Dressed in Rags

October 28, 2018

I crack myself up sometimes. A few days ago I took this murky photo of myself in the mudroom mirror. (The photo is murky because the Lifeproof cover on my old phone is so scratched all photos appear as if taken underwater.) I’m not really a “selfie” person and don’t know how to take them, but DH was away and I wanted to show how cold it has been this week. Over my shirt and pants I am wearing a sweatshirt, a fleece neck warmer, quilted coveralls, a watch cap, and my hooded barn jacket.

This barn jacket is about eight years old and has seen better days.

Just last week I stopped by the school office briefly while wearing it (it was not during my teaching time and I’d dashed over between chores). The school secretary, my friend, said dryly, “Maybe time for a new coat?” I’d replied, “This jacket is just for the barn. I think I can get another winter out of it.”

Back in 2002, when I first started doing barn chores twice a day, I was absurdly proud of wearing out clothes. I had been a child of the suburbs. I outgrew clothes, I didn’t wear them out as a result of physical toil. The first pair of work boots I went through I could hardly bear to part with. They were a symbol to me of my discipline and sweat. I had to store them in the garage for six months until they lost their magic totem status and I could see them as the trash they were, and throw them away.

I think this may be a common phenomenon. At farming conferences, I have noticed that some presenters are clean and tidy, and others are in worn and even ripped clothes. It’s my observation that the latter are almost invariably people like me, former children of the suburbs who sport their fraying work clothes as badges of honor. Conversely my dear friend Allen, who grew up in the early 1940s in poverty, wore Dickies on the job but for public display put on a dress shirt with a bolero tie.

In any event, after taking the selfie I stooped and put on my work boots (they were Allen’s; I wear them and think of him and all the jobs we did together while his feet were in them; sadly, between us, we’ve nearly worn them out… one sole is rotting off). Then I zipped up my jacket, put on my mittens, and went to chores.

An hour later when I returned from chores — hurrying, as usual, to change and get to my classes on time — I could not get my barn jacket off. The zipper was stuck. I looked in the mirror — was anything caught in it? Nope. Often you can force a zipper. I yanked at my lapels with both hands. Nope. The zipper didn’t budge. Of course I had zipped it almost to my throat. I removed my glasses and every other obstruction and carefully wiggled out of the jacket, pulling it off over my head, the zipper scraping my face. Despite being harassed and late, I couldn’t help laughing a little that only a short time earlier I’d been posing before the same mirror. That’ll teach me to try to take a selfie!

After work I examined the zipper more closely. I tried for ten minutes to free it. No luck.

OK, I give up. Time for a new barn jacket.

I Need to Get Over It

October 27, 2018

It is snowing. According to weather reports, we may get 5-8″ of snow. I have been outside for four hours in the cold, rushing to get sheep netting taken down and rolled, covers cut off summer shelters, water troughs put away. House guests are on their way, arriving in a few hours. I have to tidy the messy house and make beds.

However through the blowing flakes I just noticed that my builder has been here in the last few days while I was at work. He has taken his ladder off the roof, and removed all his scaffolding.

I have not heard from him in over a month. When I wrote to him three weeks ago to say the chimney brick had arrived, he did not respond.

It’s hard to explain how betrayed I feel. He was here! He was on my roof! When he hasn’t bothered to communicate with me!

DH is a patient person but he is puzzled by my reaction. “Isn’t it clear he’s not going to do the work? Why do you keep believing that he will redeem himself?”

Just the other day I found and reread the email from a year ago when the builder told me he would return to finish the work in May.

I believe in redemption. But this bitter feeling of betrayal has dripped poison in my heart for six months and I have to let it go.

Cold and Grey and Stinky

October 25, 2018

The weather is cold and damp and grey. Not inspiring. I have been trying to force myself to take advantage of every available moment to tackle the job of mucking deep bedding out of the sheep stalls. It is slow going. I did use some lumber my builder had left outdoors for a year to make a temporary ramp into the back of the dump trailer Larry lent to me.

I have the boards balanced on assorted junk around the barn, including old tires.

Not elegant but hey, it works. I have loaded the trailer twice and dumped it, between showers of rain and snow. Here I am after work yesterday (before rushing off for a funeral) in the back pasture.

No, the back field did not get mowed in August. Yes, that is discouraging.

I pull the trailer through the snowy weeds to a likely spot that could use a little nourishment…

And then I dump the heavy load of mulch hay and manure in a heap.

The first time I tried this maneuver, last weekend, the box rose and the trailer tongue popped entirely off the hitch, lunging forward and scaring me considerably. Thankfully I was not hurt. I hadn’t realized the trailer required a 2 5/8″ ball hitch; I had used a 2″ ball.

