My father taught me how to eat breakfast those mornings when it was my turn to help him milk the cows. I loved rising up from
the darkness and coming quietly down the stairs while the others were still sleeping. I’d take a bowl from the cupboard, a spoon
from the drawer, and slip into the pantry where he was already eating spoonfuls of cornflakes covered with mashed strawberries
from our own strawberry fields forever. Didn’t talk much—except to mention how good the strawberries tasted or the way
those clouds hung over the hay barn roof. Simple—that’s how we started up the day. ~Joyce Sutphen, “Breakfast” from First Words, Red Dragonfly.
By the time I was four years old, my family owned several Guernsey and Jersey dairy cows who my father milked by hand twice a day. My mother pasteurized the milk on our wood stove and we grew up drinking the best milk on earth, as well as enjoying home-made butter and ice cream.
One of my fondest memories is getting up early with my dad, before he needed to be at school teaching FFA agriculture students (Future Farmers of America). I would eat breakfast with him and then walk out into the foggy fall mornings with our dog to bring in the cows for milking. He would boost me up on top of a very bony-backed chestnut and white patchwork cow while he washed her udder and set to work milking.
I would sometimes sing songs from up there on my perch and my dad would whistle since he didn’t sing.
I can still hear the rhythmic sound of the milk squirting into the stainless steel bucket – the high-pitched metallic whoosh initially and then a more gurgling low wet sound as the bucket filled up. I can see my dad’s capped forehead resting against the flank of the cow as he leaned into the muscular work of squeezing the udder teats, each in turn. I can hear the cow’s chewing her breakfast of alfalfa and grain as I balanced on her prominent spine feeling her smooth hair over her ribs. The barn cats circulated around us, mewing, attracted by the warm milky fragrance in the air.
Those were preciously simple starts to the day for me and my father, whose thoughts he didn’t articulate nor I could ever quite discern. But I did know I wasn’t only his daughter on mornings like that – I was one of his future farmers of America he dedicated his life to teaching.
Dad, even without you saying much, those were mornings when my every sense was awakened. I’ve never forgotten that- the best start to the day.
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We must have known, Even as we reached Down to touch them Where we’d found them
Shut-eyed and trembling Under a straw bale In the haymow, that She would move them
That night under cover Of darkness, and that By finding them We were making certain
We wouldn’t see them again Until we saw them Crouching under the pickup Like sullen teens, having gone
As wild by then as they’d gone Still in her mouth that night She made a decision Any mother might make
Upon guessing the intentions Of the state: to go and to Go now, taking everything You love between your teeth. ~Austin Smith “Cat Moving Kittens”
I’ve never known a farm cat who doesn’t hold something back in their loyalty to their human. They are never “all in” like a dog who lavishes love without thought or hesitation.
Cats live at a bit of a remove here, particularly if they grew up without being regularly handled and cuddled.
I don’t mind our barn cats’ autonomy and self-sufficiency as they need those characteristics when they live independently outside rather than as part of furniture in the house with us. They must view the rest of the world with some suspicion and caution, viewing things from afar with their keen eyes rather than leaping in without thinking.
As I go about my day on the farm, moving from shed to barn to garage to house, I have the distinct feeling of being watched. The reality is — they could run this place on their own if they needed to — and they do.
The way the dog trots out the front door every morning without a hat or an umbrella, without any money or the keys to her dog house never fails to fill the saucer of my heart with milky admiration.
Off she goes into the material world with nothing but her brown coat and her modest blue collar, following only her wet nose, the twin portals of her steady breathing, followed only by the plume of her tail.
If only she did not shove the cat aside every morning and eat all his food what a model of self-containment she would be, what a paragon of earthly detachment. If only she were not so eager for a rub behind the ears, so acrobatic in her welcomes, if only I were not her god. ~Billy Collins, from “Dharma” from Sailing Alone Around the Room
We all should know, at least once in our lives, the complete and total enthusiastic and worshipful devotion that comes without hesitation from a dog. No other living creature grants us this: not a spouse, certainly not our children, never a cat or a horse, but dogs worship the ground we walk on.
