The Birthing Season

The watchers pace back and forth. They sleep restlessly in a cushy recliner, one eye open, watching the pregnant mothers, waiting for something to happen. The mothers groan and ache; their bellies are swollen, overfull. Days come and go with nothing happening but watching, waiting. Is this a maternity ward? Well, sort of.

Springtime is the birthing season on our farm and the barns are pretty much maternity wards for horses. Pregnant mares populate each stall. Emotions are high: expectation, nervousness, relief. It’s an exciting, beautiful time … but it’s a lot of work for the Sheriff, Wonder Woman and their staff. Starting in January, the babies come, one by one, slowly at first. Then, the pace picks up and by March and April, they’re coming so fast, The Sheriff can barely keep up. One, two, sometimes five foals a week. And they nearly always come in the still of night, just to make it more interesting.

I was walking through the barn the other day, past about six stalls with overripe pregnant mares, each impatiently waiting for nature to take its course. They paced back and forth, aching under the weight of their load. I stopped to chat with one gal who was past due. We could tell she could go any minute, her teets had already started dripping milk, but still, nothing was happening. “Oh, I’ve been there, honey. I know …” I whispered to her. She shuffled up to me, putting her nose against the iron grate that separated us. I bent my head towards her, she did the same, and we both stood there, foreheads touching, our breath sending little clouds into the icy night air. “You’re almost done, sweetheart. Hang in there,” I told her.

My mind went back twenty something years. Two of my children were born in the spring and they were both overdue. I remember that feeling well. I know that mare’s pelvis was feeling like an egg, slowly cracking open. I know her ankles were swollen, her legs buckling, her mind a little crazed. Perhaps, like me, she was craving gallons of ice cold orange juice? This mare is a veteran, though, so she knew what she was in for ... but that doesn’t take away the discomfort, the anxiousness.

My husband, The Stallion, and I have been blessed to have witnessed several births over the past few years of owning this farm. We get the call that one of the mares is giving birth and jump in the four wheeler to race a mile down the gravel road, skidding to a stop at the barn and jumping out. Many times, we have just missed the actual birth. (I wish my own labor and deliveries had gone so quickly). But every so often, we get there just in time to see the magic. The mare is lying down, her water is already broken and a little pair of hooves is jutting out of her. The Sheriff will rub her belly to encourage and calm her. Then he will grab the baby’s hooves and gently coax him out.

If all goes well, and it usually does, the foal is born quickly, sliding out all slippery and confused, and the mare is soon licking him clean. The little guy is about as big as our Doberman, though with legs almost as long as his mother’s, but spindly, nowhere near as beefy and strong. He will lay there for about a half hour, wet and shivering, getting used to breathing air, enjoying the tongue bath from his mom. Soon, he’s testing out his legs. It’s like that scene in the movie Bambi when he’s wibbly wobbling all over the ice. The newborn foal is unsure, struggling, falling, getting back up again. But, in about an hour and a half, that little guy is up, nursing his mama for the first time. It’s amazing, beautiful. It never gets old.

The mares on our farm are broodmares, so they go through this process many, many times in their lives. My hat is off to them; I only gave birth three times. Compared to my sainted mother, who gave birth nine times, I am a complete minor leaguer, an amateur, and Mom wasn’t shy about reminding me of that. “All single births, no twins,” she often would say, implying that with twins, you got two babies for the labor of one, like it was cheating or something.

I remember when I was pregnant, giving birth and nursing … I felt a connection to all mammals on the planet, from dogs to elephants to horses. Oftentimes, yes, I felt like a bosomy cow. “We are all the same,” I thought. “We conceive, gestate, give birth and nurse our young.” I remember my oldest sister, The Sage One, saying that pregnancy and childbirth is the “great equalizer.” No matter your zip code, race, or creed, we women all go through the same thing. From cave women thousands of years ago to movie stars today. How profound is that?

Two of my three babies came in the early spring. Both of my parents passed in the early spring. The good Lord gave hope to us all by rising from the dead in early spring. While Ohio springs are not easy -- I remember plenty of snowy Easters growing up -- springtime is a poetic reminder of the cycle of life: death, birth, renewal, resurrection, hope. Each year, just when we cannot take one more day of slushy, snowy, gray days, the earth miraculously, inevitably reawakens. Ferns yawn out from the ground, as if stretching their arms after a long winter’s nap. Trees explode in slow motion, opening up their leaves in celebration of the longer days. Slowly, slowly, the earth and we come back to life, become reenergized, alive.

And on farms, countrysides and woods the world over, babies are born. Is there anything more hopeful than a newborn baby, be it human or equine, in springtime?

Happy Easter!

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News Flash: I'm Irish

“Oh, wow. It looks just like Ireland,” many visitors say.

Well, kind of … just drop some stone walls and a lot of wooly sheep in there and yes, our farm does look a lot like the rolling, green hills of Ireland, which is appropriate because --- news flash --- we’re kind of Irish.

My husband, The Big Leprechaun, and I gave our family the gift of “23 & Me” genetic testing kits for Christmas this past December and we just recently received our scores. The results are in: we’re really, really Irish. Shocker. Flora is 91.6%; Fauna is 90.8%; Meriwether is 96.8%. My husband is a mere 85%. I am the proud Irish Queen at 98.1%.

I’m actually a little surprised my results aren’t 100%+ Irish. I mean, I’ve always known my people were Irish. Like so many in Greater Cleveland, both my parents were born from Irish immigrants from County Mayo. So immersed in my Irish-ness was I as a youth that, when filling out biographical information on standardized tests in grade school, I was confused, looking over the options: Caucasian, Black, Asian, Native American. I raised my hand and asked the teacher, “Um, I’m none of these things. I’m Irish.”

“You’re Caucasian, honey. You’re white.”

“Hmm. Go figure,” I muttered to myself, baffled, though I was sure she was mistaken.

While I took my Irish-ness for granted, when I was young I had this internal vision of myself as being something dark and exotic … Polynesian or Puerto Rican. I adored the musical, West Side Story (still do) and thought of myself as that famous Shark girl, Anita or at the very least, Maria. But when I was in that play in college, they quickly cast me as a Jet girl. (“You’re Caucasian, honey. You’re white.”)

Growing up, I thought everyone used words like “amadán,” (moron) “nabicantch” (I have NO idea how to spell this, but it means, “quiet now, someone’s coming”) “pogue mahone” (kiss my ass), “eejit” (idiot) and a particularly lyrical word for a woman’s nether regions that my maternal grandmother reportedly used, which I will refrain from using here, just in case it offends. I seriously didn’t even know any of those phrases was Irish until I read them in the novel, Trinity (by that great Irishman, Leon Uris, who is Jewish) in my late 20’s. When it was published in 1975, Trinity was all-but-required reading for Irish Americans.

When I moved into adulthood, I was not especially looking for an Irish American lad. I consider myself a citizen of the world, after all. I speak Spanish, I love to travel and enjoy meeting people and learning about different cultures. But then I met this guy with the map of Ireland all over his face and what my father referred to as “poet’s eyes,” and I fell. My husband and his clan identify as Irish American, but I have to say, I’ve always been a little snobby about that. I mean, they’ve got German roots, English roots, Texas roots, whatever that means (my brother-in-law tells everyone he’s half Irish, half Texan). But when The Big Leprechaun got his genetic results back, I was impressed; 85% Irish is pretty respectable.

Now, just to be clear, my family was never one of those families with what I call TIP, “tacky Irish paraphernalia” all over the house. Sure, we took off school every year to go to the St. Patricks’ Day parade downtown, sit at my aunt’s kitchen table and share family stories all day. Yep, my clan does gather for about thirty years now every St. Patrick’s Day to drink beer together with our cousins at a large Irish hooley at St. Colman’s, the downtown parish where our parents grew up. (Yep, I use the word “clan” a lot). At that annual event, we listen to Irish music and watch Irish Step Dancing, occasionally taking a crack at it ourselves (pathetic). Yeah, I gather a group of sisters, nieces and a few cousins in my kitchen every year to make dozens of loaves of Irish Soda Bread to sell at the annual hooley.

Yep, I ended up throwing some of my own kids into step dancing classes, though I never studied it myself. Ok, I’ve got some Irish stuff … Belleek china, some Waterford crystal, some crosses of St. Brigid, the obligatory Irish knit sweaters, a couple of CDs of The Chieftains. Yes, my parents did bring a group of twenty kids, cousins and aunts to Ireland back in the 70’s (though I don’t remember a lot from that trip, so doped out on Dramamine was I). I, as well as many of my siblings and cousins, have made the pilgrimage back to the old sod and, sure, it was grand.

Yes, I say, “sure, it was grand” with an Irish brogue.

Yes, as I write, I have a big fat green shamrock on my front door.

Oh, and two of my brothers own a brewery.

Ok. We’re pretty over-the-top Irish.

When we acquired our farm property and built a new barn for the horses there, The Big Leprechaun insisted that we put shamrocks on it. It thought it was kind of hokey, but I have to admit, I do like it now. And it turns out that the wife of The Sherriff, a beautiful blond-haired, blue-eyed lass, is Irish herself; her father was born in Ireland. So the shamrocks fit in well.

All this got me thinking. Our farm is a horse-breeding farm. Genetics play a very important role there. The Sherriff and his staff pay a lot of attention to bloodlines. So, at least on our farm, at 98.1% Irish, I guess I’m darned near a thoroughbred. And I’m plenty proud of it.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Shamrocks on our barn are hokey, but ... sure, they're grand.

Shamrocks on our barn are hokey, but ... sure, they're grand.

Blue Bird, Red Bird

I saw my first bluebird of the season the other day on our farm. Not a blue jay, which is kind of a tyrant in the bird kingdom, a bluebird. Blue jays are pretty enough but have an ugly squawk and an even uglier disposition. But bluebirds are another story. They, too, are beautiful, but in that wholesome, girl-next-door kind of way, busily living their best lives, swooping over open fields, popping from one fence post to the next, singing their quizzical, melodious songs. When a bluebird takes flight and the sun catches its wings, its iridescent blue color is dazzling. One can’t help but gasp aloud with joy, “Oh! It’s a bluebird!”

