The Rodeo Grandmas

The Rodeo Grandmas

From Chicken Soup for the Grandparent's Soul

The Rodeo Grandmas

The sky is my ceiling and the ground is my carpet.

Judy Golladay

Did you ever read an article in a magazine or newspaper about someone so very interesting that you really wished you could meet them personally? Me, too. That has happened many times, but I thought I’d never have the opportunity to follow through. Recently, however, I read a story about four ladies called, “The Rodeo Grandmas.” Dressed in boots, ten-gallon hats, chaps, vests and carrying lariats, they seemed to be the embodiment of all that was and is good about the West. Tough enough to work outdoors on the range, skilled enough to win trick roping contests, tender enough to touch the hearts of so many people—these ladies had a twinkle in their eyes and an openness in their smiles, which came jumping off that magazine’s pages and simply got to me. I decided that this was it, the moment to take thought and turn it into action. I ordered an airline ticket to Ellensburg, Washington, and called the Rodeo Grandmas to see if I’d be welcome. “Come on ahead! The ladies will be delighted to meet you!” said their spokesperson, Mollie Morrow, a photographer in their town. Molly picked me up at the airport and treated me to a short history of the group on our ride from Yakima. Even with her thorough introduction, I was not quite prepared to meet these unusual ladies.

Molly took me to her studio where I met Lorraine, Janis, Chloe and Peggy. Sitting around the small studio were the smilingest, most welcoming group I’ve met in a very long time. The Rodeo Grandmas, from sixty-five to eighty-nine, had been selected by an advertising agency that was designing a new series of ads for the Washington Mutual Bank in 1993. The agency had wanted a series of unusual people to highlight—trying to make the connection that their bank was “something different” from the ordinary. They’d put out a call for grandmas—grandmas who could ride and rope and even compete in rodeos. Nearly thirty women from this area had shown up and, within a few hours, the producers had unerringly selected four women who seemed to embody a special spirit—independence, high energy, high skills and toughness mixed with tenderness.

They shot their commercial and left. It was a one-shot deal. Washington Mutual’s series would show many other kinds of special, unusual people. But when it aired, the reaction was dramatic: Everyone wanted to see more of those “rodeo grandmas”!

The agency came back and shot more commercials. And, bit by bit, the Rodeo Grandmas became a tight-knit group. The producers had chosen well. Somehow they clicked as a group. One of their number, Judy Golladay, had revealed to the group, and to the producers, that she’d just been diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite that, they all agreed she’d continue as a part of the group. She was having radiation and chemotherapy even as the commercials were being shot. For five months out of every year, she had lived out on the range, with just her horse and dog as company. She was simply a cowgirl, in touch with the earth as few modern Americans are anymore. She spoke of the sky as her ceiling and the ground as her carpeting. Perhaps that sounds corny to someone citified, but Judy meant it and lived it. When the going got tough, she’d climb up on her horse and head out for the hills with her dog and soak in the peacefulness she found in that environment.

There was good news: The treatments had worked! Judy’s cancer went into remission. And the Rodeo Grandmas began a series of appearances all over the northwest. Wherever Washington Mutual needed them to appear, they’d show up in full regalia, riding in on horseback, roping and hollering, “Yippie-ty-yi!” and “Howdy, Buckaroos!” They enjoyed playing with the stereotypes and making them real. Pretty soon they began receiving invitations to lead the opening parade at rodeos or to appear at shopping malls and hospitals and retirement homes.

What a deep chord they struck in western hearts! As they’d ride into the arena leading the parade, you could hear the crowd noise change: A dull roar became louder, more focused, more joyous. You could track their location by the change in the sound from the audience: “They’re here, the Rodeo Grandmas!” Cheers rose spontaneously, children waved, everyone was excited. Little kids came up to them demanding (and getting) hugs.

Once, on the way to the airport for yet another appearance in another city, there was a major traffic jam. All cars were stopped. The grandmas were sitting quietly in their van waiting for the jam to clear. Suddenly, the occupants in a nearby car spotted them. There was a tap at the window of their van. “Are you the Rodeo Grandmas?” the driver of another car, standing in the road, asked. “IT’S THE RODEO GRANDMAS!!!” he shouted to all the other cars. “IT’S REALLY THEM!” And there, in the roadway, cars stopped bumper-to-bumper, and a crowd formed, cheering for them and requesting autographs.

At their appearances, children line up to learn roping— throwing their lariats at a practice steer and lighting up with joy when they make it. And there, over at the end of the line of Rodeo Grandmas, is Lorraine, sitting comfortably, with a line of kids waiting to be taught how to yodel.

“Something about being a grandma and being up on a horse seems to be the attraction,” said Peggy, seventy-four, an accomplished trick roper. “They just think that someone on a horse has to be honest.” At twenty she was a Rodeo Princess and met a famous trick rider, Monte Montana, who took a liking to her and sent her a gift of a trick-riding saddle. Her rodeo career took off. But life has a way of interrupting one’s plans, and she got married, became a secretary and raised four children. “I used to do the Cossack Drag,” she told me. “Some people call it the Suicide Drag, but I’m not doing trick riding now. I also used to spin four ropes at once. One I held in my mouth, one on my foot and one in each hand. Today I just do three. You’ve got to know what you’re capable of,” she confided.

