Not Too Far from the Tree

November 30, 2010

In most things I tend to think of Lucy as her father’s daughter. She is quiet, methodical, organized, and neat. She sets a realistic goal and pursues it. She is disciplined and undramatic. How could she be related to me?

However yesterday Lucy had a day off from school, and at one point I looked up to see her sitting at the dining room table, wearing one of my aprons, making a list of her day’s chores. I thought, “Well, she’s her mother’s daughter, too!”

Of course the truth is that she is her own person. She is Lucy and she is a delight.

Yesterday she gathered and cut holiday greens to make a wreath around the base of our Advent candles. We’ve used the same purple, pink, and white candles for a few years so they a bit uneven in height and drippy around the edges, but Lucy is practical. “They’re fine!” she said, tucking in a stray bit of balsam.

I have to agree. God won’t mind.

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Sixty-four Years

November 29, 2010

Today would have been Mom and Dad’s 64th wedding anniversary. The two from Alabama met in New York City on a blind date in March, 1946 — each was told, “I know someone who talks just like you!” — and were married in Alabama at Thanksgiving. Fast work, Dad!

I was thinking of them because… well, I always think of them. I’m sure a day does not go by that I don’t think of my mother and father. (I remember reading a biography of Katharine Hepburn that was puzzled by her close relationship with her parents and the fact that she still quoted them long after their deaths. It didn’t puzzle me at all.)

But I was particularly thinking of them because in church yesterday something pinched my finger and on investigating I saw my mother’s engagement ring had worn through until it was close to breaking in half. Yes, I wear my own wedding ring, plus my mother’s wedding and engagement rings.

I never had an engagement ring of my own. DH and I had no money, I didn’t care about jewelry or diamonds, and it won’t surprise anyone to learn that I preferred to get a puppy instead. So, many years later, Mom told me she would leave me her rings. Those rings, later plus her mother’s engagement ring, had been on her finger all my life. I don’t remember her ever taking them off. Mom had long, narrow fingers and the tiny soft chink! of the rings clinking together is one of my earliest memories.

I don’t have her slender hands but I don’t take the rings off either. When I inherited them after Mom’s death in 2004, I was a farm manager. A woman said to me, “You’re wearing diamonds to barn chores?

Sure. I am a no-fuss person. Any jewelry I wear has to be low maintenance, or it doesn’t last long. I tend to put something on and forget about it. My plain wedding band. Small gold stud earrings. My grandmother gave me a gold signet ring when I was in the fourth grade. I’ve worn it every day since. My initials wore off long ago but that hardly matters because it’s my grandmother and my childhood I think of, not the ring.

Similarly I have treasured looking down at my mother’s rings on my hand. They have been a totem or an amulet, a visual symbol of my parents.

But after sixty-four years of constant wear they are showing their age. I’ve taken off the cracked engagement ring and will have to learn where I can have it repaired. Arthur, the elderly jeweler on Main Street who mended things for me in the past, closed his tiny shop in the recession.

almost sound side

worn-away side

Despite the diamonds, the rings in themselves are not very valuable. What is priceless to me is their emotional freight. This morning Lucy tried the rings on and when I saw them on her small hand I suddenly had a vision of generations of family women, scrolling back and rolling forward in time.


There Must Be a Better Way

November 28, 2010

Yesterday morning Lucy and I took Kate to the bus stop in town. It was snowing hard and I was nervous driving DH’s little Ford Focus. After years of driving pickups, when I am behind the wheel of a sub-compact in icy conditions I feel as if I’m piloting a Diet Coke can down the road. At the bus stop, Kate bought her ticket. We waited an hour. Finally I decided that if the Trailways bus was running that late in the storm, I didn’t want Kate on it. The girls were clutching each other and cheering when I pulled out to take us all home. We will try again after church in the valley today. At least in the valley the bus stop is at a diner, so we can be warm and fed if we have to wait.

