“Childhood is a short season.” ~ Helen Hayes
“It’s Lassie! Mommy, Daddy, look! Gramma and Grandpa Donker sent me a Lassie dog for my birthday, just like the one on TV!” Six-year-old Ali was beside herself with joy! Jumping up and down while clutching the stuffed animal to her chest, she declared, “Oh, I love you, Lassie!”
“That’s wonderful, Sweetheart! She’s just beautiful,” said her mother. “Gramma and Grandpa really wanted to be here, Honey, but they just couldn’t make the trip this year. Gramma’s not feeling very well.”
“I wish they were here. I like it when they come to visit. Grandpa always gives us gum even though he’s not ‘sposed to,” eight-year-old Nathan said with a giggle.
“Tattletale!” Chloe admonished.
Turning everyone’s attention back to the birthday girl, her father said, “Looks like you have one last present, Ali Oop. Let’s see what it is.”
Ali held the stuffed animal tightly with one arm while reaching for the unopened gift. She somehow managed to rip the paper off without letting go of her new best friend.
“It’s a coloring book! And it’s full of pictures of horses!”
“That’s from me!” big sister Chloe said with pride. “And I got you some new crayons, too. The big box with sixty-four colors!”
Temporarily releasing her hold on Lassie, Ali greedily leafed through the pages, trying to decide which picture was her favorite.
“The big box? Really? All my own? Oh, thank you, Chloe!” After giving her sister a quick hug around the neck, Ali went right back to the coloring book. “I want to color one right now!”
“Not so fast, Pumpkin Pie,” said her father. “You know the rule. You have to write a thank you note for the gift before you can play with it. Your sister will help you.”
“Okay, but can I use my new crayons to write the thank you note?”
Her parents exchanged an amused look before her mom said, “Sure, Sweetheart. I think we can bend the rule a little bit this time.”
Bent, but never broken, it was a rule that took deep root in Ali, and just one of the many ways in which her parents taught her the importance of saying thank you.
Mount Vernon is an inconspicuous little town sixty miles north of Seattle. The locals will assure you of three points: first, that their city is close, but not too close, to Seattle; second, it’s rural, but not too rural for city lovers; and third, it’s small, but not too small to have all the important amenities.
Anchored by the historic Lincoln Theater on South First Street, downtown Mount Vernon consists mainly of small, locally owned businesses, typically quartered in vintage brick buildings. Its wide, brick boulevards encourage strolling and create a friendly, small-town atmosphere.
Beyond the city’s commercial business district, acres and acres of lush, rich earth are still host to farmlands, berry fields, and horse-boarding barns.
Ali Benevento considered herself fortunate to have grown up on her family’s berry farm in Mount Vernon, alongside her older siblings, Chloe and Nathan. Ali had fond memories of playing among the rows and rows of berries with her brother and sister. The low-lying strawberry plants were perfect for hurdling, while the raspberry bushes provided exceptional cover for hide-and-seek.
When not tending to the strawberry, raspberry, and blueberry bushes, their father, Martin, moonlighted as a tractor mechanic and their mother, Peggy, taught fifth grade at Lincoln Elementary School.
Every June, soon after school let out for the summer, busloads of local teenagers came to the family’s farm to earn money by picking berries. The most handsome fruits were sold to grocery stores, while the less perfect were reserved for making jams and jellies.
Ali loved to hop out of bed in the early morning and watch as the buses rolled in and the twelve-, thirteen-, and fourteen-year-old kids piled out. After stowing their lunch bags and picking up fruit carriers, they were each assigned a row to harvest. Martin and Peggy were savvy enough to know that forbidding the young pickers to eat the succulent berries would be a fruitless battle, so instead, they allowed them to eat as many berries as they wanted while they worked. The amount of fruit consumed was about the same either way, but giving permission meant that the field supervisors didn’t need to waste time and energy being watchdogs.
Pickers were issued punch cards to keep track of the number of boxes they filled each day and the number of days they worked. Those who missed no more than two harvesting days during the brief three-to-four-week season were rewarded with an end-of-harvest picnic in addition to receiving a bonus for each box they had filled.
There were always a few kids who got fired for excessive berry-throwing or generally goofing off, but most were hard workers who were grateful for the opportunity to earn some spending money before they were old enough to get “real jobs.”
Ali was jealous of Chloe and Nathan when they got to pick alongside the other kids in the fields, but she learned the meaning of backbreaking work the first year she joined their ranks. It taught her a lesson about the duplicity of envy that she never forgot. As an adult, she equated it with the admonition, “Be careful what you wish for; you might get it.”