I thought of calling Mike. I thought of calling Damon. Instead I waited for my heart to stop racing and then figured out how to solve it myself. I lowered the box, unfastened everything, found and installed my 2 5/8″ hitch, and backed into position to reattach the trailer. I won’t make that mistake again.

In the meantime I have to pump up the truck tires with every trip — and pump up my willpower to pull on my smelly coveralls, swing the pickaxe, fork the stinking deep bedding into the wheelbarrow, and push the heavy loads out of the barn and up the ramp.

With my busy schedule and the depressing weather, it feels as if the willpower part might be the toughest.

A New Job

October 24, 2018

I have taken on a new job at school, teaching an extra class. I resisted, but I was asked to do so by an old friend with a combination of pleading and flattery — “No one could do it as well as you!”

I resisted because my schedule was perfect as it was: a comfortable level of stress, predictable days, time to refine and improve my already existing classes. Why would I take on an extra 1:1 reading tutorial which would need me to acquire an entirely new skillset? Well — I like the child, I want to be a team player (and perhaps improve my chances for a job after DH leaves), I like a challenge, and — I can almost never say no.

The result is that I am spending a couple of hours every day reading and researching how best to help this boy. I was already juggling a daunting list of school work and farm chores. Now managing my time feels almost impossible. Every minute is spoken for.

Meanwhile the weather forecast is for snow almost every day this week, the farm is nowhere near ready for winter (fencing, mowers, and shelters scattered everywhere) I’m still selling sheep, DH and I have two memorial services to attend, he is on the road two other days, we each are showing evening movies to students on two different nights, and we have houseguests arriving for the weekend.

It’s all fine, the new work is rewarding, but I’m moving so quickly my hair is practically on fire.


A Quick Stop Home

October 22, 2018

Lucy was home this weekend for a brief mid-semester break. It was hard as both DH and I had to work and then had additional work commitments Friday and Saturday nights, but early Sunday morning we celebrated her 21st birthday (which actually occurs in another week) with gifts and birthday donuts before she returned to college.

It was the typical family birthday, mostly used books, but also some ammunition for her biathlon rifle and new strings for her guitar. (We call that being well-rounded.) Our friend Gary had kindly wangled a couple of signed ski posters for her dorm room wall.

Almost before we knew it, Lucy had packed up her books, loaded her skis into her friend’s car, and was on her way.

Twenty-one years old and taller than I am! Reading books on philosophy and international political economy! Just the other day she was sitting in my lap while I read aloud Billy and Blaze.

Where does the time go?

Garden Shed Doors

October 21, 2018

Over the summer of 2015, I built myself a garden shed. After getting the walls up, I replaced some broken glass and installed the window. Next I began to arrange the storage.

My plan was to make a place for everything. Rolled fence netting and fence posts were stored in the gable attic and tools lined the walls.

I built shelves on the east end.

I installed a roof cap and nailed battens over the exterior cracks between the boards.

Then I got word that we were moving out of our school housing to a temporary home on a lake. Working mostly alone, in two weeks I packed up our family’s life of sixteen years and with the help of a hired boy moved 3/4 of it into storage. At the same time I was driving Lucy to Maine to look at colleges. My school year began.

There was no time to finish the garden shed. I tacked a tarp over the door opening for the winter.

Doors for the garden shed were on my list for the summer of 2016. However Lucy graduated from high school, I was deep in meetings about building our retirement house, and, between driving carpools, trying to teach Lucy to drive. My first-choice contractor quit only days before the house project was supposed to begin. I hired a new contractor. Jon and Amanda’s wedding took place in Vermont.

In November of that year I measured the shed doorway, collected boards, and sawed them into pieces.

I laid everything out in the tight floor space of the packed garage.

Then I was swept away by my school year and the daily unfolding drama of building the house. Again I tacked a tarp over the doorway for the winter.

In the summer of 2017, I moved us from the lake house into the construction zone that was our new home. No stairs or railings, one toilet at ground level, a kitchen sink, and a hot plate. No exterior door knobs, so book boxes stacked in front of the doors to keep the dogs in. Cardboard taped to all the floors for months, construction dust, fire alarms going off in the night. A flood.

It was not a time when I could think about the garden shed. Once more I tacked a tarp over the doorway for the winter.

This spring our school tore down a small outbuilding. About five years ago a friend of mine had built stout doors for this structure, and with students had carved the school’s logo into the wood. I saw the giant doors leaning against a wall. What was going to happen to the doors? I inquired. I was told they’d probably go on the burn pile. I asked if I could take them instead. Sure, and did I need any help? Of course I said no, I could do it.