It doesn’t take long when living with one or two dogs, to realize they are only human too – with insatiable appetites for independent defiance as they follow their noses rather than respond promptly to a call and whistle.
I love them anyway, even though they are wholly misinformed about my apparent divinity on earth.
In my view, our farm dogs exist solely so I can rub behind their divinely designed corgi ears. Is that not reason enough?
This was our pretty gray kitten, hence her name; who was born in our garage and stayed nearby her whole life. There were allergies; so she was, as they say, an outside cat. But she loved us. For years, she was at our window. Sometimes, a paw on the screen as if to want in, as if to be with us the best she could. She would be on the deck, at the sliding door. She would be on the small sill of the window in the bathroom. She would be at the kitchen window above the sink. We’d go to the living room; anticipating that she’d be there, too, hop up, look in. She’d be on the roof, she’d be in a nearby tree. She’d be listening through the wall to our family life. She knew where we were, and she knew where we were going and would meet us there. Little spark of consciousness, calm kitty eyes staring through the window.
After the family broke, and when the house was about to sell, I walked around it for a last look. Under the eaves, on the ground, there was a path worn in the dirt, tight against the foundation — small padded feet, year after year, window to window.
When we moved, we left her to be fed by the people next door. Months after we were gone, they found her in the bushes and buried her by the fence. So many years after, I can’t get her out of my mind. ~Philip F. Deaver, “Gray” from How Men Pray
Our pets are witness to the routine of our lives. They know when the food bowl remains empty too long, or when no one comes to pick them up and stroke their fur. They sit silently waiting.
They know when things aren’t right at home.
Sometimes a barn cat moves on, looking for a place with more consistency and better feeding grounds. Most often they stick close to what they know, even if it isn’t entirely a happy or welcoming place. After all, it’s home and that’s what they know and that’s where they stay.
When my family broke as my parents split, after the furniture was removed and the dust of over thirty five years of marriage swept up, I wondered if our cat and dog had seen it coming before we did. They had been peering through the window at our lives, measuring the amount of spilled love that was left over for them.
I can’t get them out of my mind – they, like me, became children of divorce. We knew when we left the only home we knew, we would never truly feel at home again.
I sometimes think the PussyWillows grey Are Angel Kittens who have lost their way, And every Bulrush on the river bank A Cat-Tail from some lovely Cat astray. ~Oliver Herford, from The Rubaiyat of a Persian Kitten
Our little calico Nala has the bravado of a cat many times her size and age. She climbs the tallest trees, dangles over the house roof eaves to stare eyeball-to-eyeball with the birds picking at seeds in the feeders. She takes no guff from the dogs or from her bigger brother Simba.
One day last summer, a visitor to our farm knocked early in the morning on our front door to say our kitty was struggling to walk, dragging her hind legs behind her. I hurriedly dressed to go find her, thinking I needed to somehow gather her up in a blanket to take to the vet, but she was no where to be found. I looked everywhere in the bushes and the hidden-away spots I knew she enjoyed, but she had vanished. I put out bowls of food to entice her but no luck – after three days, I figured she had crawled away to die alone, as cats are wont to do. Even her brother didn’t seem to know where she had gone as I followed him on his farm excursions.
I tried to theorize what might had happened – had she fallen from a roof or tree and become paralyzed? Surely she could not survive such a devastating injury.
Nine days later, long after I assumed she had died of her injuries or starvation, she appeared on the front porch when I opened the door. She was thin, weak, with her hind legs moving and holding up her weight. She was hungry and extremely vocal and not just a little perturbed that there was an empty cat food bowl on the porch.
On closer inspection, she had healing wounds along either side of her spine, matching closely with what I assume were eagle talon marks that had grasped her, if only briefly, as a raptor tried to carry her away. I suspect, feisty as she was, she fought her predator so fiercely that she was dropped from a bit of a height, bruising her spine. For an eagle, in this land of plenty of prey, dining on a calico is never worth such aggravation and hassle.
