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My seventh day in Northern Manitoba with my farm family was to be spent with Chris and the children. What a lovely day it was. On this particular day I was pulled into service in the kitchen, a job not unfamiliar to me. That evening there was to be a party in my honor which was such a lovely gesture on their part. Chris, as usual, would be doing the catering.  In her typical efficient way, she had printed menus for her guests. One was handed to me before we began dicing and chopping to provide a glimpse of what we were to be preparing. Breakfast that morning was self serve. Cold and hot cereal with a large bowl of fresh fruit and a plate with a variety of Chris’s homemade breads were set up on the dining room table for anyone to help themselves. Three golden crusted pies were lined up on the sideboard by the open dining room window to cool with strict instructions from the cook not to be touched.

Reading the menu I could see it would be a busy day. The cocktail hour was to begin at 5:00 out by the patio. Icy margaritas, wine and beer would be served for the adults enjoying a cocktail, and lemonade and sweet tea for those too young to imbibe or not inclined towards adult beverages. The appetizers, mostly comprised of ingredients from Chris’s impressive garden, were to include pastry wrapped asparagus with mustard sauce, sausage stuffed mushrooms, and deviled eggs as well as whatever contributions the guests provided. For someone who had spent little time in the city Chris had a very sophisticated palette. I noticed her reading material included magazines such such as Bon Appetit and Food and Wine, magazines I also enjoyed.

Eva and I were dispatched to Chris’s garden to gather some of the necessary ingredients. What an amazing touch the woman had with growing things.  Some of the vegetables in the massive garden area I had never actually seen on the vine before. I was fascinated to peer inside one enormous leaf only to find a cauliflower tucked under the wing of one fold. Up until then I had only seen cauliflowers in the vegetable section at the market. Carrying the baskets provided by our hostess for our harvest, Eva and I filled each to the brim with huge beefsteak tomatoes, green onions, sweet peppers, bouquets of basil, springs of mint, summer squash, cucumbers, and whatever else was on our list.

The main course was to be lamb. I was pleased no lambs were included in the cast of barnyard characters on the farm so it was not to be a family member served to the guests. Chris explained they got their lamb locally which didn’t surprise me. During my stay I had seen several large flocks grazing in the area. Though I had not mentioned it, coincidentally lamb happens to be one of my favorite meats. Growing up it was often the main course at my grandmother’s table alongside a bowl of mint jelly or creamy mint sauce. I assumed, since mint had been included on our shopping list, one or the other might be showing up that night as well. This was not to be lamb as I had ever prepared it before, however. Several whole lambs were going to cooked outdoors on a spit. Sounded wonderful. When I was living in Alabama I attended a huge backyard party where a whole cow was cooked on a spit. Watching that spit revolve all afternoon was too much for my delicate nature bringing out in me the urge to rescue the poor thing and run away with it. Brings to mind a quote from Dr. Seuss’s The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,”He took the Who’s feast, he took the Who pudding, he took the roast beast.” I vowed to avoid the spit area later in this day and simply enjoy my dinner.

Back in the kitchen the aromas were beginning to titillate my nostrils. The lamb was to be served alongside a cheesy, creamy zucchini gratin, crispy Greek lemon potatoes, several salad selections including a fully loaded garden salad and Chris’s simply amazing yeast rolls. Oh yummy for my tummy. I was put in charge of the Caprese Salad, creating several eye catching plates of ripe ruby red tomatoes alternated with slices of mozzarella cheese. This was finished off with fresh basil, and drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. If an organ could do a happy dance my stomach would have been in the middle of the macarena.

After a quick lunch, the girls were relieved of their aprons and left to play outside allowing Chris and I to to concentrate of the tasks at hand. There is something immensely satisfying to me in the preparation of food. Perhaps it’s the colors, or the aromas, or just the immense gratification you get when someone puts a bite of a dish you’ve prepared in their mouths and says “yum”.  A meal, to my mind, should be party for our senses. We eat with our eyes, our noses, our mouths and even our ears. There’s nothing as tantalizing as the sound of a good piece of meat when it hits a hot grill. Good food arranged artfully on a pretty plate is just appealing. No matter how mouth watering your food may be, if you just throw it on the plate and hand it to someone to eat, the full enjoyment of eating the meal is somehow diminished. As good as the meat and potatoes on the left might taste, a person might not feel as enthusiastic about taking a bite of it as they might what is displayed on the plate to the right.

The Caprese salad plated and wrapped, I asked where to store it. The kitchen had one large side by side refrigerator and every inch of storage space was already accounted for. Chris directed me to the sunroom. The sunroom was at the back of the house. It was a large shotgun style room with a bank of windows running along both ends and the yard side. During the warmer months Bob P. said the screens kept the air flowing in and the bugs out making it a lovely place to sit and let your bones dry out after a long day of work. On the inside wall there was a side by side refrigerator and though I had not seen it Ray had mentioned a large walk-in freezer in the barn where they stored butchered meats.