Seeing a bluebird at the end of February is a good omen that spring is nigh. That, and all of the sudden, I am hearing the cardinals sing again, from the tippity tops of the barren trees. Cardinals always remind me of my parents, especially when I see them in the late winter and early spring because that’s when each of my folks went to heaven, 13 years apart. My dad loved nature and after he died, it seemed we were always seeing cardinals at just the right times. It’s as if his angel was a cardinal and would make surprise visits to give us encouragement or just say hello (though I’m not sure Big Jack would ascribe to this pantheistic viewpoint). Once, when we were having a heavy family meeting after my dad died, my mom, siblings and I were all over at the homestead, huddled in Mom’s back room, deep in weepy, emotional discussion. All of the sudden, there was a pecking at the window on the large, sliding glass doors looking out onto my dad’s backyard. We stopped talking and looked up to see a fat, red cardinal, hovering in the air like a hummingbird, frantically tapping at the window. “Let me in! I have something important to say!” It was the darndest thing.

But none of the bird/angel visits was more dramatic than when my mother was in the long, painful process of dying. It was a cold, blustery late winter day. An old family priest friend stopped in to give Mom her last rights. The group of us huddled around her, tearfully getting ready to say good-bye, praying The Hail Mary and Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” The psalm doesn’t mention a cardinal, but in this case, it should have.

Mom’s bed was directly in front of a window on the second floor of the facility where she was staying. All of the sudden, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye and instinctively looked out the window. There, just above Mom’s head was a bright red cardinal on a tree branch, looking right into the window. A calm came over the dimly lit room. I felt the presence of God and of my dad, beckoning my poor, suffering mother, “It’s ok, Marge, let’s go.” Just as I was focusing on that beautiful, bright red male cardinal, in swooped a female cardinal, who lighted right next to him on the branch. I signaled to my siblings what was happening right outside the window and we all continued praying, holding hands and laugh/crying at our little avian miracle. The cardinal couple stayed there until we were finished with our prayer and then silently flew away. Our priest friend was amused but didn’t seem too surprised. I got the impression he’d been witness to all sorts of quirky visitations and miracles.

Since Mom left to join Dad, I now see both male and female cardinals at opportune times: when I’m in despair or troubled especially. I had a health scare a few years back and was praying in the car as I drove. All of the sudden, there they were, cardinals swooping on the road in front of my car, just letting me know Mom and Dad are near, God hears you, all will be well.

I’ve discovered that I am not alone, that the cardinal is widely known as a sign from loved ones who have passed on, a symbol of God’s love, an angel visiting. The backyard of our home is often filled with cardinals, nesting in our arborvitae, singing one of their distinctive, piercing melodies from the treetops. That song is so optimistic, so beautiful and self-assured. And it is said that cardinals mate for life, which makes their sightings all the sweeter.

I will keep looking for bluebirds on our farm and will delight in their rare, precious beauty. But I will never get tired of seeing cardinals anywhere, any time. How could I? When the going gets tough, as it inevitably does, I look for my cardinals.

Hi Mom and Dad!

Hi Mom and Dad!

Bad Ass Barn Cat

When I was little, The Most Beautiful Girl in Third Grade, Barbara Vanderbilt, had a cat that had kittens and for some reason, she bestowed one to me. I humbly accepted this honor, secretly hoping that some of Barbara’s blond-haired, blue-eyed beauty would miraculously transfer to me through her kitten. I remember Barbara as a tiny third-grade version of Brigitte Bardot. I was a chubby, slightly stinky, perpetually stuffy-nosed kid with dirty ankles and what my mother lovingly referred to as “dishwater blond” hair. I went up against Barbara for the coveted part of Dolly in our class’ rendition of Hello Dolly at Monsignor Weygand’s Jubilee Celebration, but whom was I kidding? I couldn’t hold a candle to Barbara’s star power. Barbara nailed it with effortless aplomb.

Anyway, I accepted Barbara’s kitten and brought it home, much to my mother’s surprise. The kitten was orange, the color of Ritz crackers, so I named her Crackers. I loved her so much, but neither my mom nor I knew a damn thing about kittens and how to raise them. My mother was way too busy with a houseful of teenage boys (and their friends) 24/7 to read up on the care and keeping of kittens. Needless to say, the house was a little too hectic for poor Crackers. A few days into her stay with us, Crackers went missing and no one could find her. I was bereft until one of my brothers opened the refrigerator and there was Crackers, hanging from the egg rack on the door. She was alive, but pretty chilly.

Crackers ran away the next day. I can’t blame her. She figured she’d take her chances out in the wild. It couldn’t be more dangerous than our chaotic house.

When we acquired our farm, I was delighted to find that it came complete with two cats – and they were orange, just like Crackers. But these pussies are not for grabbing. These cats are working cats, cold-hearted killers. It is their job to keep mice and other varmints out of the barns, and these felines are fierce. Hell, they’ve been at it for over thirty years. They are named Tom and Jerry, though I’m still not sure which is which. One, let’ say it’s Jerry, we call The Pet Cemetery Cat because he looks like he’s back from the dead. He has survived several brushes with death, including being run over by a tractor. He walks, or rather, lumbers in a sideways fashion, kind of like John Wayne and seems to be mumbling to himself, “Don't say it's a fine morning or I'll shoot ya.” Jerry is always friendly, coming out of nowhere to greet whomever enters the barn, rubbing up against our legs. But make no mistake; he’s a killing machine. As the Sheriff says, “no mouse, rat, chipmunk or small rabbit is safe under his watchful gaze.” His one ear is mangled; he has many lumpy tumorous protrusions on his belly. But he’s been showing up for work every day for the past thirty plus years, ready to kick some ass and take no prisoners.

Our dog, I’ll call him Rex to protect his identity, has a healthy respect for Jerry. They pretty much agree to disagree. Rex darts into the barn; Jerry moves into the shadows or the corners of an empty stall. Rex tiptoes up to him, and Jerry stares him down, “Bring it on you filthy mongrel.” Rex creeps closer; the cat lets out a hiss and my 80-pound Doberman takes off the other way, “Sorry! I thought you were someone else!” Rex gets his revenge eventually, though, as he runs over to Jerry’s food bowl and snarfs the entire thing in seconds flat, cautiously watching Jerry with a side-eye as he does so. Jerry just rolls his eyes and lumbers away, “Whatever, dude. I prefer mice anyway.”

Aside from the canine vs. feline drama, I have to say, this is the way to own cats: outside the house. My husband, Doctor Doolittle, loves all animals but draws the line at cats because he is deathly allergic to them. Though I do have fond memories of my oh-so-brief chapter of kitten ownership, I would never bring a cat into my home. I really like and admire those barn cats. But I’m thinking, as for house cats, … honestly, they’re kind of assholes, aren’t they? They’re so blasé, so above it all. Dogs are all, “I love you! You’re the greatest!” and cats are just kind of “Yeah, yeah …” House cats seem to resent their owner’s very existence. I hear horror stories of how cats will go out of their way just to mess with their owners. And they’re pretty vindictive, aren’t they? I mean, cats will get revenge by peeing on their owners’ stuff. That’s messed up, I’m sorry.  Talk about passive aggressive. A pet is supposed to enrich one’s life, not demean and bully them.

So, though we have cats on our farm, I wouldn’t say we are cat owners. We just share space with them. We’re kind of like roommates with different schedules, passing each other in the barn, giving a head nod to each other, “Hey, ‘wassup.” Rex enjoys their food and they enjoy their jobs. We all agree to disagree and it’s better that way.

Don't grab this pussy.

Don't grab this pussy.

Captain's Fun Wild Ride

He dashes through the woods on a four-wheeler, his passengers being tossed to and fro like rag dolls. He conquers the hilly terrain like a seasoned pro, expertly maneuvering his vehicle as it fishtails in the slippery mud. He whips up hills and down dales at lightning speeds, stopping only to survey his acreage, his deer stands and of course, his magnificent home on the hill. He is Captain Fun. And this is his Wild Ride.

My husband, Captain Fun is a busy bee when we’re on our farm property. There’s walking the dog, toting the garbage to the bin, staring at the horses, trees, and hillsides, the stroking of the beard. And, when we have guests, there’s the task of taking them on The Ride. And it’s epic.

“Hey, who wants to go for a little ride?” he asks. Everyone jumps up enthusiastically, anxious to get a look at our beautiful surroundings. Our guests enter the four-wheeler, a very capable little tank of a four-wheel drive, open-air vehicle, naively expecting a quick little tour of the property. It begins innocently enough … “there’s the horses, most of them are pregnant … there’s the neighbor’s property and their cows … there’s more cows, more horses.” Then it gets interesting. Like a flash, Captain Fun switches the vehicle into 4-wheel drive and we dart up into the woods.

He loves this part because our guests never see it coming. Up, up, up we climb, into the woods. In the winter, it’s a white wonderland of sparkly, ice-covered branches. The sun beams down through the barren canopy turning the woods into a magical scene from the movie, Frozen. In the middle of the summer, the undergrowth and brush are thick as a rainforest. Birds are squawking, winging out of our way.  Squirrels, deer, foxes and such run for cover. Captain Fun navigates up the path, vines, brambles, and branches whipping the legs and arms of those sitting on the outside edges of the vehicle. There are screams from the back seat. “Whoa! What the …?”  It’s like a more thrilling version of a ride in Frontier Town at Cedar Point, without the hokey animated cowboys and Indians. “Argh!” they laugh/scream. “Is this safe?”

We come across a rocky stream. Will Captain Fun be daunted? Hell no. He charges headlong through the stream, water splattering us all, that amazing vehicle grinding through the muck. Sometimes we slow down, our Captain easing us over a bolder or a fallen tree. And just when you think, “Damn, I shouldn’t have worn slippers for this ride. It looks like we’re hoofing it through the mud back to the house,” he expertly pulls us all through the hazard like a seasoned African safari guide.

For a hot second, we emerge from the woods out into a field of corn, or soybeans or timothy (that’s a kind of grass that’s especially nutritious for farm animals. Who knew?). The Captain will take the Kubota out into the field, crunching down the edges of whatever is growing there under our wheels as we whiz into the woods again, careening down slippery slopes, our guests shrieking in the back seat, “Oh my gaawwwd!” which only makes The Captain press down the pedal harder. We will stop for a moment as The Captain will hop out of the vehicle and check on his “critter cam,” a motion-activated camera he and his buddy set up in the woods to keep an eye out for … I’m not exactly sure what. Then he hops back behind the wheel and we’re off again.

