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Sunday, July 10, 2016

A man on a galloping horse would never notice

“You realize your tablecloth is a little wrinkly. Want me to run the iron over it quickly for you?”
“Nah. A man on a galloping horse…”
Perhaps it means something that my family uses that expression so often, we don’t even bother to finish it. A man on a galloping horse would be travelling past so quickly, he would not notice that my tablecloth has not been ironed. Besides, the plates and platters will soon cover the wrinkles after dinner is served.
I do not aspire to be the type of farmwife who has everything just so. I am comfortable with a bit of untidiness. I know the foundation is cleaned. I cleaned it myself. I enjoy cleaning the house – it is my stress relief. I tend to do more of a quick pass-over than a thorough scrubbing, however. I tell myself it will do for now. Eventually the Farmer waits until I’m gone away on a girls’ night or something and he cleans the floors the way his mother taught him. He moves the furniture and uses an entire bottle of floor wax. The mop is stiff like a brick when he is finished, and the floors gleam so that you can see your smile reflected back at you. Bless him.
If you happen to notice me scrubbing floors at odd hours of the day, i.e. 2am, stand back. Give me plenty of room. Chances are I am extremely ticked off about something and that is why I am scouring so fervently.
My garden is doing very well this year. That is one area where I am not slacking off. I’m staying on top of the weeds, so they don’t get a chance to choke anything out or to take over the garden altogether. Deep cleaning of the house can wait til winter – I have to keep tabs on the veggies and perennial beds.
Usually while I am outside weeding I take a moment to check on our old sheepdog, Chelsea. I make sure she has clean, dry hay in her house and her water bucket is freshly filled. This morning I stepped around the stable to her yard, out of habit. She is no longer there to greet me. At the age of fifteen, she lay down for the last time. Fifteen is a good, ripe age for a border collie. They don’t typically live past ten or twelve years of age, I am told. Like our old Gordon Setter Cody, who lived to seventeen, I think there is a lot to be said for having a dog spend most of his time outside.
When it was minus thirty or plus thirty we would make sure the dogs were comfortable, either bringing Cody into the house or Chelsea into the stable, but for the most part they preferred to be outside. Their doghouses were well insulated with hay and placed out of the wind and rain or snow. They grew thick coats in the winter and in summer they dug cool holes in the soil under a shady tree.
“We are now dogless,” the Farmer said. I know that bothers him. Especially when he sees a three-foot-long fisher slinking across the road towards our property. We have dozens of turkey chicks happily roaming around the inside of the stable. We would like them to make it all the way to Thanksgiving. A dog would notify us of an intruder. For now we are relying on the cats. Fat lot of help they are.
When we get back from the cottage the next thing I want to do (or to focus my semi-retired Farmer on) is repair our screen doors. Sammy the big male cat has discovered that if he runs full-throttle into the sliding patio door, the screen will rip from its frame, the plexiglass scratch-guard will flip up and – presto! – instant cat door.
The screen doors on our dining porch also need repair – or replacing. They have bubbled and broken in the frost, so that it appears a large clawed animal ripped a hole in them. I pointed them out to the Farmer and he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s a superficial wound. And a man on a galloping horse would never notice.”

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Whatever would possess someone to do that? The love of farming.

