Continued from The innocence of childhood
Life goes on. Yry, prideful and distracted by constant demands of single-parenthood, licked her wounds quietly. During subsequent years, our menagerie grew, as did mother’s real estate holdings. The day arrived when Joan had to load up her lambs and return them to the Talbot ranch, where they would be slaughtered, and their meat would fill our freezer. As recompense, mother purchased the little white stud colt that Joan had been admiring from the Talbot herd. On the heels of that purchase, she succumbed to the clownish antics of a little brown colt of the same age that liked to come nibbling for attention each time we went to the pasture to visit Joan’s young, Blanco.
1960 was a pivotal year. During the 59-60 Christmas holiday, we rode the train to New York City to visit mother’s friends and business partners. On that endless trip, I lost interest in the novelty of passenger trains, growing cranky and red-cheeked. The porters tried to entertain me with ice creams and a collapsible cardboard piggy bank in the shape of our train. But something was off.
We arrived to a robust welcoming committee comprised of the Stein partners and their families, who whisked us off to Fred’s home in the suburbs. After a quick consultation the adults concurred that I had the measles and was to be isolated—left to rest in a dark room with little distraction. Nevertheless, a faceless, nameless string of teenagers snuck into my room one at a time, bringing tantalizing fluids like cool-aid, games, and books to read to me. I rather enjoyed all this attention. I spent most of this visit sequestered in someone’s bedroom, which freed my mother to conduct whatever business she was up to.
Yry’s first real estate expansion came that spring in the form of 60 acres of dry land just a few miles from the city limits. The property included a house, barn, and corrals. She purchased an old pickup truck with hand-made wooden stock racks and later a single-horse trailer that had been made as an FFA project. With this combination we brought the two colts to their new home. Mom rented out the house on the property, and also rented stall and pasture space to college students and other citified horse-owners. Then came my elderly half-Welsh pony, Jessie, who would become teacher to me and a slew of neighborhood kids, as well as surrogate grandmother, babysitter, best friend, and confidante.
Mother’s herd grew by one or two per year until we had more than a dozen of our own horses and several stabled horses to care for. At some point she considered getting into the sheep business; not a particularly welcome past time in Wyoming cow country. But the income stream of sheep ranching was enticing. Not only is there the meat product, but all that wool! And, perhaps there’d also be money in lanolin made from crude wool grease. Fortunately, this idea flitted in and out of her head without any investment or disappointment.
All the while, mom was also purchasing rental property in town. She rented to a river of college students. Each spring and fall she geared up for the student turnover. It was a time of elbow grease and paint. The work was a family affair—a way for us girls to learn the value of sweat equity. She kept the units as well-maintained as possible and fretted over a lost month’s rent. She chose tenants by the look in their eye and never signed lease agreements. When one group graduated, their friends were eager to replace them. In later years she was often not quite sure who was living where.
Mom’s property management sometimes involved a dose of parenting to kids naïve about lawns, furnaces, and gas stoves. She ministered to tearful girls who’d fought with their best-friend-roomies and couldn’t come up with the rent money, and she lectured brawny boys on the necessity of cleaning up the lawn after a party. Occasionally her heart broke when young married students ran into hard times with broken promises or unexpected pregnancies. She was known as a soft-sell and miraculously she rarely got stiffed. She represented something old-world and slightly demented—a talisman of luck to passing generations of students. I think she charmed people into behaving the best they could toward her.
The rental properties were mom’s job. She used her inheritance to expand her real estate empire so that by the time I moved out of state, mom was managing a dozen or more rental units. While I was one of only two or three kids in grade school who was raised by a single-parent, I was the only one whose parent was home every single afternoon and for every single lunch hour—for which I was expected to come home, rather than to eat in the expensive cafeteria with its food of dubious nutrition and quality. No latch-key kid here. I was supervised.