What a cat – now minus at least one, if not more lives. Only eight to go.
She is indeed resurrected; completely healed up, her spine is working fine and the only marks left on her back are white patches of new hair growth over her former wounds.
We thought she was lost forever, but she had not lost her way back to us, only way-laid for a bit. Our angel kitten is now resident on the front porch and back to her farm life climbing trees and torturing little birds.
Let us walk in the woods, says the cat. I’ll teach you to read the tabloid of scents, to fade into shadow, wait like a trap, to hunt. Now I lay this plump warm mouse on your mat. ~Marge Piercy from “The Cat’s Song”
Pangur Bán and I at work, Adepts, equals, cat and clerk: His whole instinct is to hunt, Mine to free the meaning pent.
Next thing an unwary mouse Bares his flank: Pangur pounces. Next thing lines that held and held Meaning back begin to yield.
With his unsheathed, perfect nails Pangur springs, exults and kills. When the longed-for, difficult Answers come, I too exult.
So it goes. To each his own. No vying. No vexation. Taking pleasure, taking pains, Kindred spirits, veterans. ~ from “Pangur Bán” by a 9th century Irish monk
I’m still groggy every morning when I step out my front door onto the porch to make my way down a gravel driveway to get the newspaper. More often than not, it is still quite dark out at 5:15 AM. More often than not, my slippered foot lands on something a little crunchy and a little squishy and a lot icky on the welcome mat in front of my door.
The front porch cat — as opposed to the back porch cat, the garden shed cat, the hay barn cat, the horse barn cat and the 3 feral stray cats — predator that he is, leaves behind certain remnants of his prey’s….uh, body parts. Mousey body parts or birdie body parts. I assume, from the consistency of this little carnivore compost pile, these are unappealing to the kitty, so become the “leavings”, so to speak, of the kill. Typically, it is a little mouse head, complete with little beady eyes, or a little bird head, complete with little beak, and something that looks suspiciously green and bulbous, like a gall bladder. I don’t think heads or gall bladders are on my preferred delicacy list either. And they are certainly not on my list of things I like to wear on the bottom of my slipper. Yet I do and I have.
I’m perplexed by this habit cats have of leaving behind the stuff they don’t want on the welcome mat, even the occasional whole shrew or field mouse, seemingly untouched by claw or incisor, but yet dead as a doornail on the doormat.
Some cat owners naively think their cats are presenting them with “gifts” –kind of a sacrificial offering to the human god that feeds them. Nonsense. This is the universal trash heap for cats and a testimony to their utter disdain for humans. Leave for the human the unappetizing and truly grotesque…
In my daily walk through life, I too have my share of things from my own hunting expeditions that I unceremoniously dump into a compost pail: things I don’t want, don’t need, can’t use, or abandon when I only want the palatable so the rest can rot. Apple cores, peach pits, corn husks, banana peels, orange rinds…none have the gross-out characteristics of a tiny gall bladder but I can at least comfort myself with the knowledge they won’t end up on the bottom of anyone’s slipper.
We are waiting for snow the way we might wait for permission to breathe again.
For only the snow will release us, only the snow will be a letting go, a blind falling towards the body of earth and towards each other. ~Linda Pastan from “Interlude”
I wish one could press snowflakes in a book like flowers. ~James Schuyler from “February 13, 1975”
I wait with bated breath, wondrous at today’s snowfall, to see the landscape transformed. Each snowflake falls alone, settling in together in communal effort. And each is created as a singular masterpiece itself.
We, the created, are like each snowflake. Together we change the world, sometimes for better, too often for worse. But each of us have come from heaven uniquely designed and purposed, preciously preserved for eternity through God’s loving sacrifice.
Without Him, we melt between the pages of history.
