Thursday, February 16, 2012

In which we find kittens in the haymow

I have a photo from the summer of 1971, which we spent at my grandparents' farm in northern Wisconsin. We were living in Spain at the time, but came back for my uncle's wedding.

My brother and I are standing in front of a tractor, a hay wagon, and what appears to be a binder. I am wearing my Hee-Haw short overalls, which I loved, and my hair is a white blonde that will never again re-appear on my head, at least not without significant chemical interference. The overalls are too small and too short and are tight against my chubby thighs. I realize now that chubby thighs have always been with me and will always be with me. I guess there are worse problems to have than having too much to eat.

My brother, with his home haircut, which indeed looks like someone inverted a bowl over his head and cut around the edges and he looked like all the other boys - when did people start taking their kids to the beauty shop? did they do it back then and we were just out of it? or is that a new thing? - is wearing a gray t-shirt, barely tucked into his jeans, which are held up with a very thick black belt with a big buckle.

It was the early 70s, after all.

We are each holding a tiny black kitten.

We rescued those kittens.

Well, my uncles did.

We were at the farm for the summer. What a great place for a kid to spend a summer. I have always felt so sorry for people who didn't have farmer grandparents. What did they do when they visited their grandparents?

Primo's grandfather worked in a factory in a big city. "He taught me to play pool," Primo says. I suppose that's OK, but it's not the same as being on a farm.

We got to ride along on the hay wagon as my grandfather and my two uncles, who were still in high school, baled hay. One of the reasons that farm kids do well in non-farm jobs is that they have done really hard work their entire lives and they are used to it. After getting up every morning to milk the cows before going to school, after shoveling composting manure, and after baling hay in the hot summer sun, everything else is a piece of cake.

We went fishing in the creek on the south side of the farm. We picked wild raspberries. If you have ever wondered why raspberries are so expensive, I can tell you why: it is a pain in the neck to get to them in the tangled, thorny brambles.

We played in the attic where my grandmother had her bottles of homemade root beer. We watched cows being inseminated by the vet and calves being born. We got to wean the calves - you put your hand in a bucket of milk and let the calf suck your hand. You keep moving your hand closer and closer to the bucket and voila! the calf understands.

We played in the haymow, which was full of scratchy hay and dust and peacock poop on the crossbeams (I guess peacocks can fly), but my grandfather had installed a rope swing for us, so we would climb to the top of the hay, grab the swing, and jump, then release on top of the pile of chaff. Which is also very scratchy.

My grandmother welcomed help in the kitchen. Other photos show me and my siblings playing in the big drawer of flour. This was when I was only five, the year my dad was in Vietnam and my mom got an apartment not far from her mom and dad's farm. We spent a lot of time at the farm that year. My grandmother, who had to have been somewhat drill sergeant-ish to rear seven children and seven foster children, along with growing and canning all her own vegetables, baking bread almost daily, and sewing almost all the clothes worn in the house, was rather mellow by this point and did not seem to mind the flour all over the floor. I sure would, but she liked having kids around.

The farm was not big. The barn held only about 200 cows. There was a silo on the east side, a cooling shed for the milk on the north side, and a machine shop where my grandfather did all the work on the tractors, etc, on the west side. Across from the barn a granary. Between the barn and the granary was my grandmother's flower garden, which was glorious. When she and my grandfather sold the farm and built a small house in town in the late 70s, she took many of the flowers with her and planted them at the new house. When she moved into the nursing home two years before she died, my mom dug up all the iris bulbs. I have some of them in my garden now.

Between the granary and the house was the garage and the outhouse. They got indoor plumbing when my mom was 12, so the outhouse wasn't used any more.

Can you imagine having to use an outhouse in a northern Wisconsin winter?

I cannot. I do not want to.

I can sort of imagine, though. The year we moved back from Spain to the US, we spent several weeks with my grandparents, who were renting another farmhouse while their house in town was being built. They had already sold their farm that summer.

This was December and the house we were staying in did not have any source of heat, I don't think, other than the wood burning stove in the kitchen. My sister and I shared a bed in one of the upstairs bedrooms and we had to pile it high with blankets to get warm enough. In the morning, we got dressed under the blankets before we emerged into the cold, cold room and ran downstairs to be next to the stove. There was, however, indoor plumbing. It had to have been cold, though. How can you pee when you are cold? It's hard. I must have waited to get to school every day before I did anything. Yes, school. My parents enrolled us in the small Catholic school in town that my dad had attended when he was a boy. My cousins were there and we had a grand time. Lunch was made every day in the church basement by some of the church ladies, who fed us homemade bread and produce they had canned themselves. For a quarter. A QUARTER.

