IMAGINE

Imagine:  You are a young child of ten years. You’ve always lived in the rural country side. Your father is a farmer. Your mother stays at home. She keeps the house clean, cooks three meals each day for five persons, including two men who work on the farm. Your house sits alone beside the road. You see friends at the little church and neighbors from up the road sometimes stop by. Other days you see no one but your family. This is all you’ve ever known.

One day, your mother packs your clothes and says you must go to live a city of 500,000 people. Yes, you know the people you’ll live with a little bit, but you’ve never been to the city. You’ve never lived in a house on a street with houses close to yours. There are always people walking by your house – people you don’t know. Is it difficult to get accustomed to a very different life?

I am writing a children’s novel with the opposite situation.  My ten-year-old girl has been sent to a dairy farm to live with her cousins and their parents, herFeatured image aunt and uncle. The time is the summer of 1943. She is there because her father is in the U. S. Navy. Her mother, like many other moms during World War II is working in a war factory.

She knows nothing of farm life, is afraid of the animals, and thinks of the barn as an awful stinky place. She is worried about the safety of her father.  How does she feel about being on the farm? Will she adjust? How will she lose her fears?

Do you think you would be able to change and love the farm?

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A CHILDHOOD WITH CATS

CATS ALWAYS

Three cats dominated my early life, my big black cat named Buddy, a bobtail called Buster, and a small gray cat with a white nose, I’ll call Boots.
As a two year old, I could more easily handle Boots than Buddy.  I still have vague memories of this incident, but have also heard the story many times from my mother.

When I was two or three, I watched Mom ready a chicken for the pot. On our farm, it meant that Dad gathered an unwanted rooster or old hen and chopped off its head. The chicken hung in our woodshed for a couple of hours to drain the blood, then Mom dipped it in a bucket of hot water and picked its feathers off. I decided I’d pick Boots. The hair didn’t come out as easily as the feathers off the chicken. When Mom heard the cat howling, she came and rescued him.

Buddy was my favorite cat. He came from Binghamton. Mom and Dad told the story. One day Mom carried Dad’s lunch the short distance from their house to the gas station my father owned on Upper Court Street. On her way home, a young black cat followed her. Dad insisted that Mom encouraged it all the way back to their house. Buddy grew into a playful, high-spirited cat. Dad would tease him until Buddy would chase him around the room. The only escape was standing on the large register of the pipeless heater.

Mom worried about Buddy while she was pregnant. Because Buddy was so spunky, she feared he would scratch or smother me. The opposite was true. Buddy became my faithful companion and did all that I commanded. I remember putting him on a window sill, saying, “Stay here.” He did.

Buddy was also subject to other embarrassments from me. I had a large toy truck that I could ride on. It was like a cattle truck with metal slatted sides. Buddy became “my cattle.” He just fit inside the truck’s trailer. I locked him in. That evening Mom said, “I haven’t seen Buddy all day. He didn’t come to eat his supper.” Oh, oh. Poor Buddy. I ran into my play room to release him from his day-long confinement.

Often I left my dolls and used Buddy as my playtime baby. He didn’t seem to mind being dressed in doll clothes, except for bonnets tied under his chin. I thought he looked particularly fetching in blue as I wheeled him around in my doll carriage. As my baby, Buddy learned to drink from a doll’s bottle. At the time, doll’s bottles were small duplicates of a regular baby bottle, so they could be filled with real milk.

Bottle training saved Buddy’s life. One cold winter day, Buddy went outside as he always did, but this day he did not return. He was gone for three days. Every day Mom called him, but he didn’t come. Everyday when I came home from school, I looked for him.

On the fourth morning after I’d gone to school, Mom was working near the sink where the back kitchen windows that overlooked the barnyard with the creek and hill beyond. She saw something black moving ever so slowly up through the barnyard. Quickly she slipped on her boots and coat and hurried down the knoll and across the barnyard to Buddy, who was dragging himself home. Buddy was icy cold, very wet, and missing two front toes. Where had he been? What happened to him? We never really knew, but we were quite certain he’d been caught in a muskrat trap placed at the edge of the creek by a someone in the neighborhood. Why the unknown person released Buddy, but didn’t bring him to the house we never knew. However, if I held him when a strange man came into the house, my very gentle cat would claw me in desperation to leap from me and run away.