Along with the profit-producing berry fields, Mr. Benevento nurtured a few grapevines in the family’s backyard. The vines didn’t grow as well as they did in arid Eastern Washington where he was raised—and certainly not as well as they did in Palermo, Italy, where his father and grandfather grew up—but they supplied enough decent grapes to allow him to indulge his passion for winemaking. Unfortunately, his knowledge of wine and winemaking far exceeded his time and resources for producing it.
As she got older, Ali became more interested in the grapes than the berries, in part because she loved watching her father cajole the clusters of delicate fruit into wine. Her fascination was further fueled by her grandfather’s romanticized stories about “the old country.”
Every Sunday, Martin drove to Rest Haven Nursing Home at Fir and 8th Streets, to pick up Grampa “Papa” Gesepi, and bring him to the house for the afternoon. While Peggy was preparing dinner—ably assisted by either Chloe or Nathan—Ali would climb up on Papa’s lap, begging him to tell her again about life on the Benevento family vineyard in Italy. She never tired of hearing stories about her deceased grandmother, and all of her Italian aunts, uncles, and cousins, whom she longed to meet. Her not-so-secret wish was to explore the Italian wine country for herself when she grew up.
Peggy and Martin shared the opinion that Europeans had a much healthier attitude towards the consumption of wine than their American counterparts, so the Benevento children were allowed to drink wine at dinner, when in their parents’ presence. They often made a game of identifying the various varietals, describing the bouquets and guessing the vintages.
Eventually, Ali’s interest in wine and winemaking grew to be as fervent as her father’s. As a teenager, she spent countless hours at his side in their tiny vineyard, asking questions and learning all she could about making fine wine. She imagined owning and operating her own winery some day, perhaps in partnership with her dad.
First, however, she wanted to spread her wings and break away from the familiar, if beloved, surroundings of her hometown. In her family, education held high value, so going to college was a given. After that, she was open to whatever kind of adventure presented itself.
But those things were still far in the future, whereas the Silver Star Stables, just down the road, provided a much more immediate allure.
When Ali was growing up, one of her family’s favorite activities was attending horse shows and competitions at various nearby stables, like Silver Star. Mom, Dad, and Chloe were satisfied just to watch, but Nathan and Ali both caught the fever and begged for riding lessons. Owning one horse, let alone two, was beyond the reach of the family’s budget, but Peggy and Martin decided that the cost of lessons was manageable.
Of all the horses boarded at Silver Star Stables, Tsunami, a chestnut-colored quarter horse-Arabian mix with a distinctive white muzzle, was Ali’s admitted favorite. The diminutive mare weighed nine hundred forty-eight pounds and stood fourteen and a half hands at the withers. She combined the speed and gentleness of her Arab ancestry with the energy and balance of her quarter horse forbears. In Ali’s eyes, she was perfect.
Ali’s infatuation with Tsunami began when she saw her performing in a key pole race at an equine games-day competition. She couldn’t explain why she felt so drawn to “Tsu” as opposed to the others, but there it was. After the games were over, Martin took her to the stables to meet Tsunami and her owner. He was surprised to find Ali suddenly taken shy, grasping his hand tightly, and hiding behind him as they approached the stall and greeted the horse’s owner.
“Hi there, my name is Martin Benevento, and this is my daughter, Ali. We were in the stands today watching you and your horse compete. You were both wonderful.”
The woman turned toward them and smiled. “Nice to meet you both,” she said. “I’m Susan Schuster, and this is Tsunami. We certainly didn’t win any ribbons this time, but we had some fun. She was pretty hot today, which is my fault. I haven’t been able to make the time to ride her much recently.”
“Hot?” Ali asked meekly as she peeked out from behind her father.
“Yes, that’s horse talk for ‘wound up.’ She just had a lot of pent-up energy,” Susan explained.
“How did she get the name Tsunami?” Martin asked.
“Well, that’s my sneaky way of naming her after myself. I introduced myself to you as Susan, but my family always called me Sue. I’m fascinated by tsunami waves as well as horses, so when a friend suggested that name and I realized I could call her Tsu, for short, it seemed like a perfect fit!
Crouching down to address Ali, Susan asked, “Do you ride?”
Gaining courage, Ali stepped out and responded, “I want to, but I don’t know how. My brother, Nathan, is taking lessons now. When he finishes, I get to.”
“I see. Then will you lease a horse to ride?”
Ali looked up at her father imploringly, anxious to hear what he would say. “We’re hoping to find someone who’s willing to do a partial lease until we see how much time the kids actually devote to a horse.”
“Well, you might just have found that person,” Susan told them.
Nolan Shafer loved teaching beginners how to ride horseback—especially children. The young students invariably exhibited a sense of awe, respect, and enthusiasm that reminded him of how fortunate he was to work with the horses and people at Silver Star Stables.