Setting the Caprese dishes on a shelf in the refrigerator I remembered Chris asking me to grab several jars of pickled green beans which she said I would find in the cupboard next to the fridge. Having been told the Mason jars were in alphabetical order (of course) I easily located the appropriate jars under the sign marked “G”. Like many farmer’s wives, Chris said she canned and preserved several times a year for off season months. Looking at the amount of jars, it seemed an excessive amount of food for five people but at harvest time it was my understanding there were plenty of mouths to feed, and if not I believe most preserved items enjoy a fairly long shelf life.

Mid afternoon with everything done and tucked away we separated to catch a shower and clean up for the evening ahead. I had not thought to pack a dress for a week on a farm, so Chris, about the same size as myself, offered me a choice of several light summer dresses from her closet.

Always I have gotten butterflies when having to integrate with a large group of strangers. It’s not that I’m an introvert, I actually love interacting with other human beings, but too many of them at once I find a little overpowering. Once dressed I wandered out in the garden to find Bob J. already dressed and seated in the shade in a lawn chair. After surveying me with his gaze as if checking for weapons he commented that I cleaned up very well. In the world of Bob J. I believe this was a compliment, so I took it as such. In turn I thought he “cleaned up well”. Face free of stubble, hair combed, a freshly pressed shirt tucked into a well fitting pair of clean jeans, most attractive. We sat next to each other for a while enjoying the lull before the storm. He shared he was glad I’d come and that his family had been pleased with how I’d rolled up my sleeves and got dirty along with the rest of them. I thanked him knowing it was high praise from someone who did not relieve himself of praise easily. The moment hanging between us was broken by a truck driving through the gate allowing the energy to dissipate. Excusing myself, I went inside to let Chris know our first guest had arrived and to see what I could do to help.

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About forty people ended up filling the chairs out back, some filtering inside after the sun set and the bugs made their nightly appearance. The margaritas were as promised icy cold and tart and if possible each course served was better than the one preceding it. The lamb, well I don’t have words. Ray had cooked it to perfection. It was tender and juicy and, yes, served with mint jelly and sprigs of fresh mint. The tables were set up eight to a table with a smaller table for the children of which there were exactly ten. Twinkling lanterns were strung from tree to tree to provide illumination. Each table was beautifully decorated with long trails of wildflowers. A young man I recognized from church the day before sat on a bale of hay entertaining us with country music and playing his guitar. Desserts were served with a lovely after dinner wine. Chris’s triple berry pie, a recipe I use to this day, was the star sitting alongside a glass bowl of trifle, an assortment of cakes and plate after plate of cookies and bars. About nine, people starting peeling off and heading towards their vehicles as the next day was a work day.

What a wonderful night that was. Everyone pitched in. Once the last guest’s taillights had disappeared down the road we all carried something into the kitchen. Eva and Dawn, running on a sugar high, had to be carried sniffling into bed. Chris and I stayed up late and washed dishes putting leftovers in containers to be stored in the fridge. When finally I walked down the hall towards my room I realized I would really miss this new family of mine. It was a night I shall always keep with me, and of course the blueberry pie recipe.

Chris’s Triple Berry Pie

Double Crust Pie Shell

2 Cups all-purpose flour
1/2 Tsp. salt
2/3 cup shortening
1 Tbsp. white vinegar
4-5 Tbsp. milk

Combine flour and salt in small bowl. Cut in shortening until mixture looks like course crumbs. Sprinkle with vinegar. Gradually add milk tossing with a fork until a ball forms. Cover and refrigerate for 30 mins.

Divide pastry in half leaving one ball slightly larger than the other. Roll out the larger of the two to fit 9″-10″ pie plate. Transfer pastry to pie plate. Trim to rim. Brush bottom of shell with 1 Tbsp. water whisked with 1 egg white. Reserve the rest.

Roll out second shell to fit over top of the first. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Filling

2 1/2 cups blueberries, sorted and any stems removed
3/4 cup raspberries
3/4 cups blackberries
3/4 cups white sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 1/2 Tbsp. lemon zest
1/2 tsp. lemon juice
1 Tsp. vanilla
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1 egg white
2 tbsp. water

Place berries in large mixing bowl. Whisk together remaining ingredients and pour over berries. Using your hands gently turn until well coated. Pour into prepared shell.

Lay top pastry over berry mix. Press and seal edges with bottom shell. Trim as needed. Cut four slits in center to vent. Brush top with remaining egg white/water mixture.

Bake for 50 mins. or until browned and bubbly.

Cook on wire rack.