It was 32 degrees today. The Farmer went out “at the crack of sparrow fart” as my dear father used to say, before it got too hot, to sow a field. I kept thinking it was a bit warm to be expecting seed to grow. And a bit dry. We have been in a semi-drought condition all spring. But what do I know? Do not question the Farmer. I have learned, even if you do point out the obvious, he needs to decide for himself. He smiled, gave me a kiss on the cheek and headed out into the dusty back forty.
A few hours later he was back to fill up his coffee. The man doesn’t eat before noon but at least he hydrates. He also took a jug of lemonade and a bottle of water. Back out into the heat. What was I doing while he was toiling in the summer sun? I ventured out to refill the dog’s water. I checked on my turkeys. I pulled a few weeds in the vegetable garden, took note of the plants that will need to be replaced due to the drought,  and then I decided it was much more comfortable in the farmhouse.
I spent the morning cleaning floors and doing laundry. The first muggy heat of the day took over the sunny side of the house and tried to push its way inside. I pulled the blinds and closed the windows on the east side. The smell of bacon filled the kitchen, for I planned to tempt the Farmer with a BLT at lunch. I heard the ATV pull up at the gate, then the heavy footfall up the steps to the back deck. The patio door slid open and I saw a dirty arm reach in to grab a towel off the hook. Next I heard a splash, and a yelp. Seventy-six degree water is a bit of a shock when your skin is scorched. Good thing he has a strong heart. And good thing no one can see into our backyard. Farmers rarely take the time to don a swimsuit.
I carried a pitcher of Arnold Palmer (iced tea and lemonade) to the pool, handed it to him and watched as he drank the whole thing. “Are you hungry?” “Yep.” He’s a man of few words when he’s been using every ounce of energy to get a job done in extreme temperatures. I pointed out that he had a completely black face except for the eyes, and he dunked his head and gave it a scrub a few times.
Probably at least once a season I find myself wondering, whatever would possess someone to do that? Working a field in the sweltering, blistering heat of summer. Plowing a path to the barn in the life-sucking, aching cold wind of a winter blizzard. Well, at this point, he’s committed. He has lives depending on him gaining access to the barn no matter how much snow has fallen. And this season, we have realized our cattle herd is outgrowing the pastures. We needed to turn and re-plant a couple fields so they would be happy with their hay again come winter. That will help them make good milk and grow healthy babies in the spring.
But what possesses a city boy to get himself into this position where animal lives depend on him and he will be forced to get off the cozy couch by the fire or out of the cool shade poolside to go and do some muscle-ripping, sweaty farm work? For my husband, it was a summer spent on his uncle’s farm near Winchester. I believe it was a dairy farm. He got bitten by that bug that makes you see the weather, the seasons, and life a different way. The farming bug. Some people are born into the farming life; others come across it by accident. We need more of the latter because we are swiftly running out of the former. Farm families, like all families, just aren’t having as many kids as they used to. Not every kid raised on a farm wants to farm. So this lessens the chances of the family farm tradition continuing to the next generation.
As I set up my stall at the Kemptville Farmers’ Market it’s awfully nice to see so many first-generation farmers embracing the lifestyle, accepting the hard work and hardship, and sowing the seed.


Monday, June 20, 2016

Letting nature take its course

Dear Dad. I was fine until I saw the meme that started, “Dear Dad.” It pictured an empty bench in a forest setting. It said, “My mind still talks to you. My heart still misses you. And I know in my soul you are at peace.” Then the floodgates opened. I cried for half an hour.

This was our ninth Father’s Day without you. I like to think your energy lingers with us and in some ways your spirit remains. But that gives me mixed feelings because if you are still somehow aware of what we are thinking and doing here in life, then you are aware of the fact that I still break down at the sight of your face. I stare at the photo and I can hear your voice. Sometimes it is all a bit too much, so I pace myself.

I allow one memory at a time. I will sit quietly, as in meditation, and wait for a memory to come forward. Then I will enjoy it as a daydream. I can feel the sinewy muscles of your arm over my shoulder. I hear your teasing, gruff voice. I smell your after shave. I have many photos of you but your face is emblazoned on my brain so I don’t need to look at them often. I take some of them out and arrange them in the gathering room for Father’s Day. They prompt memories and conversations. It almost hurts to put them away again. To put you away.

There is no way to get over the grief of losing a loved one. You must let nature take its course. Time seems to numb the pain but it never really goes away and is easily revived. I don’t think you wanted us to cry for ten years after you died, however. I’m sorry. I’m trying. Most of the time, I remember you with laughter. I speak to you when I need reassurance or extra confidence, before a big meeting or presentation. It might be just that I am reassuring myself but I feel much calmer and stronger after those one-way conversations.
Cathy and Mom make a point of going to your favourite places on Father’s Day. They can’t get to some of those places by boat anymore, because we no longer have your boat. So they drive over, and then they hop the fence to the restricted zone. It’s all very espionage-like. They giggle and reminisce and enjoy your presence. I remember thinking I didn’t want to focus a day on trying to connect with your memory because it would just hurt too damn much. I said I didn’t want to join them when they first asked me, because I could just picture myself crying all day. But now I’m wondering if I’m ready. Maybe on the tenth year I will do more than just take out your photo. Maybe I will join Mom and Cathy at your favourite places. If you are aware of us still, I think it would make you happy to see us together for the sole purpose of remembering you. Why else would we be on a snake-infested island with no boat??

We had twenty people for our Father’s Day dinner tonight. It was a raucous event. We watched the baby in the pool, splashing her own face and loving every minute of it. We mentioned your name and raised a glass to your memory.

