Mike is 60

April 30, 2011

Mike in his old jacket, driving the dump run

My friend Mike works in maintenance at school. It was ten years ago when I discovered that he had no living family. We were in the staff room at work and he mentioned that his 50th birthday was coming up.

“Will you be having a party?” I asked idly, pulling mail from my box.

“No, I don’t have any family.”

I stopped rifling through envelopes and looked up. “You don’t have any family?”

“Nope. It was just my mom and me, and she’s gone.”

“Really? No other family?” It was inconceivable to me. I am one of five children and umpteen cousins, nieces, nephews, and in-laws.

“Nope. Nobody.”

I was shocked. “Oh, Mike, that’s terrible. I’ll be your adopted little sister.”

He gave a big smile. “Can we sign papers?”

From that day forward, Mike has called me Sis. (This solved the problem of my name, which, like Allen and his son, he could never quite get right.) Mike has come to every family party, graduation, and holiday meal for a decade. We’ve become close friends. He is also my right-hand man. He fixes all my engines and flat tires, plows the farm for me, and since DH is usually working or on the road, it is Mike I call whenever I need an extra pair of hands. He’s even driven carpool for my children.

Mike has a wonderful giggle and a wonderful hug. He fits under my arm, and loves to joke how his “little sister” towers over him. Once last winter I was deep in a hallway conversation with a new staff member when Mike walked by and teasingly gave me a hip-check. “Oops, sorry, Sis!” I barely paused in my conversation but reached out, pulled him into a hug in the crook of my arm, and knuckle-rubbed the top of his head while he giggled helplessly. The new staff member looked astonished.

And now he was going to turn 60. A month ago I began making plans. Originally I thought I’d throw him a party, but Sheila, the school secretary, pointed out that it was really the children who mattered to Mike. So I got permission from Mike’s boss and the rest of the administration to make a presentation to Mike at an all-school lunch.

The kitchen crew loved the plan, and surreptitiously found out Mike’s favorite meal — homemade pizza with butterscotch brownies for dessert. The menu was set.

I thought perhaps we could find a photo of Mike with his current student basketball team (he coaches after work). My friend Tom, however, who teaches photography and woodshop, took this simple idea and ran with it, laboring for weeks to produce a beautiful framed collage of Mike with most of his teams over the last ten years.

Meanwhile I bought Mike a new black Carhartt jacket and had it embroidered with the school logo on one side of the chest and MIKE on the other. (To get the right size, I gave him a hug and peeked at the label at the back of his neck.)

I made a giant four-page birthday card on index stock and carried it around to every office and classroom, so everyone at the school could sign it with messages. To all the children I repeated, “Shhh! It’s a secret! Don’t say a word! Don’t let him guess you even know it’s his birthday!” This need for concealment caused many giggles and one blurted scream of “Oh, no! It’s Mike!” when Mike walked by carrying trash. Mike looked puzzled but walked on.

Yesterday was the big day.  A group of excited children rang a bell during the meal, calling for silence, and announced his birthday. Everyone sang while Mike grinned and blushed. Then I called him to the front of the dining room and presented the photo collage and jacket. He was completely choked up, with tears in his eyes. The community cheered and clapped. Joy and love were everywhere.

It was perfect. Happy birthday, dearest Mike.

Mike and me, Christmas 2009


April 29, 2011

DH left in a thunder and lightning storm for New York City yesterday. We weren’t sure he would be able to get down out of the mountains, as so many valley roads were closed due to flooding. An hour after he drove out, the state began closing roads up here in the High Peaks. The rain, wind, and racing water were incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it. A former official of the Adirondack Park Agency told me he believed it was a 100-year flood.

We’ve had 247 inches of snow this winter — a “great” snow year in a place where the town’s livelihood depends on ski tourism. There was still a significant snow pack in the mountains, and a sudden rise in temperature to 70°, coupled with days of pounding rain, melted this pack in a rush. Water poured down the steep slopes in instant waterfalls.

