Each fall brought a two week vacation from school, just two weeks into the school year, to accommodate farming families and Maine’s “potato pickin’” season.
The teachers hated it. The kids without hard-labor duties loved it. I especially loved it because it meant Dad and I would travel to another farming community: his childhood home in South Dakota.
I would spend the majority of my days on the family farm singing to Uncle Monte’s sheep the years he had them, feeding them fistfuls of grass and petting any who came close enough. I chased the geese and the old Tom turkey through the brush and trees until I cornered the geese and they turned on me, hissing, wings threateningly raised. When I could locate it, I ate plums off a small tree hidden along the perimeter of a wooded stretch. I never found an arrowhead, probably because Uncle Tim had scoured the property for years, but I always kept my eyes glued to the ground, searching. I helped Grammie collect the eggs and had free reign of her garden, collecting all the cucumbers my tee shirt could hold and munching on as many as I pleased.
The cats, who were never allowed inside and most of which were feral, were fed greasy scraps in a dented, dingy pan. I always had an annual favorite I attempted to tame.
The cool mornings I was up early enough, I padded along after my rail-thin Grampie with his characteristically bagging jeans and helped spread the grain in the troughs for the cows. Then we’d return, wash up in the big sink by the front door, enjoy Grammie’s big breakfast and linger over family devotions.
I loved the soft-nosed calves the best. I was only partially conflicted as I watched and tried to help when it was time to separate them from their lowing mothers, fascinated by the gruesome process of castrating the males. I sat high atop the metal gates when there was no corralling to do, watching my uncles, Dad & Gramp deftly maneuver the bucking calves. Their heads would be quickly locked into place, back legs pinned manually, and one of the men would deftly work the clippers. The cats mewed and waited safely out of the reach of stomping hooves to be tossed the swiftly removed testicles from each stunned victim.
For the sensitive, animal-loving child I was, I took such events as necessities of farm life. In retrospect, the cattle on the family farm had it good by today’s standards. They weren’t overly cramped, had plenty of space to roam, and were rotated among different fenced areas. They had so much open pasture, it sometimes took dusty pickup rides across the property to find expectant mothers who sought privacy to deliver. The young were kept by their sides for as long as was practicable.
Northern Maine schools eventually did away with the two week break, moving our annual trip. I had to share the magical trips to the farm with my stepbrother. This brought new adventures, however. We tinkered with an ancient dirt bike and got to take turns puttering around on it. I had someone with whom to jump from sweet-smelling haystack to haystack as the setting sun filled the sky with vibrant colors. Grammie, having never learned how to swim until much later, fretted a little less when she took us to the town pool. There was never a bad day, and leaving was always bittersweet.
The house Mom and I shared in Maine was tucked into some trees a short walk from Main Street, and bordered the field owned by town icon Irene Bradford. She still owned cows when I was in elementary school, though they weren’t usually on the side of the field by us. One leisurely summer day, I was home alone watching cartoons when I looked out the living room window only to see cows pouring into our yard. I quickly called my Mom at work, grabbed a broom from the coat closet to extend my reach, and ran out to see what could be done.
I was ten or eleven at the time, but knew the little stretch of woods by our yard and stretching back along Bradford’s field. I used all my best South Dakota farm tactics, mimicking Uncle Mark’s “Hey!” and the “sssshhhhHHT!” the cows seem to hate, raising my arms and charging most menacingly when when they moved a direction I didn’t want. I kept steering the small, confused herd in the general direction of the field and away from the broader expanse of woods until somehow, I found us in the broad expanse of tall grasses and out of the trees. We never encountered a rear fence, but the drama was resolved by the time my worried Mom found me making my way back home.
Irene insisted on giving me $20 for my help, which I found impossibly embarrassing. I took the money to the clothing store with its side custom tee shirt business in town, and picked out a screen with two kittens and the word “PRECIOUS” scripted across the top. I had just enough to buy the letters “IRENE” for the back (possibly because it was my Aunt Amber’s shop.) Irene then bought me a matching tee with “SARA” pressed on the back.
I was a shy kid, which only marginally improved by middle and high school. Our church went caroling around town each Christmas season, and Irene’s was a favorite stop near the end of our trip. Her cast iron stove was always cranking out enough heat to thaw our fingers and melt the snow on our jackets and hats, and there was cocoa and Irene’s indomitable presence. A couple of the years, she relayed the story of the great cow rescue and our tee shirt exchange to the array of my peers, adults and children. Mortified, I tried to disappear behind my cocoa, but was pleased the great woman remained proud of my adventure with her cows.
There haven’t been cows in Bradford field for many years, but gratefully her house has been designated as historic and converted into a bed and breakfast. It would be too painful to see it withering or worse, gone, like so many favorite buildings from home.
Many have warm stories of Irene, of her unconventional life; some with spooky haunting stories of her home. She had a way of touching people in unforgettable ways. Whenever I visit my hometown and see that glorious house with its big red bard or the stretch of her overgrown field, I think of how my two worlds connected on an otherwise ordinary summer day and how special that magnanimous woman made this shy, out-of-place girl feel.