The Stress of Uncertainty

August 30, 2015

The new house sale closed Friday afternoon. I started packing up the apartment yesterday. Then I learned there is a possibility we may not be moving to the new house after all. I have scheduled kids to come this afternoon to help move furniture and boxes. I rented a U-Haul truck and it is sitting in the driveway.

I would be fine with not moving. But not knowing the plan is making me anxious and testy. I understand that this is a “first world problem.” Nevertheless it is hard to be part of a community where so many people have opinions and potential control over your life.

DH got back from China exhausted. His 14-hour flight had been delayed, and despite sprinting through both terminals in Chicago, he missed his connection. Thus he spent the night dozing on the floor of the airport before being able to catch a flight and drive home.

I had spent Friday driving eleven sheep to Vermont, a commitment I had made two weeks earlier. It was a lovely day but a long, long grind in a pressured time.

We are both very tired. I know we will get through this, no matter what the outcome, but I’m ready to be done with limbo.


Breathing Deeply

August 27, 2015

I learned yesterday that the move that has hovered as a question mark over our heads is now a reality. It appears I may be scheduling a U-Haul moving van for Sunday or Tuesday, depending on whether the house closing happens tomorrow or Monday.

I was on the road all day yesterday. I drive sheep to Vermont tomorrow. I go back to work next Tuesday. I am taking Lucy to look at colleges next Thursday and Friday.

Therefore today and Saturday are my days to pack everything we own. We have lived in this apartment for sixteen years and have a great deal of “stuff,” including 23 six-foot bookcases. Every room in the apartment is paneled with books.  Moreover, as both DH and I lost parents in the last decade, there are boxes of inherited things under beds and tables, and stacked in closets. The garage is crammed. I can feel my heart race and I am breathing deeply.

DH will return from China exhausted late Saturday night. I hope I will have the apartment significantly stripped and packed by then.

The house to which we are moving is absolutely lovely. We are very lucky. It should be a fabulous new chapter in all our lives for the next five years … once I get us there.


A Good Night’s Sleep

August 24, 2015

The last week has been a relentless push. We had more than 200 guests on campus for the big school and camp reunion. Lunches and cocktail parties and dinners every night. Lucy had a friend as a house guest. There were two memorial services on Saturday — which brought many old friends and acquaintances I haven’t seen in years — and a real estate walk-through. In between, I’ve mucked and milked as usual, moved fences, mowed grass. I’ve shown sheep to buyers, and loaded sheep leaving to new homes. In all of this rush I have not been sleeping, getting up at 3 AM each day.

By yesterday, when the reunion was over, I was so tired I felt a little delirious. I had the strange sensation that thoughts would rise in my mind only to slide away before I could catch them, like eels. DH was just as exhausted but he got up at 4 AM dutifully and drove to Albany to catch a plane for China. (China!) Lucy woke up with a vomiting bug and spent the day limp on the sofa. I worked on the farm all day and the two of us had a quiet supper of toast. We were both in a stupor.

This morning my eyes snapped open at 1:30, my thoughts racing with the lists of everything that must be done in this last week of summer vacation before my teaching year starts. I looked at the clock with despair, got up, and took a Benadryl to knock myself out. It worked and I slept groggily until 6.

I feel much better today. DH emailed that he is safe in China. Lucy ate an apple muffin for breakfast. I have potential sheep buyers coming to the farm this morning. I have walked the dogs and made my day’s list.

I think I am going to make it.

Becoming a Shepherd

August 20, 2015


Here is Kyle leading the rest of the sheep flock out to the north pasture yesterday morning. The geese are waddling behind, honking with enthusiasm.


Kyle has learned a great deal about sheep over the past six weeks — always lead, never chase; stay out in front so they will flock behind him, etc. He has helped catch sheep, worm them, sort them. He can set up fences and move shelters. He is a huge help.


When I told Kyle he was becoming a real shepherd, he exclaimed happily, “All I need now is a crook!”