Mom wrapped him in a warm wool blanket and placed him next to the wood stove. He was a very, very sick cat, probably suffering from pneumonia. At that time, veterinarians were not called to a farm to deal with a sick cat and my parents would not have been able to afford it.

Once Buddy was warm and dry, Mom tried to feed him, but every time he bent his head to eat or drink, it filled with so much mucus he couldn’t breathe. That’s when Mom heated milk, put it in my doll’s bottle and held him on his back to bottle feed him. With hand feeding and my doll’s bottle, Buddy recovered.

Buddy spent his last days snug and loved, curled up in my child-sized rocking chair. He died of old age after living with us for seventeen years.

Buster, the bobtailed cat, was not so easily tamed. He rarely allowed me to feed him with a bottle and let me put him in my doll carriage. He spent much of his time hunting the abundant supply of mice, chipmunks, and other small vermin available on any dairy farm.

Buster loved fresh warm milk directly from the cow. Each day when Dad milked the cows, Buster came and sat on the concrete floor behind the cow that Dad was milking. If Dad didn’t acknowledge him, Buster would stretch out a paw to give Dad’s leg a tap. Then if Dad didn’t pay attention, Buster stretched and hooked his claws into Dad’s pant leg. Finally, Dad squirted milk from the cow’s teat into Buster’s face. After a few squirts, some of which he caught in his mouth and others he licked from his whiskers, he’d had enough. Buster insisted this ritual be observed every morning and evening during milking time.

Aunt Irma, my mother’s sister, gave us a long-haired Persian. He didn’t live long in our home. A beautiful silver colored animal, he was somewhat well-trained. He could sit on his back haunches, put out his front paws to catch a piece of food tossed to him. His bathroom habits left much to be desidre. Our cats went outside to the bathroom. Much to my mother’s consternation, the Persian didn’t. One day two women stopped to visit. One of them adored this cat. He’d found a new home.

After Buddy left this world, we adopted Jack and Jill, gray, long-haired brother and sister cats. Jack grew into a large, well-mannered gentleman cat. Jill was my mother’s favorite. She was petite and sassy. Jill became pregnant. As the day grew near for her to give birth, Mom fixed her a box with a blanket and put it in the cellar where she would have privacy. Jill didn’t want to stay down cellar. The night before Easter Sunday, Jill howled all night. By five o’clock Easter morning, when Dad got up to milk the cows, he’d not slept. Neither had Jill given birth to the kittens.

Before Mom went down to the barn to help Dad, she let Jill up from the cellar. I was up early that morning. Jill gave birth to her first kitten on the living room sofa. When Mom came back in the house, she had cosseted her and her three babies in her box near the kitchen sink. When Dad came in he was still so angry with Jill, he refused to acknowledge her or the kittens. Jill’s kittens were very popular and were usually given away before they were born. I went off to college, and I do not remember how long Jack and Jill lived on the farm. I wonder if some of Jill’s descendants may still live in the neighborhood all these years later.

Besides the cats that were allowed in the house, we had an endless chain of barn cats. Many of these cats came as drop-offs. The people around our community were well aware that no animal went hungry that came to our farm. I’m sure even the mice found plenty to eat, if they escaped the cats who wanted to eat them. Some of the barn cats showed up as kittens, others were fully grown, some were friendly and liked to be petted, some were nearly wild and couldn’t be touched. Each day Mom took leftover bread to the barn and broke it up into a large pan. On his way to the milk house with a pail of milk, Dad poured a generous splash of milk over the bread. Even the shyest cat eventually made it into the barn during milking time.

There have been many other cats in my life, but I’ll always remember these few I treasured as a child.IMG_0615

Here is my current cat. Van Gogh is about six or seven years old. So named for his damaged ear, whether from birth or a fight we don’t know because he was three when we got him from the shelter. He is a loving lap cat.

