(originally published on June 29, 2011)
Last weekend Hubby and I met my parents and some extended family members in the countryside. I socialized with the family minimally, making small talk and helping Mom with the food, but even though my body was present, most of the time I was in a separate mental zone, imbibing the space around that was speaking to me.
Both my parents were born on farms, and, even though I am a city girl, I spent so much time in those villages as a child that it is safe to say that I grew up on farms. This was the house where my maternal grandparents used to live, and which my Mom and her sister inherited after they passed away more than fifteen years ago.
The way I remember it, back in the early nineties it was bustling with life, energy, and hard work. My family grew wheat, maize, and most of its own vegetables. They owned forest land. They made their own wine, and grandma would always send us back to the city with gallons of fresh milk from the cows. Us kids would follow the seasonal rhythm of the farm, joining the tractors and carts and helping out as much as we could, but mostly goofing around. There was a stable for cows and pigs, a barn for straw and hey, a corn flour mill at some point, and another wooden barrack for storing maize. Not enough hours in the day for everything that needed to be done.
More than anything though, I remember, and miss, the hoards of animals running around in our huge yard. Most other farms I have seen simply use their animals – they are either food or tools, means to an end and basically treated as objects. My family always spoilt their critters. When we stayed at grandmother’s house, Mom would wake me up by bringing one of the cats straight into my bed. We went for long walks over the fields with the dogs. If a hen or a duck hatched, one of the chicks or ducklings would always be our pet, allowed in the house and sitting on somebody’s lap. Calves were allowed to roam free and licked our hands with their sand-papery tongues.
The connection we formed with the animals often made it difficult to deal with the more typical situations on a farm: just like there is harvest time for the plants you grow, there is time for your animals to either end up on your dinner table or in the fridge, or be sold for money. My grandfather teared up when he had to sell one of his prized bulls. In the fall, I would wake up to the sound of pigs taken to be slaughtered. When one of the cats had kittens, we were allowed to pick one or two that we wanted to keep, and the rest of the litter would mysteriously disappear. Luckily for me, I never got to find out if I would be strong enough to kill a chicken, but there is more honesty in thus living with nature than separate from it. If you know what it means to watch an animal be born, feed it and raise it, then kill it and feed your family, then you appreciate more the life it has given for your well-being. The life I am leading now is less genuine in a way: I am typing this sitting on the terrace, baby-talking to my parakeets, while my refrigerator is filled with nameless meat from nameless animals I never connected with.
All of that is gone now. When my grandparents died, my mother and my aunt had to sell all of the animals quickly, because living creatures need to be taken care of and cannot wait for you to wrap up your funerals and mourning. The fields were rented out to other people, and the teeming life in the yard disappeared in a heartbeat.
I sat in the gazebo that my dad and my aunt’s husband built in front of the house, and took in the emptiness. It has been fifteen years, but the life that belongs in that space and that is screamingly missing never ceases to make me sad. If you haven’t checked out the Random Facts About Me section of this blog, it is high time that you do. Sometime in the future, when I decide to kick the travel bug to the curb, I honestly want to spend my days surrounded by animals on a ranch.
The only animals that live there now are birds. Part of the seasonal rhythm of a farm is watching out for the arrival, or departure, of our staple migratory birds – swallows and storks – which leave us for Africa every fall, and with which I have come to identify. It made me happy to see so many barn swallows fly around even though our stable, where they used to nest, is locked up now. I felt at home noticing that practically every telegraph pole had a white stork nest on it, with newborn chicks stretching their wings and sticking out their long necks to see what was going on with the rest of us poor mortals on the ground. My mother told me that at night, our gazebo has become a sleeping site for owls. Having grown up in the countryside, she cannot shake the traditional superstition that an owl’s hoot is a portent of death, but being the bookworm in the family, I associate them with wisdom and learning. Hubby and I left too early to see them, but it warms my heart to know that they are the new keepers of grandmother’s house.