 

 

By day six on the farm I had fallen into the rythm, sort of the heartbeat, of life there. It isn’t like working in the city, where you are hired for a specific skill and for the most part and you get up every morning and go apply that skill on your job.  On the farm there are jobs to be done by each participant in addition to providing help wherever else you are needed on any given day. If you have nothing to do, someone will find you something to fill your time. Nobody is standing around waiting for the world to hand them an agenda. All hands are needed to keep the process moving forward. It was nice to be a part of that, if only for a short time. I can see where being born into a farm family you take this strenuous schedule in stride accepting it as routine. You work until the work is done. The only exception was Sunday. Sunday, thankfully, was for the most part a day of rest and I was looking forward to getting in on some of that on my sixth day there which happened to fall on a Sunday.

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I attended church services with them in the morning. The little girls reminded me of myself at their age. Both were fidgeting in their seats dressed in their glossy Mary Jane’s with their little bodies confined by frilly dresses they would happily exchange for bare feet, shorts, and an old tee shirt. Other than our two little princesses, the dress was generally casual. Church really isn’t a place to show off your new duds anymore. As a child I remember going into church with my grandmother. Never did I see her without a hat, gloves, nylons, heels, and a suit or a dress at Sunday services.  In the cooler months I can remember the addition of her much prized fox stole, flung over one shoulder the poor fox still attached. These days people show up in whatever they grab out of the closet. Jeans are acceptable attire as are shorts in the summer and ski jackets in the colder months. The last time I went to church in California the kid in front of me was wearing his pajama bottoms. For me it’s all fine. I’m pretty sure, though I’ve never actually gotten the final directive from up above, the Lord doesn’t put much stake in what our clothes look like. I believe he focuses more in the direction of what we are thinking or what we are doing, rather than what shoes we are wearing.

The church structure was so charming with white siding and a tall steeple. A bell showed through a tower window. Though the siding was clean and well cared for the building appeared to be quite old. I was told later it had been around many years and held some historic significance in the area, marked by a gold plaque hanging in the vestibule. The sermon was invigorating enough to keep me from lowering my chin to my chest which is always a blessing in itself. A group of young singers took the stage after the minister had spoken and soon had everyone clapping and stomping their feet. Following the service the “flock” met in the great room for a mouth watering smorgasbord of homemade cakes, pies and other goodies washed down with freshly brewed coffee and lemonade. I found the people for the most part extremely friendly and welcoming. Several times I was drawn into conversations with local ladies about how I came to find myself in their midst. They seemed fascinated anyone would sign up for such a trip without knowing who they were going to see or what might befall them once they reached their destination. I couldn’t argue with their logic. Ninety percent of my family and friends were on the same train going down the same track. Sometimes I’m fascinated by it myself when I reflect on my time there. At the time it seemed to have worked out well so I was simply enjoying doing exactly what I was doing.

At the end of the food line there was a small craft sale of sorts comprised of what looked to be mostly homemade items set up on a folding table . I admired a tea cozy someone had crocheted mentioning I could knit but had never mastered crocheting. The two women standing next to me seemed perplexed I could even knit. Apparently their image of women from California was of ladies oozing glamour and money looking ready to step out of the pages of Elle or Cosmopolitan. Pampered females with maids to maintain their fabulous homes and “people” who cleaned their pools and manicured their impressive yards. I hadn’t applied so much as a hint of blush since my arrival. At the time I traveled there I was renting a room in a condominium, doing my laundry at the nearby laundromat, and my “yard” consisted of a small patio with a table top fountain and a well faded patio umbrella. I probably dashed their illusions to pieces by not showing up in a haute couture gown wearing a tiara perched on my head with my lashes heavily laden with mascara. Had I know I was representing I would have at least used a curling iron on my hair. Interesting about preconceived notions. They often hit so far off the mark.

After church, it was decided we would go into town and enjoy breakfast at the diner. I had not seen the town as yet so was excited for a chance to explore. One parcel of acreage seemed to blend into the next as we drove along. Horses grazed in white fenced pastures here and there and tractors chugged along barely visible in clouds of dust in open fields. Chris sat in the front seat with a sleeping Dawn on her lap. Bob P. had elected to stay at the church to play cards with a group of friends. That left Ray at the wheel and Bob J., Eva, and I to take up the back seat. Eva was chattering at warp speed as we drove along switching subjects so quickly it was impossible for me to keep up.  Bob J., being his usual introspective self, gazed out the window so frequently you’d have thought the answers to the major unanswered questions plaguing mankind hung there on a suspended flash card for him to review. One thing I had learned about the man is he didn’t speak often, but when he did at least he had something interesting to say. I liked that. There is an old saying about many an important thing can be said in silence. Can’t remember the exact quote but you get where I’m going here. At times in my life I’d dated men who had said a lot, but not much of it had substance. This was a refreshing change of pace.