Now, everything is falling down. The barn is nothing but a pile of weathered planks. The silo has been gone for years. I get sick to my stomach every time I drive past the place and see the neglect. It's good my grandparents are not alive to see this. Three generations to build the place, three generations who got their living from this farm, six children who all died of diphtheria in seven days buried behind the garden - my great-great grandmother's kids, I think, and now it's rubble.

I have photos of my siblings and me in the bathtub in that relatively new bathroom. Pink tile. Hot pink tile. I liked it. I like bright colors. It goes with my love of animal prints. I had an apartment in Houston with a teal bathroom - teal tile, teal tub, teal toilet.

I loved it. What's wrong with a non-white bathroom?

The house was big enough, I suppose. The kids had to share a room, boys in one, girls in another. There was a spare room downstairs next to my grandparents' room. That was where my great-grandmother was living when I was little.

So. Back to the kittens.

There were always animals at the farm. There was always at least one big, gentle dog.

"No, not a working dog," my mom remembers when I ask her. There were no animals to be herded. The kids got the cows, not the dog. "They were decorative. And to eat the table scraps."

There is a photo of me at three, beaming as I reach up to put my arms around Captain's neck. Captain was a big collie and he was beautiful. I like big dogs. It's the little yappy dogs I don't like. That and any dog that sticks his nose where it doesn't belong. Manners, please.

There were barn cats. Not pet cats. But barn cats. They were working animals. The cats had a job to do: keep the rats and mice out of the hay and grain.

One day, as we were playing in the hayhow, my brother and I heard a lot of meowing. Desperate meowing. We couldn't find the kittens, so got our uncles involved. They tracked the sound to the west side of the haymow, against the machine shop wall, halfway into the hay. Looked like the mama cat had made a little nest deep in the hay.

That was when they remembered that they had run over a cat while they were mowing hay. It's not something you can avoid: the grass is tall and you can't see animals that might be hiding there. Rabbits meet their maker this way all the time.

They couldn't get to the kittens from the haymow, so they pulled out some of the boards on the machine shed wall. The kittens were frantic and wild, scratching and fighting as my uncles pulled them out.

They were tiny black fluffballs with razor-sharp claws. They had never seen humans before and were scared to death. But they were hungry, so lapped at the bowl of milk we gave them, shuddering as they drank and watching us in fear, even though we had made a nice box for them in the corner of the kitchen and thought we were staying far enough away. Kittens have a good instinct and know that human children are not always to be trusted.

We eventually got them calm enough that we could hold them, but they didn't really like it. They tolerated it, but were always planning their escape. They were wild animals and they knew it. Once they figured out how to get food on their own, they were gone. But we saved them from certain death.


  1. Sounds like we have a few things in common!
    Including the Hee-Haw overalls.
    See pictures here:

  2. Yes! Those are the overalls! I guess we were on the fashion vanguard.

  3. LOL! Hee Haw must have been really popular!

    Did you learn to drive on a tractor before you learned to drive a car? My kids don't believe that.

    I'd give anything to ride on the back of the tractor with my Granddaddy again. =(

    P.S. I'll be 45 in June.

  4. I wish I had learned to drive a tractor! But we were living in Spain for four years. When we moved back, my grandparents had sold the farm. So I was never old enough to drive the tractor.

    My mom, however, did drive a tractor before driving a car. And she drove a car when she was very young - like 12.

    Yeah, I miss my grampa, too. He was so neat. All of my grandparents are dead now. I miss them all.

  5. I helped rescue wild kittens when I was little! My grandpa didn't have a farm, but he had a ranch of sorts, so there was lots of land and plenty of dogs, cats, critters, etc. Quite different than my grandparents who live in CT...

  6. Oh, also, could you please add the "search this blog" function? I've been reading your older posts, but when I'm interrupted it would be really helpful to type in a key word and find where I left off.

  7. Hi shivstew - Glad you're here. There should be a search function in the very upper left-hand corner. It would be useful if it were labeled "search," but it just has an icon of a magnifying glass, which I think of as something to make things bigger, not to search.

    1. Ooops! Shivskies, not Shivstew! Sorry!

  8. You've made me very homesick and nostalgic in my Manhattan apartment this morning. My Wisconsin farm childhood was a bit later than yours--80s, not 70s--but so much of what you've just described is the same.

  9. I haven't thought of my Aunt's farm in South Dakota or our friends farm in Northern Illinois in ages. Baking bread, gathering eggs, playing in the barn such wonderful memories (the hog slaughter not so much). Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

  10. Cal Girl, I can't have any photos of me on this blog because it's my double secret blog that my mother can't know about!

