Read Sylvia's Farm Online

Authors: Sylvia Jorrin

Sylvia's Farm (5 page)

Samantha had quite a different beginning. She was one of six puppies I had no intention of keeping. From the day of her birth, she always distinguished herself from the others by rolling out of the dog
bed and away from her brothers and sisters while they slept in a puppy pile on top of one another. She'd insist on sleeping off to one side all alone, and I'd always pick her up and put her back with her mother. When a friend who knows dogs better than anyone I know came to see the litter, it was the little black-faced dog that she thought I should keep. I didn't want a puppy. Protested vehemently. And kept Samantha.

Samantha's nature is different from her mother's. Her upbringing as harsh in its own way because I wouldn't let her in the house. Even after I decided to keep her, she slept on an enclosed porch, never allowed indoors. Sam's nature is sweet, however, and she sits next to me whenever she finds me seated. Now that I've moved outside with my coffee, she is stretched out on a cold stone patio floor wanting so badly to be next to me rather than lying in the sun like her mother. She swims with glee, if a dog could be said to be gleeful, making little happy noises and paddling in the swimming hole while her mother ardently fishes.

I'll soon train her for sheep. Last evening she sat motionless on the stone wall while I visited with my flock. It was the first time a “down stay” command was obeyed with apparent understanding of why it was necessary. She's ready. She flocks her little horned Dorset-Finn cross lamb, Sir Parsley (the origin of his name and why he thinks he's a dog, sleeps with Samantha, and refuses all contact with his own species is another story). She is showing a herding instinct at about the right age.

Steele and Cagney, Samantha's sire, made some beautiful puppies. There were two, though, that broke my heart to let go. Both were prettier than Steele or Samantha, with their mother's brains and their father's handsome elegance. One, I heard from Jake Bryden, who trucks livestock every day up and down these country roads, is already bringing in cows at Liddle's farm in Andes. I had seen him in
passing one day, thinking, oh, what a nice dog, before I realized it was he.

I'm sitting in one of the most beautiful spots here at Greenleaf. The morning brings glory to the color of the flowers. There is a stone window in my outdoor living room with a view of the barn and an apple tree and newly framed leafed ash. The willow against the dark gray carriage house gleams in the sun, gold and green. The wind moves the leaves, making it all almost too dazzling to look at. I'd love to photograph that willow, mornings. It is so enchanting with white fog behind it or as now many shades of green. I'd forgotten how much I've loved to sit here. It's been too long.

Steele, Samantha, and I walk each morning to my neighbor Nina Juviler's mailbox and then back home. I'm teaching Sam to heel. She does most times. We look at the progress Henry Kathmann and I have made on my most interesting sheep fence, and at the neighbor's geese, and enjoy being together. It's our time.


comes, tin sounds on the porch, the buzz and sizzle of cars driving by, a rat-a-tat-tat on the porch roof, a plaintive wail from a drenched lamb looking for her mother. The sounds usually bringing comfort and joy here in the grass crop country somehow today bring despair. Last year's hay was unaffected by the decent snow of the prior winter and very much affected by the drought. I couldn't find hay throughout the summer or fall and was forced into buying hay by the week all winter. This year we have had rain. Days or, rather, nights on end. Major storms accompanied by twisters, tearing branches from maple trees along the creek. Thunderstorms turning the sky slate gray, small steady drizzles. And today's steady rain.

Grass is growing quickly in the fields where growth has been slow. The sheep spend their midday naptime directly behind my barn. The runoff has sweetened the field beyond it, and it has become a dark, rich green. But what it all means is that the hay I customarily buy in June is not in the barn. And the July crop was not dry enough, in my judgment, although dry enough in the seller's.

The week has had some comic relief, however, in one or two forms. I raised a Jersey calf a couple of winters ago, from the time she was a week old. She had been trained to a pail and had her own spot in the barn. When it got cold I put a hooded sweatshirt on her, and once, when she got too cold, Falvius Mauer took her back for a week to his warm and dry cow barn. I bought a beautiful rolled leather
halter lead for her and taught her to walk like a lady. And that was part of her name: Lady Francesca Cavendish. She was lovely. My only mistake was in not disbudding the horns. They grew. At first I looked for pictures of Swiss cows with garlands around them. I even found a beautiful picture of a French sheep with an elegant straw headdress. Oh, to know how to braid that!