Yesterday’s big task was to get the gauze pads off my heifer Moxie’s sinuses at evening chores. I’d tried for two days, with no success. David had cut the pads to exactly the size of the holes. The edges of the gauze had been pasted down by blood. More blood had slowly seeped to soak the material and then dried until now the gauze was invisible. She looked as if she had black scabs on each side of her poll. But they were not scabs, they were cotton gauze and had to come off before the pads themselves started an anaerobic infection by cutting off air.

I had mentioned the problem to David when we picked up the kittens. I told him I thought I’d have to soak the gauze in warm water to soften the dried blood, and probably use needle-nose pliers. I didn’t have to point out that this was certainly not the simple procedure he’d outlined.

He frowned. “You might need a little warm water.”

I was sure he was wrong and I was dreading it. Moxie’s poll was no longer anesthetized and was clearly sore to the touch. I was going to have to soak her head in warm water and rip off 2″x3″ pads of gauze that had essentially grown into the wounds. I can’t stand to see anything in pain. A big part of me wanted to demand that David come back to deal with the problem. However, that would be expensive and I am not a baby. Nonsense. You can do it. Pretend you’re a Civil War nurse. You must get the shirt off that dried shoulder wound!

I filled a gallon Thermos with boiling water and packed a small medical kit. Pliers, washcloth for soaking, antibiotic cream, fresh gauze, and First Aid tape in case I had to cover her poll again.

At the farm the girls played with the kittens in the truck while I brought all the animals in and fed and watered them. Then I tapped on the truck window and the girls brought the kittens back to romp in the tack room while I dealt with Moxie.

It was just as horrible as I anticipated. Moxie flinched when I touched her poll with the warm wet washcloth, jerking her head to the end of the lead rope. I snubbed her close to the post. When I even tried to find an edge of the gauze with the pliers, her eyes rolled until I could see the whites. Her head was twisted almost upside down to get away. I decided I had to soak each side of her poll for at least ten minutes. Moxie stood, trembling but less afraid, as I simply poured hot water on the washcloth and held it in place near her left ear. Finally one tiny, very tiny edge of the blackened gauze came unpasted.

I gulped. I took the needle-nose pliers and in one motion grabbed that tiny edge and yanked off the gauze.

Moxie’s eyes rolled up in her head and she crashed to the floor.  Her head was still tied high and I pulled the emergency loop with stiff, trembling fingers to release her so she could get her feet under herself again. She had a bright bloody 2″x 3″ strip where the scabbed-over gauze had ripped away. She was terrified. And now I had to do it all again for the other side! Poor little girl. I helped her to her feet.

Twenty minutes later I was finished. Moxie’s poll was oozing blood on both sides but the gauze was safely off. I had used the entire gallon of hot water for compresses. I decided not to re-cover the wounds at this time but to leave them open to the night air. It was 20° and I wanted the blood to clot freely before it froze.

Moxie was (understandably) so head-shy at this point that I could not dry her wet ears and cheeks. Poor little girl. However, the moment I untied her she put her head down and began to eat her hay.

As I packed up my tools I told myself that I would definitely recommend to David that he use a different method of bandaging after de-horning. Even my inexpert duct tape over gauze would be far easier and much less painful to remove. I called to the girls that we were ready to go. I snapped off the barn lights. We piled into the truck.

Oh dear. In the truck I discovered that an hour earlier, Kate had turned the key to switch on the radio (and incidentally the lights and heater fan) for entertainment while they were playing with the kittens. Kate does not know how to drive. She thought it would all turn itself off automatically when they left the truck. Oops. After an hour left at full blast in the deep cold, the truck battery was dead as a doornail.

“Since I don’t know how to drive, and I thought the truck might roll, and I didn’t know where the emergency brake was, I didn’t want to turn on the engine,” Kate explained ingenuously.

I’ve known Kate since she was a very small girl. It is impossible to get angry with her because she never means to cause a problem. She is always loving, always surprised and contrite.

“Kathryn, dear, if you don’t know how to drive why would you ever think it was OK to get in someone else’s vehicle and touch the ignition key at all?