    Diane, my mom says they slaughtered pigs when she was a girl, but I never saw it done. I did, however, watch a sheep being killed and butchered behind my office when I was a Peace Corps volunteer.

    Joy, don't you feel sorry for kids who never get to be on a farm? PS You need to read my story about the crazy laundry neighbors who were upset that Primo was upset that they did laundry every morning at 8:00 a.m., which woke him up. They told him that this was Wisconsin, not New York City, and people here get up early. Do you find that New York is very very quiet until noon?

  11. We have such a rich heritage. Aunt Helen & Uncle Ernest were amazing!!! My grandparents' farm was purchased by an Amish family(I think)and they have breathed life into the Lapp homestead. It looks great and they've added on to it. My other grandparents' farm was also purchased by people who have done an amazing job & I saw ponies the last time I saw the property--2 days before Aunt Helen moved to Heaven. White Chocolate

  12. When I was a kid only rich kids went to the beauty parlour. My grandmother had her own beauty parlour but I didn't want a cap of purple curls so I wouldn't let her touch my hair! I was 24 before I had my hair cut by a professional. I too had white blonde hair as a child. Chemical interference, who could live without it? I remember visiting a friend's grandmother in Thomas, Oklahoma. She lived in 'town' (a cross-roads), had indoor plumbing but a fridge on the back porch and real feather beds. My first husband and I purchased an old house - a fixer upper that never got fixed in a horrible area of town (what fools we were!). A stray cat got into the upstairs and had her kittens in the wall, for some reason - or maybe hid them there. They fell down a ways and we ended up breaking up some already cracked plaster to get them out. A couple were really injured and the other two never became anything like tame house cats. I love big dogs, too. And my Grandma and Grandpa's pink, white and black tiled bathroom floor! Grandpa taught me checkers and spades, we played jump rope and ball and went for walks in the park. I would string buttons and colour and 'help' Grandma with the laundry - she had a mangle still and would hang it on the line in the back yard. No farms in my family, probably why I'm so lazy these days!

  13. Shelley, my mom took me to the beauty parlor for a perm when I was 7. That perm and haircut are immortalized in a portrait where I look like a middle-aged second grader.

    My grandmother had a mangle, too! It was in her basement when she moved to the nursing home. I see a lot of things I saw on my grandparents' farm in antique shops, but nobody seems to want those wringers.

  14. Yup, I had a glorious childhood, and it is really sad that so few kids experience that kind of growing up these days. As far as New York being very, very quiet...ha! I'm not sure there's ever a time of day when this city is quiet. It does contain plenty of crazy neighbors, though.

  15. I remember visiting my great-uncle Brick's farm in Indiana as a kid, playing hide and seek in the henhouse, and scaring the chickens so bad they wouldn't lay for a few days afterwards.

    And the high point of our summers in Maine was definitely the time we spent at our friends' farm, which had been in the family for 13 generations. We picked blueberries, gathered eggs, kept an eye out for the billy-goat (he was mean), and learned why you don't name animals you're going to eat. Mrs. H. preferred cooking in the woodstove, which we loved. And whenever we'd tell her about some exciting discovery on this farm she'd lived on forever, she'd just smile and say, "Theah now."

    Every kid should be able to spend time on a farm, fishing, and digging for clams. Nothing that plugs in could ever compare.

  16. I never spent time on a farm, but I spent time in suburbia not far removed from the farms it had been carved from; my mother, in the first months of her marriage, had a 12-burner wood stove (my mom, who couldn't cook when she first got married!), and who had a friendly neighbor horse who would stick his head in through the window at breakfast. Maybe they swapped cooking tips, because she could cook by the time I needed to eat.

    I've lived in some unruly places, and raised some surprise litters of kittens under the woodstove that was the only heat in a 3-story house (with 33 leaky windows). The kittens were a surprise to me; I don't think they were a surprise to the tired cat next door, who carefully dropped them, one by one, through the hole in my front porch, and waited for me to rescue them (and bring them inside, and raise them, and find them homes).

    She wasn't the one who left the black kittens trapped in a hurricane and lost in my backyard, though. Two got rescued that night, and two had to wait until dawn broke before I found them, and they all got dragged to the vet's. Sadly, only two came back from that trip; they were dropper-raised, and never stopped believing I was their mommy.

    Good times ...
    I have read three posts so far. I love your writing. I hate your in-laws.

    IvyKllr, who is not Anonymous, just identification-impaired.

    1. Aren't kittens one of the best surprises? I haven't had any as an adult. I envy you. Well, a little. They are expensive and then you have to find a place for them to live. Irresponsible people who don't neuter their pets make me mad.

      Thank you. I hate my in-laws, too.


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