Happy Birthday To You, Too, Mom


In the bitter cold of January, 1963, the pipes in the barn froze. My uncles built a fire outside and kept it stoked to thaw the ground in hopes this would help things. My brother, Billy, and sister, Barbara Ann, watered the cows by hand, a futile task that required them to carry buckets of water from the house to the barn only to have the animals, in their frenzy to drink, tip the rubber buckets into the trough, wasting the load.

Seemed as if everyone had plenty of work, right? If you said yes to this, you didn’t know my father. He had a cow in heat and, per usual, a behemoth bull in the corner pen that he intended to breed her with. You might also not know that, even in 1963, most farms had artificial semen (we had a tank a few feet away in the milkhouse) and very few kept full grown bulls around for obvious reasons. A vial of fluorescent green semen, for example, never pinned anyone to the wall and gored him to death. But my dad preferred real bulls. Real bulls with horns he refused to remove.

Barbara Ann drove the forage truck behind the barn. Billy’s job was to tie the cow to the back of the truck once it was parked. My father would lead the bull to her. For those of you keeping score, it’s Bull — 1500 pounds: Aldo Panciera — 138.

Some combination of thirst, lust, a radical change in scenery, and the crackling bonfire, rattled the bull so much that as soon as he got into the fresh air, he bolted. My sister climbed back into the truck cab and locked the door, my brother pounded uselessly on the window to be let in. Most people would have let go of the animal, but that would have earned nothing but scorn from my father. Forward he went over the frozen ruts of the barnyard, clinging to that rope. Even when he lost his footing, he kept his grip.

My brother insists the cow got bred and the bull got put back in his pen and I have no reason to doubt him. A little thing like a near trampling never meant the chores didn’t get done or, god forbid, that the workday ended early.  But suddenly, my father couldn’t breathe. An asthmatic prone to muscle spasms, he leaned against the wall, shaking his head when my siblings offered to help him to the house. Finally, my brother ran for my mother. “Tum’s dying,” he said. “I think the bull killed him.”

My father was fine. My mother went into labor and ended up in the hospital.

That was not the story of my birth. Those contractions were false. But a few days later, early on during the morning milking, my mother knew the real labor was beginning.

“I think this is it,” she said.

My father said, “Do you think we can finish up here first?”

We had a stanchion barn, a dumping station where, once the milk pails were filled, they had to be hung on the scale to be weighed and then emptied into the tank, jobs my mother did, impending birth and all, while my father switched machines from cow to cow. Then, she took a bath, went to her doctor who confirmed this was the real deal, picked up her other kids at school and fixed them supper. They found my father and his brother, Fat, trying to unjam the augurs in the Harvestore. My siblings made three trips out to say, “Mom needs a ride to the hospital,” until he finally got in the car.

“He dropped me off out front,” my mother told me. “The grass silage from that silo smelled so bad, he wouldn’t come in.”

I was born at 7:30 that night, mid-milking time at home, but my father didn’t think you could visit except during visiting hours so he waited until the next day to meet me.

Every year on her own birthday, Barbara Ann buys our mother a dozen roses. We tease her for the annual attempt at brownie points, but I’ve given birth myself now so the gesture seems more than warranted, and I can’t celebrate my birthday without acknowledging what it cost my mother.

Today, a day nearly as cold as that one 52 years ago must have been, I am inside by the woodstove waiting for my tea to steep, thinking of what the farm asked of all of us, my mother most of all. Her first job was working the soda fountain downtown. She was fourteen. Two years later, she had to quit school to work full time at the dime store. When she was left alone to raise her four children, she waitressed several shifts a week, ran a lunch counter. But she never imagined being a farm wife and the work that would entail.

While my family is at Market Basket now deciding what kind of cake to buy and I am writing this in the quiet, my mother is learning how to download books onto her IPad, tucking away the $1.50 she made this week playing cards with her cousins, and dreaming, maybe, of all that used to be required of her. Maybe dreaming, too, of how happy, despite the pain of labor, she must have been to get off her feet for a few hours that day in January, to set down her load.

15 thoughts on “Happy Birthday To You, Too, Mom

  1. Great story carla!! I knew this date was significant..and Last week wracked my ( senior) brain.first thought perhaps chip but that is sept. Then a friends daughter in Jan but that was the 11th. I was thrilled to know it’s your b day…

    I will have to read this to Marie on tues.will be there for dinner along with Linda Boats daughter.

    Yes your mom was a full time mother and I never really worked for tum..just enjoyed joining him in the barn when I was quite young..I tore a large piece of ankle off feeding cows , while sitting on that large metal wagon of sorts.it would move down the middle of the stantions. And I Loved being there. Cyn and I often climbed into the hay loft , went thru trash barrels for fun, !!! Crazy ideas, And I so loved going to the dairy on oak st with uncle Charlie .we had the fun without the work because I was about 11 when we moved to the cape on north drive.

    I am acutely aware of the dangers of farming with trucks, heavy equipment , and large animals.you and your siblings know the real grit of life on the farm but there was joy and triumph at times,I’m sure.

    Have a cozy b day with the family…love. C. The aging godmother. Haha.

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Happy Birthday again Carla. What a wonderful story. It brought tears to my eyes and a laugh at having locked Billy and the bull out of the truck. One thing for sure we worked hard but we had a wonderful family life and tons of sad and happy memories. Thanks for all your stories reminding us of what it is to be family. PS I will continue to buy Mommy the roses on my birthday. I need all the brownie points I can get.

    Barbara Ann


    • Ha! Babs, I’m glad you read it. I know you don’t have Facebook which reminds people. There are so many great farm stories. They don’t even seem real to me when I consider where we all are now and what are lives are like. Funny to think we did those things but you’re right. They made for some strong family ties and, despite the work, I know we all miss that place. xo


  3. I remember that day like it was yesterday, we were all so worried about mommy and could not understand why Tum did not go to the hospital to see you. You were such a beautiful baby. This was a great story. Hope you had a great BIRTHDAY!!!!!!!!!!



  4. Skillful balance of narrative and exposition here. My step-mom grew up on a farm, and I used to stay a week there every summer. At the risk of romanticizing the rural … I think back fondly on dark mornings sweeping out the barns, the quiet shifting of cows and horses adjusting to a visitor, the warm heavy scent of manure, a radio in a distant corner thinly playing country music. My uncle coming back from a rodeo out of state and regaling us with his triumph over the barrel-racing competition. Your essay is evocative and has awoken memories. Thanks.


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