“Well, that is a good point,” agreed poor Kate, nodding.

Luckily I had my cell phone in my pocket and luckily Mike was at home. Mike is my friend who has rescued me from a million disasters. I explained the situation and he kindly told me he’d be out in half an hour to give us a jump start.

The girls and I sat in the dark and cold to wait, slowly congealing. Lucy’s feet had been numb before we got in the truck. I felt such a let-down after the adrenalin of dealing with Moxie that I was almost in a stupor. The minutes ticked by.

Kate observed cheerfully, “This is real Kate C. moment, isn’t it?”


Barn Kittens

November 27, 2010

When David, my vet, came on Tuesday he had mentioned that his office had some free barn kittens. One of the receptionists owned a dairy farm and had brought in a litter to find homes for them. A veterinary assistant had asked permission to neuter them, for free, as practice. So here were these kittens, neutered, vaccinated, and free.

I had always assumed Lucy would not have a kitten experience. DH is allergic to cats. He’s never been tested but he’s had a cold in the head for the past fourteen years, ever since I brought home Tam, our tabby house cat, as a kitten for Jon when he was nine. Though DH never complains, I had long since promised him that when Tam dies of old age, we would not have another indoor cat. Now, for barn patrol, I’d figured I would avoid the expense and hassle of starting a kitten. Surely it would be smarter to rescue an adult cat that had already had all his medical care and knew something about mice. When I’d visited the humane society, I hadn’t even approached the tempting cages of six- and eight-week-old kittens. God makes kittens adorable on purpose.

But — these were free. Five months old. And born in a dairy barn. One of the issues with Boo had been that he was a city cat. He was just as terrified by the cows and horse as he was by me. Once he leaped to the top of the wall of the sheep stall, took one look at the Cat-Eating Sheep below, and flipped backwards off the wall in horror. In contrast, these kittens had received on-the-job training. And Lucy would be so thrilled…

Our dear friend, Kate, eighteen, has been visiting for the holiday. Kate is an alumna of our school and graduated four years ago. We’ve known her since she was nine. There is a five-year age gap between Kate and Lucy but over the years Kate spent many, many hours playing at our house. As a child she was famously absentminded. Once little Kate arrived, took off her snow boots at the door, and revealed she was wearing only one sock. “Kate! Where’s your other sock?” Puzzled yet cheerful: “Oh, I guess I forgot to put it on!” Today Kate is a high school senior on the honor roll, but just cheerful and quick with a hug. We all love her.

Yesterday afternoon Lucy, Kate, and I drove over to the vet office. I’d been told there were only two kittens left. I’m not an idiot. I knew we would bring two kittens home. We took a cat crate in the car.

Lucy and Kate were both in heaven. They played with the kittens on the floor while I made arrangements at the front desk. In under twenty minutes we were out the door.

The kittens are almost indistinguishable, silver-grey tabbies, a male and a female. “Twins!” I said. “Who are some famous twins?”

Lucy named the kittens Freddie and Flossie, for the younger pair of Bobbsey Twins. This made me smile. My father, born in 1916, read the Bobbsey Twins in the early 1920s — in fact I still have one volume of his set. I read every book in the series in the 1960s. Jon read a few in the 1990s. And Lucy read a few in the 2000s. The Bobbsey Twins are practically a family affair.

We drove the kittens to our barn. The girls happily decided that Flossie preferred Lucy and Freddie preferred Kate.

We set them up in the cat fort in the tack room. As it was 25° and they are babies, I laid in a heating pad to keep them warm. Later, while our pizza dough was rising, we drove back to check on them one last time. They seemed snug and content.

I pray they won’t be eaten by coyotes. I may not let them out of the barn until spring.


Festivities and change

November 25, 2010

We are in the midst of the big school celebration. Hundreds of guests on campus. Special breakfasts, suppers, and today the packed holiday feast.

This is the first year, ever, that Jon will not be with us. I know children grow up and leave the nest, and most kids have missed family holidays before age 23. But it’s new to me, and makes me wistful. Except for the brief stretch when we lived far away, Jon has been part of this standing-room-only Thanksgiving meal since he was born.

