Eight children in nine years. They live on this Vermont hill farm and the children are 9,8,7,5,4,3,2,1. Like the countdown for a homespun rocket. In the gap between seven and five: perhaps a few swings in a rocking chair, maybe a brushing of long hair. “Mama,” the whole world cries.
Steamy sweat dampens Addie’s hair and drips down her face to hiss on the wood-burning cook stove. Pots filled with glass jars of peas, beans and corn bubble in turn. Her children sit on the granite step and shell peas, snap the ends off beans, shuck leaves and silk from corn. They weed, they pick, they milk and cook and wash up and tumble hay, these children. We had a garden where yours is, plus other cornfields. We jumped on beans in the barn loft to shell them, then had to sweep them up for Mom to wash.
Scrub the milk pails and wipe the floors clean. Fill a string-handled can with blackberries from the south-facing knoll. Empty the can into a pail to bring home to waiting jars. We always had to do our chores before we played, but we never thought anything different because that’s the way it always was.
In the early 1940s, Addie and the children care for the cows and horses, pigs and chickens. George works on the town roads, bookended by the milking. The youngest children are sent to scatter corn and reach under broody hens for eggs. One girl would rather follow her older brothers into the barn than her sisters around the house. She’s taught to milk the small herd of Jersey crosses. Twice a day she slips next to her dad and leans into the warm bulk of a cow. Learns to grip the teat up high and squeeze her fingers, one after the other, to coax streams of milk into the steaming pail at her feet. I was Dad’s favorite.
Summer evenings, after the hay is loaded loose in the wagon and piled high into the barn’s loft, the children scatter across the freshly mown field and smack a baseball over rough ground. Their parents and visiting aunts and uncles, tired to dust, arc aching arms overhead and throw the ball back to waiting hands. Of course the work had to be done first, but those were special times to see Mom laughing like a kid. I can’t believe the woods here now! These were all hay fields, you know.
Addie listens for the snort of the horses on winter weekends. She looks up from the dry sink to see the pair coming down the hill. Holds her thin sweater closed with one hand across her chest as she pulls the back door shut with the other. The horses stop and wait for her to unhitch their load, breath steaming. Two more logs brought down the trail as George and their sons continue cutting deep in the woods. Addie detaches the logs and turns the horses back uphill for another load. They did that all day.
While World War II brews and spills over, kerosene lamps still light the farmhouse and barn. Every week Addie warms buckets of water on the stove. She fills a metal tub on the floor for baths. The kids carry in well water for the baths and the cranky, gas-powered washing machine. Addie washes all a day long, coaxes the machine to start each load. I don’t know how Mom did it, bless her heart. I still miss her.
No one’s ever made a go of this woodland farm for more than a few or a dozen years. The soil a thin skin above ledge. Land more suited to moss than hay and crops. By no small measure of loss and of grace, I’ve returned to a place others have decided to leave, been forced to leave, left. How to stir life from leavings, in this blend of ancient bedrock and modern privilege?
I lift stone-creased potatoes from the gardens, lead the sheep to graze between the trees. Jam the berries, collect the eggs, carry in the firewood. An element of choice, my choice, cleaves my efforts from Addie’s, from those who tended life all the day long, who built the endless stone walls, whose bones lie under my feet. This choice can thin tasks to an echo, a wrinkled reflection of the earlier lifeways.
I’m grateful for an ability to choose and I welcome the parting, even as I walk the same homeground as Addie—our hands, and our children’s hands, taking in the welcome warmth of a gathered egg. There was no place for pastoral romance in Addie’s life. Midnight coyotes and Lyme-bearing ticks nip most sentiment from my own. Still, I wonder, was Addie also pulled by the first spring beauties to open at her feet? Did she look to the eastern ridge each dawn and catch the brief glow of rending? Did she ever think about who walked the pastures before her, and who would mind the animals to come? Were there moments to dream? We moved from there to another farm over the hill when I was seven or eight. My favorite place was where a lot of lady slippers were. Not sure if I could still find that or not.
At the first lean toward spring, snow ragged and worn, I sit on the barn foundation’s remaining wall. Frost weeps through layers of cold flat slate. Through the trees, I feel the press of a young girl making her way into the barn to milk. The air dense with cows’ breath, with the girl, with Addie. The scrape of a stool, flicker of lamplight, ring of the first warm stream into pail—all stacked in stone and caught in the twist of a branch, trunk, root. The woods have returned to this rocky hillside, hayfields grown to memory. The heat of lives gone by remains.
Melanie Viets is a shepherd and small-scale farmer from Vermont. She serves as an editor at The Learned Pig and her writing has appeared in Narrative, Big Sky Journal, Whitefish Review, and other publications. Read more about Melanie on her website.
The image at the head of this piece is by the French artist Yves Berger. His work is concerned with the human soul and the co-existence of the living and the dead. He lives in the French alps.
The author would like to thank the Stevens family for sharing their childhood farm memories and stories.