Though my fields have slowly improved year after year, I am almost out of grass on the farm. Summer is nearly over.


Off to Vermont

August 18, 2015

Lucy and I are leaving early to go to Vermont for the day. We have dental appointments and will do a little back-to-school shopping for her afterward. This summer has been such a tiring, sweaty push that driving four hours round-trip in the car to visit the dentist feels like a vacation.

It now appears that the sale of the house to which we would be moving — if we move — may not happen until September 9, after my teaching year has started, and the very day I have to return Lucy to school in New Hampshire. The good home I had found for my cow Dorrie has fallen through. I have only two more weeks of potential work days with Kyle.  I am trying not to panic.

Today, I will enjoy my day with my girl.

The William Baffin Roses

August 16, 2015


Two years ago I splurged and bought myself two William Baffin roses. I’d had painful oral surgery, my mouth was stuffed with bloody wads of cotton, and I felt I deserved a reward. On the long drive home from Vermont, I stopped and bought the two rose plants.

William Baffins are part of the “Explorer” series of roses developed in Canada to survive their long winters. (All the roses are named for explorers: William Baffin was an English seaman who, while searching for the mythical Northwest Passage, discovered Baffin Bay in 1616.) The William Baffin rose is known as “exceptionally hardy and vigorous,” and is the only climbing rose available to those of us who garden in frozen Zone 3. It is said to grow to nine or ten feet tall, covered with bright pink flowers.

Last summer my eighteen-inch baby rose bushes bloomed nicely. I weeded them and admired them and left them alone.

To my distress, this May both plants appeared to be stone dead. All the canes on both bushes were dry leafless sticks. Coming on the heels of the horrible wave of deaths I’d faced in March and April, this was a blow. I knew I should dig them up and look into buying new plants, but I had no energy. I didn’t know what had killed them — our winter had been cold, but not unusually cold for Zone 3 — and I didn’t think I could find any William Baffin closer than Vermont, anyway. So I wrote “buy new roses” on my summer list and moved on.

In July, while mowing, I discovered that each dry skeleton bush had sent up a single, very, very thin, live runner. Over the next weeks these thin baby branches put out leaves. And yesterday I had a solitary bloom.

Obviously these roses are tough. Their regeneration inspires me. I hope on those days that I’m feeling like a dried-up stick I will remember and prove to be as resilient.

Allen’s Last Gift

August 15, 2015

My friend Allen loved presents. He loved to receive them and he loved to give them. The best presents, in either direction, were the surprises. Last summer Allen cooked up a bunch of surprises for me and he was as happy as a child.

He had no money to spend, but he had time and talent and he knew what my farm needed. He also had a son who collected metal scrap to sell. Allen would look over Damon’s latest load of junk and remove whatever caught his eye. (Damon was very patient.) Inevitably these items were old, rusty, and didn’t run. Allen would tear them down, tinker with their engines, scavenge parts from other broken machines, and eventually get them running again. Then he would call me.

“Hi, honey! I got ya somethin’!”

His last present to me was double-barreled: a 16-hp Cub Cadet 128 lawn tractor and a tow-behind brush hog.


The Cub Cadet is a heavy-duty steel work horse, no plastic on it anywhere except the seat cover. (When I looked up the serial number I found it was built in August of 1971.) By the time it reached Damon it had no mowing deck and would not start.

Allen didn’t care about the mowing deck. In his mind it would be perfect for me as a mini-tractor to tow small implements. These days many farmers use four-wheelers for this purpose, but four-wheelers are very expensive — and Allen knew I am afraid of them. However I’m perfectly at home on a lawn mower. He always laughed and scolded me for disengaging the blades on whatever mower I was using and bumping lickety-split over the fields to meet him the moment I saw his truck coming down the driveway.

Allen found a new(er) carburetor and got the Cub Cadet running. He put chains on the back tires to make up for the lack of four-wheel drive.

