I was not quite three years old when my granddad suffered fatal heart attack at the age of 64. I don’t remember what he looked like. My memories are the disconnected snippets of contact I had with him combined with the deep sadness that washed over my parents following his death.
I knew he was a good man, even at the tender age of almost three. I knew that with a certainty because he held me on his lap and let me eat ribbon candy out of the crystal bowl on the kitchen counter, and only a very, very good man would allow such a thing.
I don’t remember the sound of his voice, but I remember his smile. I can vividly recall the snaps on his shirt and the tangy smell of the tobacco he smoked in his pipe. As the youngest of the grandchildren at that time, I had the distinct place of honor on his lap when we visited, and I always felt right at home.
Tobacco is not the only scent that elicits memories of my granddad. To this day, it only takes one whiff of horse manure to take me back to a fleeting memory of his hands hoisting me up on a horse with no saddle or reins. He taught us all how to guide a horse using its mane and the gentle pressure of our legs against its side, and I remember circling the riding arena with a death grip on the mane of the bareback horse.
In his younger years, Granddad was a cowboy, and in using that term I do not mean he wore a hat and rode horses from time to time. He was the type of cowboy who rarely lived in one location for longer than a year, and he earned a living on his horse. He was nearly 30 when he met my grandma, who was cooking for the cowboys on the ranch he happened to be riding for, and they were married quickly. They settled down in a remodeled chicken coop and he continued to work for ranches here and there to provide for their growing family.
They eventually settled down in Ryegate, Mont., where Granddad trained horses at their place south of town. He gained notoriety for his horse training guarantee: six weeks after leaving a horse with him, a person could mount it from either side, crawl between its legs and sit under it, ride it double or bareback, slide off its hind quarters, and ride it using only a halter.
His work was featured in an article in the Billings Gazette and was eventually published in a book by Dan Halligan, who spent a week with my grandparents in 1970. He described Granddad’s knowledge of horses as “fantastic.” In the Gazette article, Halligan said, “If ever a man had ‘horse sense,’ Paulsen does. He knows exactly what the horse is thinking – sometimes before the animal has the thought.”
I find myself longing for some of that ability as I raise my kids; how convenient it would be to know what they are thinking. Alas, that gene seems to have skipped my pool. I know nearly nothing about horses, despite my grandmother’s attempts to continue Granddad’s legacy and teach us all good horse sense.
I have avoided the wanderlust as well; I’m content to stay where I am for the next 70 years. Granddad was most comfortable on a horse; I am most comfortable in front of a computer.
While I don’t have much of a connection with Granddad, his presence has always been apparent in our family. He is here in the thin gold band on my grandma’s ring finger and in the photo albums full of horses. His influence is still strong throughout the family. And although I don’t have many memories of him, and remain certain that he was a good man. He never had much money or material possessions, but he worked hard enough to move out of the chicken coop and to provide a good life for his family. They sometimes lacked running water, and they all worked hard, but the respect they had for the head of their family was indicative of the quality of his character.
Probably the most telling evidence of who my granddad was is the fact that his home was always open to visitors, and their house was a gathering place for neighbors to play cards, talk horses, and eat Grandma’s incomparable cooking.
Although my memories aren’t much, they are definitely lasting, and he clearly made a mark on my young soul. I have never been ashamed to proclaim that my granddad was a cowboy.