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.