Finally, finally, we are spit out onto the level ground of the gravel driveway and head back to the house. “Hahahahah!” we hear from the back seat. “Holy crap! What was that?!” There’s relief in their voices, as if they just went through the looking glass to some Other World and are glad to be back in Civilization. But they love it, after it’s over.

Captain Fun loves it, too. Sure he’s energized by their screams of terror and delight, but he also just loves showing off his farm and the beauty it holds. He loves sharing stories of all that he’s learned, of how this farm seemed to just drop down from heaven into his lap. OK, and he loves showing off his four-wheeler skills.

After Captain Fun’s Wild Ride, we usually end up in front of the fireplace in the winter, out on the deck in the summer, reliving the ride, laughing hysterically at each other’s reactions to the unexpected brushes with death (not really, but it felt like it at the time). The Captain will pop the “critter cam” drive into his laptop and we’ll all gather around to see what secrets it holds. “Yep, there’s a squirrel … there’s another. Oh, wait, there’s a deer  … there’s another.” It’s riveting stuff.

“Oh, look! What’s that blurry image caught whizzing by?” It’s none other than Captain Fun himself, caught on his own critter cam, on another ride with other unsuspecting guests, gripping the edges of their seats with looks of terror in their eyes.

We pick thorns and pricklers out of each other’s hair and clothes, sometimes put bandages on some bloody scratches on legs or forearms. And then, we toast the farm, toast life and, much to his delight, we turn and toast Captain Fun. Salud!

Keep your arms and legs inside the car and have a great day on Captain Fun's Wild Ride!

Keep your arms and legs inside the car and have a great day on Captain Fun's Wild Ride!

My Camo Life

“Oh, it’s happening …” she said smugly. “I knew it would. It starts slowly, you don’t even know it. Then, little by little, it takes over your life.” She chuckled knowingly as she sipped her wine and gazed into the fireplace.

My farm neighbor, June Carter Cash, has been where I am now. She was a city girl, fell in love with a man from the country and eventually found herself on a farm, adapting to her new lifestyle. She had forewarned me all those years ago, and I didn’t listen. But she was right. Like a fog, like a thief in the night, camouflage print has officially insinuated itself into my house, my wardrobe, my life.

It started as a joke. Shortly after we purchased our farm, we stopped at that mid-Ohio institution, Grandpa’s Cheese Barn and Sweeties Barn off I-71 in Ashland for some ice cream. On the way there, we passed a sign in front of the outdoor outfitting retailer, Fin Feather and Fur that announced, “They’re here! Camo bathing suits are in!” My daughters and I all chuckled. “Is that a thing?” I said. “Who would want a camo bathing suit? Are they hunting from their pools or something?” I ate my ice cream, secure in the knowledge that I would never buy such a thing. Ridiculous!

Over the ensuing five years, however, camouflage began seeping into my life. It began with funny gifts. My daughter bought my husband a camo robe. A friend gave him a camo baseball hat with a built-in flashlight in the bill. But then, my husband became Captain Camo. He bought himself camo hunting gear: a coat, a hat, gloves, a turtleneck. June Carter Cash gave him camo Crocs. Pretty soon, my man was disappearing before my very eyes.

But that was all him, his thing, his camo compulsion. I started mocking him by purchasing silly camo things.  “Hahahah,” I thought, “I’ll buy the girls camo bathing suits. What a riot!

But then, I bought myself a camo bathing suit. “It’s cute,” I said to myself. “And green looks good with my eyes.” Then, it took over like an insidious invader and before I knew what was happening, there it was, plain as day, the evidence: a camouflage dog bed, a camouflage throw on the couch, camo grilling utensils, camo slippers, camo sunglasses … it was everywhere at our farmhouse. But the last straw came when I was recently dashing out the door to a yoga class at home and Captain Camo yelled out to me, “Hey, I like your camouflage leggings!”

What was he talking about? “These leggings are multi-colored, printed leggings from none other than Lululemon, buddy. They’re not … oh. My. God. They are. They are camouflage yoga pants.”

What is happening to me? Why am I buying into this?

What compels people to decorate their bodies, their homes, their pets with camouflage? What are we hiding from? I’m not a hunter; I’m not a soldier. What am I doing with all this camouflage? I don’t rightly know. I can’t explain it.

The only break I see in this camo fever is my husband’s growing compulsion to wear flannel, or should I say a flannel. For the past four years, my husband, Elmer Fudd, has been wearing the same blue and black flannel shirt every day. The. Same. One. It’s been like his wooby, his security blanket. He used to only wear it on the farm, but he grew so fond of it that he started wearing it everywhere. It got so bad that one of his colleagues at work approached him about it. “Dude, what’s with the blue flannel shirt?

So, for Christmas recently, I decided to buy him more flannel shirts. He needed them and I needed to tip the scales away from all that camouflage. While I’ve never been a huge fan of flannel, I have to say, I’m happy with his new wardrobe. It’s a comforting reprieve from all that camouflage and at least I can see him coming now.

I wonder if they make flannel bathing suits?

Now you see me, now you don't.

Now you see me, now you don't.

Why Farm Living is The Life for Me ... Sometimes

Last week marked five years since we acquired the farm property (my husband, The Land Baron, doesn’t like to say we “bought the farm” because it sounds like someone died, like “kicked the bucket.”) That snowy January day, my oldest friend in the world and I packed up my minivan full of stuff for our new digs, even as I was still grappling with the realization that my man’s farm fantasy had become a reality.

In the ensuing five years, we’ve come a long way from Eva Gabor (“Darling I love you, but give me Park Avenue”) and Buddy Albert (“Keep Manhattan, just give me that countryside”). Well, sometimes anyway. How did I come to this transformation? I’ve come to appreciate things that make “farm livin’ the life for me.” Well, sometimes.

Farm living is a feast for the senses: sounds, sights and of course, smells. I’ve come to really love the sounds on our farm. No farm scene would be complete without that iconic sound of a rooster crowing early in the morning. You don’t hear that much in the ‘burbs, but out in the country it’s almost cliché. It feels like we’re on a the set for the musical, Oklahoma; “Ok, cue the rooster, and … action!” I often feel like Shirley Jones as Laurey. When I hear that rooster crow, I want to break into the song The Surrey With the Fringe on Top, “Chicks, and ducks and geese better scurry, when I take you out in a surrey …”

There’s nothing like hearing the distant lowing of a cow in the neighboring land on a still summer morning. I remember one time, my husband and I awoke laughing because the mooing outside was unusually loud. “That mooing is so loud, it sounds like it’s right outside. The wind must have shifted or something.” Nope. It was a herd of wayward calves that broke loose and were actually right outside our window, swarming around our house like baffled bees. The poor things were bumping into each other, mooing, crying out in confusion. “Hey! Where are we?! What the heck?” The Sheriff swiftly appeared and wrangled them back home. I’m sure it wasn’t as funny to him.

One of my favorite sounds comes in early spring. Before you would think that anything is coming alive, there’s the pronounced singing of peepers, or tree frogs. I’m not sure I had ever heard of them before, but peepers are definitely a thing out in the country.Their song, so bright and hopeful, sounds like something out of the bayou and is a harbinger of warmer days ahead.

And then there are the crickets. Nothing says late summer like the hum of crickets and cicadas in the night air. Listening to that staccato rhythm in the darkness will forever remind me of hot sticky nights on my family’s yearly summer vacations … of falling asleep to the crickets’ songs, my hot, sunburned face against the cool pillowcase.

The visuals of the last five years have been a treasure. One thing that sold me on the farm life early on is sunrise. I was never a “morning person,” but seeing the sunrise over the hills to the east – what we’ve since learned are the foothills to the Appalachian Mountain chain – is so beautiful it’s almost holy. Yellow and white streaks, breaking through the fog that forms in the valley every night, form silhouettes of the horses. It’s enough to get this lazy girl out of bed early.

In the evenings, far away from the light pollution of the cities, we’ve become enthusiastic stargazers. Though I have no idea what I’m looking at, I am still thrilled and awed by it all, especially shooting stars. They never get old. When I crane my head back and take in the night sky, I am transported to being a kid, lying on the grass, looking up at the stars and trying to figure out my place in the universe. “What will I be when I grow up? Do I matter? What does it all mean?” Still kind of doing that, actually. I’ve always been a sucker for fireflies, which are profuse out there, like little galaxies of stars but closer to Earth. Sure, we get fireflies in the ‘burbs, but a large expanse of land filled with tiny specks of darting, yellow lightening bugs is a pretty special gift.

Sights, sounds and oh, the smells of a working farm. Yep, there’s a lot of horse poop on our farm and, yep, it smells like it. It’s pungent. But honestly, I’ve come to appreciate that scent. It is natural, after all. Mind you, I’m not wearing any of this eau de manure behind my ears to the next cocktail party, but I do kind of like that aroma. In the barn, mixed with hay and straw, it takes on a slightly sweet note. It reminds me of horseback riding as a kid and the time when an old, tired horse was simply not having me on her back and tried to rub me off by scraping my chubby legs against the side of the barn. I guess she didn’t like my unique scent: HoHo’s and Cheetos mixed with a faint bouquet of urine from bedwetting. I guess I don’t blame her.

So, I’m five years into this farm adventure and I’m still straddling two different worlds. I’m here and I’m there. I’m Eva, I’m Eddie. I’m a little bit country, a little bit rock n’ roll. I’m a little bit Hollywood musical, as I hum the title song to Oklahoma on the porch, taking it all in:  “Evr’y night my honey lamb and I, sit alone and talk and watch a hawk makin’ lazy circles in the sky.” Cue the music … 

Oh, what a beautiful morning!

Oh, what a beautiful morning!

Away in a Manger

At this time of year, I can’t help but think of Mary and Joseph as I walk through the barns on our farm. I’ve come to know that stables/mangers are pretty stinky places, albeit warmish. The earthy smells of hay, straw and fresh poop combine to make quite a pungent bouquet.  I think of Mary, a very young woman with an unplanned pregnancy, waddling around, swollen with child, teetering on the back of a donkey, looking for a room for the night. I think of myself at that stage of pregnancy, and remember at that point I was so done. I could barely sit on the couch, let alone a donkey. Surely Mary and Joseph were fighting over directions because obviously they got into Bethlehem late and all the rooms were taken. It must have been tense. I can only imagine the look on Mary’s face when Joseph told her, “Yeah, so … they’re out of rooms. But guess what?” I think I would have taken Joe’s head off. I mean, really?