Chores at our farm are rarely routine since our batch of four male kittens were born 6 months ago. They were delivered unceremoniously in the corner of one of the horse stalls by their young mother whose spontaneous adoption we accepted a mere four weeks before, not realizing we were accepting five kitties, not just one.
They were born under a Haflinger’s nose, and amazingly survived the ordeal and managed to stay safe until the next day when we came in to clean and discovered them nicely warmed near a nice fresh pile of poop. What a birthing spot this mama had chosen. Thankfully Haflingers are tolerant about sharing their space as long as you don’t ask for a share of their food too…
We moved them and mama to a safer spot in the barn, away from big Haflinger feet, and they thrived, getting more adventuresome by the week, until they are now in full adolescent glory, mock fighting with each other, scrambling up and down the hay bales, using the shavings as their personal litter box, doing rodent patrol, and most of all, strolling along the shelves that line the stalls, breathing in the Haflinger smell, and rubbing their fur up against Haflinger noses through the wire. They are best of friends with these ponies in the light of day, as after all they were born right in a Haflinger bed.
But at night it’s another story. Each evening as I come out to do chores after returning home from work, it is pitch dark and the Haflingers, out in their winter paddocks, must walk with me one by one back to their box stalls for the night. Only this is now far more of an adventure thanks to four cats who glory in stealth attacks in the dark, like mountain lions in the shadows, waiting for their prey to pass by.
These four rascals are two tabbies, one black and one gray, all four perfectly suited to be camouflaged in the northwest dim misty fall evenings along a barely lit pathway between paddocks and barn. They flatten themselves tight on the ground, just inches from where our feet will pass, and suddenly, they spring into the air as we approach, just looking for a reaction from either the horse or myself. It never fails to unnerve me, as I’m always anticipating and fearing the horse’s response to a surprise cat attack. Interestingly, the Haflingers, used to kitten antics all night long in the barn, are completely bored by the whole show, but when the tension from me as I tighten on the lead rope comes through to them, their head goes up and they sense there must be something to fear. Then the dancing on the lead rope begins, only because I’m the one with the fear transmitted like an electric current to the Haflinger. We do this four times along the path to the barn as four kittens lay in wait, one after another, just to torment me. By the end of bringing in eight horses, I’m done in by my own case of nerves.
You’d think I’d learn to stop fearing, and start laughing at these pranksters. They are hilarious in their hiding places, their attempts to “guard” the barn door from intruders, their occasional miscalculations that land them right in front of a hoof about to hit the ground. Why I haven’t had at least one squished kitten by now is beyond my comprehension. Yet they survive to torment me and delight me yet another night. I cuddle them after the horses are all put away, flopping them on their backs in my arms, and tickling their tummies and scolding them for their contribution to my increasingly gray hair.
I’m a slow learner. These are like so many of my little daily fears, which seem to hide, blended in to the surroundings of my daily life, ready to spring at me without warning, looking like much bigger scarier things than they really are. I’m a highly skilled catastrophizer in the best of circumstances, and if I have a kitten sized worry, it becomes a mountain lion sized melodrama in no time. Only because I allow it to become so.
Stepping back, taking a deep breath, if I learn to laugh at the small stuff, then it won’t become a “cat”astrophe, now will it? If I can grab those fears, turn them over on their back and tickle their tummies until they purr, then I’m the one enjoying a good time.
I’ll try that the next time I feel that old familiar sensation of “what if?” making my muscles tense and my step quicken. I just might tolerate that walk in the dark a little better, whether it is the scary plane flight, the worry over a loved one’s health, the state of the economy, where the next terrorist will strike, or the uncertainty of what tomorrow might bring.
I’ll know that behind that mountain lion is a soft loving purring fur ball, granting me relief from the mundane, for which I’m extremely grateful. Life is always an adventure, even if it is just a stroll down a barn lane in the dark wondering what might come at me next on the path.