Lady Francesca lived with the sheep and seemed to think of herself as a sheep, albeit, a gradually bigger and bigger one, but a sheep nonetheless. Then one day my sweet docile calf became a heifer. And as her life changed, so did mine.

The sheep were fence and stone wall climbing in those days over to Tom Connelly's. Lady Francesca, lumbering along, would follow. But sheep could scoot between barbed wire when encouraged back home, and Francesca just couldn't. She finally learned to duck her head between double-strand sections in the fence, but on more than one occasion was left bawling on Connelly's side at the retreating backs of both Steele and me, after I had gone over to retrieve my flock.

One day Francesca discovered the heifers at Connelly's. The A-I man from Eastern had done his job and I thought she was bred. But there was something about the sight of those heifers that drew her like a magnet. Tom drove in, in his Bronco, shouting, “That heifer of yours is going to break down my fence so I put her in with my cows. Get her when you want to.” So Steele and I went to Tom's field to retrieve Lady Francesca Cavendish. She took one look at us and ran away. Again and again. Life with cows appealed to her, I presume, and life with sheep did not.

I was suddenly called to New York because of an illness and death of a close friend. It was two weeks before Steele and I were able to return to Tom's field. By then Francesca had become much attached to her new friends and went tearing into the woods at the sight of us.
On the fifth or sixth day, my steps now leaden as I trudged over the rise and up the hill, I found the woods and field empty.

Nowhere was the herd to be seen. Rumor had it that the heifers were sold. Despair filled my heart and failure filled my soul. All dreams for that farmhouse cheddar cheese curing nicely in the cellar and a beautiful new little calf in the fields were gone.

I called Connelly's several times and wrote two letters to him in the fall, realizing full well that I'd probably not reach him. Yet there had to be a way to resolve the issue. I knew he was not a man who could live with his conscience if he profited from the sale of my cow. Connelly is a complex man but has his own sense of justice and his own sense of humor as well. But ultimately he honors his values.

After a few months of thought and procrastination, I made one last attempt. I wrote a final letter describing how Steele and I put his heifers in when they first broke out in the spring. Then, with great care, I broached the subject of Lady Francesca Cavendish. “I know you would be appalled to realize you had profited from the sale of my cow,” I wrote.

A few days later, just last week, Tom stopped by the house. “What made you think I sold your cow?” he said. “She is in my backyard.”

“You mean she is still alive? I cried for a week when I heard she'd been sold,” I said.

Tom danced his Irish jig, or rather I did while he piped for a few minutes. “She's nice,” he said.

“I know,” I replied. “I trained her to lead.”

“What do you want for her?” he said. “You come up and see her.”

“No, I couldn't bear it,” I replied. “You decide the fair price, I trust you.”

“I'll be by in a few days with a check,” he said.

The rain seeped into my soul today. The recommendations from
the Cooperative Extension yesterday about my fields would be expensive and arduous to comply with. There was nothing I could think of to redeem my day or give any joy to my heart. But then I remembered Tom's visit and suddenly I knew.

I called George Thompson who has a Jersey herd over on Dry Brook. “Do you have a four- or five-day-old calf for sale?” I asked.

“It so happens I do,” he said.

“How much?”

“Forty dollars.”

“I'll take her,” I said.

It was the only thing I could do. And suddenly the rain sounds like music and the cool air inspires me to bake some lemon cookies and brings the thought of having tea when I've eaten all meals walking, between chores, for weeks. And all I can do is smile, and the house feels full of joy.


Arnold, my cousin Henry, and I used to play together summers on Grandpa's farm. We were the youngest of eight children, an oddly small number from my grandparents' seven children. My grandfather and my uncle Percy farmed dairy, milking cows by hand in the gentle rolling hills of Perkin's Corners, Niantic, Connecticut, not far from Long Island Sound. The 1790s house and hundred acres held an infinite source of entertainment for us.

