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Food Memories I

We were eating lunch at an awful diner in Whitehall, New York. I thought that maybe this would be the last time that I would see my grandfather, and I was determined for him to order dessert: pie, ice cream, cake, anything. I wanted him to ask them to warm it up for him. Strange that my parents and I acted like it was normal to drive in the car, over an hour each way, to get to this place that he was supposed to call “home,” which was apropos of absolutely nothing in his life or ours.

 

For his last birthday, his ninety-first, we cooked the Seymour Dinner. If we’d had it our way, we would have had real mashed potatoes, fresh peas, homemade gravy and grass-fed beef. But I insisted, and we all knew, that Gramp wanted the Seymour Dinner, and that meant the same exact Seymour Dinner he’d eaten for seventy years. We bought eighty-five percent lean ground beef, canned peas, instant mashed potatoes, Brown ‘n Serve dinner rolls, and Gravy Master. I did defy the recipe’s call for a frozen store-bought pie and made a fresh apple one instead. I thought that this was the least I could do for him.

 

We served him his dinner on a tray, which he was used to by then because this was how he took all of his meals at the nursing home. He couldn’t see anything, and demanded that the food be placed as if around a clock, and presented to him by explaining that the meat was at twelve o’clock, the peas at three o’clock, the roll at six and so on.

 

“No, no, no, NO! I want the potatoes at six o’clock!” I’m sure he argued. We tucked a napkin into his collar and he was soon silent in his delight at eating, the only remaining physical delight in his life. As he ate his nose dribbled incessantly, and my brother brought him a box of Kleenex, which he pulled out and stuffed into his shirt pocket, one after another after another, coyly, as if none of us could see either. He assumed there was a wastebasket at his feet, and throughout the meal kept dropping his used Kleenexes to the floor; the dog’s ears would perk and all of us would sigh and say to each other with our eyes that it was okay.

 

The Poop Factor

The farm is no place for a hypochondriac. The barn is a collection of generations of dust, moldy hay, forgotten trash, rusty equipment, abandoned nests, old poop, fresh poop, composted poop, petrified poop, barn swallow poop decorating the posts and beams and corners. The pigs delight in being filthy. They make pig-sized depressions in the mud and roll, snouts first, until they look as though they’re wearing wetsuits. They smile their pig smile, proud of their improvised swimming pool. When they’re thirsty, they dive into the water bucket with both arms, immersing the entire front half of their bodies.

The house, despite our best efforts, is an old farmhouse. The mudroom is our storage for dirty barn boots and overalls. There are an inordinate number of resident spiders, filling the place with cobwebs within hours of a deep clean. The windows are perpetually fly-speckled, the plywood kitchen floor abused. The basement is dank and suspicious, the sort of place Indiana Jones might investigate. It seems to provide the upstairs with a constant supply of moldy air, hungry mice and a musty odor.

And so, for a person predisposed to worry, there is ample opportunity for discomfort. All of my distrust of germs comes from my father, who inherited his distrust from his father. He demands antibacterial hand soap, brushes his teeth for fifteen minutes at a time, and keeps his fingernails impossibly short.

When my family comes to visit the farm, my father stiffens. He steps from the truck and immediately into tall “mud” boots, which are spotless. He looks toward the barn suspiciously. My family always brings too much. My mother will have packed a cooler full of dinner, and another full of appetizers. They’ll bring armloads of pillows and blankets. They bring tools. My father brings his box full of paper towels, Dial soap and bottled water. It is as if they believe I need rescuing.

In the morning, they’ll wake up with me to come out for chores. My mom and brothers are good sports, bundling up and eager to help carry buckets of grain and water. My father tags along reluctantly, sulking like a child at having been woken too early. He brings along his mug of coffee, then thinks better of drinking from it after standing in the dusty barn. My brother grabs the bucket of feed from me and climbs bravely into where the pigs wait. They are on him in an instant, snouts smearing across his shorts and knees. He laughs, amazed at how quickly they’ve made a mess.

Back in the house, as they pack, my father is uneasy. “DON’T get in the car with those shit-covered shorts on!” He tells my brother. “I’ve got a clean pair in my bag, in the living room.” My father goes nowhere without his canvas bag full of spare clothing.