Our school apartment backs to an area that is mildly swampy in spring — yesterday morning it was suddenly a broad river, lapping the apartment deck. The school horse pasture was a cresting lake. The playing field was a pond. I saw the head of maintenance in a drainage ditch alongside the school driveway near our house. He was in cold muddy water to his waist. The culvert under the drive could not handle the run-off and they were trying to pump the water over the driveway to prevent the current from ripping out the gravel road. The road was torn out anyway.

On the state highway, torrents of water overwhelmed the storm drains, ripped through macadam and raced down each side of the road. Another maintenance crew was struggling in the pelting rain to open a choked drainage ditch opposite the school driveway with a backhoe.

The state D.O.T. was updating area road-closing bulletins every ten minutes. Schools and bridges closed. By mid-morning the highways through both mountain notches closed.

The night before I’d heard something ominous with my truck brakes and made an appointment in Saranac Lake to have them checked. I’d just replaced the brakes entirely in October.

Now the garage owner asked me, “Do you think you can get here? I’ve had some cancellations.”

“I think so.”

I drove slowly, the truck buffeted by wind and rain. There were emergency workers and orange traffic cones everywhere — many cones toppled by the wind. The road to Larry’s barn was closed: a bridge had been ripped out. I made a mental note to call him to find out how he was.

The Ausable River roared inches under the steel bridge at the Olympic ski jumps and only one vehicle was allowed to cross at a time. The horse pasture bordering the eastern side was invisible under rushing whitecaps.

Lake Flower had risen to flood the grassy parks and wash over the edge of Route 86. The lower parts of downtown Saranac Lake were under churning water. Revolving strobes from emergency vehicles flickered while men in rain gear and rubber boots splashed through the water to stack sandbags. I was told by one store owner whose business was flooded six inches deep that it had been declared a disaster area.

I spent three hours waiting for my brake work. It turns out a piece of #2 stone from the farm had shot up to become caught in my brake drum (?), jamming them. The pads had worn down to bare metal. Luckily it was all covered by warranty.

By the time I was ready to leave, the rain had stopped, the wind died, and the sun was breaking through the clouds. I called Larry: he and his horses had been marooned, and a farm down the road had walked their horses up to Larry’s barn to get them to higher ground, but already the water was starting to recede.

As I drove home it was hard to imagine the morning’s ominous danger. Though the lakes and rivers were still high and rushing, in the sunshine everything merely looked freshly washed. The wet spruces sparkled. The grass was suddenly green. Daffodils appeared to have sprouted six inches.

At the farm the only lasting flood damage I’ve found was to the driveway, now riven with gullies. I walked around Leon’s pond, checking, thinking of the local businesses struggling to dry out behind sand bags, and all the poor people in Alabama and across the South, made homeless or killed by devastating tornadoes. How terrifying and capricious nature can be.

And then I came across a lovely sight — a pussy willow blooming at the side of the pond, still glistening with raindrops. I haven’t seen a wild pussy willow since I was a child in Connecticut, when my mother cut a wand to show the furry catkins to my little sister and me. And now one had suddenly appeared at my pond. (“You didn’t plant it?” Lucy asked later. “Nope. Planted by God,” I said.) I was so moved and pleased I almost had tears in my eyes.

In the midst of news of fear and danger, a tiny reminder of beauty.

My Work is Cut Out for Me

April 28, 2011

Rain is falling steadily, cascading from the apartment downspouts, and thunder is growling in the distance. The last snow in the woods is melting fast. There are flood alerts and road closings in the valley.

Yesterday afternoon it was dry and I walked all over my land, revisiting it after the six-month winter. I always forget what a depressing shock this can be at this time of year, before anything is green and growing to distract me.

So much work to be done! Work that needs to be done right now and work that will take years to accomplish — even if I had a tractor, hired help, and enough money for lime and seed, which I don’t.

Exactly a year ago this week, Allen was very tired, stumping the back acres with an excavator. He told me that the work was so slow and the project so vast that it was overwhelming: “I can’t look up.” Yesterday I made myself “look up.” Allen was right.

I was glum as I counted the trees down over my perimeter fences (five), noted the torn fence lines and frost-heaved, sagging posts, and stepped over endless rocks, broken logs, and roots in my pitiful “pasture.”

I made mental lists. I know from experience that almost everything is “do-able.” I simply have to take a tip from Allen and focus on one small, manageable area at a time.