“If we had just asked for directions, I’d be in a warm bed right now, pal.”

I’ve always had an affinity for my girl, the Blessed Virgin Mary or BVM. After all, she is my namesake. My mom and dad were big fans, too. My dad carried a copy of The Memorare a devotional prayer to Mary, in his wallet. My mom, like any good Catholic mother, had several statues and paintings of the BVM all over her house. Each May, my mom and I would make a May Altar to Mary. I would go outside and pick daffodils, crab apple branches, hyacinth, and tulips and deck out what was normally a bar in our dining room, turning it into a beautiful, fragrant altar to Mary. Each day after school I would check on it, cleaning up the fallen petals from the crabapple branches and sprucing it up for my gal.

Perhaps because there were only four TV stations in the sixties, every Christmas Eve growing up, my family would reenact the nativity with a Christmas Pageant. Instead of a barn, our nativity scene took place in front of the fireplace in the family room. After I debuted as a restless Baby Jesus, I went on to own the role of Mary for several years until grandchildren came along and stole my part. With nine children, it was easy for my parents to populate the cast for their annual pageant: three wise men, Mary and Joseph, two shepherds, two angels. My mom was always the innkeeper, peeping through the shuttered doors with curlers in her hair, shaking her head to mime those infamous words, “No room at the inn.” My dad was the narrator and cameraman with his Super 8 camera and its white-hot lamp beaming down on the action like an interrogator’s flashlight.

The home movies of those pageants are priceless. The shepherds were bedecked with dishrags from the kitchen on their heads with a little mashed potato smear still on them, secured around the head with tube socks or the belt to someone’s robe. The angels rocked some white bed sheets, taken right off the bed, with tree garland on their heads for halos. The kings were rakishly handsome in my mother’s bathrobes with beards made from dusters turned upside down and tucked under their chins. It was always a surprise to see what the kings’ gifts for the babe would be. Sometimes it was a goofy photo, other times it was dinner leftovers. My personal favorite was the time my brother opened a soup pot to reveal not gold, frankincense or myrrh, but my mother’s orthopedic shoes for Baby Jesus. My poor father just kept filming, surely thinking to himself, “And this is why I go to mass every day. To pray for these slobs.”

I was always very serious during the pageant, representing for my pal Mary. I dutifully stayed in character as the Blessed Mother, kneeling patiently, sweating in front of the hot fireplace. I doted on my baby doll and tried to ignore my older siblings’ sacrilegious behavior. Eventually, it all went to hell when we gathered for a curtain call in front of the camera, my brothers striking muscle poses, my sisters doing Miss America waves. Then someone would fart and we’d all collapse into a pileup.

In spite of us all being in varying degrees of devotion to the church, the Christmas pageant tradition has continued through the nine of us siblings and through thirty grandchildren. This year, most of the twenty-seven great-grandchildren will put on the performance, with five babies vying for the coveted role of Baby Jesus. (We may need to have co-Jesuses … or is it “Jesi?”) The costumes have gotten a bit more sophisticated, but not much. Old bridesmaids dresses, lace table clothes and some of my mother’s fancy lingerie from the ‘50’s are all in the costume box (talk about sacrilege).

I’m sure my parents are looking down from heaven with amusement and hopefully pride at what they started all those years ago. Somewhere amidst the bed sheets, the tinsel halos, and the farting, something made an impression. The message got through to stop for a moment and think of what happened over 2,000 years ago in a barn in a small town in the Middle East: no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head. Each December, I walk through our barns, inhale that dank, animal scent, remember BVM, and say, “It all started with you, sister. Thanks. While I’m nowhere near worthy, I’m honored to share your name.” 

The third generation continues the tradition ...

The third generation continues the tradition ...

The Great Weaning

There comes a time in everyone’s life when one needs to leave the comforting bosom of her mother and venture out on her own. On our farm in mid-Ohio, that time comes every October on Weaning Day. I had heard about the weaning process for years, and I was intrigued to witness it firsthand. About a month ago, I got my chance.

I was out walking my dog, the crisp autumn air and bright blue skies keeping us both moving at a brisk pace, when I noticed a commotion at “The Run In Barn.” The Run In Barn is a barn where yearling horses, those who have been weaned from their mothers a few months before they start turning one, are kept in a barn that opens up onto a field where they can freely run in and out of the barn.

On this day, unbeknownst to me, The Weaning was taking place and The Sheriff and Wonder Woman were very busy and intense, corralling mother/baby pairs of horses into the barn, paying attention to every move the horses made, lest they be taken by surprise and kicked into next week.

When weaning day begins, the poor foals don’t know what they are in for. They start the day as usual, grazing with their buddies, nursing and nuzzling with their moms. The Sheriff and Wonder Woman then take about three or four mares and foals at a time from the field into the barn nearby and then into a large horse trailer. This part is pretty uneventful because wherever the mare goes, the foal, like a clingy toddler, will follow. The trailer then makes the short trip down the hill to the Run In Barn and, upon arriving, the mare is gently led down a ramp and into the barn, Wonder Woman shushing and petting her all the while. The oblivious babe follows close behind, her nose touching the swishing tale of her mom, per usual.

When they enter the barn, however, the drama begins. The mom is led one way and the babe is led another. Mom starts whinnying and snorting, babe wheels around, bewildered by what is happening, looking for mom.

“Mom? Mom? Where are you going? Mom? Mom!”

The foal is corralled with equally confused youngsters. One by one, about twenty pairs of mom and babes are led through the same process and soon the Run In Barn is filled with panicked, confused foals that are now, officially, “weanlings.” It's a bit reminiscent of "the reaping" from The Hunger Games, but no one will be forced to fight to the death here.

When I came across this site, it was comical, but also pitiful. The weanlings were literally running in circles, bumping into each other, snorting and neighing, trying to figure out what just happened. In the distance, I could hear the retreating sounds of the mares in the horse trailer going back up the hill, whinnying, crying out, as if to say “It’s alright, baby. You’re going to be fine. Mommy loves you.” The Sheriff turned up the ever-playing radio in the barn to muffle the sounds of the neighing moms and to distract the babes and help them settle in.

Inevitably the babes do settle in and figure it out. The fillies and colts are separated by gender like two single sex Catholic high schools. In about three days, they are forming new bonds with their peers, figuring out who the leaders are and following them. They pace back and forth like they’re at a high school mixer, fillies and colts staring at each other, fillies retreating to a circle to whisper secrets. There’s literally a chastity fence down the middle to separate them and make room for the Holy Spirit, I guess.

When I approached the fence of the filly side a few days after the weaning, the small herd turned in unison to look at me, swishing their tails as if to say, “Oh. My. Gawd. Look. At. Her. Hair.” The alpha, I’ll call her Brittney, sauntered over to check me out and her clique followed. They kind of gave me the up-down until Brittney turned dismissively, surely muttering “What. Ever.” It struck me that, in just those few days, they were no longer babies, but teens trying to navigate life on their own.

It all felt very familiar and reminded me of so many milestones in my own life where my daughters and I went through the painful process of letting go. I keep thinking back to when I put my oldest daughter on that first kindergarten bus all those years ago with her freshly scrubbed face and name tag dangling around her neck. I blew her kisses through the bus window with a lump in my throat, a baby on my hip and a toddler holding my hand. I think of that first high school drop off, sending her off to the Darwinian playground of adolescence. And, God help me, that gut wrenching first college drop off when I snot cried all the way home through four states. I thought my heart was breaking then, like a limb had been ripped off my body. I went through each of those phases three times, and it never got easier. My trail of tears after the college and graduate school drop offs has gone through about eight different states.

The Sheriff assures me that the mares get along just fine after the weaning. Like seasoned Irish mothers, they are already pregnant and actually seem to enjoy the downtime before the birthing season starts again in January. I eventually was fine, too, after weaning my kids off to college. And they eventually found their legs and are figuring it out.

Now it is Christmastime and I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of my wayward foals. (Miraculously, I have one in town, for now). Soon, our house will fill up with daughters, laughter, stories, dirty laundry, dirty dishes, the inevitable and futile political arguments, Netflix marathons and cuddles by the fire. And then, our time together is over and they’re off again.

Driving them to the airport in January, I will have a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. It still hurts to say goodbye. Every time. We’ll kiss and hug goodbye and I’ll jump in my car, turn up the radio to distract my thoughts and whisper to them, or myself, “It’s alright, baby. You’re going to be fine. Mommy loves you.”

"Brittney, what the hell just happened?"

"Brittney, what the hell just happened?"

Our First Farm Thanksgiving

It was all set to be a picture perfect holiday in our new farmhouse … until I sent my daughters on a drug run from the dinner table.

Let me back up.

Our gorgeous farm table was beautifully set with crisp, white plates, darling mason jar water glasses, and colorful leaves from the surrounding woods dotting the table. Dim lights and candlelight, a tasty locally raised turkey roasting in the spanking new oven. Wow. My husband was right. This was The Greatest Decision in Our Marriage: being sometimey farmers.

Until … “Hmmm. That’s odd. Why can I feel my heart beating in my jaw?”  One of my molars had been giving me problems for months, but all of the sudden something felt different.

Filled with fresh air and holiday zeal, I had started Thanksgiving Day with a hike and yoga with my daughters. I thought that keeping busy would take my mind off the dull, thumping pain in my mouth.

“No worries,” I thought. “Just focus on the Thanksgiving Day Parade and The National Dog Show and keep peeling potatoes.”

Hours later, my in-laws arrived and were appropriately wowed by the beautiful tablescape and kitchen aromas. Cue the music, light the candles, carve the turkey, mash the potatoes, let’s do this First Farm Thanksgiving!

We all sat down and began The Thanksgiving Feed.

“What the? Why am I having labor pains in my mouth?”

From the first bite of turkey, it began. Blinding, thumping, unspeakable pain jolted through my jaw and head and I let out a string of ugly expletives in front of my mother-in-law that would make Niki Minaj blush. The poor thing leaned into my father-in-law, asking, “Do we need to call an exorcist?”

I took to the bed. Ice packs, moaning, more nasty toads jumping out of my mouth. (https://fairytalez.com/fairies-diamonds-and-toads/) I popped Advil and Tylenol like Halloween candy. Nothing was touching this pain. I mean, I have gone through labor three times with large headed children. This pain was way, way beyond that. Like, really.