And then he attached the brilliant find, the tow-behind brush hog. It is a “Mo-Chief Heavy-Duty Mower.” Though Damon picked it up from a different owner, it also dates from about 1971. I found an original sales brochure online.

heavy duty mower

mows everything
Mows everything mowable! Just what I need!

I should note that when I first read the name Mo-Chief, I was puzzled. With my Southern roots, I automatically read “mo” as Southern for “more.” (“Honey, wouldn’t you like some mo’ of these biscuits?”) More Chief, I thought. Hmm. That’s strange. Of course, eventually I realized it was cute advertising spelling for “mow.” However, when Kyle punctiliously refers to the “Mo-Chief,” I find I still don’t hear the name as the maker intended.


I was thrilled when Allen and Damon delivered this great present. The combination Allen had put together was perfect for me — or would have been, if everything worked at the same time.

But we were plagued by challenges. Allen had found a used engine cover, carburetor, and pull cord for the brush hog, but the gas intake seemed faulty. It would run fine for ten minutes, sputter, and die. Allen came out several times to tinker with it.

Sometimes the blades mowed cleanly and other times they merely pushed over the grass. Allen came out again to adjust the height of the deck.


He was always patient. He knew we would get the problems ironed out.


Finally Allen suggested that maybe we needed a higher hitch welded onto the Cub Cadet. I turned to my friend Larry, a science teacher at school who also does all the building work for theater productions. Larry was sure we could cobble together something out of recycled materials.


He cut up pieces of an old steel bed frame and adjusted the height of the prospective hitch. He said cheerfully that it was a great opportunity for me to learn to weld. Larry teaches thirteen-year-olds to weld every year.


I was full of eager anticipation as I pulled on a welding mask — only to discover to my chagrin that I have zero aptitude for welding. “Follow the bead,” Larry instructed me patiently. I couldn’t even see the bead. I was completely lost. The whole experience made me very cross. Welding joins higher math as something my brain simply cannot grasp.


I am smiling in this photo because Larry has done the welding. We now had a steel hitch four inches higher.


Next it was the tractor’s turn to be problematic.

It had always been slightly difficult to change the gears smoothly. “Clutch is a little sticky,” Allen observed. (On his first test drive at home, he had run into the wall of his garage.) Now I suddenly couldn’t change gears at all or stop the tractor unless I cut the engine. Damon inspected it and diagnosed that it needed a new clutch.


At the end of last summer Mike picked up the Cub Cadet and took it home. He brought it back with a new clutch just as my school year was starting. I put all my mowers away for the winter.

Allen died.

This summer Kyle and I got out the tractor and the mower. Both started up with a healthy roar. The mower still had a baffling tendency to mow strongly for ninety minutes and then sputter to a stop, not to restart until it had rested. Far more problematically, however, it continued to mow one smooth swath followed by two or three in which the grass was simply pushed over.

Kyle and I raised the hitch a little more, with a stack of steel washers.


There was a slight improvement, but mowing was still a frustrating experience. It hurt my heart that Allen’s fabulous gift was not working out as he intended.

Then we had a lull of several weeks. I went to use the mower, yanked the pull-cord, and broke the rewind. Within a week Mike had repaired it, but while putting everything back together Mike forgot to reattach a bracket holding the oil reservoir. When Kyle began to mow, oil spilled all over the deck — and the bracket was lost in the field.

The Willard company seems to have gone out of business in 1972. My Mo-Chief actually was produced by a company called “Connur” or “Comur” (way to go, logo designer!) in New Jersey. This outfit also apparently quickly folded; I can’t find any record of it at all. Certainly there are no replacement parts available. It took Mike a while to fashion a new bracket, but a few days ago I found a note in his handwriting on the mower.


I tried it that night. It still mowed one good swath out of every three.

This was driving me crazy. I called Damon. Could he think of anything the problem might be?

“Might have a clutch in it that’s slippin’, might be a wore-out belt.”

I was distracted: a clutch? How could the mower have a clutch without a clutch pedal?

“Internal clutch,” he explained. “I’ll look at it next time I’m out there.”

