The Shortest Days

1Hard to believe you, December, season of evergreens, of oak leaves shriveled, but tenacious. I’ve been walking without a coat. Haven’t begun the seasonal mitten matching quest. We’re doing our part in this charade. We’ve dug root vegetables, lit the woodstove. This week, Dennis bought an ice scraper at the grocery store, just in case, though this gesture seemed apologetic. A few days ago, I bought a birdfeeder that sticks to the window, a television for the cats, I thought, and we filled it with seeds that have gone untouched ever since. The birds are too busy bathing in the puddle at the end of my neighbor’s driveway, too full of sluggish insects and winter moths to eat seeds. It’s kind of like me still wearing the kinds of shoes I can wear without socks. Winter is so long — when it finally arrives — you get tired of certain things. Foods and fashions. Why not delay the inevitable boredom, the relentless sameness of the season?

My father’s winter clothes: striped overalls over his usual work clothes (dark green Dickies, blue short sleeve shirt, crewneck sweatshirt);a hooded sweatshirt tied tight over a stocking cap; felt boots. Underneath the layers, he weighed under 140 pounds. He hated the cold. His birthday was the second, but he was an impossible man to buy for. Bags of Canada mints. Work gloves. Old Spice. And he wouldn’t feel much like celebrating.

December, you were different then. Inside, my mother changed curtains and bedspreads. She made polenta and beef stew.

Outside, cows’ coats thickened, hair sprouting over their polls like clownish toupees. The dogs moved into the hayloft at night. Some mornings, a lacework of ice in the waterbowls. Some of the barn’s broken windowpanes would be boarded up with old panelling, but as we walked past others with biscuits of hay for heifers stuck inside now, you blew at us your reminder: Yoohoo. I’m out here. You’ll miss me when January comes.

Most afternoons, I sat inside at the kitchen table doing my homework, my stomach knotted as I awaited the sound of a car down the lane, a car that would deposit one high school boy or another to do the night milking. As often as they did show up, they didn’t, and eventually, my mother would stand peering out into the darkness and say, “I guess you’d better get out there.” The short days meant getting the cows up in the dark. No electricity, god forbid, in any barn, and the freestall, where we had to drive the cows away from the new silage and up to the parlor, seemed acres away from the light bulb that burned over the house’s back door.

You wouldn’t have recognized me, December. I was too unprepared for you then, too convinced there was nothing to do against you. Inside my unlined rubber boots, my toes froze. My legs grew numb beneath my jeans and long johns. Each time I slid the barn door open to let in more milkers, my hands ached with cold, the door sticking in slushy ruts. Cows’ breath steamed windowpanes. So many of them, I dreaded counting groups. There were always so many more waiting to be tended to.

Oh, December. What we wouldn’t have given for you then. A mild month for new calves. We could have kept our sleeves rolled up and not have soaked our cuffs that froze and burned the white skin at our wrists. The cows would have lingered in their pastures and that would have been a good walk. Moonlight, mist, the illusion of spring.

But we were both very different then.

I wish I could say you had been less ominous.

I wish I could say I went uncomplainingly those nights, that I appreciated how dark the sky was there, how many stars shone over the silos. I wish I could say that I understood that those hours of working on that place and beside that man who, despite the exhaustion he must have felt, was much more liable to burst out into a Dean Martin song in the middle of milking as he was to complain about being cold and tired, would not last. But I’m a slow learner. The year concluded with you, December. This, of course, I understood, but I it didn’t make me understand how many other things were destined to end as well.

 

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Storykeepers

The Dolomite Mountains, Italy

One August, I was driving in Maine, heading north to raft on the Penobscot. In a culvert on the side of the road, stood a young moose. We could get out of the car and stare at him as he was so far below us, there was no danger, and I thought: I can’t wait to tell my father about this.

My father had died the April before, however, and this moment made me understand all the things I’d have to store up to share with him one day if we do meet again.

Maybe I had always seen the things he would want me to pay attention to: roadside flowers, birds, cloud patterns. Maybe, even if he had lived to be 200, as he promised me he would, I would still pause at a stream in hopes of spotting the beavers at work, or sit outside a snake hole with my daughter waiting for the creature to give us a glance, or stand at a meadow waiting for yellow finches to burst out of the grass. Or maybe, in his absence, these are the things I study because he can not.