I sent an SOS to my dentist, pleading, begging for help. For drugs, quite frankly. But, unfortunately, we were in Small Town Ohio on a holiday and there were no pharmacies open in a two-hour radius. None. Anywhere. I fell into a sad, pathetic lump, when a miracle happened. Not only did my dentist call me back, I can’t even believe what he did. He and my daughters orchestrated a holiday drug drop for me. Saint Dentist left his family’s Thanksgiving table to bring me an emergency supply of prescription painkillers. They were to meet him half way at a truck stop off the highway. As my daughters scurried out the door, I pushed a pumpkin pie and a bottle of wine into their hands to give him as thanks. I don’t know what the etiquette on that kind of thing, but it was all I could think of in my blinding pain.

My daughters were Thanksgiving drug mules.

It worked. Percocet, sweet Percocet. Just enough to shush the pain.

I finally fell into a misty, drug induced sleep, the sounds of dishes and the hushed, shocked mumblings of my in-laws ringing in my ears. The toads were back safely inside my mouth.  Thank you, Jesus. I spent the rest of the weekend in a drug haze as we hosted about 100 family members the next day with hayrides, leftovers and a big roaring fire in the fireplace.

While it wasn’t the Thanksgiving for which I had planned for the previous seven months, there were many blessings at that table. First of all, of course, we were sitting in a beautiful house that was finished just in the nick of time, thanks to my husband, The Foreman, cracking the whip on me, and I on the Amish builders. (https://marymargaretconway-sullivan.squarespace.com/config/). And then there was the meal itself. I can’t vouch for how it tasted, as I was incapacitated by pain, but it looked and smelled amazing. My people were tucked in safely around me.  And there was the miracle of Saint Dentist, the expediency of Fauna and Meriwether, and the blessing of modern pharmaceuticals. And we had established a new tradition: The Farm Thanksgiving.

This Thanksgiving, though, we are at our real home. When it comes to holiday gatherings and family, my mother used to say, “it’s not about the food.” (And that’s not just because she was an Irish cook). It’s not about the place, either. My in-laws find the short trip to the farm a bit daunting, so we’re just staying put because Thanksgiving is about being together, sharing stories, laughing, hugging, and celebrating life and each other. And every Thanksgiving since that dramatic one on our farm, as I dive into my second helping of pumpkin pie, I also celebrate the gift of oral health.

 

Please pass the Percocet ...

Please pass the Percocet ...

Burn Baby Burn

There’s a ritual out in the country that fascinates me. Several times a year, farmers will round up their stuff and stack it together in a huge pile. Boxes, pallets, broken furniture and miscellaneous other stuff accumulate in remote corners of these wide, open spaces. Then, when the wind and the humidity is just right, they will set it on fire and just burn it away.  It reminds me of when we used to burn leaf piles in the fall when I was little. While the scent was warm and earthy, someone along the line discovered it was actually bad for the air quality and it was made illegal.

But out in the country, I guess it’s still legal. And that signature scent brings back all sorts of memories (though I do worry about the air quality issue). Watching a huge pile burning recently, I resisted the urge to get marshmallows and chocolate for s’mores and just gazed at the rising flames and smoke, wafting into the fading light of the early evening. It got me thinking … wouldn’t it be great if I could put all my metaphorical life garbage in a pile, burn it and just go on, unencumbered, lighter?

The first thing I would put on the burn pile is Regret: the woulda, coulda, shoulda’s. I would have done things differently as a young mom, knowing what I know now. I could have been a wildly successful as a freelance writer if I had put myself out there more and sooner. I should have been more brave and ballsy and insisted on majoring in theatre, despite my father’s protestations. Blah, blah, blah. As one of my favorite yoga teachers has taught me, a better mantra is “I am here now in this.” How about just being here now and move forward? Regret, you are ashes.

The next thing I would throw on that pile is Worry. Are my kids ok? Is our country ok? Is my beloved family tribe ok? (I have a huge extended family, so there’s always someone to worry about.) But I’ve learned that worry doesn’t help anyone and can actually do harm to me by interrupting my sleep, making me run down and giving me worry lines (horrors!). A better idea is to hand it over. Let go, let God. My father used to get angry when we would worry. “Where is your faith?!” he would ask. When I was going through some especially hard times when my kids were young and my mother was ailing, I would feel overwhelmed, hopeless, drowning in worry … until I remembered my father’s advice and handed it over and “burned it.” I sent my fears and worries up to God to handle, at least for a few minutes. Whenever I was wise enough and faith filled enough to do that, miracles would happen. Special people would come into my life and turn the tide of worry. It was remarkable, really. So Worry, I burn you.

That old standby, Resentment would have to go on that pile, too. Like everyone else, I’ve been hurt. In setting a torch to resentment, I release bitterness and hurt and, in the rising smoke I feel forgiveness and freedom. Resentment is a heavy burden to carry around. Ok, I pick it up again every now and then, maybe just to remember how heavy it feels. But that sucker belongs on the burn pile. It’s just too heavy. And life is too short to carry that crap around. Burn that mutha down.

Just to keep the fire burning, I’d throw a big log of Self-loathing on there. I hate myself for hating myself sometimes. The other day, I was excitedly getting ready for a fancy gala to honor my beloved Aunt In-Law when, much to my horror and surprise, I discovered that 4 of the 5 dresses I tried on were just a little too tight. One by one, I peeled them off my fleshy body as my disgust and self-loathing started to rise. Then, I started hating on myself for hating myself. “What the hell is wrong with me?” I thought. “I’m bigger than this!” (About a size bigger. Ouch.) For the love of God, I am too damned menopausal, hot and tired to care about sizes and all that crap. Self-loathing, I am pouring kerosene on you to make sure you go up in smoke.

And so, while large burn piles are no longer legal in the city or suburbs, I invite all who read this to have a little metaphorical burn pile. Now that it’s chilly, we can all put little pieces of paper with our life garbage written on it and burn them in our fireplaces or backyard fire pits. With Thanksgiving coming, it’s the perfect time to clear out the BS and make room for gratitude. And, it’s a great time of year for s’mores.

Burn piles can come in handy for getting rid of all sorts of garbage.

Burn piles can come in handy for getting rid of all sorts of garbage.

Just in Time for Halloween

Just in time for Halloween, I just found out an interesting little story about our farm. It seems that we have not one, but two pre-Civil War burial grounds on the property. Reportedly there are 24 plots there, circa 1824. A descendent of the buried contacted us asking permission to find one of the cemeteries in order to locate the head stones. When I first heard this, I initially thought, “Sure, what harm would it do? What could happen?”

And then I remembered EVERY SCARY MOVIE EVER and thought, “Oh, hell no.” I’ve seen the movie Poltergeist (through the fingers over my eyes). Bad things happen when you mess with graveyards. I am a huge scardy cat. I barely tolerate a ghost story. I generally don’t do scary movies. I don’t do movies with devils, gore, children being terrorized and don’t even get me started on slasher movies, which 9 times out of 10 feature a scantily clad young woman being brutalized. Nope. And what is with this fascination with zombies? Zombies are the new vampires, I guess. I don’t get it.

Several years ago, we went on a wonderful trip to Ireland. The Irish know their ghosts. Tales abound over there about “the banshee.” One can just feel ghosts are everywhere. We were traveling with my brother and his family, plus a niece and had the good fortune to stay in the famous Ashford Castle in County Mayo for one night. After dinner our waiter asked if we would like a ghost tour of the castle. As I shook my head no, the rest of the table all chimed in, “yes!” Not wanting to be alone in my room in a haunted castle, I agreed to go.

Our charming waiter took us up back stairways and hidden rooms. At one point, he notified us that the hallway we were entering was colder than the rest of the house and this indicated that there was paranormal activity there. The group of us huddled together like a well-dressed scrum as the waiter showed us secret doors and creepy portraits, including one of a young girl, all dressed in white, who died young. He said she still walks the halls at night. “You will know her by a white wisp in the air,” he said. We continued on the tour and I snapped photos of this and that, staying in the middle of the scrum, lest a banshee reach out and grab me.

That night, of course I did not sleep at all. I listened to the sounds of the 800 year-old building, hoping my husband’s snoring would scare away any ghostly little girls. I had to pee, but dared not attempt the journey to the bathroom alone. When my husband got up to use the loo around 2 a.m., I leaped out of bed to join him, sticking to his back like a shadow, scaring him in the process. I made him wait for me before he went back to bed. No telling what dangers may lurk on the long walk from the toilet to the bed.

Morning finally came and the eleven of us were bleary eyed as we shuffled onto our little bus. (It seems no one else slept either). As I took my perch in the front of the bus, I opened my phone and started scanning photos of the day before. When I came to the photos of the ghost tour the night before, my heart skipped a beat. It seems that when I snapped a pic of the chilly “paranormal” hallway, I may have captured that ghostly little girl in the form of a “white wisp in the air.” I passed the photo around to see if everyone else saw the same thing I saw. One by one, everyone stared at the photo in a chilly silence, remembering the ghost tales of the night before. "Holy crap ... what the ...?" someone mumbled. I knew it was not just me. The little girl ghost harmed no one, but I think she was there, hovering over our scrum. It still gives me the creeps to think about it.

A couple of the nieces that were on that Ireland trip were overnight on our farm the day we received the letter about the hidden cemeteries. It unnerved them so much that they were both up all night, fretting about bumping into a wayward ghost on their way to the bathroom (What can I say? We have small bladders in my family). In the morning we all agreed that we should just let the cemeteries sit undisturbed. Why tempt the spirits?

I think about those 24 people when I walk the property now. I do believe in spirits, ghosts, etc. I believe that some spirits get stuck between this world and the next. But I don’t want to bump into one on our farm, in my house or anywhere else. And I certainly don’t want to piss any of them off by moving their resting places around.

Sleep well, you pre-Civil War folks. Stay where you are, please. Right. There.

Hope you like what we’ve done with the place.

 

"You will know her by a white wisp in the air ..."

"You will know her by a white wisp in the air ..."

How We Got Our Cement Pond

Shortly after my husband, Eddie Albert, and I procured our farm, we were coming back from a hot hike around the property and I said, “Wow, wouldn’t a pool be great out here?” Eddie chuckled and dismissed me out of hand. It was just a thought. My mother, Marge, and I had a dream of getting a pool when I was little, but my dad was not having it. I rinsed my face in cold water at the kitchen sink, trying to get my apple cheeks to cool down.