After dinner we watched the sun set over the field the Farmer just planted. He managed to cut himself on the only dangerous part of the seeding machine, but says he is bandaged up and ok to go away on his fishing trip tomorrow. Fishing and farming and my husband is a happy man. We planted the two middle fields Dad, because the cattle are rejecting the hay that comes off them and they need a replenishing. A fresh mix of clover and timothy and fescue.

Your family is doing well. Your grandson is an athlete and sometimes we see you in his moves. Your granddaughters are beautiful young women, inside and out. You would be so proud of them. Your great-granddaughter flashes me a crooked smile I think you must have given her before she fell to earth. We miss you very much. And we are letting nature take its course. 

Sunday, June 5, 2016

What is a peaceful co-existence, anyway?

All over the countryside, farmers are raising your Thanksgiving dinners. We brought our turkey chicks home a couple weeks ago. The Farmer had carefully shored up the convertible horse stalls again. They have been used in the past to raise chicks, birth cattle and protect newborn lambs, as well as their intended purpose which was of course to shelter our two horses. Now that we no longer have horses we use the stalls because they are small and close to the house. So we can easily be roused if there is a ruckus therein.
This morning the call of turkey chicks attracted me to the barn. I noted the Farmer had put a live trap on the back porch in the attempt to catch the fat, lazy raccoon who eats the cat food every night. At first I wondered why the cat’s water bowl was full of mud every morning. Then one night I flicked the porch light on after dark and there she was. The roundest, fluffiest raccoon I have ever seen was crouched there over the feeding station, carefully washing the cat kibble in the water bowl before stuffing it in her mouth. I hissed at her and she gave me a look of disdain, then waddled away.
We need to catch this raccoon, because one night a couple years ago either a skunk or raccoon took all 57 of our chicks in one night. So far she has evaded us by being too large for the live trap. I hate to think we can’t live in peaceful co-existence with all beasts on the farm but sometimes an animal ventures too far into forbidden territory and their basic instincts kick in. Next thing you know, we’ve got a massacre on our hands. It ain’t pretty. I am going to research how to scare away raccoons. It’s for her own good.
It’s getting nice and warm out now, and my daughter wants to take the baby in the pool. The Farmer cleaned and treated the pool, and it’s warming up nicely. The only problem is we have strategically placed bird droppings all around the pool ledge. In the fifteen+ years the pool has been there, we have never had bird droppings on the ledge.
I scraped the poop off the pool ledge, cleaned it with bleach spray and then attempted to place uncomfortable-looking, colourful objects around the perimeter to deter the bird. A pool brush, a dustpan, a few floating candles. It did not deter the birds. They returned, and what they did next really surprised me.
As I watched in amazement, the bird landed precariously on the pool ledge in between the assortment of colourful objects. She carried some sort of sac in her beak. Placing the sac on the ledge, she flew off. Moments later she returned with another sac, and placed it a few inches from the first sac. She continued this activity – or perhaps it was more than one bird helping out – until the north edge of the pool was once again covered in tiny sacs of bird poop. I went online to find out what the heck was happening.
My bird expert friends explained. A grackle has been cleaning her nest by depositing her babies’ fecal sacs on the edge of our swimming pool. Charming, and yet disgusting all at the same time.
The good news is, when the baby birds leave the nest, there will be no more deposits on the pool ledge. I was happy to hear that, because the last time I watched, she was dropping the sacks directly into the pool.
Maybe if we bought a pool blanket the bird would have to take her little bags of poop elsewhere. Because the bird experts say she really wants to deposit them beside a pool of water. She can carry them to the creek as often as she likes and I won’t say a word.
There is one type of animal on the farm who seems to be taking this peaceful co-existence thing a bit too far. The barn cats seem to be confused about their job descriptions. Not only are the birds free to soil the pool unchallenged, but I just saw a mouse walk by.
Farming takes a lot of patience and understanding.


Friday, May 20, 2016

In which the Farmer becomes a “sexagenarian.” Really. That’s what it’s called.

The Farmer turns 60 this month. We celebrated with something that I will likely never undertake again, as long as I live. I booked the Legion hall and threw him a surprise party.

I started planning the surprise months ago. I sent out the invitations, booked the hall and gave our girls their individual assignments for slideshow, music playlist, birthday cake, d├ęcor. I don’t know what I would have done without their help and the help of my mother and sister and friends. But when it came to the development of a believable fib that would get my husband to his own surprise birthday party on time, I was on my own. And I’m a terrible liar.

