A Tilted Saucer of Delight
Holidays and family gatherings were big events. When I was little, my mother’s
large family visited often. Her favorite sister and best friend was my Aunt
Matie. She and her husband, a veterinarian, and their five daughters visited
about once a year. It was a joy to see how happy Mamma and Aunt Matie were
together. Two photo images come to mind: Mamma wading in Lake Michigan when
she visited Aunt Matie and Aunt Matie riding her grandson’s motorcycle to celebrate
her eightieth birthday. Gladys and her clan visited very often. Mamma’s friend
came when I was growing up: my friends, especially, my college roommate, Rose
Lockwood Bingham Foley, came after Stanley and I took over the farm. After
our children grew up and moved away, they and their families came. They still
do—our greatest joy! Stanley’s family lived close by in Avoca, Bath and Cohocton
so they came for celebratory dinners or breakfasts. We can never forget one
such breakfast. We had planned a Christmas morning breakfast; Stanley’s mother
died Christmas Eve—very peacefully. We needed to get together to start planning
the funeral process but what a wonderful memory fest that was! Thanksgiving
was especially important to us all. One photo shows Stanley’s Dad carrying
the roaster of turkey and dressing followed by the younger members of the family,
all stepping gingerly in new fallen snow. Now that we live in our little house
and have no room to entertain, and there is a large extended family, Stanley’s
sister Freda arranges for us to have a yummy meal and gabfest at St. Pius Hall
in Cohocton. One year I was asked to write a Thanksgiving piece for our Wallace
United Methodist Church Thanksgiving Eve service. Our daughter Jennie’s mother-in-law
Mary Nuovo shared our Thanksgiving feast several times so I sent her a copy.
She is a “crafty” person
and made it into a little book which I treasure. Here is:
Windows on Thanksgiving
Through the dining room windows in October
We could see wild turkeys
Grazing peacefully among the big bales
On the fields we rent from Ormsbys.
Tom used a bale for cover and
Shot one of the turkeys—it made a delicious dinner.
We paused to thank God
for daily food and the feel of
Pilgrim feet on a rocky shore,
Pilgrim fingers on a musket trigger,
Pilgrim hands lifting iron pots,
Pilgrims feasting and thanksgiving,
Pilgrim love of liberty.
Through the upstairs windows in September
We could see three deer
Running down the dip from the power line,
Bounding over the road and alfalfa meadow,
Finally disappearing into a cornfield.
There hunters stood one sunny day in November
And felled a buck
Apologizing for shooting so close to the house,
Bringing us a rack of venison and sausage patties.
They thanked God for a good hunt and meat on the table.
The shots were to close to the house
And brought to mind other shots
In a long ago time when brother killed brother,
Where death stalked southern roads and valleys
And shots felled boys clad in blue and gray.
War moved north to Gettysburg
Where the first person shot was a teen-aged girl,
Where the gray lines stopped and turned and fled,
Where the president noted the tragedy and the courage,
And gave a prayer that government of the people, by the people
And for the people would not perish from the earth.
Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving that year of 1863
To be held on the fourth Thursday of November.
We gather here 125 years later to thank God
For courageous men and women,
For democracy, flawed as it may be,
For happy reunions and hope for the future
Of our national life together.
Through the kitchen windows all through the harvest season
We could see corn stalks drying and pumpkins ripening.
One by one the vegetables were gathered
For canning and freezing and storing.
Potatoes and squashes were carried into the cellar,
Carrots and rutabagas were washed and bagged
And put in the coolest corner of the refrigerator,
A bushel of Spy apples appeared from one neighbor,
A gallon of sauerkraut from another.
During the daily routine thoughts turned to Thanksgiving,
To the ancient harvest rituals of the Indians, the Hebrews,
To the joy of abundance.
With gratitude for what God’s good earth provides
We answer the full-hearted urge to gather together,
To make a joyful noise unto the Lord,
To serve the Lord with gladness,
To come into his presence with singing,
To be thankful unto Him and bless His name.
