Growing up gold | Moment's Notice

By Maria Montalvo | Aug 22, 2017
Courtesy of: Maria Montalvo Olivia and the ponies.

Robert Frost tells us “nothing gold can stay” in his poem of the same name, speaking of the first hue to reach us at dawn. Its words are one of the few poems I can recite from memory, thanks to its central role in “The Outsiders,” a book I read and movie I saw several (dozen) times in sixth- and seventh grade.

The pivotal scene involves one character, Johnny, who is dying, telling his best friend Ponyboy to “stay gold” and encourage the older, more cynical character, Dallas, to continue to appreciate the things that are so inspiring and beautiful when we are young.

My impact of that story and poem are inexplicably but also inextricably linked in my mind to another very special memory from my youth – wild ponies and Chincoteague, Virginia.

Chincoteague is a place of beauty and wonder, especially for a young girl, because it is the gateway to the wildlife preserve of Assateague Island, where a herd of wild ponies has roamed freely for several hundred years.

The lore of how the ponies got there is not widely agreed upon, but the reality of a few hundred shaggy-maned small horses unfettered by fences has created a fairytale.

My family spent our summer vacations on that island for several years (I grew up just a couple of hours away). I read the “Misty of Chincoteague” books, and I loved watching the ponies running along the same beach where we would swim.

My room at my parents’ house still has the painting my mom created there, depicting the golds and pinks of sunrise in the nearby marshes. As I got older and felt the pressure to grow up, to lose the innocence of being a kid, the ponies and that message to “stay gold” never left me.

Last month, I returned to Virginia with my husband, my soon-to-be 10-year-old goddaughter Olivia, and her parents. Olivia and I share a love of ponies, and her appreciation for all that is great about being a kid is as contagious as her wide-eyed anticipation of her life to come.

But as we prepared for the trip, I worried that the spot would no longer hold the magic I created in my heart, or I would be reminded too much of those who I shared that place with who are no longer with me.

Thomas Wolfe warned, “You can’t go back home to the escapes of time and memory.” Most worrisome, perhaps, was that the place would not live up to the expectations of a little girl who had only read about it in books, heard stories from me and seen images on our wall at home or in National Geographic.

Luckily, Chincoteague is somehow preserved, resilient to the passage of time (with the exception of a few great food trucks). The same stunning coastline, the same ice cream parlors, the same crab and clam shacks, the same beach houses, and most importantly, the same wildness of ponies.

Olivia seemed to understand, as she looked out at the herds and watched an especially small, energetic white pony with a long and bushy mane, prancing as if knowing he was on display, that she was seeing an image of hope and beauty that would stay with her for life.

I am forever grateful to Olivia for creating new memories for me of freedom and ponies and dreams, all still golden from her perspective. At the end of “The Outsiders,” Johnny says, “It’s when you get used to everything” that you lose the ability to marvel, but you can choose to hold on to it.

Thanks to Olivia, the beauty of one of the most important memories of my youth stays gold, as I now see it through her eyes and my own.

Note: Following the violent protests in Virginia on Saturday, I considered withdrawing this column. The unfathomable hatred and cruelty, not to mention the twisted reinterpretation of history, do a lot to break down your ability to be hopeful and see the beauty.

But even though Frost says nothing gold can stay, one of the last lines in that old movie has to be true: “There is still a lot of good in the world.”

“Nothing Gold Can Stay”

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

-Robert Frost


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