Here is the sweep of ground alongside the driveway leading to the barn. (Click to enlarge.)

To make it grassy, I must first pull all the rocks smaller than a Labrador Retriever. This will require a five-foot steel pry bar (what a wonderful idea for Mother’s Day!) and about four hours of picking and tossing small rocks into my truck, then tossing them all out again into the bottom of the old pond bed. Then another hour to haul the bigger rocks away wrapped with a chain. Then another hour or two to shovel and rake the ground smooth. Then seeding, and covering lightly with hay. See? Only a day’s muddy grunt work and that project will be done.

It is only daunting because I see a day’s work everywhere I look. It feels overwhelming, but it is silly to waste time being emotional. I have written to ask D. if he wants to be hired to cut the fallen trees. If not I will ask Mike, and it will have to wait. Everything else I can whittle away slowly.

The first step is always the list.

Wood Frogs

April 27, 2011

On Easter evening Lucy and I went on the computer to look up the frogs in the swamp behind our house, to learn more about them.

They are wood frogs. Here is a great short video of wood frogs singing. Don’t they sound like chuckling water or quacking ducks?

This is a spring sound, like the trilling of peepers. All these frogs are calling for mates.

The neat thing about wood frogs is that they are one of the only creatures on Earth that freeze solid in winter — no breathing, no heartbeat, functionally dead — and then thaw in the spring and “come back to life.”

Nova did a three-minute special on them for PBS.

It is amazing to me to sit here typing and think that every frog voice I am hearing belongs to an animal who was a chunk of ice for six months.

How appropriate to first hear them on Easter!

Dried Off

April 26, 2011

My cow Katika is now officially dried off and on her annual two-month vacation. No more fresh milk until she calves (knock wood!) at the end of June.

I had weaned Rocky, Katika’s own yearling calf, in early March before we went to Florida, when the weather finally felt safe for him to have the weaning ring in his nose. Then I weaned her foster bull calf, Duke, at the beginning of April. Since Katika barely tolerates foster calves, to wean them is blessedly simple. It merely requires not letting the calf out while she’s locked in her stanchion. Et voilà, he’s weaned.

The following week I began to decrease how much milk I took every day. It amazed me how quickly her production fell off. Three gallons one day; one gallon the next. I stopped milking altogether on Good Friday. Yesterday I noticed her front quarters were quite full. When I felt her bag it was warm and solid and meaty, like a baby’s bottom. A dried-off udder should be loose and floppy. Too much heat would indicate mastitis. I milked just to be sure everything was OK.

She was fine. I only took about three quarts. When I got home I strained it and jarred it as usual, only realizing on looking at it, that of course the greyish milk was not good. It looked just like what it was — milk that had sat around in a warm place (her udder) for three days. I dumped it.

The last milk in her bag should resorb over the coming week.

Simply with weaning, Katika is looking much better. Her winter coat is almost completely shedded and she is regaining her gloss. Though I can still see her ribs, her tell-tale short ribs and spine are properly covered with a light layer of fat. For a while there she had been reminding me of a moth-eaten old carpet propped up on sticks, so this is very rewarding. My friend who grew up on a dairy farm had been worried by how much grain I was feeding her (about 12 pounds a day). Though this isn’t a huge amount for a dairy cow, it made him nervous. Now I will cut her down to half that. In another two or three weeks we will have grass and she will happily graze all day, building up her reserves.

The forecast is for dark skies and rain every day this week, but the temperature is not due to fall below freezing. I imagine the rain thawing the soil and calling up the grass, and I don’t mind.

Drying off my cow is always a time of mixed emotions. On the one hand, I’m relieved: no more milking! One less chore every day. On the other hand: no more milk!

It will be strange to make my way to the dairy case in the supermarket.

A Beautiful Easter

April 25, 2011

This was the first Easter in 23 years that I didn’t have a child slipping out of bed early to find a new book and chocolate eggs in an Easter basket. However they were both home by noon.

Lucy was our quick-change artist. Over the weekend she had been on top of Mt. Marcy, with crampons, high winds, hail, swirling clouds, and frozen hair. Here she is after showering hurriedly and jumping into her Easter dress.