Here he is at age two, in 1989.

For his first five years, the only issue was keeping him awake long enough to eat.

Until Jon was a teenager, he could and did fall asleep anywhere and sleep through anything. DH and I could take him to movies and stretch him out in the aisle with my jacket as a pillow and DH’s jacket as a blanket. He’d be unconscious before the first credits were over.

Once we couldn’t get a sitter in San Francisco and had to take him to an impromptu evening business meeting in a restaurant. Jon curled up on the banquette seating, put his head on my lap under the tablecloth, and snoozed through the meal as DH and I made conversation with our guest. Jon was eleven at the time.

Of course we all want our children to grow up and be happy and independent — not to mention 6’4″. On this Thanksgiving I am certainly grateful for those blessings. But at the same time I find myself deeply nostalgic for the days when we could hoist our boy on our shoulder and those little warm arms crept around our neck.


Vet Visit

November 23, 2010

David, my vet, came today. He arrived an hour early and so my barn was messy. I hate to have people see my barn messy. My winter routine is that I milk in the morning, turn out the sheep, cows, and horse, dump the dregs of the water buckets, feed the chickens, muck all the stalls into the aisle, and then go home to strain the milk and get to work on indoor projects. I return at 3:45 to remove the dirty bedding from the aisle, spread clean shavings, refill the hay racks, put grain in mangers, and generally make the barn presentable. Then I call all the animals in for the evening at 4:30, just as darkness is starting to fall. I’m usually home, washed up, and cooking dinner by 5:30.

My appointment with David was for 2:30 PM so I planned to get there an hour beforehand for a quick clean-up. Unfortunately he showed up at 1:30. No fair! We met down at the farm. Manure piles were heaped in the aisle. I felt as embarrassed as if he’d walked into my house and found dishes in the sink and the beds unmade.

David, of course, didn’t care at all. He’d come to vaccinate Moxie and remove her horns. The latter was an interesting procedure, which I’d never witnessed before. I decided to spare you all photos.

horned Jersey cow

Why dehorn at all? Moxie’s horns were still stubby, only about three inches long, about the size of my thumb. But they would grow. I won’t have a horned animal on my farm. Not only are horns a danger to the other livestock, but they are a danger to me. I’ve always said that I take enough risks working alone with large animals without keeping one with a pitchfork mounted between her ears. A playful toss of the head could put out my eye — or worse.

We snubbed Moxie to a post in her stall. First David gave her shots of Lidocaine to numb her poll. He hit the veins on each side of her head perfectly and from then on Moxie felt nothing. After she was numb he fitted a Barnes dehorner — a tool which looks like circular loppers — over the end of a horn and cru-u-n-nch! He lopped off each horn, one at a time, down to the skull. It was very much like pulling a numbed tooth — no pain but the noise was startling and gruesome. David had warned me that in some cases blood might spurt several feet. It didn’t, but it was definitely bright red and flowing all over her head like water.

At this point David, who is a little older than I, took off his glasses to see better. Turning on a head lamp, and bending very near with tweezers, he found and pulled each tiny connective artery, stretching it thin to help the blood clot, and then plucking it out completely. He looked almost as if he were using obsessively meticulous care to remove stray pills on a sweater.

The interesting thing about dehorning an adult cow is that the horns cover the sinus cavities. With the horns removed, Moxie had two shining white holes open deep into her skull. One can see why you wouldn’t want to do this in fly season. Even in the cold, the possibility of infection seems high. David told me that if it should happen, it is a simple infection to treat — just pour in hydrogen peroxide. I pictured myself tipping a bottle of hydrogen peroxide to bubble into Moxie’s skull and hoped devoutly this would not arise. I think it will take about a month for skin and hair to grow over the sinuses.