From this loss, in part, I have derived a great deal of poetry.

But I am also a storyteller and, if my father was home waiting for me yesterday, I would have had a story for him. About how I had lunch with cousins, some of whom I’d never met. And, mostly, about how these cousins wanted to know where we all came from. That the story of his family mattered to them. I know he would have liked that.

I was twenty-eight when my father died and not as devoted to my writing as I might have been, but I am older now, and this is what I’ve learned after several decades of writing and a couple of teaching: human beings love stories. We have, since the beginning of time, sat around the fire narrating the events of our days. We have etched them out on the walls of caves, have put them to music, have, ultimately, written them down. Stories connect us.

So it should be no surprise, should it, that one woman might have heard a story about how her grandmother died and that, wanting her own,  more substantiated version, she spent several years compiling the history of a family? What makes a story good, after all, is how we can’t predict where it will take us.

For my own daughters who never knew my father, I try to bring him to life. Show them pictures, of course. Tell them what it was like to work beside him. For a few years, they even joined a 4-H club and learned to halterbreak heifers. “You know what my father would have said?” I say, sometimes, when they do something. Of course they don’t. Maybe they have a few facts: he loved maple walnut ice cream; he owned one of the most famous bulls in the history of dairy farming; his voice was so hoarse, most people couldn’t understand him. These are what writers call character details. Small strokes, but no complexity.

Still, they have more than what I have of my own grandparents. I know that my grandfather, Angelo, was such a good stonecutter/carver, he could cut more letters into granite than any other cutter at the quarry. My grandmother planted a white rose bush in front of the house. No food my father ate after she died tasted as good as when she made it. She made rugs out of rags. Always kept a pot of soup on the stove. When my father and his brother were done with the milk route, they climbed out of the wagon at the schoolhouse and the horses walked home alone, my grandmother and her sister waiting for them at the end of the lane to remove their harnesses. It is, essentially, a series of video clips that plays in my head when I think of them, but no real film.

Yesterday, I want to tell my father, I added what I could add. I saw a picture of my grandmother, Giovanna, as a young woman, for example. I didn’t have to peer at a blurry group shot of her and her large family. I could study her face. Look right into her eyes. I could see that she was the tallest of her sisters, as tall as some of her brothers. But I couldn’t see my father in her.

I learned that my great-grandfather made nails out of the iron mined in the Dolomites where they were from. Supported his wife and fourteen children. That the Zoldani, my father’s people, were noted for their nail-making. I saw a picture of my great-grandmother when she was very old, a woman used to the hard life of that place.

And I saw a picture of my father as a very young boy (so young, in fact, he was wearing a dress. This, I would especially like to tell him.). He stood with his grandmother on a spot of grass that would one day be where he and his brother built a garage out of wood that washed ashore after the Hurricane of ‘38. He had a bowl cut, straight hair that surprised me. His dark eyes looked suspiciously at the photographer. Even then, I thought, a tough guy to please. My father as a toddler, reaching up to hold tight to his grandmother’s hand. You’d think it impossible until you remember: I am in the middle of a story and in a story, anything might happen.

Penny, Count Your Blessings: Part I

Penny, Count Your Blessings

The winter I was sixteen, we milked over a hundred cows. The only one who’d kick you was Penny.

“Why do we keep this cow?” I said, dodging another of her attempts.

“Reach in,” my father said. “Stop daydreaming and keep your head out of the way.”

I daydreamed plenty. Armed with a shopping bag of college brochures, I chanted the promises of university life: go from the ordinary to the unexpected, discover new passions. Standing in the pit of the milking parlor, udder-level with two rows of cows, seven on a side, I milked whenever hired help didn’t show, which was often. I cleaned barns, filled hayracks, cut corn. Through it all I thought: One of these days. Now it loomed: the time I would be done with cows, especially cows like Penny.

Only my father would have kept a cow like her. Though most cows’ udders hang like upside down hearts, four teats pointing toward the ground, Penny had teats like weathervane arrows. No milking machine hung on her without its seal leaking (which made a racket) or falling off altogether.