Martin and Peggy did their research before choosing a riding school and instructor for Nathan and Ali. They were happy to discover that Silver Star Stables had a superior reputation among local horse owners. The barns were clean and well maintained with a dry, organized tack room; the horses were calm, healthy, and well shod. All the instructors were amiable, self-confident, experienced professionals. Nathan Benevento was Nolan’s 161st student and Ali would become his 169th, so Martin and Peggy felt confident that their children were in good hands.
The night before her first lesson, Ali was so excited she couldn’t sleep. She had been dreaming of this day ever since she got the horse-themed coloring book from Chloe on her sixth birthday. After she saw the movie classic National Velvet, and later, The Black Stallion, her affection for all things equine was undeniable and insatiable.
“I don’t get to learn on Tsunami?” Ali was crestfallen.
“I’m afraid not, Ali. Tsunami is a bit too high-spirited for a beginner,” Nolan explained. “It’s important to train on a horse that is alert, yet calm and not overly sensitive. All horses pick up on the emotions of their riders, but some are more forgiving than others. As a beginner, you’ll probably feel nervous and unsure at first—everyone does. You need to practice on a horse that’s used to beginners so you have time to learn the basics without being afraid of your mount.”
“But I love Tsunami. I really want to ride her.” Ali’s pleading bordered on whining.
“Did you hear the quality of your voice just now, Ali?” Nolan asked. “One of the first things you have to learn about being around horses is to always speak in a calm, confident, quiet tone of voice. Does whining get you what you want from your parents?”
“Sometimes . . . but not usually,” Ali admitted reluctantly. “They don’t like it when I whine.”
“Neither does your horse,” said Nolan.
“I understand that you’re anxious to ride Tsunami, but do you really want to subject her to your natural nervousness? Wouldn’t you rather start off your riding relationship with her as a confident, self-possessed horsewoman? After all, horses have long memories, Ali, and just like with people, you only get one chance to make a good first impression.”
Ali’s only response was to frown and look down at the ground. She could tell she wasn’t going to win this argument.
“How about if you let me introduce you to Merry? She’s a wonderful horse, too. I’m sure you’ll like her. You’ll get to ride Tsunami soon enough.”
Ali was unconvinced until she actually saw Merry. She was a beautiful palomino, impeccably groomed and exuding serenity. And Ali could have sworn—though she knew it was silly—that Merry actually smiled at her when they met! She was sure then that learning to ride was going to be every bit as wonderful as she had imagined.
When the grapes and the horses weren’t luring Ali outside, the family piano made her a willing captive indoors. Playing the piano filled her with a joy so deep and consuming that her family often teased her about preferring it to them. Happily, she was quite talented, so even her endless hours of practice created a pleasant soundtrack for her family’s daily life.
From the time Ali was tall enough to reach the keyboard and plink her first tentative notes, piano music became like the lure of a siren to her. In fact, one of her earliest memories was of sitting on the piano stool, trying in vain to make her feet reach the pedals.
Hunting and pecking, she eventually found the keys that produced the notes of the tunes she heard in her head. “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” played with one hand, eventually gave way to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” which lead to “Happy Birthday,” played with both hands. By the time she was nine, she had mastered a dozen different Christmas carols, all played by ear.
At some point in her childhood—she couldn’t remember exactly when—Ali began creating her own elementary tunes. Or, as she put it, recording songs in her head. Not knowing how to read or write music, she committed some of her compositions to memory for her own pleasure, but she never shared them with anyone.
Family finances—already stretched thin by the cost of riding lessons—were such that Ali didn’t start taking piano lessons until she was twelve years old. Talented as she was, the lack of formal training earlier in life limited her horizons as a performer. Fortunately, that was never her ambition. Nor did it diminish the euphoria she experienced when she played.
Because she was so young when she became infatuated with the family piano, it was years before she realized that it was a bit of an antique; or more precisely, a relic. The battered, cherrywood upright had endured three generations of grimy fingers, damp environs, and infrequent tuning. Even so, Ali managed to coax some beautiful music from its overtaxed strings.
Sunday afternoons at the Benevento house evoked scenes reminiscent of those in Norman Rockwell paintings, as the family gathered around the piano and sang songs that spanned decades and genres.
While Ali’s fingers beguiled sweet melodies from the decrepit piano, the notes produced by her vocal chords were not equally as pleasant. Her older sister, Chloe, on the other hand, sang as divinely as Ali played. When the two girls accompanied one another, everyone within earshot felt compelled to stop whatever they were doing and listen. Their shared love of music created an unbreakable bond between the sisters that only grew stronger as they grew older.
To order the e-book version of Since I Last Saw You, go to: www.SinceILastSawYou.com
Print version coming soon!
Posted by Alice Kuder, December 4, 2013