Mary Ellen Nash, Horse Farm Girl

Full of surprises

Mary Ellen is small. Until she was thirteen, she was well under five feet. Which was a good thing at ten-years-old since her immediate plan, then, was to pursue a career as a jockey. An unusual aspiration, you say? Not for Mary Ellen. She grew up around horse racing. Her childhood was spent in and out of stables at her mother’s breeding farm. Her closest friends from the time she was a toddler until she left for boarding school were the men and women who worked with horses and the horses they cared for, trained, and raced. Back then, she really didn’t know other children and, but for the one or two men who worked at her mother’s breeding farm from time to time, she really didn’t know any human males. Her mother had gotten divorced when Mary Ellen was three years old and her father hadn’t been around much before that anyway. Apparently, the marriage started downhill when Mary Ellen was under a year old. The rock bottom was when Mary Ellen’s mother caught her father with another man in the back barn. She got a shotgun and chased the two of them off. The upshot was, other than her mother, when she was a child, Mary Ellen had closer relationships with horses than with people. She fed them, groomed them, talked to them, and rode them almost before she could walk. When she was still an infant her mother would take Mary Ellen in her arms and go for a ride. As soon as Mary Ellen was four, she spent more and more time in the stables, helping out with feed and mucking out the stalls. Her mother started home-schooling her at that age as well. So, until she was eleven, Mary Ellen was a solitary child with no friends. The only children she ever saw were relatives who would occasionally visit on weekends. But these visits were invariably strained and a bit artificial. Her mother’s relatives thought horses were dirty and, while visiting, made their children sit quietly in the family room. So, it was a rude shock when Mary Ellen’s mother decided Mary Ellen should go away to boarding school. Mary Ellen laughs about it now. But she cried a good deal when the time came to leave the only world she had known until then. She describes her first couple of months at Chappel’s School for Young Ladies as “dreadful” and the rest of her stay at that school as “plain awful.” Chappel’s caters to a very upscale and cosmopolitan clientele. Its pupils come from around the world and from very wealthy families. Mary Ellen’s mother had inherited a small fortune and the farm always turned a nice profit. But by the standards of the usual Chappel student, Mary Ellen was a “poverty case.” And a hillbilly to boot. When she describes those first months at Chappel’s as dreadful, it’s pretty clear Mary Ellen isn’t exaggerating. She knew how to be around horses, not people. And she was scared. She’d never been away from home. She missed the routine of the breeding farm. She had no idea what the other pupils were talking about when they went on about trips to Europe, dances, boys, things like organic food, conservation, or social issues. Most of these kids had brothers and sisters too. Mary Ellen was an only child. “I might as well have been from Mars.” She complained bitterly to her mother who was unbending. “I taught you well and you should have no trouble getting good grades.” That might have been true if the curriculum focused on Animal Husbandry. But Mary Ellen didn’t know a word of French and hadn’t read any of the books the other girls had read. And while she knew a lot about horse breeding based on books her mother gave to her and her own direct observation of stallions “covering” mares, she knew nothing about how to act around boys and much more than some vague commentary about sex. (“Don’t do it.”) She never told her mother about being groped by a stable hand when she was nine. She wasn’t sure what to call what he did or how she felt while he did it. And how she felt when she left him writhing on the ground after she gave a very hard kick when he pulled his pants down. But she hoped that wasn’t what her classmates were talking about when they giggled about sex. Then, there was the whole thing about clothes. All she had when she arrived at school were her stable and riding clothes all of which had a distinctive scent. She could deal with physical bullying. She may have been small but she was strong and could handle herself. But she had never been psychologically teased before and it got to her. They started to call her “The Runt,” “Shrimpola,” and “Mary Manure.” Mary Ellen couldn’t do anything about her height. She actually loved being small. “Not big and clunky like those other lumpy lugs.” But, on a trip home on a weekend, she dragged her bitterly complaining mother to town and got a completely new wardrobe. The clothes she selected were not much more fashionable than her regular “stable” clothes. Her mother insisted on having the final say on every selection and her taste and sense of propriety clearly had been formed in another time. And perhaps, as Mary Ellen saw it, on another planet. But, at least, the clothes selected did not smell like the stable. And that helped. Mary Ellen had to admit wearing riding boots to class at a fancy girls’ boarding school was a bit silly. Mary Ellen