With friends old and new, we were a group of ten around the table. I served homegrown ham with a maple syrup glaze, rosemary leg of lamb (also homegrown), asparagus, roasted baby potatoes, Caesar salad, whole wheat dinner rolls, and apple cider. My friend Alison brought a beautiful fruit salad. For dessert I baked two key lime pies.

These gatherings are always relaxed good fun. Don, who is 85 and a gourmet, brought printed instructions for DH on how to carve a leg of lamb. The result was that Alison’s husband Tom kindly carved both the lamb and the ham.

It was a great feast with wonderful company.

Lucy and I had set the table before everyone arrived, to the accompaniment of Christ the Lord is Risen Today, with organ, cymbals, and trumpets. In my opinion the point of a joyous hymn is to be joyful! — so we had played it loud enough to rattle the silverware, singing along.

The perfect coda came in the quiet after the meal was over and we were all savoring coffee and tea, when for the first time this frozen spring we heard frogs chuckling to themselves in the bog behind the house.

Happy Easter! Happy spring!

An Accident

April 23, 2011

A man who has been kind to me for many years has suffered an accident. Tom, who owns the heavy equipment rental place in town, has broken his neck.

Business has been so sparse that he and his wife thought they could not go on vacation this spring. At the last moment they found cheap tickets to Hawaii. Tom was hit by a pounding wave and is now on a respirator, paralyzed. Twelve flight hours from home.

I can’t stop thinking about this accident. Ever since my dearest friend died in a car wreck at 19 back in 1981 I have been terrified by the randomness of disaster — how life can change in the blink of an eye, how useless plans and lists are in the end. With DH and his mountaineering I try to block the anxiety by not allowing myself to think about it. When it comes to my children I have to force myself to peel my protective hands away. Lucy left yesterday for a two-day hiking trip on snowshoes in stinging sleet and howling wind, saying kindly, “Don’t worry, Mom.”

But I always worry. It seems that every day you hear a dreadful story that strikes a chill in your heart.

And now it is Tom. Tom is about DH’s age, tall and rangy and smiling. Back in 2005 it was Tom who alerted me to a logging crew shut down by the state across the highway from my property. Though he was doing himself out of a lucrative machine rental, he advised, “Give ’em a call. Might save yourself a lot of money.” That one tip not only saved me at least twenty thousand dollars but led directly to Allen and his son and years of help with projects.

Tom has listened to my ideas, given me endless suggestions, and allowed me to schedule and pay off my bills for heavy equipment creatively over time. Last year I would go into the store every month the day after my credit card flipped to a new cycle.

“It’s that day again,” I’d say, looking woeful as I pulled out my card.

“My favorite day!” Tom would reply, his grin flashing.

Tom and I had plenty of conversations, leaning against the store counter, but it is something he said once while delivering an excavator that has always stuck in my mind. I had been bemoaning the lack of topsoil on my property, how the land was nothing but lunar rocks and gravel. Tom began reminiscing about running an earth-moving company down in New Jersey, a land of deep, rich soils.

“Can you believe it?” he said. “There was so much topsoil, to get it out of our way on a project we’d just dump it and bury it. Topsoil that had taken thousands of years to create.” He shook his head. “It was a sin!”

“You were young then. Probably you didn’t know.”

“No, we knew.” He repeated firmly, “It was a sin.”

I’ve always liked Tom.

Though I’ve never known him outside of work, Tom has been a regular feature in my life for the last six years. He has been one of those men I could call and ask, “What do you think?” of whatever hare-brained idea I’d come up with for the farm. To have this reliable pillar suddenly and catastrophically struck down is unnerving to me. I find myself thinking of him and his wife on and off through every day.

What will happen to the business? How will his wife even get him home? My mind boggles as I contemplate all the challenges ahead of them, the disorienting shock they must be feeling. I have written to offer any help I can provide behind the scenes in the office.

In the meantime Tom is constantly in my prayers.

Spring Tease

April 22, 2011

28° F and windy yesterday with a fresh inch of snow. This morning it is 15°. Blech! I am tired of frozen water buckets, scraping icy windshields, and snow blowing down my collar. I am ready for blue skies, daffodils, and peepers trilling in the pond!