The anxiety set in about two weeks before the event. I worried he would make real estate appointments for the night of the party, or he just wouldn’t feel like going out. Someone asked how would I get him to the hall on time? I decided I would tell him we were going to the surprise 40th of a girlfriend of mine. “Which friend?” she asked. “It has to be someone he doesn’t know very well, but knows well enough to want to go to her party. You need a backstory. You need to know her birthdate, her middle name….” It worries me how much thought my daughter puts into telling a lie. She’s good.

The morning of the party, I still hadn’t told my husband that we had plans that night. Finally I blurted out, “it’s Mr. Stover’s retirement party tonight. You know, he taught with my dad for years.”  I gulped. He said ok. Then he said he planned to spend the day running around doing real estate stuff, and he would drive into the city to visit his dad. Good, I thought. Because I have to spend the day zipping around town buying decorations, getting my hair done, picking up helium balloons, collecting and testing audiovisual equipment and setting up the hall. I didn’t need to run into him.

On my first trip into town to pick things up, I ran into him. His eyes followed me as I drove on by. I smiled, waved and gulped. I should have been at work by then and he knew it. I sent him a text message. “Late for work! We need to be at the hall by 7:30 for speeches…” I got an “x” in return. I thought he was on to me. The adrenalin was upsetting my stomach.

We were late getting access to the hall and being technologically un-inclined, the set-up of the slideshow took me a lot longer than expected. I needed to get home to whip up the spaghetti I had promised the birthday boy for dinner.

After our meal, “We don’t have to be the first ones there, do we?” he asked. “Uh, no, but I don’t want to miss the speeches,” I reminded him.

When we pulled up to the building, one of my friends was outside, smoking a cigarette. When she recognized my truck she ran in to assemble everyone. Climbing the steps to the hall, the Farmer says, “Who is this party for, again?” He is 60. We are both getting forgetful. My heart was pounding. I had almost succeeded in surprising him. Then he saw the slideshow of our photos on the wall. He stopped and peeked around the corner. I had to pull him into the room.

“Oh no you didn’t,” he said. Everyone jumped out then to surprise him, and I could relax. I thought I was going to have a heart attack. The adrenalin rush was a bit much. I really don’t think I will be doing that again. But I think the Farmer was pleasantly surprised, and a little overwhelmed. Mission accomplished.
Most people don’t believe me when I tell them the Farmer is sixty years old. He looks much younger than that – but then, sixty is much younger these days. People don’t really retire –they just switch focus. Today’s pre-seniors spend more time pursuing quality of life – hobbies and activities they enjoy. After retiring from teaching, my sixty-year-old is working on his new career as a real estate agent. In his spare time he is cattle farming, building a log cabin, cooking Sunday dinners for up to twenty people a week and spending time deep in conversation with his new granddaughter. Life is looking pretty good at sixty. And the age comes with a sexy title.


Monday, May 9, 2016

To Anastasia on her first Mother's Day

I am writing this column as a letter to someone I only recently met. I have known Anastasia, my daughter, since before she was born. She introduced herself to me with firm kicks of independence and happy dancing while she was still in the womb. Anastasia the mother, however, I just met on December 2nd, 2015. She bears a resemblance to the young woman I watched grow up. But another aspect of her personality is emerging. She is a confident, calm and knowledgeable young mother, and I admire her patience, her strength and her wholehearted dedication to this tiny being who has been delivered to her care. This is my note to her, my middle daughter, Leti’s mom.

"Dear Anastasia. One year ago, you gave me a card that said, “Happy Mother’s Day, GRANDMA.” I thought you chose it for the flowers on it and didn’t read it very carefully. Actually, it was chosen with care. That is how you announced that baby Leti was coming. Of all the wonderful homemade gifts I have received over the years, I would have to say that’s a winner. I bought a brand new photo album and stuck the card on the front. Over the past year I have filled the album with weekly photos, chronicling every morning of this new journey that we are on: you as a mother, me as a grandmother. It’s quite an adventure already.

While you were pregnant, I listened as you reported on your frequent bouts of morning sickness and my memory (and my stomach) commiserated. But you were just telling me a story; you weren’t complaining. You never complained. Not even when your feet swelled up to the point you could no longer wear proper shoes. Not even when you could no longer sleep lying down but had to recline slightly in a chair, surrounded by your worried dogs. You studied pregnancy so that you would understand exactly what your body was going through, and you explained it to the rest of us. I was pregnant three times and all kinds of weird and wonderful things happened to me. I just listened to the doctor, whom I only saw about once a month for most of the pregnancy. In contrast, you trust your instincts and challenge the doctor when you see things a different way. I admire your confidence and will. You listened to the little person growing inside your body and made your own decisions on how things would go.