Janis, at sixty-five, does team roping with a partner, catching steers in competition. In fact, she competes in events with her grandson! “When I was born, my dad sold a horse off for eighty dollars to pay the hospital bill. That was a lot of money then. So horses have always been in my blood. My dad didn’t have any sons, so my sister and I became the boys of the family.” Then she added an afterthought, as though I might think her too much the tomboy, “We can be real ladylike, too, you know.” I nodded my agreement. “My dad called me, ‘Toughie,’ and he taught me how to ride. I’ve learned to draw strength from my horses. You have a relationship with your horse, you see, and if you’ve got tears to shed, your horse will listen and be there for you. It’s hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t had this experience, but it’s really true.” All the ladies agreed.

Chloe said, “I’ve heard it said that ‘the best thing for the insides of a man is the outside of a horse.’ The relationship with your horses is almost therapeutic. In fact, when Judy’s cancer returned and she knew how bad it was, she saddled up and took her horse and dog up into the hills for one more time. She spent some weeks up there and it gave her a lot of peace.”

Chloe replaced Judy in the group. “I was kind of the wrangler—Lorraine’s my mom, and I was going to all the Rodeo Grandmas’ events anyway, so they kind of corralled me into it. And I love being in the Rodeo Grandmas with my mom.” She patted Lorraine’s knee. “Kinda amazing, huh? Sometimes when we’re at a show, and we get set up to teach roping and stuff, the kids come running at us in waves and surround us. It’s an incredible feeling to see that, and they all seem to want to touch my mom.” Lorraine grins at me.

Lorraine met her husband at a stock show in 1928 and is now not only a grandmother of eleven, she’s a great-grandmother of nineteen. Her horse is a little too spirited for her now, but she does ride occasionally. Still, she is ready to teach you how to yodel and will give you a hug at the drop of a ten-gallon hat.

The Rodeo Grandmas are not media people, although they’ve been affected by their media appearances. They’ve retained their hometown values and style, despite being on Entertainment Tonight, The Rosie O’Donnell Show, and on countless radio and TV interviews.

You get a clear message from being with these ladies that they don’t sit around fretting about “the meaning of life.” Instead, they take action, and they know that life is meaningful. As Lorraine says, “We only did what had to be done. There’s nothing special in that. You do the tasks the Lord puts in front of you.”

Peggy added, “You have to have something to get up for in the morning.” It was clearly the secret of these gals’ healthiness and continued strength, that their lives had given them purpose and continue to do so. Chloe smiled and said, “I’ve learned to put my heart into what I’m doing.” Her mom looked at her proudly, smiling, too. Janis continued, “When you sit in the rocking chair, you just don’t get anywhere.”

“I think I was born to be a Rodeo Grandma,” Peggy declared, looking serious. “Everything in my life seemed to be aimed in this direction. I knew there was something special going to be in my life, and look, here it is!” And she tells me that none of the Rodeo Grandmas has ever broken more than a finger or a toe and that Lorraine has never spent the night in a hospital. “Builds your muscles, expands your chest, makes you breathe more deeply— and that’s just when you get on the horse. Go riding a bit and you’ll really get some exercise. It’s a good, clean life.”

It was the end of a glorious day, spent in the company of these tough and tender ladies, and I really didn’t want to leave. Each one hugged me, and I readily hugged back. “Lorraine,” I said, choking up a bit, “I’ve just about run out of grandmas in my life. I wonder if you’d be my grandma?”

She beamed at me and gave me an extra squeeze, “Why shore, honey, you can be my little buckaroo!”

On the trip back home I was still filled with the experience of being with them and pondered what I’d learned, or maybe relearned. It was clear that they’d lived a lifestyle that was healthy and unambiguous. What had to be done had to be done, no two ways about it. They had built fun and humor into every day whenever possible. They had been the kind of people you can count on—and there’s something powerfully reassuring in being around people like that. They’d not retired from life but were still actively engaged in it, every day. Connecting with people and making a difference in their lives have kept them going, too. Although their lives had most of the same elements in them before, each had been profoundly changed by becoming a Rodeo Grandma. It enabled them to see themselves on a wider stage, and gave them an opportunity to be a model for others, whether they were kids or grandparents. How to live a life with integrity, how to organize yourself so that the important things got done— these were not inconsequential things. But they don’t preach these concepts; they simply live them day by day.

I wasn’t kidding when I asked Lorraine to be my grandma, for my own are long gone, and there’s something missing in my life, too: someone older and wiser, someone who also knows when it’s time to give a hug or share a grin. I’m making plans to go visit Grandma Lorraine, and, who knows, she just might teach me to yodel!

Hanoch McCarty

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