A little while later Eddie and his buddy, who had a gorgeous garden of his own, took a weekend to plan and plant our first garden. It was a sight to behold: organized rows labeled with “lettuce,” “eggplant,” “beans,” etc. But, as I’ve written before, untended gardens are prone to weeds and while we were away from the farm for a couple of weeks, our beautifully planted garden became overrun with weeds and was barely recognizable.

“We’re going to have to get up early to weed that garden tomorrow,” I warned. “Before the heat of the day.” “Yeah, sure,” Eddie Albert replied. Morning came and again I declared, “We’d better get going out there while the ground is still soft and get those weeds out.” “Ok,” he replied, turning a page of the Wall Street Journal.

“I know your game, Tom Sawyer,” I thought. “You’re waiting for me to do it myself and then you will waltz in at the end and tell me what a good job I’ve done. Not this time, pal. I am not weeding that whole garden alone.” And so, I waited. And waited.

Finally, he stirred and sure enough, there we were in the heat of the midday sun, bent over picking weeks. And, just as I had warned, they weren’t coming out. The tops of the weeds would pop off, leaving the roots in place: plink, plink, plink. Under the blazing sun, one by one, the blasted weeds held fast to the earth. Plink, plink … Eddie became more and more frustrated.

Finally, he stood up, arms akimbo looking like an irritated Jolly Green Giant. As the heat seared us both, he wiped his brow and surveyed the situation. “Screw this,” he declared. “Let’s put a pool here.” He threw down his garden gloves and walked away.

And that’s how we came to have a pool at our farm.

It took a few years, but this past summer it finally happened. We have a pool and it is awesome, I must say. I can feel my mother’s approval. She loved the water, even though she didn’t learn to swim until she was in her 50s. She and I would go to my cousin’s above ground pool in the summer where she and her sister, donning those goofy floral bathing caps, would stand in the middle of the pool, just smoothing the water with their fingertips in a circle around them. They chatted about their respective families, their brood of children, and who knows what else. I was busy bobbing up and down nearby, like a seal pup near its mother.

When Marge finally did learn to swim, she had a classic swimming move: the sidestroke. I’ve never seen anyone else do it, but it was the perfect way for a gal to get from one end of the pool to the other without getting her face wet or ruining her coiffed hair. It looked like a move of Esther Williams, the swimming movie star of the 40s whom my mother was said to resemble in her youth. Marge would keep her head above water the whole time and reach one arm forward, then the other, but never turn her body. All she needed was musical accompaniment and maybe some legs kicks it would have been water ballet.

Marge would love this farm pool because she also loved horses. In this pool, she would be able sidestroke over to the edge and watch as mares and foals graze and stroll in the grassy fields below. I can just hear her saying in awe, “Aren’t they beautiful animals?”

One of the last minute additions to the pool project was an outdoor shower. I floated that idea early on and got it shot down … but guess who is wild about the outdoor shower now? Eddie will tell anyone who will listen about how he loves that shower. Can't blame him. There’s something about showering in the out of doors. It’s so refreshing and liberating. And it feels slightly naughty (“I’m naked. Outside!”). Between the pool and the shower, it’s a freaking farm fantasy.

Eddie Albert’s high noon decision a few years back to get a pool at the farm was a good one (as well as the audible call on the shower). And we still do have that garden as well. After working in the garden or going on a hot walk, there’s nothing better than taking a Nestea plunge in that cement pond. But I know that deep down, Eddie’s decision on the pool was all about making this place a gathering spot for family and friends as well as sweetening the pie for The Princesses: Flora, Fauna and Meriwether. It’s all about making this farm more desirable for them as they travel far and wide in their respective lives. Something to keep them coming home, maybe someday with families of their own. I’m not in a hurry for that stage in life, but when it comes, I look forward to teaching the next generation “the smooth,” and the sidestroke, courtesy of Marge/Esther Williams. 

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Slacking Sluggers

I recently had a long weekend away with my college friends. For the past thirty-one years since we graduated college, we have gotten together once a year in a cabin on a quiet lake in northern Minnesota. When we were new college graduates, the weekends up there were brief, beer soaked and silly, full of music and dancing …  just another excuse for a party. A few men made those weekends early on, but soon they drifted off and it slowly became a Girls Weekend. We dubbed our weekends together “Slugfest,” as in lying around like slugs. As life got busier and more complicated, these weekends away with each other became a beacon, a goal. “Just hang on until Slugfest.”

Over the years our gatherings have turned into veritable therapy sessions with us lying around and talking about jobs, husbands, partners, kids, dogs, heartbreak, aging parents, parents gone, dreams deferred, worry, regret … life. These weekends always include laughter and tears, crossword puzzles done together (the only way I have been able to complete one), and Chinese checkers. Our beverages have gone from cheap beer to gourmet coffee and good wine. And our menus have progressed from potato chips and pizza to downright fine dining. One year, early on, our conversation at dinner drifted to talking about appliances and I remember saying, “Wow, we must really be adults, now. This is so boring.” We all laughed and got stupid again.

When my husband and I had the good fortune to become farm owners, I immediately thought, “this would be a great clubhouse for the Sluggers!” By then, we Sluggers were all turning 50 and decided that life is too short for just one Slugfest a year. We deserved two: a Lake Slug and a Farm Slug. And so, the Sluggers migrated south from Minnesota to Ohio and I was thrilled.

As the Sluggers arrived at the farm and unpacked their bags, I made a fire in the fireplace, eager to get down to slugging. Then, my friend, I’ll call her “Lucy,” unpacked a special gift for me: a slack line. “What the?” I thought. “That’s awfully ambitious. Does this mean we have to get off the couch?” For those who are older than thirty, a slack line is a hipster device that is essentially a wide tight rope that one installs between two trees and then, if one is an agile young twenty something, tiptoes across with ease and grace. It’s the perfect complement to a hacky sack. Lucy decided that, while she valued our penchant for lying around, she thought we all needed a challenge. She has triplets who are currently teenagers, so she was clearly sleep deprived and not thinking straight. I, being a good hostess, begrudgingly agreed to help get it set up later, hoping she would forget about it.

Well, unfortunately she remembered the slack line the day after a particularly festive evening of dancing and revelry. And, ok, a lot of wine. Let’s just say, I was a bit in the weeds. But Lucy was insistent on getting that slack line up. Eager to shake the cobwebs off my brain, I jumped in … or rather shuffled. The ensuing scene was one for the ages. The others, I’ll call them “The Glue” (she’s the perennial organizer) and “Moojer” (a butchered “mujer,” or “woman” in Spanish) looked on and sipped coffee as Lucy and I wrestled, grunted, groaned and were generally stymied by the slack line. We were down on all fours for hours, twisting the line, turning it this way and that, swearing like sailors. The instructions were incomprehensible, so we Googled for better directions and found videos of a hilariously douchey dudes assuring viewers that this slack line was an amazing way to “amp up your workout” and “really challenge your abs.” I particularly enjoyed the videos with stoner music. “Oh for chrissake,” I thought. “Can’t we just get a Bloody Mary and call it a day?”

We persevered, albeit clumsily with more swearing and grunting. When we finally, miraculously had the blasted thing up, we both let out ecstatic, almost obscene sounds like that famous scene from When Harry Met Sally – “Yes! Yes! Yes!” – collapsing on the ground in delirious laughter. Talk about a workout. My back hurts just writing about it. The horses nearby rolled their eyes, swinging their tails at flies as the four of us immediately went inside for a nap.

The slack line remained between two trees outside our farmhouse for a few weeks and my daughters and I gave it a few runs. My husband, The Land Baron kept threatening to try it, but never got around to it. It now sits under the deck, waiting for the Sluggers’ return visit, hopefully next spring. Every time I see it, I smile and laugh to myself with memories of that ridiculous day of setting it up, but also with genuine gratitude for the amazing good fortune I possess to have had these friends for so long.

We don’t talk much between our gatherings, preferring to save it all up for those magical weekends where time stands still and we are almost back in college, only now with wrinkles and sensible shoes. As we move forward, I know that life will keep coming, with all its unplanned twists, turns and surprises (like slack lines). But I also know in my fiber that these women will remain. Slug on, Slugging Sluggers!

 

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Prairie Peddler

“This is my favorite part,” they cooed as they cuddled the Styrofoam bowl, blowing on its hot contents. “It’s so delicious …”

My lovely nieces dragged – no, invited me to accompany them to their favorite festival of the year, The Prairie Peddler Festival. In that it is conveniently located not far from our farm, I decided to go. I needed an antidote to the last festival I went to in the area, Ink in the Clink, which left me, shall I say, uncomfortable. It was a gorgeous fall day, and I would get to hang out with two of my nieces and their brother. In a sprawling, large Irish Catholic family of 30 grandchildren and 20+ great grandchildren (honestly, I’m losing count), I really enjoy having some one on one time with my peeps.  My husband even came, along with our daughter, Flora.

After a winding drive over and through hills of cornfields, we arrived.  It turns out that Prairie Peddler is not located on the prairie at all, but in the woods, for some reason. Why is it in the woods? Are these people on the lamb or something? It is a maze of over 200 permanent structures that stay in the woods year round. Two weekends a year, the “peddlers,” sell handmade this or that: lots of lovely pottery, leather goods, candles and such. I joined the throng of shuffling festivalgoers and, per usual, immediately lost my husband.

My husband has a reputation for going rogue in these settings. He’s like an ADD hound dog. If he catches a scent of something that interests him, off he goes. I often refer to him as “Moonbeam,” as in “How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?” I was impressed that he came at all because he's not into "themed" events. He rolled his eyes when we confronted a scarecrow that would occasionally come to life and freak out small children and old people. When we passed a couple holding hands and wearing matching red T-shirts, one reading O-H, the other reading I-O, I warily glanced over at Moonbeam. “You ok?”

Moonbeam lasted an hour, escaping to go back to the farm and do Important Things like sitting on his rocking chair and surveying his view. The rest of us pushed on, in search of what was being promised to me as “the best thing you’ll ever taste” by my nieces. Our group kept losing each other in the sea of flannel and blue jeans, constantly calling each other’s cell phones for directions on how to find one another. It was like a party game.