Maybe TOO Friendly

April 21, 2011

I admit it. I am absolutely foolish about my barn cat, Freddie. I have never known such a friendly cat. He appears to be part Labrador Retriever. His favorite thing is to climb up my coveralls and get in my arms, the more easily to rub his whiskers in my neck. When I’m measuring grain in the tack room he will twine himself around my legs so insistently that I accidentally step on him — which never fazes him at all.

His sister, Flossie, is a normal cat. She will leap into my lap to be petted, or walk along the top of the stall walls where I’m mucking, hoping I’ll stop to give her a scratch. But in general she’s properly aloof. If a stranger comes to the barn, she vanishes.

Freddie, however, has never met a stranger. When deliveries come he is immediately on hand to make new buddies. He oversees the unloading of shavings from the lumberyard. He jumps from the hayloft down on top of the hay load to inspect Rick. He flirted so outrageously with the girlfriend of the man who bought my ram in December that she said impulsively, “Oh, can we take him home?”

If you’re ever tired and a little lonely, Freddie is the perfect tonic.

On Monday he was helping me set out the morning grain, as usual. While he tried to climb into my arms, I lifted the lid to the grain bin. And there it was. A mouse in the sweet feed.

I haven’t seen a mouse in the barn all winter. I had assumed the two barn kittens were successfully on patrol. And, indeed, glimpsing the mouse, Freddie’s expression sharpened. He leapt down into the barrel.

Poor mouse, I thought to myself. I went on with my chores.

Imagine my surprise when I returned to the tack room twenty minutes later and found Freddie still in the barrel — along with the mouse. Freddie was not pouncing on the mouse, pinning it with his claws, or even batting at it. He was simply pivoting on his haunches, gazing at it with delight. What a cute little pal!

The mouse, of course, was frantically scurrying in circles around Freddie, leaping at the sides of the barrel. At various times he leapt on top of Freddie, trying to get higher in order to get away. Freddie was charmed. What a neat game!

I heard a strange rattle. The barrel was reverberating. I put my ear down closer. Yes, Freddie was purring.

I hate to see any animal in fear, even a mouse despoiling my grain. I was just thinking I’d have to intervene, when Flossie arrived.

“What are you playing at, Freddie?”

Flossie jumped down into the barrel. When I returned after filling the water trough, the mouse and both cats were gone.

Dear Freddie with his extraordinary warmth and friendliness is a true gift in my life. However I must confess that I am also glad to have practical Flossie.

Last Lamb

April 20, 2011

My youngest ewe, Chai, who won’t be a year old until the end of the month, lambed yesterday afternoon. At lunch time my friend Larry and I had leaned against the stall wall, watching her. I told Larry I thought we’d have a lamb by evening chores, and so it was. A tiny ram lamb, only 5 lbs 10 oz — half the size of my largest lamb at birth. However the little guy was vigorous and alert and eager to suck. Chai’s mothering instincts kicked in quickly and I have few worries.

It is a relief to have the last lamb safely on the ground. No losses this lambing season — knock wood! It is due to rain and snow most of this week, but by next week Chai and her boy should be safely integrated into the flock. She has been separated, with Briar, in the lambing stall for almost a month.

I had left Briar penned with Chai, even after Briar’s lamb was strong and bouncy, to keep Chai calm while awaiting birth. Chai is extremely flighty and nervous and she would have become frantic if left alone.  However I’d felt I could not risk Chai lambing in the melée of the group stall. Trying to separate her from a group of twenty sheep when she was fresh from the pain of labor and flushed with crazy-making hormones would have been nearly impossible.

In the end it all worked out fine. Briar and her lamb moved seamlessly into the flock last night, and after a single worried bleat, Chai forgot her anxiety and became absorbed in her new baby.

Twelve lambs — and we are done for the season. Only three sets of twins, not a great average from nine pregnant ewes, but it is a young flock. Three of those ewes are yearlings, which makes the numbers a bit more respectable, and two of the others are first-time mothers. With luck, a bit more age, and continued good nutrition, next year should be better.

But for now I am pleased to have everyone healthy and safe.