Sally Saville Hodge
The Farm. It wasn’t so much the way everything smelled out here in the country, with subtle differences each time we came, depending on the time of year. That was part of it, though. Now, as darkness was descending on a pre-fall evening, the rich odors of earth and crops on the verge of harvesting were strong enough you could almost touch them. A riot of roses climbing the trellis by the back door added a fragile sweetness to the mix. And the tantalizing yeastiness of Gramma’s fresh-baked bread teased us as it wafted from the open kitchen window.
The sounds, too, marked a world totally apart from the rumbles and horns of commuter trains, cars whishing by, and kids yelling at play in suburbia. When we could be still enough to hear it, we could take in the symphony of quiet harmonies that carried through the air – the wind rustling through the trees and cornstalks, birds crying their joy of flight, crickets chirruping from the grass, the plop of frogs playing in the pond.
To us, the farm represented the wonders of a world that stayed constant and yet, with every trip, managed to unveil new secrets of life before, when this quiet setting bustled with horses and lambs and pigs and dogs and cats and the lively, sometimes lonely life of a young couple scratching out a living and raising their child who would grow up to become our mother.
The nearly hidden path to the henhouse that you ventured on alone at your own risk of attack by overgrown trees and shrubs, not to mention mosquitoes and gnats during the height of summer.
The ramshackle storage shed out by the West Forty field that Gramma would sometimes let us rummage through for hidden treasures. Sharon wouldn’t go near it even before she turned into a teenager and acquired more sedate, boy-oriented interests. I think it was because Grampa told her it was riddled with rats and snakes, plus she just hated to get dirty and the dust in there was piled so high it was impossible to come out clean. But Debbie, girly girl that she was, would pretty much follow me anywhere and loved being able to emerge from our explorations with some treasure in hand. One time, we found an old wooden wagon in the shed that had been Mom’s when she was little. We showed it to Daddy, who brought it home, fixed it up and painted it white, and gave it to Mom for a present. She cried a little (it brought back memories, she said), and used it for a plant stand.
And, of course, the barn. It was a rambling, weatherbeaten old thing, with doors that hung crookedly and a few gaping holes where planks had rotted and fallen off. A stone’s throw from the house – or a hop, skip and a jump from the back door and through the barnyard gate by four exuberant kids – it was large enough to have once housed four horses in one annex and a milking barn for four cows in another. We weren’t supposed to explore the long vacant horse stalls, but sometimes I did anyway. Grampa seemed to have this thing about critters, and said too many of them made their homes in the stalls to make them anyplace where kids should play. The only critters I ever saw were farm cats that would sometimes pop out from between the abandoned stalls. Unless you count the still-wiggling mouse that some would be carrying in their jaws. I think it was more the junk piled in the stalls that worried Grampa – the old farm tools, rusted buckets and metal wheels and the like that would likely cause serious damage if they collapsed on some curious little kid.
It was the milking barn that was bigger attraction anyway, holding not only Grampa’s two milk cows, but the occasional litter of new kittens and, of course, Grampa himself. Everyone loved Grampa, but we kids were confident in the knowledge that he was ours – the kind of comfortable grandparent you read about in books, only a hundred times better. He made us think of Santa Claus, if Santa had been balding and beardless, wore faded overalls tucked into tall black rubber boots, and smelled unmistakably of Lifebuoy soap and sweetish-sour sweat, with Old Spice added for occasions like church on Sunday.
On this trip, we’d pulled in right between chores and dinner, and the milking was going on. Gramma came out the back door to greet us, wisps of faded brown hair pulled loose from her bun and her cheeks rosy from the kitchen. A smile on her normally stern face, she wiped her hands on the ever-present apron, stuck her hands in her dress pockets and pulled out a stick of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum for each of us. “The sooner you let your grandfather finish the milking, the sooner we can eat,” she warned, and put out her arms to give us her bony hug and kisses of welcome.
We chased off down the dirt path, through the barnyard gate and into the barnyard itself. A beacon of light from the milking barn spilled out of the doorway to mark our way. We arrived to find Grampa well into the job of the evening’s milking. He sat on the three-legged stool, his eyes half closed as he leaned into Bossy’s flank and pulled first on one long udder, then another, with long, practiced and fluid strokes. We could tell by the milk-hitting-milk sound that this bucket was almost full. Maybe he’d let us try milking her or Bessie for the next bucket.
As a chattering group, we burst through the open double doorway, shattering the tranquility. Bossy turned her head, anchored on either side by wooden stanchions, and her tail twitched as if in aggravation. And though he didn’t shift position or miss a beat, we could see a broad smile spread across Grampa’s face at the instant mayhem we were creating as we talked over each other to get his attention.
From Debbie…“We get to stay for a whole week! Can we ride the tractor tomorrow?”
Brucie excitedly shared, “Grampa, Grampa, I seen 100 buffalos…”
“Are there any new kittens?” chimed in Sharon, her eyes darting to nooks in the barn where they might be hiding.
My contribution? “Can we help milk the cows?”
It was our challenge, each time we visited: Who would be successful at actually making the milk come out? Grampa made it look easy, but we all knew from experience that it wasn’t.
He turned his head to look at us, missing just a quick beat of his milking to bat aside Bossy’s tail that continued to swish aggrievedly at his head.
“I get to go first. I’m oldest,” Sharon asserted.
“So what? I’m smarter. I should go first,” I told her, punctuating my irritation with a punch to her arm. It immediately advanced to a shoving match, with her calling me a brat and me calling her bossy, but ended abruptly thanks to several well-aimed shots of warm milk in our faces.
Sharon’s shriek of protest was drowned out by Grampa’s booming laugh, and it was hard to resist joining in. “Oh, the looks on your faces…” he said, and now everyone wanted in on the action. “Squirt me, too, Grampa,” Brucie begged, scrunching his face in anticipation. “Me, too!” cried Debbie.
And as the milk and laughter flew through the barn, so another deposit was placed in our collective memory bank.