With Penny in the milking parlor, you couldn’t rush down the line dipping teats with iodine the way you did with any other bunch. Instead, you extended your arm to touch her hock with your finger. Once she got the kick out of the way, she’d stand, leg trembling. The knock-your-head-off-your-shoulders jolt came if you surprised her. My father feared nothing.

“You’re always in a hurry,” he’d say, shoving me aside and putting the machine on her. He warded off her blows with a bare arm, pushed her leg back to the ground. “You got a date or something?”

“High school boys are really attracted to girls who smell like cow manure, didn’t you know?” I said.

“Nothing wrong with hard work,” said a man who’d never wanted anything else. “Besides, why be like all those other girls?”

Penny swatted me with her tail, left a trail of manure across my cheek.

I begged him to let me call for the auction truck.

“Can’t get rid of the ones that milk, smart girl. Just show the cow who’s boss.” He squeezed my arm where the muscle should have been. “You’ve got to toughen up a little, honey. You think it’s going to be easy out there without your daddy to protect you?”

My mother and I sat in the waiting room at the dermatologist’s. It was her idea, just as it had been her idea for me to get contacts instead of another pair of glasses with lenses thick enough to start a fire with on a cloudy day. The office buzzed with conversation and soft rock.

In the car, she agreed not come in with me. I knew she’d try because she feared I’d withhold information the way my father did with doctors, but with this doctor, the evidence presented itself. I had acne or I would be home right now, home or somewhere with kids my own age doing the normal things kids my own age did. I was shy, but even more so when my mother was around. The woman had never met a person she wasn’t related to or didn’t go to school with. Once we got her off the farm, she made it look easy – making friends, making conversation.

I tried reading my notes for the next day’s trigonometry exam.

“I’m going to fail,” I said.

My mother flipped through Good Housekeeping. “You always say that.”

“I mean it. I can’t study here, and I have to milk tonight.”

“Come in at nine and get an hour in.”

I thought of my father trying to man both sides of the parlor and clean up afterwards. He’d be out there past midnight.

“If he’d just get rid of a few cows, we’d get through so much faster,” I said. We repeated this conversation many times those years, the years just before I prepared to leave them there. My father had a herd of champions. Good milkers, stars of the county fair circuit. But he insisted on keeping dogs like Penny who didn’t milk well and who could hurt someone.

No need to tell my mother the last part since one of Penny’s crazy predecessors had crushed her against a wall a few years back and ruptured two discs. The surgeries brought about my mother’s retirement from milking.

“All he knows is work,” she said. “He could care less about the business end of it.”

I considered him hovered over his adding machine, checkbook open beside him and, on top of it, the grain bill.

“Maybe,” I said. “But he also gets too attached to some of them.”

His show cows mostly. When he lost one of them or had to send one to the beef auction, he wouldn’t speak for days.

“Look who’s talking,” my mother said. She bit the inside of her cheek. People said we looked alike, same wide-spaced, dark eyes, prominent chins and cheekbones, same nose taking up too much space. When they first dated, my father told her she had dancer’s legs. I couldn’t imagine ever hearing that about my own legs, especially since they were mostly covered in worn jeans stained with manure.

“Your father has two loves in his life,” she said, without bitterness. “You and those animals. If you can’t convince him to do something with the ones who are no good, no one can.”

The receptionist slid her window open and told me I could come in.

I walked across the waiting room and closed the door.

Some kid or other always showed up looking for work. Westerly was part beach town, part mill town. The Italians, like my family, settled away from the ocean. They found work in textile mills or granite quarries. In the 1970’s, almost fourteen thousand people lived there year-round, another twelve thousand arrived for the summer. We had three small grocery stores, a local donut chain with a couple shops and a few fast food chains. If your hair was too long or you had no car, the managers hired someone else. On the other hand, my father might call you Hippie, but he’d have a job for you. My mother provided lunches and taxi service. Still, the turnover was significant. I had plenty of opportunities to perfect the Penny lesson.

That February, I watched from the kitchen window as a kid got dropped off in a gold Dodge Dart missing its rear bumper. The dogs barked and charged the car. I felt a glimmer of hope when this boy let the dogs jump on him. He didn’t touch them, kept his hands in his back pockets as they buffeted him around, but he didn’t look scared exactly. God knows where my father was – underneath the manure spreader fixing a belt, down in the freestall dismantling a waterer.

