There Once Was a Man on a Horse

by Gina Stogran on March 03, 2021
A beautiful green pasture on the rolling hills of southwestern Pennsylvania overlooking the forest. The view of the family farm.

I am very lucky to have had all four of my grandparents in my life for so long. As a kid, I spent a lot of time with them doing everything from camping in the mountains to canning tomatoes to Sunday School at the small church my dad attended as a child. But the real blessing was the chance to get to know them as an adult, the real person behind the endless amount of cookies and marshmallow fluff. (Well, the cookies are still a thing, but I’ve cut back on the fluff, you know, for adulting purposes.)

Since college, I have lived in several different states, too far for any of my grandparents to travel. But when my husband and I would go home, we always paid them a visit.

It was strange to be in their home without a roast in the oven and the general hustle and bustle of family gatherings. Through the lens of adulthood, so many things look different – our conversations changed, time sped by, and goodbye hugs lasted longer.

My Pap on my dad’s side was a man’s man. A war veteran, father of five boys, and a farmer who lived on a gravel road in southwestern Pennsylvania. He worked in the steel mill most of his life, as many did in the area. Growing up, I remember my sister and I were afraid of him. When he wasn’t at work he was trying to sleep and yelled a lot at us kids. (I realize now it was probably more about the night shifts than a general dislike for children.)

Every once in a while, my dad would take us to their house when my gram wasn’t around. We would spend the whole time hanging out in the basement with him and pap, which we loved because it was usually off-limits. That’s where he spent his downtime. He even had a little kitchenette built within the space equipped with a kegerator and AC. (He didn’t mess around.)

There are just a few distinct things I remember about him from childhood…

1. He had someone paint a mural in his basement getaway, which I thought was so cool. My memory of the image is foggy, but I know it was a man on a horse. Pap was a country boy so maybe it was a cowboy or it could have been a soldier.

2. He cut the grass on the farm with what looked like a giant red tractor from an old movie. (This was a risky maneuver as the farm was on a steep hillside because, well… Pennsylvania.)

3. He had a tattoo. I mean he had several tattoos, but one really stood out. It was an old sailor type tattoo, blue line art of a naked lady on his right arm. And boy could he make her dance! (A totally normal and appropriate way to entertain two little girls.)

Pap with naked lady tattoo from the navy.
Pap just a few years before moving into assisted living. Enjoying some time at home with Baby D.

Eventually, time humanized him. Old age softened his edge but not his spirit. His bright blue eyes would light up each time we walked through the door and he made the most of every visit. He loved my husband, and he would carry on a conversation with him about everything under the sun. He really opened up to us and I finally started to feel like I knew him. Time flew by, faster and faster, especially since I only got to see him a few times a year at best.

Seeing such a strong and guarded presence in your life grow old and frail right in front of your eyes is hard. Real hard.

Eventually, he and gram moved into an excellent assisted living facility. Gram was sick and he was struggling to get around without falling, so it was time. Going from an expansive farm to a two person room had to be a struggle. A struggle which continued as my gram’s health continued to decline, and Pap felt more helpless.

When the time came, we were all concerned about how he would do in the home without her. His mind would sometimes slip, although he made it through the viewings and her funeral like a champ. After the service, a lunch was held at the American Legion just down the hill from my parents’ house. It wasn’t until that day that I learned that particular part of the building, where the family was gathered together in remembrance, was once their family home.

I decided to ride along with my dad as he drove Pap back to the nursing home. It was the best decision I could have made because that’s when I knew he was going to be fine. How did I know? Well, he flirted with the gal at the front desk, egged on a fight with a male staff member (all in good fun, of course), and juked his wheelchair back and forth down the hallway saying hi to everyone we passed. It was a quick elevator ride to the second floor, where he introduced me to the little birds the assisted living facility had in a beautiful nook for residents to enjoy. Walking into the once shared room, there was a sense of emptiness as my gram’s bed had already been broken down and removed. One whole half of the room was vacant.