That evening I stared moodily at the 1971 advertisement for the Mo-Chief. mo chief diagram

Reversible wheel arms for rough terrain cutting! (That’s handy to know.) V-belt drive! How interesting — I’d recently had to buy a V-belt for the little mower in the sheep pasture. In July, Kyle had been mowing high grass at the bottom of Betty’s field with the Craftsman and the strain of the heavy cutting stretched out the belt. The mower began to merely push over the grass.

Push over the grass?!

At last the penny dropped. The belt, the belt, the belt!

The next morning I stopped Mike in his rounds at school. “Would you mind checking?”

Mike came by the farm after work, took out his wrenches, and unbolted the deck.

“Well, you sure do got belt problems!” he exclaimed. There were two belts. One was missing a large chunk and the other was completely weather-checked.


Yesterday Mike replaced the belts. I fired up the tractor and mower, and tears came to my eyes. We have found the answer.

The Mo-Chief now mows a clean swath, four feet wide — every time.


I am so thrilled. It’s hard to explain the intense pleasure I feel, to know Allen’s last gift is now working.

I know he would be very happy, too.


The Bunkhouse

August 14, 2015

… is now a materials shed (and in winter, also lawn tractor storage). I imagine eventually I will have finished all the long-term building projects on this property and have no need of materials storage, but for now the repurposed bunkhouse is very satisfying.

Six weeks ago there was lumber stacked thigh-high in the farm garage, and overflow stacked in the mudroom, in addition to the various tarped piles outdoors. The mess was distressing, having to climb over it with my creaky knees was never easy, and I lost track of exactly what pieces were in the pile. Moreover, if we are to move to a furnished house in two weeks (still up in the air), I will need the heated farm garage to store most of our possessions. So I had to come up with a plan.

In between other projects, Kyle and I have chipped away at the problem, an hour at a time. We cleared out the bunkhouse — sweating in the airless space under a hot tin roof. I built simple braces to use as lumber racks, we planned the layout, and Kyle put them up.

Today we finally finished sorting and stacking the lumber and scrap plywood, and stowing away the rolls of house wrap and roof underlayment. Another big project finished!


Kyle has become as addicted as I am to the joy of crossing things off the list.

A Bonfire

August 13, 2015

Yesterday the weather report said sunny with 40% chance of showers. We had heavy downpours at intervals all day long. At one point, Kyle and I had escaped into the old truck and were sitting, soaked, listening to the rain drum on the roof. I told Kyle what a friend told me years ago: “This is what 40% chance of showers looks like in the Adirondacks.” An hour later, during another cloudburst, I asked him, “Do you think that instead they meant it would rain 40% of the day?”

Under the wet circumstances we were triumphant when we got our bonfire started. We’d been building the burn pile for a week, stacking last winter’s fallen branches and small dead trees, then throwing on various other items: scraps of garden shed siding and 2x4s plus a few things that have turned up when we began excavating my garage: a box of canceled checks dating back to 1985, broken wooden furniture, a couple of rotten wooden doors. I’d even added Jon’s old bunk bed.

The latter had been a hard decision. I bought the bed in Sausalito in 1996 for $75, from an ad in the paper. It was a big, solid, functional bunk bed, not a pretty one. It had belonged to an elderly veteran. Jon at nine years old longed for a bunk bed; I’d found this one, hunted up twin mattresses, and bought matching blue plaid bedspreads. I fitted it out with lights above and below for bedtime reading and a homemade wooden bar (stained to match) to keep him from rolling off the upper bunk. But now as I looked at the frame and thought about storing it (no space) or selling it (no time), I realized that maybe I could just let it go. Jon had slept on it for five years and Joanne’s son Alex another two or three — I’d surely got my money’s worth. Neither Jon nor Lucy would want the bed. It was special to me only because of the sweet memories of my tousle-haired little boy.

Kyle and I took the 3/4″ plywood bed boards to use as the floor of the garden shed attic and put the frame on the burn pile.