Alerting me we were approaching the town, Ray made a joke about it being so small the town council could have saved money by having the “Welcome to” and “You Are Now Leaving” notifications printed on the front and the back of the same sign. We pulled into the bustling parking lot of The Country Cottage Diner and found a spot far in the back. Chairs had been lined up under the eaves and people were seated chatting among themselves. A sign on a podium outside the front door said sign in and be seated. Adding his name to the waiting list Bob J. suggested he and I take a brief tour of the downtown area while waiting for a table to open up. The General Store was directly across the street, yup the sign really read General Store. Bob J. said the large brick building also housed the post office and a small branch of the Ministry of Transportation which I understand is the DMV’s Canadian cousin.  Further down the block was a gas station, and across from that was a hardware store and bait shop, a video rental place, and several specialty shops. The commercial area of the town was followed by a bank of beautiful old homes with inviting porches lining both sides of the main drag (I had a feeling it might be the only drag). All and all the tour took about five minutes. Walking back we saw Ray signalling our table was ready.

Inside the diner to the left was a long line of stools and a counter. The stools were mostly occupied by older gentlemen either reading an open paper or feeding their faces. Behind the counter the cooks could be seen through a hole in the wall busily filling orders. My stomach was happy to know breakfast was in the offing. To the right of the counter was a mishmash of tables followed by a long series of booths next to the windows. We sat at the larger circular booth in the corner with one child in between each parent for management. I ordered Eggs Benedict, my favorite. It was absolutely delicious served with crispy homestyle potatoes, spicy sausage links, and a heaping bowl of fresh fruit. Each table started out with a basket of assorted muffins which were served with local honey. People stopped by our booth often to say hello to the family exchanging bits of local gossip or information pertaining to farm business.  I was, I’m sure, a bit of a curiosity. Chris told me they usually didn’t entertain that much traffic when eating there by themselves.

Back at the ranch, so to speak. Chris and Ray went off with the girls to tend to the animals who after all didn’t know the difference between Sunday or Monday when it came to their stomachs. Bob J. and I sat on the fence and watched the horses in the coral. Hopping down he asked if I’d be interested in a ride. I accepted the invitation with the assurance he would put me on the horse with the mildest disposition. It had been years since I’d ridden and didn’t want to end up on the ground or worse making (pardon) a horse’s ass of myself. Hoisted up on the saddle I was pleased I remembered how to hold the reins and that I hadn’t fallen off before we reached the path that led out of the compound. We rode about an hour and a half sometimes just walking along slowly and other times loping along next to each other. It was starting to cool off for the day and the bugs had begun searching for new meat so reluctantly we turned our horses heads back in the direction we had come. We rode in complete silence for a while, neither of us feeling the need to fill the void with words. It was lovely.

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Writing this reminds me again how I do love horses and have great respect for them. Majestic animals who allow us to slap leather contraptions on them and hop on their backs with mostly quiet acceptance.  The most wonderful experience I ever had on the back of a horse was while vacationing in Rosarita Beach, Mexico. Rosarita Beach is a lovely little tourist mecca on the Baja Peninsula. In my early twenties my first husband and I often camped on the beach there with the children. On this trip we had come with a rather large group of his family members. Our tents were lined up in a row along the tree line right on the beach.  A group of locals approached us one afternoon with five or six horses in tow asking us if we wanted to ride. There were no saddles, only colorful blankets thrown across their backs. It was necessary to stand on a rock to get on board. Without a saddle there were no stirrups available to help you on hop up. The beach stretched out before us and my horse seemed eager to run. Holding tight to the reins I clinched the sides of the horse with my knees. My legs felt every contraction of the animal’s muscles as he galloped along through the glistening surf. Truly that was such a lovely sensation I have difficulty finding the words to describe it. Freedom I suppose is would cover it nicely. A complete communion with another species might also say it well.

So I close the page on Day Six of my farm adventure. The end is now closer than the beginning and I remember feeling melancholy at the thought of leaving my adopted family and their lovely farm behind.

 

 

 

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Day five of my Manitoba adventure began early as usual. After getting myself organized for the day I greeted the usual faces seated around the breakfast table in the kitchen. Omelets were on the menu, and like in a fine dining establishment I was asked to choose from the ingredients on the table and a delicious personal omelet was delivered to my plate by our chef de cuisine, Chris. I liked sitting in the kitchen with my new friends. The children were always a welcome addition to the table, bubbling over with enthusiasm for the day ahead and filled with youthful exuberance for the world around them. Even if I still was in the process of waking up, I enjoyed seeing their fresh little faces across from me over another great meal.

