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©Katherine Dunn.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Tribute to Jo Ann, my mentor, my friend

Jo Anne in the lead, Boone and I in the rear. A view I miss.
When I saw the number come up on my phone screen, from my old home of Oregon, I instinctively knew what it meant. I was doing chores in the barn, and reception wasn't good, so I hesitated to answer, and I didn't. I didn't want to hear it. I knew she was dead.

Returning to the house, I returned the call. It was a woman who was one of my riding buddies, telling me that our friend and riding compadré, Jo Anne, had died. She was 85.

When I left Oregon last May, the one person I knew I'd never see again, without doubt, was Joanne. In fact when we knew we were moving to Maine, knowing I'd be leaving her and her barn and all it meant to me was one of the hardest strings to cut for me.

When I bought Boone, I didn't have a trailer. Boone was a well seasoned cow horse, age ten, when I bought him. He was pretty bomb proof, as they say. But like most horses that want a good leader, he tested me. Before Boone, I had a green mare that was way over my head, and I sold her to my farrier before she killed me. Boone was the opposite in personality in every way, non flashy, a bit lazy, sort of a big old dog. But with my history of the first mare, I was a bit shaky on the trail, alone with Boone. A friend suggested I go to Jo Anne's and take some lessons. I decided to invest in a small, cheap trailer to haul Boone the 4 miles to Jo Anne's. It was one of the best decisions of my life, and Boone's.

Jo Anne was already 80 or so when I met her. She'd been a horsewoman her entire life and at one point had about 30 horses boarding in her barn. Her property had hundreds of acres with beautiful wooded trails, and a spot way up high where we could ride and see Mt. Hood. Well, I brought Boone over and began taking some dressage lessons with a teacher. If you had told me I'd be taking dressage with any horse, let alone a retired cow pony, I'd have laughed. But the lessons helped me and Boone so much.

But more importantly, it was my rides with Joanne on the trail that helped me get my confidence back, and helped me and Boone leap into a healthy and strong relationship of trust. One of Boone's issues was squishy, deep mud. It is understandable as years before I had him, he was on the trail and he and his rider got caught in quick sand like mud, and it was up to his saddle bags. The first time I took him out on my own, he would squeal and get anxious if he heard any seeking sound below him, even rearing when I first got him. Of course I got off, and he realized I wasn't much of a leader in squishy circumstances, and why should he endanger his life if I'm not going to lead him out of that.

So Joanne and I would would go to muddy places, not hard to find in Oregon. When I first started riding with her, we'd get a good laugh out of Boone's squeals in mud. In time, they grew less, and soon enough, he never squealed. The first day I went out on my own on the trail was a real big deal for him and me, and Jo Anne was so happy when we made strides like that.

But three months into riding with her, Jo fell. She was a tiny thing and had had so many broken bones and accidents, but was just the biggest come back artist around! She'd tell me these stories of her youth, galloping bareback and falling and hitting her head, "Oh just a little concussion," she'd say. Well, this time, she broke a bone in her leg, so she was sent to the hospital. I was so upset when I found out, because my mom always said when an elder person breaks a bone and goes to he hospital, sometimes they don't come out. Selfishly, I didn't want to lose her yet! Her daughter, who lived in the same house, called to tell me Jo was going to be okay, but that she was worried about me, 'her protege'. I thought that was so nice, I was her little protegé.

Well, eventually, Jo Anne was back in the barn, and in time, she was riding with us all again. We would ride and she would tell me wonderful stories about her kids growing up, and all the over night camping they'd do on the property with the horses, chasing down wandering cows, or losing track of some girl scout from an outing they would be having. In spring, we looked forward to the beautiful woodland flowers, and the dogwood trees that sprinkled her property. Sometimes as I rode I'd look around at where I was, and pinch myself, it was so beautiful and I was so fortunate to be able to ride there. I had a favorite spot up top of her place, where there was this sweet old apple tree, and Boone and I would canter all the way up, and then enjoy the apples together, while looking out at the mountains.I'd tell Jo Anne that people paid lots of money to take trips like that, and I got to ride there. I knew every ride what a gift that was. I know I told her that more than once.