Through the window of the soul
In any month, in any season
Individuals look out on a troubled world
Or into troubled hearts.
There are those who despair of having food or clothing or shelter,
Those who are caught in the fire storms of disaster or war,
Those who are remorseful or in pain,
Those whose lives have turned sour or empty,
Those who cannot do what they want to do,
And those who want what they cannot have
There are those who are in chains
Or who would impose chains on others.
God how can we be thankful for such suffering?
And God answers as he always has,
“Love me, love your neighbor.”
So God we thank you for the pain that teaches up pity,
The conflicting desires that teach us tolerance,
The needs that calls us to share our abundance,
For Christ and the Way of Love.
For girls on a farm, the barns always represented “the other,” a different way of working and thinking. they were enticing and interesting. For married women, they often became their workplaces. This did not happen on our farm. My mother was a teacher and a caregiver of my grandmother. There were two barns on our farm, the horse barn built by my father in 1912 and the large dairy barn across the road. I entered “The Great Red Barn” in
a literary contest sponsored by the Cohocton Historical Society during the
Cohocton Fall Foliage Festival in 1998 where it received the Grand championship
Award. The society also displayed the Avoca Historical Society scrapbook of
photos of Avoca barns. Here is”
The Great Red Barn
The great red barn loomed three stories high over the pasture and claimed equality with the tallest trees in the woods. Its roadside façade proclaimed its beginning—1881. It was built in the prosperous times of my grandfather’s day and finished the year of my father’s birth. Modern in every way then, it was doomed to obsolescence by the mid-twentieth century. All the same, it was used until the day of its destruction by fire—November 11, 1940.
At 5:15 am. The farmer and hired man entered the stable through the garage
wing where the littlest girl rode her velocipede on rainy days. The icehouse
and the milkhouse were opposite the stable door on the east wall. The farmer
measured grain in front of the stanchions according to the productivity of
the cows while the hired man ushered in the animals: lumbering, steam-blowing
Holsteins waddling with full udders into their accustomed places. The men milked
quietly squatting under the cows with the milk pails—the older man had a stool—then
going to the milk house to strain the creamy liquid into the cans. The farmer
saved a panful of milk for the watchful cats and the hired man divided a pailful
among the youngest calves. He gave the older calves and yearlings grain and
hay and threw down a large forkful of hay in front of the bull. The bred heifers
had stayed in the pasture. Finally each man filled a kettle for his house.
The cows were loosened and they filed back down the ramp to pasture in the
misty daylight. The men quickly cleaned the gutters by shoveling manure through
the trapdoors to the spreader waiting in the basement. The farmer assigned
the morning tasks: he to cut grass in the lower meadow, the man to ready machinery
and then rake. In the afternoon, they would draw in the cutting of the day
before yesterday and begin to fill the almost empty third floor of the barn.
It was the middle of June; it would be the end of August before the bays would
be filled. The two men left the cool barn and walked through bright sunbeams,
leafy shade, brightness again, to breakfast.
Late that morning three little girls escaped from boredom and their assigned
tasks and made their way to the barn. They were not always friendly but today
a common purpose united them. They had jump ropes in their hands ready to skip
and count in a familiar competition. They enjoyed the broad expanse of cleared
space on the barn floor and the seemingly endless time of summer vacation.
Aggressive Doris tried too hard and soon lost the rhythm. Awkward Grace counted
to eighty and caught her shoe on the rope. But agile Louise went on and on
until she lost her breath and her balance on her one hundred and sixty-fifth
skip. After some desultory conversation, the girls prepared for the main event.
The day before the farmer and hired man had rethreaded the pulleys that lifted
the slings of hay to the mow. The extra rope was wound around a post. This
is what had drawn the girls to the barn. They unwound the rope leaving one
end fastened to the post. Grace swung the other end as Doris and Louise took
turns jumping on the low arc of each swing. Then Grace had a turn and then—How
could it be?—the girls heard their mother’s calling:
“Grace, it’s dinner time. Hurry up. You have to set the table.”