Bob J., Ray and I were once again on our own. That day, I was told, we were going to be working with the animals, which was perhaps my favorite facet of farm life. Yay. Ray, always a fount of information, filled me in on our schedule for the afternoon. Apparently several times a year they “drag” the pastures to redistribute the manure. Oh boy. Poop again. They wait until the pasture patties are dry to do this. Ewwwww. Truly I cannot think of a subject more unwelcome to my stomach than excrement but certainly if you raise animals you are going to have waste. Having visited the pig pens with Eva and Dawn and unfortunately finding it necessary to inhale once I’d exhaled, I am here to tell you there was no shortage of animal waste in a farm environment and what there is beyond fragrant.  They don’t call odiferous people pigs for nothing. Whew. Cows aren’t much better I’m afraid. I can remember driving across Kansas turning the corner on one dairy farm after another and wondering if the incredibly strong ammonia stench would ever leave my nostrils. The human body, as amazing as it is in how it processes our intake, certainly could use an adjustment on how it is scented when recycled. I’m thinking lavender or camelia might have been a better fragrance choice. I’m just saying.

Bob J. suggested I wear old clothes, and in particular old high boots. This did not bode well for my day. Sigh.

As I have said there was all variety of critters roaming about the farm compound in addition to the herds in the field. Chickens wandered freely about the yard chucking and pecking at the ground, there were half a dozen goats who made their home there, and probably ten pigs and a litter of piglets in the large pen beyond the barn. When we toured the piggies quarters, Chris mentioned as Eva and Dawn get older they will most likely become active in the local 4-H program. Each girl will raise a pig to be shown at the county fair and then auctioned off to the highest bidder for meat. I wouldn’t make a good farmer. Already I had become attached to several cows and a piglet. Most probably I would become vegetarian if I had to sacrifice one of them for Sunday dinner.

Knowing how to tend to these creatures takes years of training, knowledge handed down older generation to younger over countless decades. There are vaccinations that have to be given, births to be overseen, proper feeding guidelines, as well as weather and sickness to be taken into consideration. The vet came while I was there, a woman perhaps in her mid thirties. Watching her work with confidence with the larger animals was inspiring. The animals seem to almost sense this person is there on their behalf. Always I have admired veterinarians. Unlike physicians tending to humans, vets have to versed in a wide variety of skeletal structures and a myriad of species nuances. I might do well with dogs and cats but the first time someone brought me a boa constrictor with a head cold or a tarantula with a hang nail I’d be outta there. Also, the likelihood of a human patient biting you is probably minimal, but vets must face unhappy patients with both claws and sharp teeth every day. I’ve seen Boo, the Queen of Cats, in action. To say she resists a visit to the vet is to put it mildly. I have to nearly go on a reconnaissance mission to get her in the cage. Funny thing though once I get her into the office the staff seems to be competent enough to keep her calm. She sits there quietly as though that was her usual behavior while they probe and poke at her. Cats, go figure.

Ray also told me you have to be aware how many cows are grazing on your land. Too many can be harmful to the land itself. There are a lot of pitfalls to farming apparently. Luxurious crops could be taken down by extreme weather, drought, insects, and many other variables. I found it all both fascinating and perplexing at the same time. My grandmother grew up on a farm and this experience definitely gave me more understanding of what her life might have looked like as a girl. Often when I was small she commented on how women today were “spoiled”. She said in her time there were no cake mixes, prepared meals, frozen dinners. Women back in the day were in the kitchen cooking their meals from scratch with no help from Betty Crocker.

I’m sure she would have been both pleased and surprised to find me working the farm in Manitoba. On morning five of my visit Bob J. and Ray were going to ride out to the pasture in the tractor. My job would be to follow them on the three wheeler carrying the water cooler, lunch, and some tools. Let me reiterate once again it took me three times to get my driver’s license and years to perfect my driving skills. Not only have I never ridden on a three wheeler but most certainly I’ve never driven one. As a kid I dabbled in boys with motorcycles but never actually drove one myself. The only time I was ever even alone on a bike was when I was in high school. A boy I knew had a Triumph 750. I was expressly forbidden to ride on the back of this machine so naturally that was where I was to be found. Hank, the owner of the bike, stepped off to go into a convenience store. He instructed me to straddle the bike and stand firmly on both feet until he returned. Check. Two minutes after he entered the store I leaned slightly to the right and the rest was history. Thankfully, once again I escaped maiming or certain death but his bike wasn’t quite so lucky. That was the beginning and the end of the motorcycle period of my life story. Not wanting to appear to Bob J. and Ray to be a sissy, in particular after my antics of the previous day when I had fallen through the bush and flown down the side of the hillside. So, the three wheeler it was, the three wheeler it would be. My instructions were simple. “Stay on the dirt road do not drive anywhere near the edge of the road. Do not, repeat do not, put your legs near the wheels while the vehicle is moving. Avoid deep ruts at all costs.” Um, “help”.

