Family Unsung Heros

Being Amy

Bob lifts Amy over his head and places her atop Jesse’s plush, winter coat. He makes sure she has one foot on either side of his spine before stepping away. She runs her baby-sized hands over the soft brown hair and leans in to breathe his smell as her dad hoists her older sister, Emily, up behind her.

Emily was four and Amy two when we began spending afternoons at the barn. Molly would enter the picture a year later. Their mother dressed Em and Ames like twins in unimaginably cute outfits, especially during the holidays. Bob would spread a quilt on the lawn outside the arena fence. “Don’t leave the blanket,” he’d say, and they never did. They sat and watched as we warmed up the horse, cantering along the rail, several feet away.

Before I knew it, I had fallen in love with their tiny voices and their sincere interest in everything. I loved the way they held their hands still for each stroke of the brush when I painted their little nails. They were water babies, so we took them to an outdoor pool in the summer, giving them rides on our backs, pretending to be large water mammals, which, of course, we were. Em and Ames seemed always to move in tandem, so close I never thought about one without picturing the other.

Being the oldest child myself, I assumed that Emily was in charge. Tapped into the rhythms of the natural world, Amy often danced to the beat of a different drummer while Emily seemed more in tune with our adult, and more conventional, world. Bob remembers stepping into their room one morning, wondering what was holding Amy up as the rest of us prepared to load ourselves into the car. He found Amy sitting on the floor, moving her hand in cryptic patterns to catch the sunlight on her skin.

A more complex picture came into focus as the girls grew. Although she was happy to give the steering wheel to her sister, I noticed that it was Amy who often charted their adventures. And when Molly joined us and began to vie with Emily for Amy’s attention, Amy became both the coveted prize and the peacemaker.

When Bob and I moved to Virginia, we talked their mother into taking the girls out of Colorado for the summer. While Bob was at work, we four girls went about the business of homemaking together: shopping, cooking, cleaning, tending the horses, and keeping the yard mowed and pretty.

One day, as we were returning from the grocery store in our hot, husky-voiced hay truck, we found ourselves pulled over at the curb. Amy sat on the bench seat between Em and Molly, all three of them looking straight ahead through the bug-smeared truck windshield, their hair sticking to their necks. I waited behind the steering wheel, and all knew what I was waiting for because we had been here before. I wanted to hear that the kids are done bickering and carrying on, so that I could resume our drive home through the Williamsburg traffic, undistracted.

Amy must have felt her sisters eyeballing her from the corners of their eyes. For one thing, they didn’t want the ice cream to melt. No one did. And she knows that as per usual we are all depending on her to break the silence. So Amy sighed and said, “I want to be good.” Without hesitation, Emily, and then Molly repeated the magic phrase. Before the words were out of their mouths, I pushed the blinker arm down and turned the key in the ignition. I eased into the lane and air began to circulate, mercifully, through the truck cab windows.

Twenty-three years later, Amy is celebrating her thirtieth birthday in Oregon with her mother, her sisters, and her nephew, come from Colorado. Bob was lucky enough to spend a pre-birthday weekend with Amy, Jasper, and Osha the dog last month. He skyped me in from Cheshire that weekend to take me on a tour of Amy’s shrunken ecological footprint. He showed me the creek, the vegetable garden, and the box truck home she shares with Jasper and Osha. We stopped to say good morning to some of their friends that live on the same acreage.

Amy has done a great job of releasing her inner artist without upsetting the balance of nature. She takes cast-off garments made from cotton, silk, and wool and dyes them with black walnut, imprinting them with leaves and other plants. She calls her art: “Scavenge Magic,” and it is indeed a form of spell work in which she dyes clothing the color of the soil, by boiling them in a blackish liquid. She says she is infusing them with “some level of planetary grief.”

It’s a milestone, turning thirty, and we watch Amy reach it with disbelief and pride. Amy has not lost her ability to abandon herself to the beauty of the natural world, and yet she has found a way to survive within our monetary culture. She is an inspiration, a true believer who walks the talk without depriving herself of what matters: quality of life, and the time to enjoy it.

By Camille Armantrout

Camille lives with her soul mate Bob in the back woods of central North Carolina where she hikes, gardens, cooks, and writes.

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