I’m foolish that way.

The 7-foot-3 inch tall, 2.5-inch thick doors were incredibly heavy. They were right at the edge of what I could handle safely, and as I stood each one up and walked it tiny step by tiny step to my truck I was aware it could get away from me and slap me flat or fall to smash my truck tail lights. I held my breath. I made two trips back to the farm, one with each door, backing my truck to the garden shed and leaning the doors against the wall. They were more than a foot too tall, and a foot too wide. I put cut down the garden shed doors on my summer list.

Last week, when it was too cold to paint, I finally got to the job. I laid the doors out on garden carts and strung a half dozen heavy-duty extension cords to run electricity from the house. I cut 10″ from the bottom of each door and 5″ from the top.

It was a challenge to put up the heavy doors. Not only did I have to prop them in place on sloping ground so the design met exactly, but since the thick doors overlap the building I had to build up the wall under the butts of the hinges with 2x4s overlaid with 1x4s. For this I cut down some of the old treated lumber I’d removed from the apartment deck.

The doors are really too big for my little shed, but they will be less obtrusive when they can be stained barn red to match the walls. Meanwhile the connection to the school and camp makes me happy. Back in the 80s I was the person who resurrected this logo and splashed it on all our publications. Now it’s so beloved that there are key chains and earrings, and more than one young person has it as a tattoo.

I hung the doors level, only realizing after they were in place that the building itself is not level. I decided I would figure out what, if anything, to do about that in the summer of 2019.

Garden shed doors! A five-year project! But at least I’m done with tarps.

Painting the Porch

October 20, 2018

Yesterday after work I painted porch railings on the north side of the house for two hours before having to go out to dinner for DH’s job. The temperature had risen to 50° and I was determined to use the brief window of warmth profitably. There was a stiff wind and paint drips blew back at my face as my coveralls snapped in the breeze. Even putting a first coat on only the front side of the rails was slow work, and a half hour into it I realized:

  1. I would never make appreciable progress in the short time available. For my builder to be able to proceed with the screen porch (requiring pre-painted rails and posts, two coats) I would need at least two full days of warm, dry weather. I thought back to our long summer of drought, and how easily I could have accomplished this job if he had ever informed me that “exterior painting” of the house did not include the porch.
  2. I should stop my efforts on this cosmetic work and start priming all the scraped wood on the second story of the garage, which has been bare since July 2017.

However there was so little time, I didn’t know where any primer might be stored, I am afraid of extension ladders, painting anything at all  requires so much mental discipline (given my loathing of painting) … so I just toiled on doggedly where I was.

The small section of painted rails looks so nice, I have to work hard not to be bitter. Waste. Of. Energy. DH says encouragingly that maybe we’ll have a week of Indian summer in November. Today it will rain with high winds and tonight it will be in the 20s with snow.

Ah well. I have plenty of other chores to keep me busy.


October 18, 2018

It snowed last night, about an inch. This morning the windchill is 10° F. My opportunity to work outside is almost gone. Next week is due to have highs in the 30s. All my sheep fencing, shelters, and lawn mowers are dusted with snow and must be put away. I have to pound in the driveway markers before the ground freezes for the winter.

It is hard for me to accept that I got so little done on the land this summer. Practically nothing, in fact, except moving the sheep every day and mowing after them. Almost zero on the gardens or on the fencing. The back field is not mowed and is knee-high in dead weeds. The deep bedding has not been mucked from the sheep stalls. I never built the new barn doors.

I keep thinking: How did this happen? I want to wail, But I never took a single day off!

OK. I try to remember the accomplishments. I did finish paneling the mudroom and building the lockers with Tom. I did put up a brick wall. I did work with Damon to fix the driveway. I did put up sheetrock in the basement. I did pick hundreds of rocks in the backyard. I did get the well pump repaired. Damon, Larry, and I did dig up and replace the faulty frost-free hydrant in the barn paddock. I did get the cookstove in from the garage and have it fixed. I did take the bull and steer to slaughter and then pick up and deliver all the meat to customers. I did sell half a dozen lambs and geese. I did replace the railings on the apartment deck. I did repair Mama’s fan. I did go to Connecticut for my granddaughter’s surgery. I did put up doors on the garden shed. I did attend multiple doctor appointments. I did unpack dozens of boxes.

Nevertheless, looking at my long list remaining, it’s hard to escape the sinking feeling that I got nothing done.

And Bears, Oh My!

