dad, and he said something that made her laugh. She says it was a coincidence that this pony (Honey) had the same coloring as her 1st horse Sugar did — but I’m just not sure. I think it was her way of trying to transfer her love of horses to her grandchildren.
We had a conversation about what was important in life a few months ago, and we were talking about how we had learned that people were the important things in life and that “things” didn’t mean much. Julie had learned it thru the struggles of farming and raising a family, and I had learned it one Christmas when my Dad got violently ill right before Christmas. We believed in family, and she told me that since my parents were gone, I should consider her family mine. She made sure that I had a place to go on Easter and Mothers Day and Fathers Day after my dad passed away. She made me promise to stay family when she was gone. I spent my birthday there, because I knew it was the last chance I would have to spend my birthday with her — and in the afternoon — she made sure I had an impromptu party!
I was in Orlando and I called to check on her, and she had decided we were saying what we need to say that day. That was the hardest conversation ever. Not hard because I didn’t know what to say — Julie and I never had a hard time talking — but hard because Julie and I were both going from tears to laughter to tears. We both knew that we wouldn’t have that many more conversations. She said, I’m sorry, I might make you cry, and I might cry too but we need to say these things. It was June and it was when she decided that she couldn’t do any more chemo. We cried. We laughed. We said I love you. We talked about my blog that I had written after her doctor appointment the week before. I had been taking time off from work to sit with her at her appointments at the University, but my retirement gave me more freedom to go to Clutier to the farm and help out. I am so thankful for the time we have spent together recently. About a month ago, I went in to her bedroom to hang out with her and she said — “You probably think I’m lame for laying in bed.” I told her that there would be a day I would sit at her bedside, but that was not the day. For that day, I told her to sleep and get the rest her body craved.
I sat by her bedside on Tuesday. The ability to speak had been taken away, but I sat, and I talked with her. I held her hand and cursed Cancer, because it had taken away her physical strength, but she still held her Rosary. Every now and then, I’d ask her a question, and I’d see her eyes dart toward me so I would know that she understood. She knew every time that Lon came in the room, and I know she could see how hard it was for him. I could feel her worry for him as I sat with her. She hung on, until after evening milking, when all her kids had come back in the house. She left us on her terms, at home on the farm she loved with her husband and five children in the room with her. She fought cancer for 22 months, and spent maybe 4 days in the hospital. Her strength gave her family strength, even thru those last hours.
I love you Julie. I will miss you, but I’m guessing God needed some help teaching other people the lessons you taught us.
An only child’s journey continues……