“Doris, Wessie, get yourselves in here before I come out and tan you good.”
That afternoon the loads of hay started coming in. The hay had been lifted carefully from the windrows onto the layers of slings, three slings to a load. Grace came out to the barn with a jug of water and stayed to watch the unloading. The farmer deftly hooked the loops at the end of the pulley to the ring ends of the top sling. The horse pulled away, slowly the sling rolled up, the pulleys snapped together, the great bundle rose clear of the wagon and slid along the trolley to the south mow. The farmer was there to steady the hanging bundle of hay. He pulled hard on the trip rope. The hay swooshed out on the floor where the farmer leveled it with a pitch fork. All through the hot summer days the hay came in. The farmer climbed ever higher on the ladder rungs nailed to the posts to reach the top of the mows.
In between unloadings the children came like a flock of overgrown pigeons.
The flapped from beam to mow and from finished mow to a partly filled one.
To fall free and land soft: what space age jump can equal it? One fine day,
after the south bay was filled, Grace climbed the ladder to the peak of the
barn and looked out the window with a wonderment to last a lifetime: at toy
cows in the pasture below; at bushy tops of trees in the woods and at the silver
ribbon of creek running from the upper pasture, disappearing into the woods,
then shining through the lower pasture into the Wightman’s meadow; at a doll
house farmstead across the main branch of Castle Creek; and at purple hills
on the far side of Smith Pond miles away.
Thunder storms brought needed respites in the grueling work but added worries. What if, in spite of lightning rods, lightning should strike the barn? Many years later a grown-up Grace and her family stood on the front porch of their house and watched their neighbor’s barn on the opposite hill burn in a summer afternoon thunder storm.
At the end of July another crop came to the barn—wheat. The farmer swept the granary and covered knot holes in the boards with smoothed out tin cans. He divided the granary into bins as oats would be threshed, too. Threshing demanded the resources of the whole neighborhood. Men with their teams went from farm to farm, sometimes twice to do oats and barley as well as wheat. This farmer drew in the bundles of wheat and waited until oat harvest to thresh. The wheat was threshed first and then the teams brought in the loads of oat bundles. The gas engine thresher stood in the barn doorway and belched clouds of cough-inducing dust. The owner of the thresher spent his time keeping it running smoothly. The farmer tended the spout where the grain came out and trundled the galvanized bushel basket of wheat into the granary all the while watching the gauge to predict the yield. Forty bushels of wheat or sixty bushels of oats was a good crop. The wheat would be sold to pay the school taxes but the oats were kept to feed the horses and grind into cow feed. The hired man had the worst job, moving away the straw, a stream of straw blown out of a pipe with clouds of dust that blinded and choked. All the men around the thresher emerge into the daylight at dinner time—unrecognizable caricatures of themselves. They swept each other off before they went into the house to wash and eat. One by one, they plunged their heads into the wash basin and grinned with relief. By quitting time they itched everywhere; no spot on their bodies was free of the dust. The farmer and hired man looked forward to the next day when the threshing would move to the next farm and they would drive teams and be away from the worst of the dust. The thresher owner took for granted his six-week ordeal of noise and dirt. It was his livelihood. The children came to watch but did not stay. They did not like the dust and the clatter of machinery. They had to shout to be heard. More to the point, the men did not like the children around. There was danger and their concentration was broken when they had one eye on the youngsters.
The intensity of summer green and summer heat and the press of summer work
changed imperceptibly to the mellowness and easier pace of fall. It was by
father’s favorite season. Not just that the corn was ripening, the apples falling;
some days he thought his own veins would burst with ripeness. One misty September
day he readied the corn binder and the ensilage cutter. Again the neighbors
gathered with their teams and wagons for silo filling. The farmer fitted a
belt on the old 10-20 tractor to power the ensilage cutter and blower. The
hired man climbed into the silo to tread down the silage and level it. The
farmer worked at the loading table easing the stalks under the cutter. If everything
worked, the silo filled fast. Sometimes nothing worked. The main problem was
wet silage building up like wads of litter and hair in a vacuum cleaner. Then
the pipe had to be dismantled and cleaned out while wagons gathered and restless
horses pawed and snorted. The children came from school, grabbed a snack and
went out to watch the final load go through the cutter.