In that moment, I decided I wanted to make some artwork for his room. The basement mural. It was long gone by now, but maybe someone had a photo or knew the artist. If I could find some reference, I’m sure I could recreate the image in some way. What a great Christmas gift that would be, bringing a nostalgic piece of home to his new space. It was already late September so I had to get started. Most of the family members I asked didn’t remember anything about a mural, and the few that did couldn’t remember the details.

Just before Christmas, he passed away. I wasn’t able to fly home for the funeral. He was the last grandparent I had left, but the first funeral I had to miss. I’m still not sure how I feel about that. I lost all 4 grandparents in just a few years, and I can’t help but feel like maybe I should have been there more. Just one more trip home. Just one more conversation. Just one more goodbye hug.

Though I’m normally like Buddy the Elf during the holidays, with his passing, I just didn’t have it in me. The holidays came and went. We made the trip home but it wasn’t the same. The new year came without celebration, and January seemed to go on forever as January’s tend to do.

In February, I visited a friend out of town. I needed a change of scenery, some fresh mountain air, and her support. After a few local beers, our conversation steered towards my pap and my memories of him. I told her how at ease I felt after my last visit with him at the home. I shared the story of the mural and my idea for his gift. With tears in my eyes I said, “But he was gone before I got the chance.”

The thing is, it was never really about the artwork. It was about all of the things I never did with my grandparents. All of the things that I didn’t know. It sounds selfish as I write this, because I had so much more time with them than most do. But still, I just wasn’t ready to let any of them go.

My friend kindly gave me a minute to pull myself together, and then declared “Well, you have to draw the horse. It doesn’t necessarily have to be THAT horse, but you need to draw the horse.”

Ugh, having a beautifully insightful BFF is both a blessing and a curse. She was right, of course. I had to draw the horse.

For the next few months, I spent hours here and there, searching for the right reference photos. Though I had done the research, planned out the composition, and prepped the surface, my drawing board remained blank. Call it procrastination, emotional avoidance, or even self destruction, in any case, I still needed more time.

One day, I just started. I had recently learned a new technique to scale my composition to the full-size board and I decided to try it, with the horse. Why not? I had already planned out the piece so I could get started right away.

Maybe it was the new technique, or maybe it was just time to get it out, to let go. That damn horse just poured out of me onto that board. It felt good. No pain, just a mess of charcoal and my horse.

Horse charcoal drawing in progress - step 1 sketch
Horse charcoal drawing in progress - step 2
Horse charcoal drawing in progress - step 3
Horse charcoal drawing in progress - step 4
Horse charcoal drawing in progress - step 5
Horse charcoal drawing in progress - step 6
Finished Horse charcoal drawing
by Marnelle Ritchey on March 09, 2021

I just laid here in bed in tears. O how I miss them both. I think we were all scared of Pap as kids especially me and my sisters because he yelled at us daily, but he was actually the biggest sweetheart ever. Dly and I would go over and just sit and listen to Gram and Pap tell us all these old stories about when they were young. Dly grew up around Pap all the time, and his nickname for him was Dinggy! I can still hear him calling him that. I don’t remember that mural. Maybe because the garage was so off limits. I’m just not sure. And don’t you dare go over there with no shoes!! That really got him mad as hell. Lol I know cause I did it all the time. And don’t go over at 5 because he would be eating and that would make him nervous if you were there at dinner time. Gram would always chase us away. Our Grandparents hold a special place in ours hearts especially if you get to grow up and spend time with them as an adult. My Nana has been gone for 20 years, and I still miss her and think about her all the time. Thanks for sharing. It brings me back to the days and makes me remember so many things about them through your writing. I’m just thankful I had them in my life so long.

by Beth Fowler on March 05, 2021

Well that made me cry Gina this absolutely beautiful I too was scared of him at first but he really was a teddy bear albeit a crabby one at times can’t wait for Uncle Jim to read this


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