was too small to do well at the field sports that were so important at Chappel’s. No soccer or lacrosse for her. But her small and chunky form was just right for modern dance and she went at it with gusto. She made friends with the dance instructor and one or two of the other girls in the dance class. She also did well academically. So, by the Thanksgiving break, Mary was beginning to enjoy herself, that is, until the week after everyone came back from Thanksgiving holiday. That’s when the school bully and two of her buddies caught Mary Ellen taking a walk behind the school’s administration building. It’s an isolated area. And private. There are no windows and a lot of trees on that side of the administration building. It’s also out-of-bounds for students. The girls figured they’d give Mary Ellen good beating for being where she shouldn’t and for “being weird.” And, at first, it looked like they were going to do it when Mary Ellen landed her first punch. And then a very hard kick. Mary Ellen did not come out of the incident without a scratch but the other young ladies fared far worse. They went to the school director, claimed Mary Ellen had attacked them without warning, and left them bloodied and bruised. These were three big girls, members of the senior lacrosse team. And one was smore busted up than the next. But one of them was the daughter of the school’s major benefactor, a well-known litigator. The school director had law suits dancing in her head and decided Mary Ellen should get hauled in to explain herself.  Standing there, in the middle of the director’s office, being glared at, while the three other girls sat in cushioned chairs trying to look hurt and innocent, Mary Ellen got the same feeling she had when she once faced down a spooked stallion. Or when she kicked that stable hand. Scared at first but not for long. The director started in, “Is what these girls say true? You did that to them? How could you? This behavior is definitely not Chappel and we won’t stand for it.” Mary Ellen got very red in the face. She was tongue tied for just a second and then something happened. It was as if she had suddenly become someone else. One-minute feeling and looking helpless and vulnerable. The next minute anything but. “You think that a runt like me could do that to them? Look at them. Look at me. I’m the Shrimpolo. Too small for sports. Any one of them could send me to the hospital. You ask them what happened. And why.” Mary Ellen couldn’t believe she said all that. She had no idea where it all came from. But she was enjoying being at school for the first time. So, instead of expelling her, the director said she would give Mary Ellen a warning letter for her file, told her to behave herself, and sent the other girls to the school nurse. The long Christmas holiday came and went. Mary Ellen kept up her modern dance and continued to do well academically. But she was still pretty much an outsider. There was a dance with a nearby boys’ school. Mary Ellen wore one of the dresses her mother has specifically selected for “dress up.” She knew it was ghastly but it was all she had. None of the boys wanted to dance with a short and solidly-built girl who didn’t seem very friendly and was wearing this “weird dress.” About a week after the dance, someone asked, “Are you gay?” Mary Ellen, still naïve about such things, had no idea what they were talking about. She said, “I’m happy sometimes.” When she figured it out, she didn’t know what to think. That very week, perhaps by coincidence, the new dance instructor put a hand up Mary Ellen’s skirt. What Mary Ellen knew about sex at that stage of her life had remained limited. She had been essentially cloistered on the horse farm for most of her life. She knew about horse breeding and the mechanics of sex but nothing otherwise, except for the one experience with the stable hand when she was nine. When the dance instructor put her hand up her skirt, Mary Ellen felt the same sensation she had when the stable hand groped her. But much more so. It scared her. She twisted the instructor’s hand until the instructor cried out. After that, Mary Ellen made sure that she was never alone in dance class. At the end of the school year, Mary Ellen was back at the horse farm dealing with the onset of early adulthood. She didn’t want anything more to do with Chappel’s School for Young Ladies. She talked her mother into enrolling her into another school, one more relaxed, where she could keep a pony and one that was co-ed. The summer between the two schools, Mary Ellen “earned her keep,” as her mother put it, by working in the stables. Messy work but Mary Ellen loved it. No one much to bother her. Plenty of time to go riding. And it was work she had done since she was five. Her only disappointment: she had hoped to have a pre-teen growth spurt. Her mother did not help things in this area by saying things like, “I’d have expected you to have developed breasts by now. You look like a boy.” But Mary Ellen didn’t help things either by having her hair cut short. So, in the fall, when she arrived at her new school, pony in tow, people didn’t know what to think. Definitely a girl but looking a lot like a 10-year old boy. This wasn’t important to Mary Ellen a year or two ago. But it was