My mother told me to let his mother know he’d be done late. We could never be more specific than that.

My mother liked to order me out with messages. Days went by when the only time she left the house was to run to plumbing supply for flux or to Agway for salt licks. She’d started watching one soap opera at lunchtime, but by the end of a year, she turned the television on at noon and kept it on through Merv Griffin, the six o’clock news, Concentration. By 7:30 she sat in bed reading the romance novels whose full-bosomed covers embarrassed me. In Catholic school, she’d been the original smart girl. Anytime my homework required an illustration, she’d teach me how to draw it. She did still visit friends from her old neighborhood, but she left my father’s sandwich on the table, wrapped in wax paper as neatly as a gift.

I went out, waved to the kid and tapped on his mother’s window. She wore a plaid bathrobe and opened the door a crack releasing old smoke. I told her he’d be done around ten. I didn’t add: hopefully.

“He’ll have to walk home then,” she said and drove off.

The kid wore new boots, black plastic ones they sold at Fisher’s Big Wheel. I shooed the dogs and they went to collapse in the hayloft.

“My mother will drive you,” I said.

Later, we stood in the doorway of the milking parlor. I kept the cows out by waving a lead pipe.

“See that cow with the big white circle on her face, the hair standing up between her ears?” I said. Penny jostled others, bulled forward blindly, batted her head around in panic. Her rump sloped off severely, her legs hooked underneath her as if she was permanently close to sitting. “When she comes in, watch out.”

The kid wouldn’t have been able to tell a brown cow from a pink one, never mind remember a face. He craned his neck over my shoulder, petrified by the herd surging toward the open door.

I told him to step back, that I’d get them, and he scuttled behind me. You see, I wished I could tell my father, boys do not find this kind of courage attractive.

In the pit, I showed the kid a marking on Penny’s otherwise white flank, a small black mark in the shape of a fishhook. You could depend on added clues – a teat scratched from bull briars she’d charged through, an ear bloodied from tearing it away from something during flight.

“If you forget her, she’ll kill you,” I said. This seemed to impress him. He shook his head at her and whistled.

Most new kids lasted about two weeks. The kid whose mother never changed out of her bathrobe lasted three days. When my mother called me, I was sitting on my bed, reading a college brochure: Because your search for a school is as unique as you are . . .

“Doesn’t look like your dad’s going to have help tonight,” she said.

“I’m not going.” I said this often, especially in winter. The unheated milking parlor, my wet hands, my feet on cement.

Plates clattered as my mother finished supper dishes. She admitted there were times when she wondered how she’d gotten here after running the diner where my father came in for every meal. He left her a twenty dollar tip, almost a week’s salary, when he found out she had four kids. He charmed her, never gave up. She milked beside him for years before her injury, laid me sleeping on a cot in the office near the furnace while she worked.

Lately, she began conversations with, “Someday soon, when you’re off to college . . .” and ended them with, “What am I going to do without you?” Then, she’d hug me and say, “I’m not saying I don’t want you to go, of course. I want that more than anything. Go off and have a ball.”

“There’s a little thing called studying,” I’d mumble into her shoulder.

“Oh, Worrywart, believe it or not, you can work hard and have fun.”

My father, who never reached high school because the early start conflicted with his milk delivery route, believed in education and believed in footing the bill for it. But my sisters married young. My brother left home in a van full of long-haired guys and their guitars to travel the country, maybe audition for Johnny Cash. I was the honor roll student, the kid who lost sleep over paper deadlines and SATs. So off I’d go in a couple years, the first in the family to take up residence hours away in search of a degree.

What would it be like to know that on the coldest nights of the year, you didn’t have to go out there into the dark and wind, into a long night of work? In a couple years when the hired help let him down, my mother would be the only one home. I pitched the pamphlet against the wall and dug long underwear out of a pile on the floor.

“Do you know how I’m going to decide which college to attend?” I asked my mother as I pulled on my boots downstairs. The sides of my nose and the crease in my chin burned from the acne medicine. My whole face peeled away in white flakes leaving behind an angry red.