On Halloween day in 1985, I packed up my clothes, a roll up mattress, grabbed one lonely pumpkin from our small garden, locked our rental house door for the last time, climbed in my car and headed north out of Seattle. I never looked back in the rear view mirror at the skyline after nine years living in the city. My husband had moved to Whatcom County two months earlier to start his new job. I had stayed behind to wrap up my Group Health family practice in the Rainier Valley of Seattle, now leaving the city for a new rural home and a very uncertain professional future.
Never before had I felt such exhilaration at breaking through one wall to discover the unknown that lay on the other side.
I knew two things for sure: I was finally several months pregnant after a miscarriage and two years of infertility, so our family had begun. We were going to actually live in our own house, not just a rental, complete with a few acres and a barn.
A real (sort of) starter farm.
Since no farm can be complete without animals, I stopped at the first pet store I drove past and found two tortoise shell calico kitten sisters peering up at me, just waiting for new adventures in farmland. Their box was packed into the one spot left beside me in my little Mazda. With that admittedly impulsive commitment to raise and nurture those kittens, life seemed brand new.
I will never forget the feeling of freedom on that drive north out of the traffic congestion of the city. The highway seemed more open, the fall colors more vibrant, the wind more brisk, our baby happily kicking my belly, the kittens plaintively mewing from their box. There seemed to be so much potential even though I had just left behind the greatest job that could be found in any urban setting (the most diverse zip code in the United States): an ideal family practice with patients from all over the world: Muslims from the Middle East and Indonesia, Orthodox Jews, Italian Catholics, African Americans, Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese. I would never know so much variety of background and perspective again and if I could have packed them all into the Mazda and driven them north with me, I would have.
We started our farm with those kittens dubbed Nutmeg and Oregano, soon adding an ethnic diversity of farm animals: Belgian Tervuren dog Tango, Haflinger horse Greta, Toggenburg goats Tamsen and her kids, a few Toulouse geese, Araucana chickens, Fiona the Scottish Highland cow, then another Haflinger Hans and another, Tamara. I worked as a fill in locums doctor in four different clinics before our first baby, Nate, was born. We soon added little brother Ben and seven years later, sister Lea. We settled happily into parenthood, our church community, serving on school and community boards, gardening, and enduring the loss of our parents one by one.
Thirty four years later our children have long ago grown and gone to new homes of their own, off to their own adventures beyond the farm. Our sons married wonderful women, moving far away from home, our daughter teaches a fourth grade classroom a few hours away and we have two grandchildren with the third expected any moment.
A few cats, two Cardigan Corgi dogs, and a hand full of ponies remain at the farm with us. We are now both gray and move a bit more slowly, enjoy our naps and the quiet of the nights and weekends. My work has evolved from four small jobs to two decades of two part time jobs to one more than full time job that fit me like a well worn sweater 24 hours a day for thirty years. With retirement looming, I’m trying out a three day a week schedule and the old sweater doesn’t fit quite so comfortably.
My happily retired husband finds he is busier than ever: volunteering, serving on boards and being a full time farmer on our larger 20 acre place of fields and woods.
That rainy Halloween day over three decades ago I was freed into a wider world. I would no longer sit captive in freeway rush hour bumper to bumper traffic jams. Instead I celebrate my daily commute through farm fields, watching eagles fly, and new calves licked by their mamas. I am part of a broader community in a way I never could manage in the city, stopping to visit with friends at the grocery store, playing piano and teaching at church. Our home sits in the midst of woods and corn fields, with deer strolling through the fields at dawn, coyotes howling at night, Canadian and snow geese and trumpeter swans calling from overhead and salmon becoming more prolific every year in nearby streams. The snowy Cascades greet us in the morning and the sunset over Puget Sound bids us good night.
It all started October 31, 1985 with two orange and black kittens and a pumpkin sitting beside me in a little Mazda, my husband waiting for my homecoming 100 miles north. Now, thirty four years and three grown children and three (almost) grandchildren later, we celebrate this Halloween transition anniversary together. We’re still pregnant with the possibility that a wide world is waiting, just on the other side of the wall.