About a year into knowing Jo Anne, my elderly mother, who was basically very healthy and independent at age 87, began to have some health issues. She lived alone, near my brother, played golf, drove, and had the usual issues of age, but nothing that made us think her time was near. In fact we had just come back from her 87th birthday in January and now it was late March. She was having trouble breathing, and went into the hospital just to make sure. I had been telling Jo Anne all about it as we would get our horses ready to ride, and I was planning to drive down to California to be with her. That was a Wednesday. On Thursday, she died. I cried a river, and more, but then I decided I would keep my standing riding date with Joanne-my mom wouldn't want me crying alone, and horse therapy is some of the best. So Joanne was the first person who knew my mom died.

I remember thinking that maybe we were meant to meet each other in the exact time frame the universe gave us-I could help a little in the barn when she was down that first year, and then a year later, she was there for me when my mother died. Having Joanne as a friend at the time was so meaningful-of course in some ways you could say she was a mother figure, but she was more than that, she was a friend. I never felt a judgmental word from her, and she always had encouraging things to say if something was going wrong in my life, or with Boone.

A few days after my mom died, she handed me a piece of paper, with a poem she had found. She had written in down in her petite hand writing. She said it reminded her of me and how I always felt my parents were in the wind and birds, and that was how I conversed with them. I am going to make a copy of it and send it to Jo's daughter.

I remember the last time I saw her. We had had our last ride, and we agreed to not say goodbyes. I probably acted like I was just cheery and excited, but inside, I could have just wept like a baby at leaving. She gave me a Saint Francis medal to put in my truck for a safe journey. I still have it in my truck. I gave her a donkey doll, which was clothed in some of my mother's sweaters and quilt pieces.

When I heard she had died, I was so sad. She had been hit by a car in December as she was leaving the doctor, and then at some point in February she fell at home and went into a coma which sent her back to the hospital. She was brought home and died soon after, in her house, I imagine with little Oliver, her elderly Corgi by her side. Oddly, all that week she must have been in a coma, I had her on my mind. We had written each other, and spoken in the past months, but I had been playing phone tag with her since December. I had no idea she had the accident. So all last week, I kept thinking, I have to call her, today. I think she must have been passing through to say goodbye.

I told Boone the next day that Jo Anne was gone. I thought of Jo's horse, Boone's buddy, Tong. They were funny together. Tong will be cared for, as will little Ollie.

It is always a mixed bag of thoughts when an old friend dies. It brings up thoughts of our own destinies here on this realm, wondering how we will exit the party of earth, and will it be painless, or quick-will our animals and loved ones be okay. I know Jo Anne was a devout Catholic, and though she never preached, nor did she ever scoff or question my spiritual beliefs, I do know she was in her realm after she died. I just know it and believe it, and know there was a horse there. She and I talked about death quite a bit, since neither of us were strangers to it. I know she told me if she couldn't go to the barn, she would want it to be over.

It's just hard to think of her as not being there, walking to the barn with her little corgi, and I can still hear her greeting me, as I bushed my horse, "Hello! Hello Boone, do you need a carrot?"

Ride on Jo Anne! I hope maybe, just maybe, you can come ride with me when I get back on Boone this spring. Without you, he and I never would have made it to where we are today-you gave that back to us tenfold–the confidence and joy in our riding. I will watch for you!

People say things to try to be compassionate when someone dies. Sometimes, it all falls short. An entire life is a lot to try to caption in one sentence to the grieving. Each person has to rewind the movie they have of the dead person in their head, and watch, and rewind, and then go back to choice moments. In time, the choice moments stay, and pop back into your head and heart for the coming years. But in the initial aftermath of a death, the survivor is stuck in a room, no matter how hard they try to leave, and they alone have to witness the movie over and over until they slowly understand the main actor or actress is not returning for a sequel. The best thing anyone ever said to me when my mother died, was, "Your mom is okay."  It was so simple, but to this day when I miss my mom, I think that.

And now, I will think of Joanne that way too- she is okay.

The medel Jo Anne gave me for our trip to Maine. It stays in the truck.
Boone and his buddy, Tong.
Jo Anne with Old Matilda at Pie Day