“One that’s as far away from cows as possible,” she said.

“All animals. I mean it. I don’t want to see so much as a dog being walked outside my dorm window.”

I opened the back door and my father’s singing drifted across the barnyard – Everybody loves somebody sometime . . .

My mother shook her head. “Sometimes I feel sorry for him because he’s got so much to do out there, but listen to the foolish man. He’s happy.”

Was she happy? Most days, I doubted it. But she kept a life off the farm, friends from the old neighborhood, shopping trips to the Fall River outlets, babysitting for my sisters’ kids. Once a year, she spent a week in Maine with a good friend, just the two of them eating lobsters and playing Scrabble on a shady deck overlooking a salt water bay.

When I swung the parlor door open, my father stopped singing and looked up from where he was hosing off the back feet of a cow. The parlor smelled sharply of manure and iodine. The animals gave off heat despite the cold, the vacuum of the milking machines provided a soft percussion. The dogs trotted through a door and butted me with their snouts.

“Good to see you, honey,” my father said, then resumed, “Something in my heart keeps saying, that sometime is now. . .”

The dogs’ tails cooled the air currents around my legs until I climbed down into the pit and got busy.

When Penny came in an hour later, I followed protocol. She kicked the air so hard at my first poke, she cut her leg on a bolt in her stanchion.

“Stupid animal,” I said, though I had been lulled that night, as if in crossing off my working nights on an imaginary calendar, I’d forgotten I’d actually have to leave – pack my bags, drive away, sleep in a room without the sounds of tractors roaring out my open window, dogs barking at raccoons in the corn fields. To hear instead the breathing of strangers, their footsteps down long hallways, to smell their laundry soap, their shampoos.

But Penny jerked me out of my reverie. At times, I pitied her, homely as she was, terrified and senseless. Now I tried deciding which life was worse – a cow’s or those assigned to look after them. Well, I thought, at least the way out for me isn’t on a truck headed for a beef auction.

“You know, Dad, that kid might have stuck around if it wasn’t for Penny here.”

“Kid was kind of nervous.” My father said this about everyone.

He stripped the milk out of another animal’s teat by hand, her quarter red and swollen with mastitis. What squirted out was more water than milk, clots of yellow, streaks of blood. She’d probably go blind in that quarter despite my father’s efforts, but he’d keep her.

Penny might have been the only cow who could hurt you, but there was a mini-herd of animals we could have done without.

“When the first tuition bill comes, I have an idea of who you can sell to pay it,” I said.

“Why don’t you take care of book stuff and I’ll worry about farming.”

“Farmers cull, Dad. They make decisions about profit and loss and understand that once a cow eats more money than she makes, it’s time to go.”

“You don’t know every goddamned thing,” he said. “And you sure talk a lot about farming for someone who can’t wait to get the hell away from here.”

Penny’s kick launched her machine under the cow in front of her. I sought a safe path through her flashing hooves to re-attach it, but finally hung it on the weigh jar and turned the valve to release her milk. It swirled away through the pipeline, into the tank.

“Just be damned sure you don’t study farming.” My father’s voice returned to its usual growl. “Or by Christ you’ll pay the goddamned bill yourself.”

To be continued . .

Happy Birthday To You, Too, Mom

EPSON MFP image

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.

I Always Wanted a Cow Named That

Tum-A-Lum Black Eagle Kelly, 1977. The photographer came to the farm that day to take pictures of our champions, but Kelly and I snuck in.

Tum-A-Lum Black Eagle Kelly, 1977. The photographer came to the farm that day to take pictures of our champions, but Kelly and I snuck in.

Recently, The Westerly Sun ran a story about my new book. Because Westerly is my hometown, no one was surprised when the article included a reminiscence about my cow Darcy. (Here’s the link, in case you’re interested: http://www.thewesterlysun.com/entertainment/entertainmentnews/6153131-129/writer-carla-panciera-to-speak-at-bank-square-books.html) It wasn’t Darcy’s only ink. Darcy was a red carpet kind of cow. She was so unmistakably grand, that once, in a 2400 square foot barn filled with 200 shit splattered animals, a stranger pointed to her lying in a stall and said, “Who is that?” Her sister, Marlene, struck me more as the Marilyn Monroe type. But Darcy was definitely a bovine Garbo.