David pasted cotton gauze over each hole and I’m to remove those pads tomorrow before they scab over and become in themselves a problem. By now Moxie was chewing hay and seemed unconcerned. I wished I could wash the stray blood off her head and ears but didn’t want to start the bleeding again, so I left it. She’ll look crusty and peculiar for a while … a tiny cow who appears to have escaped from a chainsaw massacre.

On the recommendation of Roseanna on my cow board, I talked to David about testing Moxie for BVD, Bovine Viral Diarrhea. It can become a chronic issue in cattle herds because calves contract the disease in the womb, are born with it, and then shed the infection all their lives. Roseanna and her father run a Jersey dairy in Ohio and she’d suggested it as a possibility since Moxie is so small. David explained that BVD causes unthrifty, skinny calves. We both looked at Moxie. She is tiny but quite round. (In fact I’ve become aware that I will have to tread carefully in my efforts to feed her to help her grow, not to make her fat. Fat heifers rarely breed successfully.) David said he would be happy to test Moxie for BVD but it is an expensive test and he didn’t think it a concern. On his advice I decided to pass.

David gave Moxie a 9-way vaccination and showed me how to administer an IM (intra-muscular) injection to cattle. As these are her first vaccinations, she will need a booster in three weeks. The dehorning was $15, the vaccination $4, but the drive out to the farm $60. I will be the one to give Moxie the booster. I am always cheered and slightly unnerved when David simply assumes I can do these things. Twenty years ago he never questioned that I could take care of a diabetic dog, catching and testing her urine every morning and giving her insulin shots twice a day. Sure enough, I did it for five years.

Before he left David put a long plastic OB sleeve on his arm and palpated Katika. Katika is nervous of vets and not any more thrilled with internal exams than I am. I put a little grain in her stanchion manger to soothe her. David stood there, his arm inside my cow up to the shoulder, his eyes half-closed in concentration. Then he pulled his arm out and stripped off the dirty sleeve with a snap. “She’s pregnant!”

Hooray! Still, though David deals with cows he is not a “cattle vet” per se, so I’m not 100% confident. It’s tough to feel a pregnancy at only nine weeks when you’re feeling through the rectal wall, through the uterine wall, to try to feel the third slippery thickness of an amniotic sac (in another month he would be able to feel the calf itself). However, I’m very encouraged. If all goes well, we should have a calf around June 25.

I’m always thrilled when my bumbling farm plans seem as if they might work out. I’m going to send Leon a postcard!


Old Cow, New Tricks

November 22, 2010

Thankfully, Katika’s intestinal distress is gone. I have no idea what caused it. I kept remembering David, my vet, saying last spring when Birch colicked that sometimes old horses colic “for no reason” when the weather changes. This sounded fishy to me then and still seems unlikely — there must be a reason, logic insists — but perhaps it’s the same for old cows. Our weather certainly has been changeable recently. Yesterday it was 14° F and the ground was corrugated iron, the muddy ridges in the driveway frozen into place like sculpted waves. Today and tomorrow it is due to be in the high 40s and 50s with heavy rain.

Last night at evening chores when I let all the animals into the barn I noticed as Katika swung past me that her udder was flat and empty. What? I turned to look at Rocky, her six-month-old steer calf. Had he broken his weaning ring? No, there it was in his nose. He had his face in his dinner hay and looked up at me mildly, chewing.

I got my clue when little Duke galloped up and down the barn aisle, kicking happily, instead of hurrying immediately to Katika for dinner when her stanchion was locked. He was not ravenous, as foster calves always are when mealtime finally arrives. In fact Duke had no interest in dinner at all. He cavorted and caracoled, only pausing to “kill” a hay bale, bashing it with his tiny head and falling to his knees to finish it off. Take that, dastardly bale!

My goodness! Obviously Katika must be allowing Duke to nurse in the barn paddock. What a change! I had noticed that she was softening but never, ever has she allowed a foster calf to suckle unless she was firmly held in her stanchion. I can’t quite understand what has brought about her new attitude. It’s certainly not deep affection. She will still toss Duke out of her way impatiently if he’s underfoot.

Perhaps kicking him off her bag all day long is just too much trouble for an old dame.