WILKES MAC DONALD from my unfinished MEMOIR OF A FARM GIRL

I cannot remember when I first knew Wilkes Mac Donald. He was simply part of life’s fabric on our farm in Sanford. From our house we could see his small white clapboard house perched on the crest of the small hill toward North Sanford.

I vaguely remember a nice lady who sat with Wilkes on the small kitchen porch next to the driveway. From there they could look up the long, narrow valley defined by forested hills, watch the changes in the seasons and the weather, and keep track of the neighbors.

As a widower, this was where you’d find Wilkes with his dog, Sport. Sport, the recipient of too many table scraps, was a short white and brown-spotted hound dog with long floppy ears. Sport went where Wilkes went. Then, he sat patiently waiting until it was time to go home.

My very earliest memories of Wilkes were looking out of the window in the evening to see him moseying down our long driveway and carrying a two-quart tin pail for Dad to fill with warm fresh milk. Wilkes always lingered in the barn talking as Dad moved from cow to cow with the milking machine, or carried full milk pails to pour through a filter into large cans in the milk house. Dad listened to Wilkes the way he listened to my prattle–interjecting appropriate “”umms”” and other nondescript expressions in what was otherwise a monologue. Wilkes discoursed on the events in the morning newspaper, neighborhood gossip, fishing, and the weather. It was from him I learned about the great blizzard of eighty-eight, 1888, that is. After a while, Wilkes would amble back up the driveway with Sport at his heels.

Wilkes made pancakes for breakfast every morning. There was always one left over. Our dog, Chum, was a friend of Wilkes and Sport. Every morning when Dad came into the house for breakfast, Chum trotted up the hill to Wilkes’ house. Every morning Wilkes threw him the leftover pancake. It was Chum’s daily treat, a change from his normal dry dog food.

In the 1940s, Hills’ bakery trucks from Binghamton traveled the country roads delivering bread and baked goods door to door. We bought bread sometimes, but rarely anything else. Wilkes bought bread, cakes, and cookies from the driver. Before eating the cake, Wilkes carefully removed and wrapped any candy or frosting decorations. When I met him to walk with him down the driveway, he’d pull these treasures from one of the many ample pockets his fishing coat, and give them to me. They were wonderfully sweet and delicious.

Wilkes had a passion was fishing. From early spring to late fall and sometimes even in winter, he and Sport came down the driveway and continued on through the pasture to our “ice pond, ” that never froze because it was fed by cold underground springs. In winter, the water appeared black in the white snowy landscape. In summer, the cold water, protected and shaded from the afternoon sun by tall hemlock trees appeared green and cooled the air around it. Day after day in summer’s cool morning hours, Wilkes went fishing. As the sun climbed to its zenith, Wilkes came back through the pasture with his morning catch of suckers, catfish, and sunnies. Knowing that my mother and I liked fish, he would sometimes give me some nicely cleaned catfish for our dinner. These, too, came from a pocket of the same fishing coat.

Wilkes was a man of principles.

Wilkes believed that if one insulated oneself against the cold with layers, it worked as well to insulate oneself against the heat. Therefore, he always wore layers of clothing. We knew it included long underwear, long-sleeved shirts and a coat. What else? We were not sure. Only when the temperature climbed above ninety did we see Wilkes without his coat. And I never recall seeing his arms bare.

Wilkes also believed in moderation. My father loved to bait him. One incident, I recall, happened one night in the summer when we were a little late eating supper. We were still at the table when Wilkes and Sport came down the driveway. Dad called out to him to come into the house while we finished our meal. There were four of us around the table–Dad, Mom, our hired man, Roma, and myself. My mother was a good cook and very good baker. That evening Mom set a barely cool coconut layer cake on the table for dessert. The two yellow layers were filled and topped with white boiled frosting, generously sprinkled with sweet shredded coconut. Mom cut half the cake into six pieces. Wilkes accepted a piece and we each ate one. Then Dad, the hired man and I had a second piece. Wilkes refused. This left just a quarter of the cake. Dad, with a wink at Roma and twinkle in his eye, said, “Roma, have another piece,” and cut the remaining quarter into two pieces.