However, Darcy was never my favorite. In fact, her perfection daunted me, an 85 pound kid with acne, thick glasses, and a mop of pot-scrubber hair. And Darcy wasn’t really mine at all. She belonged to my dad. I inherited her, but it felt a little bit like cheating. My cow, my very own imperfectly lumbering, lazy, bull-headed ox of a cow was Kelly.

Kelly’s mother was also a champion, a junior one which means her glory days occurred before she had any calves. When I was five, my father let me lead Shelly around the ring at the Rhode Island Black and White Show. Shelly won a trophy that I brought to show and tell. “I don’t own her,” I said, bitter, despite my classmates’ envy. I said the same thing every time my father mentioned Shelly’s haul.

“Oh, all right,” he finally said. “First heifer she has is yours.”

Tum-A-Lum Model Shelly, 1968, with my sister Patty at the halter, me with the trophy, and Pam Hawksley, RI Dairy Princess (and my future 4-H leader).

Tum-A-Lum Model Shelly, 1968, with my sister Patty at the halter, me with the trophy, and Pam Hawksley, RI Dairy Princess (and my future 4-H leader).

 Kelly was a mostly black baby with a fat white triangle in the middle of her forehead. We had several litters of puppies and kittens every year. For Easter, I routinely received ducklings and rabbits. But the first time I saw Kelly I thought: My god, was there ever anything more beautiful than this?

Kelly was never her mother’s daughter. No blue ribbons swung from her halter. If they had, they would have swayed in time with her cud chewing (Darcy would never chew her cud in public). Kelly had to be tugged around the ring. She lay down every time a judge approached. Flies loved her because she had little interest in swishing her tail to shoo them off.

Whenever we worked with show cows or had to approach the bull pen or were forced to place ourselves between an escape route and a charging 1500 pound animal, my father had one piece of advice: Just show ‘em who’s boss. Fearless, incapable of imagining the scenarios in which trampling might occur, he maintained his philosophy. But I was never Kelly’s boss. When she was hungry (she was always hungry) or she’d had enough of sun and snapping cameras, she shoved me out of her way and headed back to the show barn, judge be damned.

She grew into a boxcar of a cow. Big boned, continuously pregnant, and starved. She ate so much, in fact, she had no energy left over to milk. “Laziest goddamned cow I’ve ever seen,” my father would say, as I stood in the manger feeding her corn cobs from the palm of my hand. And, okay, it did become harder to distinguish her hip bones, but she was a presence, her coat a glossy, midnight black. If Darcy was Garbo, Kelly was Liz Taylor much later in life.

Kelly spewed heifer calves every thirteen months. First Kitty who needed two operations for a misplaced stomach, but who would wrap her head around you when you leaned against her shoulder. Kandi could unlatch the milkhouse door with her muzzle (For some reason, this trick never amused my father as much as it amused me). Kathi came when I called her (she was usually in the corn field trampling stalks). Deer-boned Krissy mostly stayed out of trouble. Every time I lifted the leg of Kelly’s newborn to check the sex, my father groaned. “Going to have a goddamned herd of her,” he’d say, and Kelly would butt him until he filled her manger.

When I came home from college one semester break, my father greeted me before I headed outside. “Just so you know, honey, your cow isn’t doing so well.” By then, I had enough cows for a herd of my own, but I knew who he was talking about. Kelly’s last calf had been a bull. Her recovery had been slow. She was more than ten years old and so thin, that when I finally gathered up enough courage to go look for her, I mistook her for another animal, one that always milked the meat off her bones.

“You get too attached,” my mother always told me. But how to resist a face like Kelly’s? Or those hoofs as big around as dessert plates, that giant head lifted towards me whenever I entered the barn? How to ignore how still she stood while I pressed her belly feeling her calf move, rubbing the tell-tale knob of its knee? How not to love her absolute and total insistence on attention as if she wasn’t a member of a stinking herd? Kelly taught me, a painfully shy kid, a great deal about how to be the boss of whatever world you’re in, how to hold your head up and barge right in.