“I’m at the booth with the yellow mums in front of it.”

Nope, you’ve got to give me more than that. This place is littered with mums.

“We’re right next to the booth with the witches and pumpkins.”

Still no good. Those are everywhere too.

“OK, look for the American flag and a man dressed like Ye Olde Prairie Guy.”

You’re killing me.

We miraculously all reunited and dawdled through more booths of furniture, and accessories like lamps made of coconut shells and a whole genre of stuff called "primitives," whatever that is.  I watched my daughter, nieces and nephew perusing items for their respective homes and it hit me … When did they all grow out of dressing up in my mother’s scarves to be these funny, smart, interesting humans with jobs and houses of their own? And how is it my nieces now have children? Are they still children? Aren't I still a child?

As I pondered that (and whether or not I needed a coconut shell lamp), we came upon the food we were seeking. The line was long in front of the booth, everyone shuffling impatiently, looking with anticipation at the coveted steaming bowls ahead. Finally, there it was: a Styrofoam cup of piping hot chicken noodle soup on top of mashed potatoes with – wait for it – biscuits on the side. That’s carbs on top of carbs with carbs on the side. It made my pants hurt just looking at it. “Are we running a marathon or something?” I thought. I took a bite of my niece’s serving. “Hmm.  It’s ok,” I thought. “But a little heavy, don’t you think?” Then, a bite of my other niece’s serving. “Ok, it’s nice and warm, I’ll give you that.” Then a bite of my nephew’s serving. Then, I just let it happen: I snarfed down a couple rounds of samples from each of them, because calories don’t count when you a). eat standing up; b). eat from someone else’s bowl; c). are shivering at an outdoor festival and what you’re eating is warm.

Sure, that carb on carb on carb bowl was tasty. Not “the most delicious thing ever,” but I choked it back. I did feel the need for a big nap about a half hour later. What was better, though, was spending time with these cool young adults on a gorgeous Ohio fall day. For all the confusion and high carb food, this Prairie Peddler thing may need to be a new tradition. Next time though, I’ll have to wear my stretchy pants.

 

Ye Olde Carbs on Carbs on Carbs

Ye Olde Carbs on Carbs on Carbs

On Walking

I’ve always been a walker. I guess I got it from my dad. He loved to go for a walk after dinner and I would often accompany him when I was little, my shorter legs taking four steps for every one of his long, six-foot-four inch tall strides. I often say I would sooner walk from here to the moon than run from here to the corner. My body just doesn’t like running. For me, walking is exercise, meditation, prayer and therapy all rolled into one.

Part of our routine on the farm is to take long walks there, through the woods, up one hill, down another, passing cornfields, yearling horses, mooing cows, babbling creeks. Winter, spring, summer, fall … it’s a gorgeous gift to be able to take in the air, walk, think, pray. The wife of The Mayor, former owner of the property, was an avid walker like me. I’d see her making her daily seven-mile loop as I would drive in. I could tell she found the same therapy in it that I do. She left us too soon, a little over a year ago. I guess God wanted to show her even better trails, but I think of her every time I walk the property with her sunny smile and friendly wave.

Just after we acquired the farm property I had a chance to take an epic walk of a lifetime: El Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I had heard of this centuries old pilgrimage – The Way of St. James – years ago from my college roommate. The entire Camino is some 400 miles and stretches from the southern border of France, over the Pyrenees Mountains and across the top of Spain to Santiago, the supposed burial site of St. James. I love a long walk, so I was intrigued.

Then came a little movie called The Way about The Camino, starring Martin Sheen. The day after I saw the movie, I was in the parking lot of my local grocery store, looking up details on The Camino: Where is it? How long does it take? How can I do this? But I was in a hurry, so I put my phone away and ran into the store, right into my friend, Gidget. “Hey, long time no see! Listen,” she said to me over the cantaloupes. “Do you know what the Camino is?” Me: “Um, yeah, I literally was just in my car…” Her: “Do you want to go on it with me? I’m putting together a group.” Me: “Um, yeah. I’m in.”

Fast-forward four years. I have now been on three different versions of the Camino with a group of women who also love to walk … and drink wine, eat cheese, and most importantly, laugh, laugh, laugh. I could literally write pages on each journey. Suffice it to say that real pilgrims carry all that they need for the month-long journey on their back and sleep in humble alburges or roadside hostels with dozens of other pilgrims along the way. Well, our Camino is a bit more Camino Light and we are The Housewives of the Camino. The first Camino was four years ago and was a journey of the last 100 miles of the Camino. It was amazing beyond belief. I found myself smiling all day every day, in spite of aching feet and tired legs each night. Some of my favorite times were when I was walking alone across the countryside, my Camino sisters either ahead or behind me, and just listening to the breeze through the trees and the sound of a lonesome cowbell. I even had a little miracle when, after a day of silently praying and chatting with my deceased mother and asking her for a sign that all is well, I came across her name, MARGE, scrawled across a bridge I was walking under. It took my breath away, making me laugh and cry at the same time because it was so my mom: not subtle at all. It was awesome.

Camino II was Camino del Norte, a 90 mile walk through Basque Country in northern Spain, ending in the tony village of San Sebastian, home of the most Michelin rated restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the world. You’re damned straight we visited one of those restaurants (feeling very, very underdressed in our Eddie Bauer travel dresses).  I have a fistful of toothbrushes from the fancy bathroom there to prove we were there (Stay classy, me.) That trip included an impromptu private mass in the home of St. Ignatius of Loyola, just outside of San Sebastian. A couple of Camino Sisters and I went rogue one day and did a side trip to Loyola, arriving at Ignatius’ home about a half hour before closing. We did a quick trip up one, two, three flights and stumbled upon a chapel on the third floor, just as the priest, Gaston, was setting up mass. After we finished singing “No one prays like Gaston, no one stays like Gaston, my what a guy … Gaston!” we settled in for mass, ended up being moved to tears at how lovely, holy and special the occasion was …  and then, at his suggestion, taking selfies in the chapel with Gaston and almost getting locked into the basilica in Loyola.

I just got back from Camino III, El Camino Portugués, a 90-mile seaside hike up the west coast of Portugal and Galicia, Spain. Once again, it was perfection. Miles and miles of breathtaking scenery were enjoyed on roads, walking paths and from my perch in the front of our little bus alongside an equally nauseous Camino Sister (we cannot handle the motion in the back of the bus). The eleven us definitely boosted the wine, cheese and tile economy while there (You’re welcome, Portugal and Spain.)  This walk included walking between, into and through many, many wineries. Our favorite had to be the one in Argo, Spain, where we met The Most Interesting Man in Spain. This guy loves his job, his country, his wine … and definitely loves the ladies. So, he was thrilled to have eleven middle-aged American women for wine Show and Tell. He poured his wine liberally, told us obscenity-laced stories of his father, the founder and gave us plenty of cheese, ham, olives and bread. As we left, we each got a big hug and a kiss from The Most Interesting Man in Spain. I'm pretty sure he slipped some of us his tongue and grabbed some ass. That night was marked by a much-anticipated (and feared) dinner of local eel back at our 17th Century manor. Not enough wine was consumed all day or at dinner to make that eel palatable, but I could see that the cook was offended by our pinched faces, so I choked that sucker back as best I could. I swear, I’m still burping up eel today, two weeks later. Not the souvenir I had planned to bring back with me.

And so, I’m back in my Real Life now. It’s good to go away. It’s good to come home, visions of long walks, tapas and wine dancing in my head. While I was gone, two cousins and a good friend passed away, and there was a cousin wedding and a nephew wedding. Life and Death keep coming. Joys and sorrows continue. All of it only reinforces in me the importance of cherishing my walks, be they around the neighborhood, at the farm, or on far-flung paths. When I’m faced with the inevitable obstacles to happiness, fulfillment and peace, I keep visualizing those walks in my mind and I walk on, searching for my own faith, meaning, inspiration, hope, sanity. All will be well. One step at a time. As they say on the pilgrimage, ¡Buen Camino! Enjoy the journey. 

A message from my mom on Camino I, September 2013.

A message from my mom on Camino I, September 2013.

Walk on ...

 

Howdy, Neighbor!

When we first acquired our farm, my husband, Mufasa, whispered into my ear, “Everything the light touches is ours,” as he put his arm around my shoulder and we took in our new view.  While that’s a bit of an exaggeration, I’ve grown accustomed to that view, spoiled by it, actually. Our closest neighbor is a half mile down the road, waayyy over there. I enjoy watching his cattle make their way from one end of his property to the other, lazily grazing and mooing.

All of the sudden, however, a new neighbor has appeared. I rolled up to our farmhouse several weeks ago to discover – horrors! – surveyors’ sticks. And then came an outline of a house.  Then, I’ll be damned if that darn house didn’t go up quicker than a horse fart.

So, there you have it. We have neighbors. And they are a cozy quarter mile away. Shocking! It seems that the elderly woman who lives on the spread of land next to us has bequeathed a parcel of land to her son and he has decided to build a nice house on it. How dare he! So what if that land has been in their family for three generations. We’re talking about my view here!

I feel claustrophobic. I feel greedy and unsettled. What is the matter with me? The view has changed to include a lovely home. So what? Why is this rattling my cage? I suppose I’ve grown accustomed to the freedom of not having neighbors in close proximity. It’s given me the freedom of not giving a what. Dog wants to go for an unrestricted walkabout? Off he goes! Like that song? Crank up the volume and open the windows! Just took a shower and can’t find your clothes? Walk around naked. Commando living at its finest. Don’t worry ... only when we don’t have guests or our daughters with us. When your closest neighbor is a half-mile away, it doesn’t matter.

At our real home, our neighbors are literally steps away. I can hear them chatting on their patios at night or on the phone outside in the morning. They are close enough that my when my youngest was a toddler, she would surprise and delight them by occasionally barging into their living rooms uninvited to play with their toys. I am glad they are that close. My one neighbor and I let ourselves in to each other’s houses to borrow things: bikes, eggs, children.