I hopped on the beast trying to look poised and confident. Bob J. got the machine running for me and explained the shifting situation. Sigh. Inside I had a feeling this was going to make yesterday’s freefall look mild in comparison. Gamely I inched forward. The snail creeping down the path next me was beating me by a mile. Bob J. and Ray were putting a lot of real estate between us as I chugged along at about 1/4 mile an hour. Finally they stopped and Bob J. jogged back to where I was to check on me. Explaining they had hoped to get to the field sometime before sunset, I was instructed to pick up the pace a bit. Okie. The avoiding the ruts portion of the instruction didn’t make it easy going. Since it was a dirt road there were both rocks and ruts at nearly every juncture. Once again my spine was inching up towards my brain. Bob stuck his hand out the tractor to indicate he was going to stop. I did the same lowering my foot to the ground before coming to a complete stop. Don’t try this at home. Doing specifically what I’d been told not to do my leg hit the back wheel taking off the top layer of skin on my calf. Oh-oh. At first I thought I’d just be quiet about it but since it was beginning to look as if I might need a tourniquet I thought I’d better turn myself in. Thankfully working with heavy machinery regularly they kept a fully equipped first aid kit on board for such occasions. Bob J.’s eyes if rolled any higher towards the heavens would have disappeared inside his head. Sorry.

Once I was doctored to they began the “dragging” procedure which was basically accomplished by a piece of equipment attached to the back of the tractor and, yes, dragged along behind it. Well named, yes? Most of the afternoon was spent tending to one pasture after another. Half the time I rode in the tractor with one or the other of the men and the rest of the time I was on the dreaded three wheeler with instructions once again to try and keep myself out of the ICU. Kay.

That evening after a delicious meal of the fresh fish Bob J., Bob P. and I had provided for the table, we sat outside in the lawn chairs until way beyond the time the sun had gone down for the day.  A fire pit had been filled with wood and a lovely crackling fire burned inside the circle. The girls, allowed to stay up a bit late, were dancing in the flickering light. In the tall grass fireflies made what I was told was a very unusual showing making it a very magical evening.

Sleep, I have to say, came easily during those days. You worked hard, you played hard, then you slept hard. Wish I could put the sleeping hard part into action these days. Particularly since the pandemic my dream state is filled with vivid weird dreams and interrupted nights.

Day six on the downhill slope of my trip comes next. See you then. Stay safe.

 

 

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Day four in Manitoba was all about fishing. We had been allowed to languish in bed until nine if needed and then the plan was to have breakfast, load up our gear, and head to the river. I was not what you might call an experienced angler. Up until I had married my ex-husband truth was I had never cast a line in the water. Actually, that is incorrect. I did catch a flounder as I recall on a rare outing with my first stepfather. When I had excitedly hauled my fish in the boat he told me flounders were bottom feeders not fit for eating and I would need to toss it back. I was to find out years later, flounder was not only tasty but good for you. I was nine. I caught a fish while he, an experienced fisherman, did not. We weren’t exactly close. I’ll save this story for my next therapy session.

My people really weren’t outdoorsy. The one and only time I ever went camping with my mother was in Yosemite. I was a freshman in high school. In order to coerce her outdoors, my stepfather had to rent a high end travel trailer which was where she spent 90% of her time during that week enjoying martinis in her wedgies. Meanwhile, my stepbrother and I were rafting down the Yosemite river, panning for gold, and watching the fire fall at sunset. My mother’s idea of roughing it would be to stay at a hotel without room service. She always described herself as a “hothouse flower” and that is fine. Everyone has their niche to fill. I adore my mum so whatever venue she chooses to make her happy, makes me happy as well.

So, at precisely nine fifteen I arrived in the kitchen at the farm to enjoy one of Chris’s excellent breakfasts. Not to disappoint, I found Ray and Bob J. already seated at the table shoveling in some really delicious looking Belgium waffles. Yum. After clearing the syrup from my lips, I applied lip gloss and sunscreen, grabbed a ball cap for extra coverage, and headed for the decided meeting spot by the barn door. The two Bob’s were already by the truck loading up fishing gear, a cooler, some folding stools, and a water cooler. Though still early, the sun, already hot against my back, was letting me know it was just gearing up for its day.

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The area we were going, as it turned out, wasn’t too much of a drive. The truck could only take us so far, however, after that I was told, we would need to walk in the rest of the way.  Parking under some trees for shade, we unloaded the bed. Bob P. said we had about a forty-five minute hike to the river. Since I was a girl I was given the lighter items to carry such as poles and the tackle box, while the men hauled the heavy cooler between them with the other items piled on top. Sometimes it pays to be female. The underbrush was quite dense in spots and insects were prolific. I had doused myself with insect spray before leaving the house which seemed to keep them at bay. At some points the drop off on one side of the trail was very steep. Several times I nearly lost my footing when stepping across loose rocks and gravel. Holding the poles in one hand and the tackle box in the other didn’t leave me much to balance with. Just when I was starting to feel tired the men signaled to me from up ahead we were going downward from the path. Oh. The bank angled straight down in this area. I could hear the water flowing below and see the river through the gaps in the trees so knew we were getting close to our destination, or at least to the river itself. Yay. Bob J. was first down the side of the hill with Bob P. following close behind. They slid more than walked down the slick slope with the cooler sort of careening along in the middle. Bob J. yelled for me to watch my footing. As the words reached my ears, I took my first step down the hill pushing through a matted patch of greenery.  I stepped into the air beyond where I stood, which was all that was available at the time to step into. Suddenly I was airborne, soaring like a flying squirrel floating from one tree limb to another. Both men watched in amazement as I sailed past them landing with a loud splat in the middle of the river. The impact, thankfully more frightening than hurtful, caused me to release what I was holding as well as all the air in my lungs. Lying there wet, embarrassed and gasping for breath I watched as the bait box bobbed and weaved in the current. Bob J. was quickly in hot pursuit as the poles were beginning to submerge where they landed. Whoops. The only thing wounded on me was my pride and a scrape on my elbow fortunately. After checking me out for injuries and finding me in one piece, the two men just shook their heads. Unspoken but hanging in the air were the words “women, right?”

