Thursday, July 15, 2010

An Unlikely Ally

He was a cantankerous old man. When he wasn’t chewing and spitting tobacco, he smoked a pipe and he always wore a red plaid shirt. He was the archetypal New Hampshire farmer, a lost art form. He rarely, if ever, smiled and most people avoided him. I decided that I wouldn’t. For some reason, I knew that under his knitted brow, and through the smoke and grumbling, lived a kind soul. As hard as he tried, he could not hide that from me.

I made it a habit to watch. I yearned to know about him, and I adored the cows.

“Hi Grampa.” I interrupted the constant clanging of steel from the milking station; the scent of fresh hay permeated the air.

He mumbled something inaudible, yet familiar. He continued working amongst the customary sounds of cows lowing, chickens clucking and the rumbling of tractors.

“Whatcha doin’?” It was obvious, but I knew he would at least consider explaining it to me.

“ I’m trying to fix this pump.” He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand, looked at me briefly and then leaned back over the pump.

“Can I help?” An impossible question, but I tried nonetheless.

He grunted and kept working. I took it as a no.

“Guess what?” I clung to the edge of the gray wooden fence.

He didn’t answer; I continued. “When I grow up, I’m going to be a farmer.”

“Well…” He held a match to his pipe, looked at me and then back at the pump. "Good for you."

“I’m just going to sit here and watch you.” He couldn’t dissuade me from being there. I sat quietly until my cousin Annie showed up on her bike and pestered me to join her.

“See you later, Grampa.” I rode off on my bike.

He allowed me to play with the calves. I loved to sit on the edge of their pen and sing to them as they looked at me with large chocolate eyes. I named each calf and did so based on his or her distinctive personalities. After a certain amount of time, the males were shipped off somewhere. Sometimes there were dozens of calves. One morning after breakfast, I went to the barn and realized that the males were gone. I looked inside the barn and ran off to find Grampa. He swore under his breath and turned away from me.

“Grampa, what happened to the calves? A lot of them are gone. Where are they?” My questions irritated him more than usual.

He paused. “They had to go. This is a dairy farm.” He walked away.

I scurried around to face him. “Where did they go?”

“Questions, questions…” He walked away again, this time I didn’t follow.

I left the barn. I knew it was time to seek out my grandmother,” Woman” to him. She was either in the kitchen or in the garden. She always had time for me; it didn’t matter what she was doing. When I asked her why some of the calves had to go, she sat on the steps of the front porch and fiddled with the corners of her pink flowered apron and explained it to me. As much as I didn’t want to hear that bulls were for meat and cows were for milk, if I wanted to become a farmer one day, I needed to accept the bitter truth.

From that day on, I tried very hard not to bond with the male calves, but it still bothered me when they were gone. I thought it unfair that these innocent creatures of God were only in existence to be slaughtered. I carried on as their only friend, an ally of sorts, even though there was nothing I could do to save them.

Excerpt from Ballad of a Sandwich Girl, a Memoir

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