Kyle had covered the center of the pile with tarp a few days earlier to keep it dry. Now we peeled off the tarp, stuffed paper shavings bags under the brush, and lit it. I had forgotten my camera so these photos were taken when bonfire was half finished — despite regular drenchings from the sky.

I have never yet met a boy who doesn’t like to “manage” a fire.


All the things that scare me about a big, leaping fire seem to be simply invigorating to a boy.

I’m sure it has something elemental to do with power.



August 12, 2015


Rick the hay man stopped by with forty bales last week. He brought with him George, one of the elderly brothers who own the farm where Rick works. They were discussing the hay crop. It’s very poor all over this area of upstate New York.

George shrugged. His smile was missing teeth. “Rain in May makes lots of hay.” He shook his head. “No rain in May this year.”

Not a drop. Allen’s pond dried to a dusty crater. Instead we had rain in June and July, so what little hay there was could not be cut and baled. Good hay will be hard to find for winter. The price will go up.

I mentioned to Rick that it was almost time for me to wean Moxie’s calf and get a bull calf for next year. I had brought home a bull calf in April, to be a foster twin to Moxie’s calf, Skippy. Jif died five days later, killed accidentally by Moxie, during the horrible week that I think of as Hell Week. (I’ll write about it someday.) I’ve never lost a calf before and hope never to again. At any rate, life was so sad and hard at the time that I had told Melissa at the dairy that I would wait a few months before getting another.

Now, I thought, I was ready.

“What’cha gonna do,” Rick inquired, “now that the dairy has gone out of business?”


I couldn’t believe it. However the next day I wrote to Melissa and it is true. A few weeks after I spoke to her in June, my wonderful family dairy forty minutes away shut down after two generations in business. Sickness, the bad hay crop, outdated equipment, sheer weariness. They couldn’t keep up the struggle to pay the bills. The husband will raise hay and heifers, the wife will get a job off the farm. All the cows were sold.

This marks the end of an era for me, as well.

I have been raising Jersey bull calves for twelve years. I am good at it. Melissa once told me I was the only person to whom they would sell bull calves in winter — no one else could keep them alive in the cold. (They would have given me the calves, but I insisted on paying the $20 pittance: I know how tough farming is.)

Without bull calves, I cannot get my cows bred. I have planned to sell Dorrie. It appears Moxie is not bred. (I should have a definitive report soon from the lab in Oregon.) Though I will investigate options, this may be the end of my family milk cow days.

I know life moves in chapters, and chapters always end. For me there has been the chapter of being the child of my parents. The chapter of raising toddlers myself. DH and I had the young houseparent chapter, the three-year Virginia chapter, the three-year California chapter. Then the chapter of returning to the school with DH as headmaster. In 2002 I began my farming chapter. In 2003 I found Katika, my first cow. In 2008, I was laid off from my teaching job in the recession, and the Allen chapter began.

Now my parents are gone, Katika is gone, Allen is gone. My dearest friend from my young houseparent days died of cancer at 53 two years ago; her husband died of cancer this year. My closest friend and mentor from the Virginia days is dying of cancer now. My beloved toddlers have vanished — one child is grown and gone, the other is a senior in high school. I am shrinking my herd and flock severely, saying goodbye to animals I’ve raised tenderly from birth. It seems likely we will be moving out of this apartment where we have lived for sixteen years.

Chapters are closing.

I know this is natural and normal. However right now I’m feeling melancholy, crowded by endings. At the farm I find myself listening for Allen’s whistling. At the apartment I pack up my kids’ picture books, the sea glass from our beach vacations, the Laura Ashley sheets my mother gave me early in my marriage, and my throat is tight with nostalgia.

I remind myself that there will be new chapters ahead. I know the really scary time will be when there are no more pages. And that could come any day.

Two weeks ago my friend in Virginia, who barely has the strength to sit up, wrote to me, “Just remember to keep doing the things that make you happy or feel good, because life is short.”