These words may be the most murderous message one can deliver to another human being. In “Sam (a pastoral)” my novel about horses and humans, those words are never said. But the protagonist, Ruthie gets a the unspoken signal from her Dad: he would have liked a better kid than the one he got.
When I was young, many folks thought that being harsh and judgmental with your children was something you did ‘for their own good.’ Belittling your kids was supposed to toughen them up for the inevitable hard knocks awaiting them in the real world. Cuddling them produced adults who were soft, gay, dependent on food stamps, whatever. Today, at least among liberal thinkers, what was once a popular child-rearing method is called ‘abuse.’
In “Sam” there is a quiet, bucolic chapter called ‘At the Horse Show.’ In this chapter Ruthie, having bought the homely, cranky horse Sam, leaves him snoozing in the barn and goes to see a local horse show. She is happy because she is no longer jealous of kids who own horses – she has a horse now too, and he is wonderful in so many ways.
She forgets all those wonderful ways the moment she sees the pretty, graceful, shiny ponies the other kids have: their braided manes, dainty feet and sleek clipped coats. The ponies she used to dream about; just better in every way than hers.
She goes home and tries to pretty Sam up. She trims the mops of hair off his fetlocks. She cuts off his beard and whiskers. She braids his mane and hacks off half the hair on his tail, trying desperately to turn him into some other horse; but Sam is still Sam. By the end of this fruitless makeover session, which Sam enjoys immensely, she figures something out: Sam is OK just the way he is.
Later in the book, there is a deeper echo of this story, as Ruthie and Bea Pilcher sit in Bea’s kitchen talking about the breakup of Ruthie’s family, and the terrible rage that has devoured her life ever since. Bea reaches over and pats Ruthie’s hair and tells her she wished she had a kid like her.
This is the beginning of Ruthie’s return to herself. Somebody has said to her, ‘you may be in a bad place right now, but you, as a person, are OK just they way you are.’