Her mother, Shelly, had died the day after a difficult delivery of her third calf. I had stayed up late to watch my father pull the stillborn calf out and dose Shelly with IV fluids afterwards. She was alive when we left her, but the next day when I returned from school, my father sat me on his lap: “Got some bad news, honey,” he said. It was my first lesson about the heartbreak that is also farm life.

Many years later, I watched Kelly walk towards the freestall barn, hipbones finally prominent, her triangle still blazing white in all her incredible blackness. “I don’t want her to suffer,” I told my father, but later, I never asked if she had. I left shortly after and eventually returned to a herd full of animals who ignored me when I offered them a corn cob from the palm of my hand.

Homesick

photo 5An old dairy farmer used to make hay in the fields at the end of our street, but now that farm, too, has been sold. When I saw the timothy grow high in this dry summer, I worried: won’t it go to waste? It didn’t. Someone else baled it though I never discovered who, and I had that farmer’s daughter’s feeling of relief. The work got done. That important work that helps sustain us all through the long winters of New England.

The second cutting of that field usually comes in late August when the alfalfa produces its flowers. Something about that lush field must appeal to finches because a flock of them flies up from the grass when I pass by on my morning walks. Yellow, yellow, yellow from such a deep green, such vibrant dots of purple.

This year, however, the flowers died, the finches left, and still the field was unmowed. Cows like timothy. They shove it around with their muzzles and yank some strands on which to ruminate, other pieces they leave behind the way my kids pick onions out of whatever they’re eating. But when you shake out a biscuit of alfalfa before cattle, the coarse strands scratching your forearms, prickling your wrists, the animals are all business. No evidence of  alfalfa ever needs to be swept away once the animals have finished. They lick their troughs clean, and then, they milk like crazy. Young stock never tastes this delicacy. You have to be a working girl to get that kind of a treat. So to pass this field those final days of summer, these first two weeks of fall, disturbed me. It also challenged me to remember: that’s not your life now. That field, the hayloft that still has room somewhere, all the bales that will not thrill some poor old dame missing her fresh pasture in the darkest days of winter, isn’t your concern anymore. Try to console yourself, instead, with the joy of those finches.

But one day when I was off at my job in the life I lead now where no one is dependent upon a good harvest, the field got mowed. Sometimes, I remember this well, things get done a little later than you had hoped. I had a busy day Friday and an upsetting one. A day that reminded me how cruel young girls can be and how, no matter how painful your own adolescence might have been, that feeling cannot compare to the agony it is to watch your own children muddle through it. I needed a walk, anticipated the healing way moving my body clears my head, and it did feel good to be outside. The Concord grapes are ripe and emit their perfume. Treetops are turning orange, their clingy vines a jewelly gold.

When I passed the field, however, all I could smell was the hay. To think about our farm, its ramshackle barns, the batting heads of our cows at their feeders, my father in his good weather footwear, black hightop Converse sneakers, strekking through the empty heifer barns towards where we parked the corn chopper  is one kind of longing. But to come upon a freshly mowed field of alfalfa is a much more potent trigger. I didn’t think of home again, I was home.

Because he baled hay late into the day and rushed home to milk before unloading the wagon, my father often parked the load outside my bedroom window. In dry weather, he left it overnight for the hired help to empty. If the forecast predicted rain, he emptied it himself after milking. Either way, I slept inhaling that scent. I’m sure a part of me thought that’s how I would always fall asleep. Outside, the stanchions would creak, the dogs bark at a raccoon in the cornfield, a calf would call out for its mother. Wasn’t there only one world to be a part of? And wouldn’t my father always be central to it?

Decades later, I stood on a street in a town that is far away from where our farm used to be, but that scent placed me squarely back in the hayloft, in the freestall where we fed the cows, in the bedroom of a house that was burned down long ago to make room for something else. I’m happy the bounty of that field will not go to waste, and next year, I can feel confident that eventually, someone will do the work that needs to be done. But that relief will not completely lessen the homesickness I experience when the field is not grass but crop, when I am reminded once more that there are some places to which we can never really return.

Maybe, for my daughters working through teenage strife, for me witnessing it, for anyone struggling along the unavoidable path before them, that’s also the good news.