The bright blue autumn days grew ever shorter; the rainy ones more sour and chill. One day in November the first snowfall sent creatures scurrying to the shelter of the barn. Mice and rats made nocturnal sorties into grain bin and feed box; watchful cats followed their prey. The farmer decided to keep the cows in at night. The children brought their after school play into the stable. They played hide-and-seek in the murkiness with lantern light casting long shadows but hardly illuminating the calf pens or the piles of hay and silage ready for the next morning.
“One, two, three…here I come, ready or not.” Various sizes and shapes emerged from the shadows—some to be caught, some to sing out “home free.” They played “Simon says” in the farthest aisle out of the milkers’ way and chinned themselves on the framework of the Jamesway calf pens. The girls fussed over the spring kittens, now half-grown cats and the boys teased the old tom. The mother cats were prone to scratch so the children let them be. The cats rubbed against the farmer’s pant leg and waited in a solemn circle around the milk dish. When the milking was done, the hired man’s children disappeared into the darkness but Grace waited to go up to the jack-o-lantern house with her father. She carried the lantern while the farmer brought the kettle of milk.
After Christmas the farmer fitted the wagon box on the bob sleds. He didn’t take much stock in the dire predictions of The Farmer’s Almanac or pay any attention to the colors of the fuzzy caterpillars, but he knew that some night the snow would fall in feet not inches. After the calm during the precipitation, the temperature would drop and the wind come up. Winter would have to be struggled against. It happened on New Year’s Day that year, a little early the farmer thought. The next day he used the bob sleds to drive the older daughter to the school she taught in the next district. It was two weeks before she could use her car again. The hired man used the bob sleds to take the cans of milk to the foot of the hill to meet the milk truck. By the end of January, the call went out, “The ice cutters are working on Smith Pond. Then the bob sleds made the trip to the pond several afternoons through six weeks of winter, two cold miles over, two colder miles back.
The barn was a dangerous place. The children were constantly admonished, “Don’t go near the bull pen”; “Don’t touch the running machinery”; “Don’t play in the hay mow alone.” The farmer, himself, had a bad accident in the barn. He and the hired man were shoring up a rotting beam when it fell on his back. He recovered but was hump-backed
A neighbor farm experienced a truly tragic accident. One winter weekend, a
cousin came to visit from the city. A happy-go-lucky boy, he remembered summer
revels jumping in the hay mow with his country cousins. He decided to go to
the farm with the farmer at evening chore time. The girls didn’t go; it was
too cold and besides they were helping their aunt and mother get supper. The
farmer’s first task, while it was still a little light, was to get down the
hay. He opened the trap door and pitched off the needed hay from the mow nearest
the opening, then turned to go to the straw mow. The boy jumped from the beam
where he was perched to follow. He jumped short and fell on the loosened edge
of hay. He could not catch himself and kept sliding, fell through the trap
door, twisted as he fell and missed the pile of hay on the stable floor. He
hit his head on the edge of the gutter and died.
The girls never went to the barn to play again. The first of March brought a change of hired men. Now there was a boy too old to play and a girl who liked to play dress-up and school and board games. One Saturday afternoon in early April, Grace went to the barn to turn the handle of the fanning mill while the farmer poured in the seed oats. In later summers she drove the team for the haying until the team was retired and she was grown. Her children learned similar lessons of independence and cooperation in another barn with other kinds of play: a swing in the stable door. A basketball net on the hay mow post, calves to clean and train for exhibit at the county fair, a new generation of kittens to cuddle. Now the mows were filled with bales—not good for jumping. Grace hoped her children never tried to climb to the peak of the barn.
Of course they did!