What Little I Know of Barns, I Know Well

You know the scene, bucolic, pastoral, maybe even romantic.

While on your weekend road trip into the country, you reach the top of the rise on the curvaceous rural road and look toward the horizon, and there it sits – a farm.  From a distance the farm house and fields, a patchwork of white, greens and browns, and especially the barn, remind you of how you might have imagined life on a farm might be. Hello, Currier and Ives.

I’ve had a barn in my life.  It was my father-in-law’s barn.  Al and Willine bought their small Maine farm in 1949, and the previous owner who sold the house to this young New England family was required to install running water and a flush toilet before the FHA would grant them their mortgage.  They did so, and Al and Willine proceeded to raise a family of seven children while meticulously restoring their circa 1775 homestead, and farming their 37 acres, living honest hard-working lives.

I was taken in by the barn and all it stood for, and until last summer when the family had to clean out the property to a “broom clean” condition in preparation for the closing of the sale of the estate, I held onto the romance of a barn near a hillside, long gorgeous weekend sunsets and going to sleep to the sounds of crickets and the river, awakening to birdsong, and listening to the pines as they whispered stories carried by refreshing afternoon breezes.

That isn’t to say I remained naïve.  Being the dutiful daughter-in-law, I helped in the gardens, cooked for the family most weekends when we would visit, and this city girl knows how hot it can be dressed in long pants, a long sleeved shirt (tucked in), shoes and socks, while trampling hay atop a hay wagon on the hottest, sunniest, most beautiful beach day in July, can feel like.  I remember discovering hay chaff in crevices of my body, where the lodging of which defied reason and gravity.  I remember watching the sweat pouring off Al and TT’s backs as they would hoist forkful upon forkful of hay onto the wagon, hearing the droning of the tractor, and the joyful suffering of a family doing a job that needed to be done.  Give no mind to the beach or a tall glass of lemonade and a book in a chaise lounge under the shade of a tree.  This weekend is haying.  I learned quickly that farming is difficult, sometimes grueling, often tedious dangerous work, often with scant tangible reward.

I held on to the romance of the barn though, and I always felt a sense of peace as it would come into view as we would approach the farm on a Friday evening. Until I had to help clean it out, that is.  It happens slowly, one thing at a time, and then before you know it, the family has to contend with a barn containing 60 years of collected, rusting, rotting, useless junk, with just enough antiques and artifacts hidden in the mix to make it emotional, slow, tedious, filthy, and difficult.  I have been witness to the result of the insanity of hoarding, which from our view, had come to Al and Willine through having grown up poor during the Great Depression, when everything was scarce and dear.

When the family army convened to clean out the property, the accumulated results were astonishing.  A neighbor hauled off nearly two tons of scrap metal, including two coffin sized freezers which hadn’t worked in at least a decade, bed frames, angle iron, wagon wheels, broken down empty steel cabinets, axe heads, and more things that I can remember.  We filled two 30 yard dumpsters with things from both the house and the barn; this after all of the siblings had taken what they wanted and set aside what they wanted to give away.  We burned at least that much three times over, and by the dying of the last embers of the third burn, our fire circle was nearly 20 feet across.

And I confess to my contribution to the mess; a 1979 Mercury Capri with a 4-speed V8 engine, which I bought new but took off the road when we opted in 1987 for four-door sedan to accommodate JT, who was soon to arrive in the world.  We had plans to drag the car out one day and have it restored so we could have an antique Sunday car, but someday did not arrive before reckoning day, so we dragged it out and put a for sale sign on it instead.

Children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews also found storage haven for their valuable possessions in Al’s barn, and these forgotten treasures also had to be removed during the last days before the closing.

TT tells me that while the family was actively farming, the barn was well used and used for its intended purpose.  It housed the cows and the horses in the winter, held the aforementioned hay in its lofts, and it housed the tractors, hay rake, mowing machine, cultivators, and other necessary farming tools along with the occasional chickens and barn cats.

TT and I had thought over the years that when the time came, we would like to own the property as a vacation home, but when the dreaming became a real possibility, TT had to take a builder’s eye view of the house, and we had to opt out, knowing that we would not be able to do it justice given our current finances, and the amount of upkeep the property would require.

It was an emotionally charged time for the family when the sale of the estate finally closed, especially for TT’s sisters, one who lives next door and has the old homestead in full view from her living room, and the other across the street from the house, and the first couple of times we went up to visit, it was surreal to go there and not have the barn and antique house within reach, and see BQ (the new owner) out in the yard mowing and clearing the field, but then there was an easing into the new reality, and the family found their new neighbor to be cordial, friendly and working hard to upgrade the property and clear out the stone walls that run along the perimeter.

Having had a barn in my life has been a wonderful experience; but I’m ready to live lightly.  Since the trauma of seeing the accumulated broken possessions of a hardworking family being thrown into a dumpster and heaved onto a blazing fire, in fact doing much of the tossing myself, and having watched the tears flow and heard the choked voices of this wonderful caring family as they dispensed with their own history, I have chosen a less dramatic way of clearing out.  Every week, something must go.   It may be just a small box of books I can donate to the Library, or a piece of clothing, maybe some dishes that have long since seen their last use, but it is time for clearing out and appreciating clean corners  and closets.

No more barns for me.  I’ll settle for a seaside cottage with a small garden and a shade tree.

The Barn I Know

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Houston, We Have Cucumber and Tomato Plants Growing on the Porch

Can’t wait to see this month’s electricity bill, but ah, forget the cost of keeping these little babies warm and bathed in the artificial sun of grow lights – if all goes well, we’ll be eating our first homegrown cucumber of the season sometime in April and maybe, just maybe, our first homegrown tomato of the season on Memorial Day.

This race to the first vegetable started innocently enough, I thought, but I didn’t realize just how strong the competitive streaks ran in my mother-in-law and her son.  Willine and my father-in-law, Al, were not just gardeners; they were subsistence farmers in southern Maine, and they raised all of their own vegetables for their family of nine, and they raised their own beef, had cows for milk and sometimes would have chickens for eggs.  Strawberries, corn, and cucumbers were cash crops which they sold to the local grocery store, to a pickling company in Oxford, Maine, and from their front yard. The money was used to buy school shoes, clothes and other necessities in the fall.  37 acres and some hard labor can produce a lot of food.

And Willine did not like it one bit that our growing season was two weeks ahead of hers, which she realized the first summer we were married and we were comparing notes on how our gardens were coming along.  Within a couple of years, she was after Al to build a greenhouse off her kitchen, and the race was on.  Year after year, Terry would make sure his parents knew when we had pulled the first radish, eaten the first spinach, or lettuce, or whatever he had managed to pull out of the ground early that year (the asparagus was a favorite “first” because, well, it was a favorite to eat), and he would always be satisfied with a mournful cry from his mother when she knew she had lost the race again.  I must state here, however, that a race was never officially declared, but there was no denying it, either.

Now that Al and Willine have both departed the fun of friendly gardening competition has passed with it, but we do both like defying the winter by having a taste of spring before the snow season is officially over.