There was a small coppice of a pithy kind of tree on one side of the cemetery wall that bordered the farm. I never did find out what kind of saplings they were. Soft and cocoa colored inside, they invited one's knife to turn them into a whistle.

Sometimes we ran across the beautiful flat top of the wall, laid stone and cement, to get to the little coppice. Other times we skirted the wall and slipped in from the side. It sheltered us and gave us a place for our imaginations to roam, away from our parents, each other's aunts and uncles. I don't remember what our games were exactly about, but do remember the feeling of daring and expectancy upon arriving there, and the shadows, and the tiny flickering of light between the trees high above our heads, and how close we felt to each other, and how special it was to have this place.

One afternoon, crossing back to rejoin the family, I realized that the thick black vine now growing up, across, and down the other
side of this massive wall had not been there before. It was a snake. A large one. I was the oldest of the three of us, all of six at the time; my brother and cousin were both four. I was terrified of the snake.

My mother was a farm girl whose mother was a city girl. My beloved grandmother made certain her daughters were raised with the city refinement of being thrown into minor and proper hysterics at the sight of such things as snakes. And so my mother instilled in me a real fear, if not a propensity to have hysteries, of this harmless creature slowly making its way across the wall.

There I was feeling absolutely responsible for my brother and cousin, facing off a very large black snake that was between us and the safety of our parents on the lawn under the trees. “Run!” I shouted to them, and run I did. They followed, two pairs of short little four-year-old legs moving as fast as they could behind me! Breathless, we told the story and were told that of course we should not have strayed to that little wood in the first place.

I'm quite certain that the size of the snake was thought to be exaggerated. It wasn't exaggerated in the least. The last time I turned off the highway onto Society Road, went to the farm, and saw that stone wall, I was as impressed with the size of the wall as I had been that summer day. Somehow, the visits to that wood lost their charm after that afternoon. I had become a bit afraid, and that deterred me rather then enticed me back.

The lay of the land of my grandfather's farm is not dissimilar from mine. The meadowland before the hill was shorter and there was no creek. But the flat top of the hill is the same. My great-grandparents lived up there, in an orchard that they and my grandfather planted. I never saw it. By the time I was born, my mother had become far too much a city girl to climb ever again to the top. I tried, alone, each time going a little higher, each time drawing back when I became enclosed by too many trees.

I know I never saw my grandfather take the dog and rifle and go up into those woods to shoot a fox that had killed some of his chickens, but the story is so vivid in my memory that my imagination has assumed the hue of reality, and I believe in my heart that I did watch him and heard him call, “Nelly, Nelly,” and take his beautiful collie and his rifle up that hill and into the woods. I can see his back to me, his head turned slightly over his shoulder, smiling at Nelly, his rifle cradled in his right elbow.

My grandson, Mikhael, has a subscription to the
Delaware County Times
and nearly every week reads about my life on my farm in what he refers to as the news. “I read about it in the news, Grandmumsiedo,” he says. “I read about it in the news!” Will he remember seeing me with my Weatherbee rifle and my dog Steele taking the sheep up the hill to the pasture? Will the stories he's read and the things he's seen blend fact and imagination in his mind about his grandmother, turning me into something a little larger than life, or distilling his memories of me into an essence rather than a diluted everyday self?

I remember my grandfather's bushy mustache, which I encountered when he stretched out his arms and bent down to kiss me, and my mother calling out, “Pa, don't kiss her, you'll scratch her face,” and I not wanting to hurt his feelings, running even faster to him, all the while knowing how scratchy that red brush on his face was going to be.

I remember how crystal clear and cold the well water was that came from the pump when he drew me a glass, and how I followed him in the fields while he dug potatoes, picking up the tiny ones left behind, and the starburst of crinkles around his smiling eyes when he showed Arnold and Henry and me the baby chickens in the barn, holding them in his hands.

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