After all our floating gear was recovered, we located a good spot along the river to set up “camp” for the day. The lush foliage around the water’s edge afforded us some shade, a blessing since the sun now high in the sky was taking no prisoners. Whew. Bob P. helping me load my hook with a fresh worm, I cast my line in the water and settled in to wait for a tug. I have to admit that eviscerating a worm is not my favorite pastime so whether it was more “girl” stuff or not I allowed the men to do the dirty work for me. My ex used to tell me the worms don’t feel a thing. Uh-huh. It didn’t look like it felt good to me, and I’ve never read an affidavit from a worm confirming that it did.

I caught three small fish that day.  When I pulled the first one in Bob P. said it was crappy. Pardon me? Turns out this was not an assessment of my fishing skills but that they were all crappy, or rather black crappie, a popular pan fish and quite delicious when tossed in a frying pan. About one o’clock we opened the cooler and helped ourselves to a lunch consisting of wonderful sandwiches Chris had provided for us. Secretly I was determined to bring her back to California with me to have her cook for me for the rest of my life. Delicious bread piled high with thin slices of meat and fresh vegetables from the garden. Along with her other gifts, Chris had a way with yeast and flour baking them into the most wonderful grainy breads. Our sides were potato salad, coleslaw and a colorful fresh fruit salad, which in the heat was a particularly welcome treat.  The Boys, tossed down a few cold ones and threw in a few fishing stories, while I stuck to the container of lemonade included in the cooler to keep me level headed for the hike back to the car.

Bob P. filled me in some of the missing spots of his life after a brew or two. His wife, Bob J.’s mom, had passed away some ten years back. Like Bob J. and Anna, he told me, he and his lovely Lizzie had been married right of school.  Actually, she was married right out of school with Bob P. leaving school in tenth grade to help his parents with the farm. He had done his time in the military during “Nam”, as he put it, but didn’t offer any further information about his experiences there. A silence fell over him on mentioning that period of his life. Guess that said enough. Sometimes a lot can be revealed in silence. I can still picture the military cemetery where my father was buried. White crosses spreading for miles in every direction. So much loss.

Bob P. knew nothing but farming, and didn’t seem to care to. This land, these crops, his family were to be the patches in the quilt of his life. No more, and no less. That seemed, to my eyes at least, to be sufficient for him. He talked about the rough times, when crops were ruined by weather and money was tight, or when Lizzie got sick, and then when he lost her, but when he spoke of the farm and the land a sort of peace settled over him which I found quite lovely. I would hope I could find that kind of contentment in my life at some point.

A breeze came up as it had every day since my arrival making the trip back to the car less arduous. The three of us talked easier in the cab of the truck on the drive home. Sharing part of you with others helps to form the beginning of the bonds that bring us together as friends. At the ranch the little girls were waiting for me when we drove in the yard. Eva slipped her hand into mine and said she would take me to the much promised puppies. Dawn, not one to be ignored took my other hand and the two girls guided me to an old shed behind the barn. Pushing open the wooden doors we stepped inside. A fan was whirring loudly in one corner where a blanket had been laid out. What looked to be a large hound dog or similar breed lay on top of the blanket next to seven or eight tiny fat bodies all feet and tails looking to be enjoying their afternoon siesta. How sweet they were. The mama, I had been told, was named Ariel after the Little Mermaid. What a gentle lady she was. Checking me out thoroughly and seeming not to find me wanting, she allowed me to kneel down and pick up one of her babies and cuddle him to me. How I love puppies with their little blurry eyes and their sweet milk breath. I wished I could tuck this little man in the folds of my suitcase and take him on the plane with me. The puppies had no names yet, Eva informed me. Chris explained later they name them when they personalities begin to emerge, a ritual the girls are very much a part of. Eventually homes will be found for the majority of the litter. If one stands out as a good working dog he or she may be kept for the farm. Dogs are not pets on a working farm apparently. They are treated well, and loved as part of the group but they do not come in the house and put in their hours along with everyone else. Several cats were present in the yard as well. The felines were there for rodent control and only one, Sam, almost sixteen could be seen languishing on a chair in the family room or enjoying his evening meal in his bowl in the kitchen. He had put in his time working and was now free to take pleasure in his retirement.

