It’s funny how we break time into fragments. Before I got married. After I had kids. Before I went to college. After I became a novelist. 1990 was definitely a year that fractioned my life. When I look back on that time, I mostly see it as the year we lost my brother Rob. It’d be easy to think of my sophomore year of college as the time when life as I knew it ended and a different, terrible reality took its place.
But 1990 was also the year I met Sandy Lobel—an event that I look back on now and realize had its own fault line. Before I met Sandy when I was just a kid with some raw talent for staying on naughty horses. After I met Sandy and my life was forever changed. The summer before my second year at college, I was at a horse show and saw a trailer from Morristown, New Jersey—just a few miles from school. I wandered over and introduced myself. The Ravenswood crew promptly invited me down for a visit. And that was that.
Riding is so much more than just finding distances and looking pretty. It’s about knowing your horse so well that you can predict his moods before he feels them. It’s about working hard and cleaning tack and freezing mornings in the dark and late nights when you have to roll your windows down in January to stay awake coming home from a show. Riding is about becoming a horse person. It’s about being kind to your barn mates and helping them up instead of kicking them when they’re down. It’s about becoming a family and taking care of each other like family does. That’s what Sandy and Ravenswood taught me.
I’d only been at Ravenswood for four weeks when Robbie died. One of my parents called Sandy to tell her I was leaving school and to please take care of my horses for a while. She drove to my dorm room and held me until I couldn’t cry anymore. When I got back to school she never pitied me. She just loved me. She was my mother when my own mom couldn’t be there. She was my friend when all of mine didn’t know what it was like to be nineteen years old and suddenly not know what life was about anymore. She was my shelter, my protector and when she needed to be, she was the fiercest mama bear.
For a while after Robbie, I thought Sandy, Anna and all the boarders at Ravenswood were being super nice because they’d heard about what had happened. I know that kind of sympathy. It’s genuine, but finite. This wasn’t that. By the end of the school year, I started to suspect that something was really wrong with my health and my mom had told Sandy, but not me. That’s how lovely she was. I really truly wondered if she was just so kind because she knew something I didn’t.
Summer came, I went home and didn’t drop dead. When I returned to Ravenswood in the fall, it was as if no time had passed and Sandy, Anna and everyone were just as welcoming and kind as they’d been the year before during a time of so much grief. I continued riding with Sandy, learning how to think like a horse, be soft on the horse’s mouth even when I was getting run away with, and understand that I was a part of their family.
That realization came at the perfect time. There was yet more upheaval in my life, although this time around it was on a much lesser scale. An old boyfriend couldn’t quite let go and things got a bit scary. When campus police told me I should leave my dorm for a while, I got in my car in the middle of the night and drove to Sandy’s house. This was before the days of cell phones. So I just showed up, scared and crying. She opened her front door, looked behind me to make sure I hadn’t been followed and hugged me hard. Then she put her hand to my cheek and told me I’d stay with her until I felt safe enough to return to school. Here’s the thing. I never told her why I was there. She just knew. Because she was Sandy.
I rode with Sandy for three years in college, but when I graduated, our relationship didn’t wane. I visited her when I could and went to dinner with her when we were at the same horse shows. She met my kids when they were little and took an instant liking to Kurt. She was proud of me for the life and horse choices I’d made and she always told me so. I went on to return to the barn I grew up riding at, then moved to another beautiful place where Kurt and I got married. Eventually, I landed with Peter where I’ve parked myself for more than twenty years (although now I’m more fangirl than rider). When I first met Peter in the late ‘90s, he complimented me on my strong foundation and natural style. I thanked him for the high praise and then promptly gave all the credit to Sandy.
Sandy’s methods were so grounded in horsemanship and simplicity that I walked away from some lessons not realizing how much I’d learned until I’d think about it later on. Without a doubt my growth on a horse was immeasurable during the years I spent with Sandy. But again, it was the life lessons and feeling like I belonged somewhere that have stayed with me for more than thirty years.
Last summer I found myself working or riding at Princeton three different weeks. I called Sandy, thinking maybe we could meet up for dinner one night. What happened next I can only describe as magical. She insisted I stay at her house and hosted dinner parties that kept me up and laughing way past my bedtime. We sat on her porch and shared stories of times past and current days as we watched the sun set in shades of deep purples and dusty pinks. She introduced me to people who used to ride with her years ago and they said the same thing as me: Her impact and love have stayed with them all these years. I slept soundly in a beautiful room after gourmet meals and woke to breakfast sandwiches on the counter and fresh eggs waiting for me.
I returned each night to a hug that made me want to stand still forever. And every morning when I left, Sandy would tell me she loved me. And I would say the same.
It was nothing more than happenstance that led me to those shows last summer. It was the kind of kismet that I loudly and repeatedly profess to not believe in. But goodness, I don’t know what else to call it. When I drove out of Sandy’s driveway that final morning, I didn’t think it would be the last time I would see her. I knew of her health challenges, but I believed she would overcome them and I would get down to Florida to visit. It wasn’t so.
When Anna called me yesterday, I knew as soon as I saw her name flash on my phone. I knew. I’m sad. Of course I am. I loved Sandy like she was my second mother. Because she was. But I have a profound sense of peace knowing I said everything I needed to say to her. There wasn’t much. Just that I love her and I will forever be grateful for her love. It was a pretty awesome thing to be loved by Sandy Lobel. I am a better person for having been loved by her.
For Sandy—wherever you may be. I miss you and I love you.