very important for a young lady of twelve going on thirteen. And Mary Ellen had gotten her wish; unlike Chappel’s, this new school was co-ed. And Mary Ellen wanted very much to be seen as a girl. Despite that though, she fell in with a bunch of guys who were serious video gamers. Up until she saw these boys playing, she’d never seen a video game, let alone played one. But she very quickly got very good at it. Within weeks, she was the best player in the school. Some of the other girls were appalled. Others were envious. Mary Ellen also made friends with students who, like her, came to school with a pony. This group, unlike the video-gamers, included both girls and boys, including some of the most popular and sophisticated kids in the school. At first, they didn’t know what to make of Mary Ellen. Videogame nerd but knows more about horses and riding than anyone they had ever met. In the end, they all decided that Mary Ellen was “really nice” and “fun.” One of the boys developed a crush on her, something she wasn’t sure how to handle. The first time he tried to kiss her, she was stunned. Speechless. Unresponsive. But the second time, she kissed back, maybe more enthusiastically than he was expecting. She may have been more surprised than him. Over the course of the school year, there were one or two other boys as well. This was all new for Mary Ellen as were the breasts she finally developed. She still played videogames but the video-gamers who had originally seen her as “sort of a boy” began to treat her differently. They didn’t swear as much around her. High-fives were definitely different. When she was home again for the summer, her mother’s reaction was, “Well, getting to be a proper young lady. We’ll have to keep a close idea on you.”  She put Mary Ellen back to work mucking out stables for the summer. In her spare time, Mary Ellen still rode a lot but she also began taking books out of the local library and tried writing. When she went back to school in the fall, she took her pony again but also some nicer clothes. Some of the girls had taught her how to dress. She let her hair grow. No more little boy look. And she wasn’t so sure about a career as a jockey anymore. She would have to see. Her attitude toward coursework changed as well. She slacked off for a while. Her grades dropped. Then, she shifted focus from things like Biology and Chemistry to History and French. When it came time to graduate, Mary Ellen wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with herself. But her mother insisted she go to the state agricultural school. Her mother’s idea was; Mary Ellen would get the expertise she’d need to manage the family horse farm and, later on, to take care of her mother in old age. After one semester, Mary Ellen had a different idea. There was a lot of yelling and screaming when Mary Ellen announced she was switching colleges to major in French Literature. She had stayed in touch with a boy from boarding school. He was from Switzerland. He talked about the special pleasures of French culture and life in France. He also talked about joining him at his college. Mary Ellen made all the arrangements on her own without telling her mother until the last moment. She wanted it all to be definitive and a fait accompli. She also noticed she showed a very independent and decisive streak in moments that demanded action. There was the time in the Chappel director’s office when she defended herself against her assailants’ lies. At the time, she couldn’t believe she had the nerve to speak up like that. Then, there was the time that boy kissed her and she kissed back. More than once and with an enthusiasm that surprised both him and her. And now this! Standing up to her mother and getting what she wanted. She got her way. She took classes with the boy from Switzerland, made love with him, went on summer vacation in Europe with him, broke up with him, switched out of French Literature into European History and, then, Government. She didn’t know exactly where she was headed but she had the feeling she was getting close. The summer before her senior year in college, she worked as an intern in the governor’s office. That set her thinking about law school. But her mother fell and broke her hip while running across a paddock to help a stable hand who had just been kicked by a jittery horse. So, Mary Ellen quit school and came home to take over. This was a month before she was supposed to graduate. She ran things for a year. Then, she made arrangements for a manager to take over day-to-day operations and went back to school to finish things up and graduate. But that year away from college told her a few things: horses weren’t where her future was, she was a pretty good manager, she had good instincts, and was capable of decisive action. She wasn’t sure law school would be in her future but she was giving it a good, hard look. When her mother was back on her feet, Mary Ellen took a long trip, ostensibly checking out law schools, but also visiting friends, sightseeing, and just mooching about, sizing the world up. Along the way, she met someone who could be pretty serious. He didn’t know it yet. But, soon enough, he would. Mary Ellen was just getting started.

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