It’s getting better with time. I’ve given in to the fact that the pigs will muck up my shorts, that the eggs are sometimes dirty, and that it’s okay to touch the chickens. Still, I keep my fingernails short.

On my way out for a jog, I always check the mail. I walk from the house and down the gravel driveway, warming up my legs. The mailbox is oversized and was painted blue by the last tenants. Carefully-drawn branches along one side frame the green numbers 5 and 0.

When we first moved in, the mailbox looked like it had been beaten up by high school kids: the post sagged with missing nails, and the box leaned out over the road as if about to puke onto the dirt. It didn’t have a door, and its angle helped protect our letters from the rain, but it took just the right touch to keep everything from sliding out. After living here for over a year, we finally got a notice from the Postmaster informing us that our mailbox was not up to par; an image of an “incorrect” box, which had the exact pitch and sag of ours, was circled in red pen. Beside it was an image of a “correct” mailbox, which stood erect and clearly the superior choice. Afraid we wouldn’t receive our bills, Jacob cut a door from a length of firewood and nailed the post back into place.

I pause to pull down the slab of wood and look into the cavernous mailbox, the size of a small trunk, because it buys time before I have to start huffing and bouncing up the road. Depending on what I find, I may be able to delay five minutes or more, standing at the end of the driveway reading letters from friends in faraway places, recipes from Cook’s Illustrated, or stories from a brand new issue of The Sun. There is almost no traffic on my “road,” which dead ends and leads to two other houses, both owned by old men who have lived on the hill their entire lives and mow their lawns every day of the summer. I can stand there at my leisure, pretending to stretch, and procrastinate all I want.

We’ve lived here for twenty months, on this farm in the northern Vermont mountains, and we count ourselves blessed to have the view, the quiet and privacy, the birdsong all year and the empty woods. We keep company with the cows and chickens, the pigs and the dog, and with each other. We have friends for dinner, and visits from our families, and cars to drive us too far down winding roads to our workplaces. We have Internet access and, sometimes, all four bars on our cell phones. Still, I relish my daily trip to the mailbox.

I like to see my mom’s cursive and the corny cards she sends to the dog on Valentine’s Day. I like the images on postcards from Hawaii, the Rocky Mountains, and Italy. I read books on pages, and I tear into the packages whose senders I recognize from Amazon. Bills come on time, every time, and despite how quickly they seem to follow one another, they come with a certain satisfaction. Our mailbox is big enough to accommodate shoeboxes, and when my new sneakers arrive I put them on right away, surprised by such whiteness, and take off down the road to scuff them up.

I get a letter from my uncle, who read my letter, and who wants to visit. We get a Save the Date from Jacob’s childhood neighbor, and a wedding invitation from friends on a dairy farm in Idaho. We get a small package from North Carolina, with a handmade mug and a recording of our friends playing bluegrass tunes together. We get a letter from Alaska, birthday cards, and our retail license for selling pre-packaged meat.

Sometimes I stand at the mailbox in the sunshine, feeling as though I have plenty of time. Sometimes it is howling and sleeting, and I want to have my run over with and be back at the woodstove, but I am eager for news. On rainy days, and when the wind blows, and when sloppy snowflakes fill the driveway, I hunch over the door of the mailbox while I read. When I am particularly reluctant to run, I save something: a letter from home, a paycheck, a package with my best friend’s tall handwriting. I like to make a little reward for myself, a treat to collect on my way back up the driveway.

Washing Eggs

When she is leaning at the kitchen sink to wash eggs, the water is pouring constantly. She thinks of the barn in Salisbury, of the roosting boxes and the sheep, and now how its roofline sags. It won’t be long before she drives by and sees that it has gone the way of so many barns: slumped to the ground under the weight of neglect. They were always made to shower or bathe after being in the barn, their parents so untrusting of the poop and the animals and the dust in the air. Now she watches a small bit of poop on an egg, that way it sloughs off into the sink carrying hay and feathers with it.

The eggs make her yearn for summer and the stressful Friday mornings preparing for the farmers’ market. Anything to take her out of this winter that won’t release its grip, this early-April lingering of bitter wind and an insatiable woodstove.  Standing there washing at the sink makes her crave open windows, the birds loud outside, louder than the wind. She dreams of her bare feet on this plywood floor that is impossible to make decent, warm air pushing through the house instead of the stale cold that rises up from the basement. In the summer it is so easy to ignore the haphazardness of this place.

