October 17, 2006
Summertimes at the Farm
Middle of October. This morning in the shower I was appreciating the heat, it was chilly when I woke and, not to rehash the whole "doesn't time fly" "don't the seasons seem to pass so quickly" cliche, but gee time is flying and the seasons are passing so quickly. You know,spring is just around the corner. It won't be long before the snow is melting and the crocus, tulip and daffodil bulbs that I planted yesterday will be peeking through the wet ground. Summer seemed to hang around forever when I was little. Time was of no matter. Who knew what day or week it was? We were immersed in heat, barefeet, unscheduled days and long carefree evenings. It was actually a surprise when it was time to pack up, go home and start school. Now it seems so inevitable that in my mind one season is practically over before it starts.
When I was little, my family went to stay at my great grandfather's abandoned farm every summer. He had been a farmer pretty much since he quit the 4th grade - strawberries, corn, limas, all kinds of stuff. There was a stint on an oyster boat for a while when he was young. When he was in his early 90's he moved in with his daughter and was sad to see the farm sit, so my dad bought it from him for a few dollars. My mom was not thrilled; she had grown up down in the country near the Delaware Bay and was happy to have gotten out and to be raising her kids in a town setting, not so far removed from everything that she thought was interesting when she was growing up. My dad was from Hoboken, Lodi, Saddle Brook - North Jersey near the city. His dad had been a bartender, his mom worked in a publishing company...Dad saw a chance to taste the farming life for himself. Mom rolled her eyes every summer and packed our things, even our piano. My parents were music teachers so they had the whole summer with us. And so we moved to the old farm house, built by my great grandfather. It had no foundation, so the floors rolled, there were plenty of crickets and Carla, mom's Saanan goat, walked straight into the back door often and it didn't really cause much of a stir.
Dad was a pretty good farmer. I have lots of good memories of sitting in the hot fields eating cucumbers, tomatoes, even corn. Or walking through the kitchen and mom handing me a warm boiled beet to eat like an apple. Or eating cantalopes all day, by the halves. There wasn't anything I didn't like, except goat milk. My parents loved it. I can still remember the anticlimactic experience of digging into a bowl of my favorite cereal doused in Carla's milk. (And this would be worse than worse, depending upon what scraps we'd fed her the day before. Goat's milk + onions and cabbage = a quick bike ride to the store for a gallon of cold "regular" milk.)
But one of my favorite stories from "down the farm" came at the close of our first summer. Each summer we went, we'd get 10 chickens, a pregnant rabbit, a couple of ducks who'd have baby ducklings, our goat Carla (who was boarded by a friend over the winter) and a rooster. This first summer was so magical. We'd never had real pets before, so Julie and I went about naming them all and pretty much spent our quiet summer days with them all. Even the chickens had names, and the rooster was Nelson. As I mentioned before, my mother grew up just one mile down the road from this, her grandfather's farm. She spent a lot of time there as a child, helping to plant or harvest or watch the pigs get slaughtered or the chickens beheaded. She thought the latter was great fun, because the chickens were let to run around the farm without their heads, and really, who doesn't like to watch that?
So at the close of our first summer, my mom called Julie and I out to the chicken house one evening after we'd had our baths and were in our nighties. It was time to slaughter our little friends, the chickens, and mom thought we'd like to watch just as she had enjoyed as a child. She forgot to take into account that we knew these chickens as our summer companions, our pets, our friends even. My favorite was Mandy, named after Barry Manilow's hit song. Mom also forgot to take into account that Dad was not Big Pop Pop. Dad had never slaughtered an animal, Dad had never built a platform for such a job as chicken beheading, and Dad didn't own a sharp ax, evidently.
So there back near the chicken house, my little sister and I stood on an old two wheeled flatbed cart in our nighties. And there mom stood with a grin that spoke of anticipation and thrill. And there Dad stood sawing off chicken heads that went flip flop, back and forth, when the dull ax didn't cut clean through with the first thwack. And then the chickens flopped around in front of us splattering blood droplets up onto our nighties.
I don't remember much after that. I suppose it was something unspoken like a confused walk back to the house thinking vaguely, "Okay Mom, Dad, thanks. Um, we really enjoyed watching our 10 pets be killed. Can we go change now?"
Then came the chicken potpies. The chickens were a bit old for roasting, so mom always cooked up Mandy and the others in a potpie. Julie and I always exchanged knowing glances across the table when potpie was served. Julie would never eat it, which was sort of ironic since she once said she'd give up the baby rabbits for a fur coat. But she was always into fashion.