October 17, 2018

Here is our old apple tree in early October. When I bought this land fifteen years ago, this tree was leaning out from the edge of a balsam forest. I cut the forest and saved the tree. In gratitude for the restored sunshine it has borne bounteous crops of apples almost every year, despite never being pruned to trim out sucker branches and allow light into the crown. (It’s on the list.) Now our new house has been built 100 feet from the tree and it is framed in my study window.

Someday I will have enough time to pick the apples and make cider, sauce, and pies, but that day is not yet. For now, animals domestic and wild take the fruit. Here are the cattle and Lucy’s horse Birch picking up windfalls in 2011.

I see deer prints and coyote scat regularly.

Last week there were a thousand drops under the tree and after filling an 18-gallon tub, I gave up and decided to fence the sheep away from them, for fear they would gorge, colic, and die. Two nights ago we had a windstorm that shook the house. Yesterday the grass under the tree was a solid carpet of apples.

Last night I took our little cairn terrier, Toby, out on a leash for a quick pee before I served dinner. It was dark. Toby whined and I looked up to see a large black bear sitting under the apple tree. As the mama ran off, a cub dropped out of the tree and raced after her.


Mama’s Fan

October 16, 2018

In the 1970s, when I was a teenager, our grandmother came to live with us. Mama (as she was known) was suffering from confusion due to tiny strokes in her brain. At this time her house in Alabama was sold, and our mother brought many pieces of family furniture back to our home in Connecticut. Among these were the giant 1830s-ish bookcase now standing in our living room here in the mountains, and a ceiling fan from Mama’s enclosed porch.

I vaguely remember Mama’s porch from my childhood visits to Alabama, but as a little girl I was less focused on the ceiling fan than on the large carved parrot sitting on a swing in the corner. (I think Mom must have passed on saving the parrot.) The fan, I’m guessing from the 1930s, was installed in our Connecticut sunroom, where we had many happy times. When Mom and Dad’s house, in turn, was dismantled in 2004, I asked for and saved the fan.

Now, this was not an entirely practical move. The old fan had an alarming tendency to sway in a circular motion with its blades, while creaking. It also hung low, designed for the high ceilings of the hot and humid South. Mom and Dad had mounted it on the sloping vaulted ceiling of the sunroom. I had no vaulted ceilings. (Of course, in 2004, I had no house, either. I had taken the fan in hopes.)

For thirteen years after Mom’s death and the breaking up of her house, the body of the fan had lived in a giant box under a table in DH’s and my bedroom. Eventually the crumbling box moved to the farm garage. Last summer I brought it out and showed the fan to the electrician and the builder. Was there any possible way I could use the fan in our mudroom, with its eight-foot ceilings? They conferred, and told me that if I were willing to pay for an extra hour of labor, they would frame a recess in the sheetrock to pull the fan body higher. Done.

Last fall I emptied our storage trailer. Unbeknownst to me, it had leaked for many years. I was numb with sadness as I pulled out one ruined item after another. I opened a bursting box and found the blades to the fan. Long ago I had wrapped them carefully in blankets. The blankets were soggy and covered with black and green mold. The wet fan blades were not in good shape. I laid them out to dry, my heart heavy. Then I moved on to other, more pressing problems.

Last week I decided it was time to deal with the fan.

I inspected the blades. The iron was rusted.

The finish was entirely stripped and they were covered with a light film of mold.

One blade had broken in half.

This last was very discouraging until I realized that the crack had flecks of old glue. Aha! Once upon a time the fan blade had been broken and repaired. I wondered who had originally mended the blade. My grandfather before his death in the 1950s? His hired man? My father? Whoever he was, now I was following in his footsteps — I wasn’t the cause of the broken blade, merely another restorer! My mood immediately improved.

I set to work. First I carefully sanded off the mold and last remains of the old finish. Then I glued the fan blade back together with epoxy.

After the epoxy dried, I used a wire brush to clean the crusty rust off all the iron.

Then I stained the blades with Minwax English Chestnut. The blades didn’t take the stain perfectly — the color was much darker than expected, and the finish peculiarly shiny. Later I worked on the blades a bit more with 000 steel wool to try to remove the shine.

I repainted the iron in matte black enamel.

When everything was dry, I hung the blades.

You can see the crack if you look, and the finish remains slightly strange. (I’ll consult with Tom.) Moreover the fan can’t be turned on until the electrician returns to connect the wire to the switch. Still, I am happy.

I imagine my grandmother, born in 1894, would be perplexed, wondering why her granddaughter was monkeying with any such masculine project. But I think Mom and Dad would be pleased.

Mama’s fan lives again!