The eggs are pleasing, in their blue and white and brown. They are the simplest of all the foods that they can provide for themselves on the farm. Each time she leans at the sink to wash a batch of them, she is grateful for having settled here, if only for a little while. How viscerally satisfying it is to bring these things into the kitchen: the eggs, the milk from a neighbor, the tomatoes, carrots, onions, potatoes, kale, the parsley and thyme, the chicken and pork chops, the squash and garlic and beets.

The double aluminum sink makes her think of the kitchen in Salisbury, and the small sink in the corner that looked out the window onto the deck. She remembers the delight of opening it wide in the summertime, of her brother leaning in from outside to order take-out. The faucet of that sink curved like the elegant neck of a swan, and she remembers returning home from vacations and letting the water run so cold that faucet turned smoky with condensation. They would gulp the icy well water, brought up from deep in the ground, and remark at the good fortune of living in the country.

The smoothness of the eggs is irresistible. She handles each one carefully, picking it gently from the belly of the sink and turning it slowly beneath the running water. The shells are speckled, blue, turquoise, deep brown and clean white. Some are small, from the new pullets that just started to lay an egg a day. Some are massive, with shells that warp and bulge, laid by the oldest hens.

Washing eggs this morning makes her think of the corners of wheat toast dipped in yolks. There was a time in her childhood when she relished this breakfast: the beautiful, delicate skin to easily break open, the bright yellow, the sogginess of the bread. She remembers sitting at a kitchen stool in her thin cotton nightgown, because in the summer it is already so warm in the morning, and scraping the yolks out of that perfect circle of white. A full moon on her plate.


We are missing our little orange barn cat, Pierre. We’ve asked the neighbors, looked for him everywhere in the barn and shed, and called for him in the woods, but his food bowl on top of the haystack remains full. We haven’t seen him in almost two weeks, and have accepted the fact that he won’t be coming back.

Pierre came here just about a year ago. Tom Stearns brought him into the office at High Mowing and announced that the cat would be going to the shelter if no one wanted him. Jacob took one look and immediately thought, “My brother!” The resemblance was striking. He couldn’t turn the offer down.

Pierre was French. He preferred rustic baguettes and soft cheeses. He also went by Peter, when he was in trouble, Pedro when sporting his sombrero, or Pete when he and Jacob were out with the boys. The two of them were working on an impressive repertoire of tricks.

Pete had the greatest life. He had complete freedom, with a cozy bed in the hay to come home to. He roamed in the woods, scaled to the tops of our old elder trees, and hunted ferociously. Here’s a classic display of his adventurous spirit:

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Pierre was also a fierce cuddler; when either of us were around, especially Jacob, Pierre went after our love like he was starving for it. He would melt in our arms, purring, kneading his paws against the canvas of our barn coats, drool bubbling in the corners of his mouth.

He seemed unalarmed by the chickens, cows, pigs and dog. All summer long, he nestled into the hog pile to sleep, and no one complained. Each morning he would race into the chicken coop behind me, and sit around in a circle with the hens, lapping water as they pecked at it. They lined up that way, like siblings on school days gathering at the table to eat their breakfast cereal.

Pierre was a good part of the family. We miss him, but I’ll bet he’s off on a good adventure, wherever he is.

The red-winged blackbirds are here. I keep thinking I’m hearing them outside the window, but then I tell myself I must be dreaming. It’s still too early, I ‘m sure. That one glorious weekend was a tease. It’s time to bring in more firewood and hunker down for a few more weeks.

But they’re here. They congregated in the yard this morning, a whole gang of them partying in the newly thawed brown patch between the house and the reluctantly retreating ice. The gray-bearded dog sat up and perked her ears, inspecting them. She even seemed to smile at their watery warble, the sound reminding her, too, of Little League and mud.

We’ve just barely begun to start the first seeds and it is nearly impossible to remember that it is only March. We have weeks before shorts and bare feet, before planting potatoes, before piglets and the first farmers’ market. But it is all starting again, and each time I fill a new tray with potting soil, my excitement grows.

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Fern and the Fence

For Christmas, I wrote Ella a book about the farm. It is based on a true story about Fern.

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