Growing vegetables is my business, but raising farm animals is my hobby. I’ve got sheep and goats, but my special pets are my two donkeys, Primavera, a six year old jennet, and her nine-month old foal, Sweetpea. In the evenings, when the scandals and stresses of running a small business can be put to rest for the day, I enjoy taking my donkeys for a walk around our home ranch. Sometimes my daughter, Lena, helps me brush them until their coats are glossy.
You can tell when donkeys are relaxed and happy because they hang their heads in contentment and close their eyes. When Prima is being groomed, her lower lip hangs down as if she’s beginning to melt. Sweetpea likes to be brushed too, but as she’s young and energetic, she’s often impatient to go on her walk. When she and I do go walking, I have to pay attention, because she’s only half-trained. At nine-months, Sweetpea already weighs 400 pounds, and she is strong in both body and spirit.
The other evening, Lena was helping me with Sweetpea, and she took a turn at leading her around the barnyard. I explained to Lena that managing a donkey is a question of will – donkeys are stronger than we are, and their big ears serve as radars to pick up even the slightest tremor in our self-confidence – then I handed Lena the lead rope.
A covey of quail flew up from the grass at the edge of the corral with a flurry of wings, and Sweetpea took advantage of the surprise to lunge in terror. Lena lost hold of the halter rope instantly, and Sweetpea proceeded to race around the pen, bucking and snorting, with the lead-rope dragging behind her like a purple snake. When Sweetpea calmed down, I picked up the rope.
I was a surprised at how easily Sweetpea had been able to break free – my daughter doesn’t scare easily – but then I remembered a traumatic incident involving a donkey in Lena’s early childhood.
When Lena was three, she had her first experience of a Mexican style birthday. It was a picnic at Palm Beach in Watsonville for her friend Saiya. Saiya isn’t Mexicana – her mother, Senai, is Japanese and her father, Mark, is German – but they’d met in Paraguay when they both worked for the United Nations. Spanish and English are their common languages. Watsonville is overwhelmingly Hispanic, so it was natural that little Saiya would adapt to local birthday customs.
Mark went to Happy Burro Market out on the edge of town, and selected a bright piñata from the display that hung from the ceiling above the brooms and mops. He could have chosen a chartreuse and orange Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtle piñata, or a blue and red Spiderman piñata. But Saiya was more interested in animals than action heroes, so he picked out a classic donkey piñata, and bought enough candy to fill its round belly.
Mark and his brother hung the donkey from the overhanging branch of a eucalyptus tree in the middle of the picnic grounds that lie behind the beach. The piñata swayed gently in the breeze. The gray crepe paper strips that made up the donkey’s coat were nicely set off by the animal’s cream colored nose and belly. Black crepe paper made for a pretty mane and tail. The piñata donkey was dressed with a colorful paper saddle of red, yellow, green, and blue, and it even wore a little straw sombrero. Saiya, who was turning four, loved the piñata, and so did her five young guests, Lena, Lydia, Maija, Anwen, and Iliana. There were no brothers present.
When the time came to hit the donkey with a stick, it was difficult, because it was so beautiful. But the violence had to be done. The piñata always comes before the presents, and most importantly, before the cake. These little girls had never beaten a piñata before. When her papa handed Saiya a stout, dry stick he’d picked up from underneath the eucalyptus tree, she looked confused. He showed her how to swing it. Because the girls were so young, the parents present decided to forgo the typical custom of blind-folding the children when they struck at the piñata.
Saiya was the birthday princess, but she was a gracious hostess, so she let Lena go first. Lena missed the piñata on her first swing, and only grazed it with the stick on her second. On her third attempt, she struck a solid blow across the ribs of the donkey, and she turned to me with big eyes for a sign of approval. Lena had hit the piñata hard enough for it to swing in an arc on the end of its rope, but not so hard as to crack it. The donkey made a half turn in the air and came back at Lena like a pendulum, kicking her in the back of the head, and knocking her face-flat in the sand.
The other little girls didn’t have much luck either. It was the first party I’d ever been to where it looked like the piñata was going to win. The little gray donkey with the straw sombrero raged at the end of its tether like a rodeo bronco, and one girl after another bit the dust. Finally, Saiya begged her Uncle to do the deed. While the girls covered their eyes, he took up the stick and delivered a mighty whack to the paper donkey. The piñata’s belly finally tore open, spraying a rooster tail of brightly wrapped candies across the white beach.
The girls swarmed the sand like baboons, and minutes later, when they trooped off to the picnic table for the ceremonial unwrapping of the birthday presents, there was nothing left for the seagulls but a couple of pieces of red and silver foil that smelled like chocolate kisses. I guess the moral of the story is that no matter how sweet and lovely a donkey may appear, you always want to be careful when you’re around the business end of an ass.
copyright 2007 Andy Griffin