I have a high bar for neighbors. In my home neighborhood, we raised each other’s kids, a tribe of young people roaming in and out of each other’s homes, eating, playing games, watching movies, laughing. We wiped sticky faces, bandaged knees, and lathered sunscreen on chubby legs as we put out the sprinkler in the summer. We still have an annual Fourth of July breakfast picnic every year where we watch local runners go by in a 5K Race while we stuff donuts and coffee in our faces. We have block parties and progressive dinner Christmas parties. We are close in proximity and emotionally. We’ve cocktailed together on front porches on warm summer nights, conferred with each other at the bus stop about child rearing, supported each other through illness and funerals. And now, we are going to all of our children’s weddings. I love my home neighbors.

Out in the country, I didn’t expect to have neighbors. We’ve become friends with our neighbors on the other side of the property, Johnny Cash and June Carter, who are a short four-wheeler ride through the woods. They enthusiastically welcomed us to the country and have been a godsend for learning about the area, about guns and hunting, deer, farming and even music (Johnny is a musician/businessman/farmer). We’ve laughed together and shared good times. But Johnny and June are not within eyesight. These new neighbors are sitting. Right. There.

And so, what to do? Continue glaring at their lovely new home? Pine for the days of unsullied bucolic views? See if we can smoke them out with loud music (I could always host my favorite Ink in the Clink band, Saliva, for a concert). Or maybe be a grown up and bring a plate of cookies over and introduce ourselves? I’ll make sure to put a bra on. Who knows? Maybe we’ll be borrowing ketchup from each other one day.

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Joan Crawford, Dennis and Mr. Wilson

One of my favorite past times on our farm is observing the animals there. In so doing, I have learned that, while we humans can idealize animals as being kinder and more decent than the human race, that is not always the case. Sometimes animals can be just as loathsome as we humans.

Our farm is actually a racehorse breeding business where owners bring their female horses to our farm to be inseminated, gestate and give birth under the knowing hand of The Sheriff, his father The Mayor and their right hand gal, Wonder Woman. About a year into our farm adventure, a mare came onto the property already pregnant. She gave birth according to plan and her little colt began nursing and thriving. Then the horseshit hit the fan. Mrs. Horse was clearly not right. Out of nowhere one day, she began beating up on her little colt. The foal, a colt they named Dennis, had scrapes and cuts inflicted by his nutty mom. It was emotional for the whole staff of the farm to witness. But the Sheriff and his team knew that colt needed mother’s milk as long as possible in order to thrive, so they hesitantly left him with her a few more days … until it became obvious that the mare, we’ll call her Joan Crawford, was a Mommy Dearest nightmare and had taken to trying to rip the hide off her colt. They finally separated them, sending Dennis to the animal hospital at The Ohio State University to recover from his wounds before he returned to the farm.

Enter The Companion Goat. I’ve learned that occasionally this kind of thing can happen in horses, that the mother is just a bad seed and needs to be separated from her foal. While the foal can be supplemented with formula or granular milk, he still needs companionship to thrive, so horse farms will routinely bring in a “companion goat.” They will also do this if a mother horse dies in childbirth. The little goat’s job is just to be a buddy, a wingman, a roommate. So, walking through the barns one would pass the stalls and see mama horse and filly, a mama horse and colt, a baby horse and … goat. It’s an unusual sight.

Dennis and the goat got along famously. They would nuzzle each other, run together out in the paddock or, like old friends in a coffee shop, just munch their food silently next to one another. It was really sweet.

The staff grew to love that silly goat and named him Mr. Wilson as a nod to the character in the “Dennis the Menace” comic strip. Mr. Wilson acted like a playful dog, scampering around the barn, chasing the cats, peaking around the corners. He even figured out how to open his and Dennis’ stall door, the little scamp.

But eventually, things took a dark turn. One misty morning, the Sherriff entered the barn to start the day’s chores and witnessed a disturbing thing. Dennis was abusing Mr. Wilson, just as his own mother had abused him. Again, it was shocking, and heartbreaking. The Sherriff and his staff had worked so hard to nurse that colt back to health and make him feel loved and nurtured. And poor Mr. Wilson. He must have been equally disillusioned. “Dude, I’m on your side,” he must have thought. “What the farm?”

And so, to the sadness of all, Mr. Wilson went back to his original owner and Dennis lived alone in his stall, growing bigger and more combative every day. When all the other foals were eventually weaned from their own mothers, all the colts were put in the same paddock. Dennis was by far the biggest and meanest of them all. The other colts instinctively knew something was off with Dennis and took turns going at him, kicking him, and generally bullying him. It was like a very rough schoolyard scene and it helped make Dennis a badass, a thug. It was sad really. Dennis didn’t have a chance.

Joan Crawford wasn’t popular in the fields after the separation. The other mama horses kept her at bay on the outskirts of their circles. They new she wasn’t right either. Eventually, Joan’s owner sold her at an auction, with the caveat that she never be bred again because clearly girlfriend couldn’t be trusted as a mom. The day she was sent to auction, her paperwork was out of order and she had to return to the farm for a few days. When she was put back into the field with the other mares, there was a tense scene. One by one, each of the five or six mares in that field charged up to Joan, kicking and braying, as if to say, “Aw, hell no, Joan Crawford! You hurt your baby and we all know it, you crazy bitch. You are not welcome here.” That display continued for a couple of days until Joan Crawford finally left the farm for good and calm returned.

I’m sure Dennis went on to be a successful racehorse, big and mean as he was. And hopefully Joan Crawford is living a peaceful existence pulling an Amish plow somewhere, thinking about the error of her ways. Was Joan abused as a foal? Did she have a genetic screw loose somewhere? Was Dennis abusing Mr. Wilson because of an equally loose genetic screw or did he learn that behavior? Perhaps some combination of both? Who knows, but the whole cycle of abuse and nature vs. nurture was as distressing as it was interesting.

Life has gone on at the farm with dozens of foals being born and raised without incident each year since Dennis and Joan Crawford left. Watching the good, normal moms devotedly tend to their young each season is a beautiful sight and often makes me think of my own mom, of being a mom myself and how blessed I have been to have an excellent mother, good role models, a safe upbringing and good genes. In life and on horse farms, that should never be taken for granted.

Mr. Wilson and Dennis, in happier days.

Mr. Wilson and Dennis, in happier days.

Oh. Deer.

I have always loved nature and animals. I spent most of the summers in my youth outdoors either weeding for my father or trying to avoid doing so by hiding from him in the woods behind our house. In all those formative years, I rarely, if ever saw a deer in our neighborhood, in the woods behind our house, in the Metroparks, which I would frequent as a teenager, or even on road trips to the West Virginia resort my family would visit every year. The closest I ever came to a deer was watching Bambi on the Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights after a bath.

Today, it is a different story. As anyone who lives in the suburbs – or even urban neighborhoods – will tell you, deer are omnipresent. They are as commonplace as squirrels and way, way more obnoxious. When I’m working in the garden in my suburban back yard, I will often scare one up, waking her from her comfortable nap in my hostas. She will slowly get up and stroll away, muttering obscenities to me under her breath. She and her deer buddies in our neighborhood are like a marauding gang, roaming around with impunity, thuggish and ballsy. They just don’t give a what. When they cross a street, they seem to purposely take their time doing so.

“Yeah, I’m strolling across this major thoroughfare, stopping traffic both ways. And you’re just going to sit there in your minivan and take it, lady.”

And they’re a randy bunch, procreating with abandon. Every time I turn around there’s another newborn fawn all curled up and cozy in someone’s front yard. Mrs. Deer, you really need to take up another hobby. Sure, those babies are precious … until they’re eating my landscaping.

When I’m cooking on the grill in my suburban back yard, a deer will stand there, chewing and staring at me blankly. “Um, Mar,” he seems to say. “Those burgers seem to be overdone. And while we’re talking about food … you really need to plant more pansies in the front yard. I started nibbling on them this morning and before I knew it, I had eaten the whole bed.  They are like potato chips … you can’t have just one. Anyway, you’re going to want to plant more pansies, Mar.”

I hate urban deer. And I hate the silly fools who feed them.

Last week on our annual family vacation in West Virginia I witnessed a flock of these fools (I am referring to people here) hand feeding a veritable herd of deer. It was like a Disney World character autograph scrum.

“Here, Bambi! Have some Cap’n Crunch.”

“Why, thank you kind, simple tourist. And for your troubles, I will in turn give you some ticks with Lyme disease.” Lyme Disease is real and not something to trifle with, people. That stuff will mess you up.

The sad truth is that these suburban deer are eating everything in their path because they’re starving. The combination of urban sprawl and deer’s propensity to reproduce faster than post war Catholics is giving us deer that are too skinny and unhealthy. Those deer on the resort hilltop were like ghostly apparitions. Honestly, there are just too damned many deer for urban environments to sustain. Or West Virginia resorts, for that matter.

Out in the country around our farm, however, deer are deer. They are muscular and majestic because they are fit and living like wild animals, not pathetic circus sideshow acts. They are beautiful, really, just like The Great Prince of the Forest, Bambi’s father.  They are appropriately skittish and mostly keep away from humans because they have gotten the message that humans out there in the country are often packing heat and they and their deer friends just might end up on someone’s wall or dinner plate. But the result is that the deer population is under control, they are not overrunning the area and there is enough vegetation for them to live healthy, happy lives. Out there, I don’t hate deer.

My husband, The Deer Hunter, loves deer. In fact, he went so far as to plant apple trees on our farm so that they could treat themselves as they pass through our property. “Oh, that’s so sweet!” I exclaimed.  “What a nice thing to do for them.”

“Yeah,” he nodded.  “It’s going to make for a great deer hunting season.”

Wait. What? He is planning on getting them fat and happy only to shoot them some time in the future? It made me sad.

But then I thought of those ghostly deer on the hilltop or the Sharks and Jets deer gangs in our neighborhood back home.  I’m no hunter, have no interest personally in killing deer and am not fond of venison. But seeing firsthand the difference between healthy deer and sickly deer, I’ve come to the realization that hunting deer is a necessary part of keeping nature natural and the deer population as a whole healthy.  I know Bambi’s mother was taken out by a deer hunter (don’t all Disney mothers find tragic, untimely ends?), and that broke my little heart. But isn’t it also heartbreaking to see a once majestic beast reduced to eating boxed cereal or anything out of a human's hand?

Please stop the madness!  Postscript: THE HOUR I posted this blog, my dog was attacked by a deer on the back steps of our suburban home. They are not cute, people! 

Please stop the madness!

Postscript: THE HOUR I posted this blog, my dog was attacked by a deer on the back steps of our suburban home. They are not cute, people!