I was born Jessica Farrel of Tyler, Texas in February of 1983. It became a bargaining chip between Mom and Dad that if his choice of ‘Jessica’ was registered as my legal name, then her choice of ‘Farrel’ would be what I went by. Not long after I was old enough to fully understand the concept of child cruelty, Mom made a startling confession to me: Had I been born a male, my name would have been Whatley.
She claimed it was distinguished.
I smiled politely and chased visions of being tortured on the playground out of my mind.
Mom and Dad both grew up in East Texas just a stone’s throw from one another, but didn’t find each other until later in life. Mom, an independent and witty firecracker to her core, graduated from John Tyler High and spent two years as an Apache Belle at Tyler Junior College before escaping to Dallas, eager to leave her troubled upbringing and abusive family dynamic behind. She stayed there for over a decade, eventually accepting a position as a pharmaceutical rep for five years before growing tired of the big city life and moving back to Tyler. Dad, son of a God-fearing and devoted mother and an impulsive, wildcatter father, was a brilliant child, but at fourteen, developed macular degeneration and began to rapidly lose his eyesight. By his late teens, he was legally blind, still able to see shadows surrounding him, but unable to make out who or what they were. They met in 1980, comically enough on a blind date, and he wooed her immediately with his magnetic personality and infallibly optimistic attitude, even despite his handicap. And although he often whisked her away to black tie galas and cattle shows in Fort Worth, sent her on expensive shopping sprees in the heart of Dallas, and rubbed elbows with the country music stars, billionaire cattlemen, and political dignitaries of his time, his proposal to her was without fanfare: Sitting atop his parents’ kitchen counter, he was just a simple, humble country boy in blue jeans and muddy work boots with a heart on fire for his hometown redhead. They were married on Valentine’s Day of 1981, and although Mom was told that it was unlikely she could have children, along I came almost two years later to the date.
My earliest memories revolve around a sprawling 200-acre ranch right outside of Lindale, a horse-and-buggy town that in the 1980s had a Piggly Wiggly, a post office, and a drugstore to speak of. A driveway just under a quarter of a mile long connected an old country road to our creek bridge that was flanked on either side with the American, Texas, and Christian flags, and rumbled hospitably when driven across. Beyond that, a fork in the road gave visitors two options: To the left, a red clay path traveled uphill and alongside a 12-acre lake that was framed by trees and provided a picture-perfect view for anyone staring out the back window of our house; and to the right, a roughly paved driveway crossed over a loud, ragged cattleguard that our 2,000-pound bull, Amtrak, paid no attention to and got himself stuck in when I was three years old. A few hundred yards further, the road paused in front of a large front yard with a lone oak tree and the red brick house that it shaded, and it was there, on that lonely stretch of County Road 437, that the Amis family called home.
Dad bred and raised Santa Gertrudis cattle, as well as American Quarter and Paint horses, so one last gravel road wound through a cluster of trees and burst into a bright green, open pasture that stretched as far as the eye could see. There lived every little girl’s dream: Over three dozen horses of all colors, shapes, and sizes, each with a unique personality of its own. Moondancer was the first filly that Dad allowed me to name, although I’m fairly certain he never registered her after I admitted to stealing it from the cast of My Little Pony. But before I came along, there was Jet, a black stallion straight out of the classic novel, and Honey, a swayback Palomino who lived to be fifty-one, both of whom traveled home to Texas with him after his time in Denver was over. There was the mother-and-son duo, Mosca and Mosca Peppy, who never seemed to stray more than a few feet from one another. There was Wacky Pan, who lived up to his name on more than one occasion, and Rooster, a rich, dark Bay standing seventeen hands high who earned the title of Dad’s favorite. And then there were dozens of others, all equally as cherished, whom I can’t even promise had names.
And then there was Cocoa.
I’ll never forget my excitement when Dad’s ranchhand, Robert, pulled his truck and trailer into our driveway one afternoon and toted a scruffy ball of brown fur and black hair into my life. He was my very own, a Shetland Pony that Dad had purchased off of another breeder for my birthday. At barely three feet tall, I stared up at him in amazement, fully convinced that he was a giant. My giant…Mine to feed, mine to ride, and mine to name. And a giant who, to five-year-old me, looked like a furry chocolate chip.
Little Bit o’ Cocoa it was.
Cocoa became my first lesson in fearlessness when I saddled him up at six years old and popped his rear end with the tips of my reins, sending him, and my heart, flying. Few things are as exhilarating as being along for the ride on the back of a horse who has no other care in the world than running as fast as he can and, as a result, has completely forgotten his passenger. I clung to that pony’s neck in sheer terror as he galloped full speed across the pasture, but every time he came to a peaceful stop, I popped him again, ready to go further and faster than before.
Cocoa also became my first token of real acceptance among my peers. In third grade, I transferred from the tiny Christian school where I spent my first two years to All Saints, a prestigious private academy on the outskirts of Tyler. I didn’t know anyone there except my cousin, Claire, and for the first time, I found my innately outgoing personality challenged. Early one afternoon, well into the school year, my class was called out into the parking lot, where I was surprised to find Dad waiting on the tailgate of his truck with Cocoa in tow. Come to find out, he had secretly arranged a day with my homeroom teacher to introduce my new friends to my very best furfriend, and to lead each of them on a guided walk around the parking lot. In a matter of moments, I went from being “the new girl” to “the girl whose pony saved the class from cursive writing”, and for a season, Cocoa and I were adored.
Looking back on those days, the world made so much sense, when all of life’s issues could be seemingly solved with horseback rides and new friends to play with at recess. Little do we know at such a young age that life, in all of its beautifully twisted irony and reality, and the world around us have already begun shaping us into who we were, or weren’t, created to be.
For many, it happens far earlier than it should.
For me, it was three months old.