The plate was empty. Wilkes couldn’t stand such gluttony. He stood up in disgust and went outside mumbling, “Enough for any goddam hog!” Dad laughed over this incident the rest of his life.

Wilkes also believed that when you were too old to take care of yourself, you should die.

Sport was a smart dog. He never crossed the road without checking both directions. He grew very old. One day after his hearing and sight were dimmed, Sport was grazed by a passing car on the road. Although the dog would have all right, Wilkes shot him.

As he aged, Wilkes contracted with a family: they would live on the farm and care for him; in return the farm would be theirs when he died. No one knew Wilkes’ age. He always seemed to be the same. One day, while the family was away, Wilkes took his shotgun and went to the woods. After several days of searching, his body was found. Had he been sick or just tired of living? We never knew.

The story that circulated about finding his body involved Mrs. Banco, the wife of a Chicago preacher, an area resident. It was said that the police contacted her, and she used her fortune telling ability to direct them to the exact spot they would find his body. True or false?

Wilkes was a man of principles. He lived and died by them. He was a man of idiosyncracies, but I will always remember him for kindness and thoughtfulness.

Photo from about 1947 showing Wilkes’ house and barn in the background

BLACKIE

I grew up on a dairy farm during World War II. We produced and preserved most of our food–meat, fruit, vegetables, milk and butter. This bit of memoir begins about 1941 and ends about 1952.

Blackie, the Hen

Blackie came to live in our hen house when I was about nine years old. She was the only black hen among the flock of red ones.

Each spring Dad and Mom went to Wilbur Parsons’ Hatchery in town to buy a hundred Red Hampshire chicks. While they chatted with Mr. Parsons, who was also my school bus driver, I wandered around the hatchery looking at all the peeping baby chickens on long tray tables. Nearly all of them, regardless of the color they would be when they were hens, were yellow. There were, however a few trays of fluffy black ones.

Noticing that I admired the little black ones, Mr. Parsons tucked one tiny black chick in among the yellow ones that my parents were buying. I immediately named her Blackie.

In preparation for the new chicks, Dad had built eight small coops in a fenced plot. At the time we did not have a brooder to keep the young chicks warm.

That evening as the sun set and the hens began to settle down, Mom, who usually took care of the chickens, chose eight “setting hens,” which were those trying to hide eggs for hatching chicks. With no rooster in the henhouse to fertilize them, their efforts would only have produced rotten eggs. Mom, wise to them, carefully checked their nests each day for eggs.

Mom and Dad took the setting hens off their nests to the fenced yard to introduce them to a small flock of baby chicks, hoping the mother instinct exhibited by “setting” on the nest would come alive. Most often it did and the hen would gather the chicks, adopt them as her own, and cuddle them under her warm wings in her assigned coop. Sometimes a hen turned obstinate and would have nothing to do with those chicks. Then Mom would replace her with a more cooperate one.

With my pleading, Blackie and a few others that for some reason didn’t seem strong enough to go into the coops, stayed warm next to our wood burning kitchen stove for a couple of days. The only risk they faced was that one of our cats on hearing the “cheep, cheep” of the chicks might somehow manage to get into the covered box for a tender treat.

Blackie was finally integrated with the rest of the chicks and grew to an adult hen. Any chicks that crowed, instead of clucked, became slated for the dining room table. Blackie turned out to be an excellent laying hen and easily spotted in the flock of red hens. Gradually the Hampshire Reds were replaced with more black ones and I couldn’t identify her from the others, although Mom could.

Blackie continued to be a productive hen and laid eggs until the end of her life. Her doom came when she was an old lady of ten years. The flock had diminished to only a dozen hens–too few to keep themselves warm through the winter months in the large hen house. Fortunately, I was away at college when the remainder of the flock met with their fate. Plucked, butchered, and frozen, it was impossible to identify Blackie from the others in the freezer. Blackie must have been a “tough old bird.” I don’t know, but it may have taken longer for her to become tender enough for dinner with Mom’s fresh and flaky baking powder biscuits and gravy shared with company for Sunday dinner.