When you went into labour a month early, you trusted your instincts and got yourself safely to your husband and your doctor. You calmly told your mate he would not be leaving your side – not even to collect an overnight bag. You spoke to me and to your partner and to the nurses, all the while breathing deeply through your contractions. You were so calm. Even when the contractions went off the chart.

The birth itself, you tell me, was the worst pain you had ever been through, but only for a moment. When the baby was born and needed a little boost from CHEO for the first week you travelled back and forth to the hospital daily to be by her side. You curved your new little family into its own rhythm of feedings and changings, naps and playtime. The rest of the world was firmly but gently told to wait until you could fit it into your schedule. You realized you were in charge and made sure everyone else understood. A proud and protective Little Mama Bear.

You have everything you need, at 24, to carry out this most important job with ease. There will be challenges. There will be setbacks and disappointments. But with your calm confidence, your strong partner at your side, and your positive outlook, you will get through whatever comes your way.
For a long time I have been very proud of the young woman you have grown into, Anastasia. And now I would like to say I am in awe of the mother you are becoming. You will always be my daughter. My little girl. But I am very happy to know this new side of you: Leti’s Mom. It’s nice to meet you. Happy First Mother’s Day. Love always, Mom (Grandma ;)."


Sunday, May 1, 2016

The barn cat drama continues

In March, we came home from a Caribbean vacation to a mild winter day. As I slid open the patio door, all four cats (two house cats and two barn cats that over-winter indoors) ran out into the melting snow. We didn’t see the barn cats again for three weeks. I thought the season of the indoor feral cats, leaving mounds of fluff balls on the couch and tearing up the carpet as they race up the stairs was finally over. I was wrong.
Three weeks after he left, Junior came back. He dragged his sorry self into the house and sat at my feet, announcing his return with a plaintive wail. He looked very thin, as if he had either found himself trapped somewhere with no access to food, or he had been ill. His fur looked matted and the shine was gone from his coat and his eyes. All the fur was missing from the back of his left leg, and the remnants of a nicely cleaned wound was noticeable there. When I snuck over to pet him (he will only allow this if another cat is in between us and food is in front of him) I found another bald spot on his side and a wee hole in the top of his head. He had obviously been in a fight and done his best to nurse his own injuries before somehow finding his way back to the house. The other two cats, Sheila and Sammy, didn’t like the smell of him.
After a week or two of resting and fattening up, Junior went back outside. He returned at the end of April with what I thought was a broken paw. He held it up and limped around the house. I was amazed that he could still get up and down the stairs and onto his favourite birdwatching perches and napping spots with three legs. He made it look easy, but painful. I thought of how we used to splint the lamb’s legs when they got them stuck in the feeder or found themselves under the horse’s hoof. But the cat’s leg was much smaller. I didn’t think I had a splint small enough. Besides, this cat would have anything I constructed ripped off in no time. I crushed some homeopathic pills into his water for pain and planned to take him to the vet the next day. Sammy drank all the water and tucked himself into bed. Junior watched as I prepared the cat carrier and decided it would be safer to sleep up on a rafter in the basement.
On a Monday morning, I waited until the cats were crowded around the feeding station eating breakfast and then grabbed Junior gently but firmly by the scruff of the neck. I scooped up his hind end and tucked him into the waiting carrier. He didn’t struggle, as if he knew he needed help. I watched as he curled up on the fleece blanket and tried to tuck what I was pretty sure was a badly broken leg underneath him. It appeared flat on the foreleg and the paw was misshapen and swollen. It must have been extremely painful.
At the vet, I warned them that Junior is feral. They thought they were ready for him, but he surprised them. When they opened his carrier he flew through their legs and slid across the floor to hide under the x-ray machine. They spent about half an hour chasing him around the clinic before they were able to examine him.
All that running around burst the abcess that Junior was hiding between the pads of his paw. The vet confirmed there were no broken bones. He got an antibiotic shot to last ten days (no way he’s letting me give him oral meds twice a day after this), an anti-inflammatory painkiller and a good cleaning.
Once back at home I opened the carrier and Junior took a spot between the two housecats on the couch. They had a little conversation and decided he didn’t smell so bad after all. And the upside of all this drama is that although he is still suspicious when he sees the cat carrier, he lets me pet him now. I think he is grateful for the human intervention. The only problem is that now I think we have three permanent housecats. He’s afraid to go back outside.