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Another wonderful day was put to bed along with tired and well browned me. The day to following would be busy so sleep was essential and it didn’t take long for my eyes to close after turning out the night. I was heading into the midpoint of my trip. Day five was on the horizon.

 

 

 

 

iStock_Farmer_field_farm-RGBFarm life, I was to learn, was comprised of work, work, and more work. When you have all variety of animals you are responsible for, there is no day that gives you license to fall out of bed at noon, stretch your arms over your head, and seat yourself at the kitchen table until your coffee gets cold. Each day you wake up early, get dressed, put some fuel in your belly and get after it. Hungry animals cannot wait for you to check how many likes you got on Instagram, or balance your chi with your yoga guru, or watch the news. It’s an entirely different way of life.

Observing my newly acquainted farm family coming together as a team was inspiring to me, still is. Each member worked selflessly for the common good of the whole. I have never thought of it as so before now, but I would suppose a farm, if managed well, may be the perfect socialist environment.

When no seasonal labor was present, three men made their homes on the property. Bob P., was the ring leader of the “boys”, as Chris referred to them, and the elder statesman at seventy five. He kept his clothes in the bunk house located on the far end of the property, a space he shared with additional labor when they were hired on. Bob J., his only son, (a daughter lived in Vancouver), occupied the main ranch house, and Chris, Bob J’s daughter and her husband Ray lived in a large ranch style house about a half a mile down the road. All three men in spite of the age disparity shouldered equal responsibility when it came to labor. I have to say, for a man showing a bit of wear, Bob P. seemed in amazingly good shape. Very little extra overlap showed above his belt line and his arms were still well muscled where visible below his shirt sleeve.

The only woman in attendance, or woman “fully grown” as they say in the south, was Chris. Chris was twenty-six. I knew this only because women of her age feel free to toss their age about like a puck at a hockey match. We older ladies tend to hold that number a little closer to the vest, answering when asked, “40ish”, when fifty is really knocking on the door.  Not to be excluded by any means, were the two youngest members of the clan, Chris and Ray’s daughters, Eva and Dawn, four and two and a half respectively.  All six of them managed an appropriate portion of the work according to age but not really gender.  It became quickly apparent when I came on board my being female didn’t exclude me from getting my hands dirty right along with the males in the group.

In rare moments of quiet, I grabbed the opportunity to take in the gorgeous countryside around me. Manitoba is a prairie province by definition, the land marked with long flat expanses, plateaus, lush soil, and an abundance of rivers and lakes. The front porch swing, often where I found myself after hanging up my hat for the day, allowed me an uninterrupted view of the front yard which stretched to the road and on forward to the horizon. I remember the quiet sitting there. No city noises to break the silence only the soft hum of insects hovering above the magnolia bush and the occasional whir of a farm machine firing up somewhere in the distance. There was something extremely satisfying about working that land.  Would I want to do it 24/7? Not I. Would I do it again for ten days? Tomorrow.

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Bob J. and I knew enough about each other from the numerous phone conversations and email correspondence we had shared to consider ourselves virtual “friends” before I arrived. This rubbed some of the newness off generally associated with meeting someone for the first time.  As we had gotten into our stories over the previous year, he had shared with me the loss of his wife, Anna after a three month bout with Stage 4 ovarian cancer. She had been forty-seven. They were high school sweethearts, married right after graduation. Chris, as I mentioned, was their only child. Anna, Bob told me, had wanted a large family but an emergency hysterectomy after Chris was born made that impossible. Accepting she was to have only one chick, she doted on her only daughter and the two had become very close. The loss of her mother when Chris was expecting her first grandchild had been devastating. Talking to him then, I had no idea I would find myself in a similar situation some twenty-five years later when I lost Rick, but life never reveals many hints of how your story is to unfold.

The first time Bob J. and I found ourselves alone was on my third day on the farm. After a busy morning at the feed and grain, then back to the main farmhouse for a quick lunch, I accompanied him to check on the cattle in the fields. Before Dawn would let me go, I had to promise a visit to her puppies as soon as we returned. For a while we drove quietly. No air conditioning in the truck cab, we rolled the windows down to get some air circulation. It was warm, but not hot outside and a lovely breeze played with the back of my neck. I asked about the cows, questions a person with little knowledge of cattle might need answered. “What do they eat”, “how do you bring them in from the pasture”, oh, and “do they bite”? He laughed when I asked if cows bite, telling me it would be unlikely a cow would bite a human but he wouldn’t suggest sticking my fingers in one’s mouth to test his theory. As we talked I found him very knowledgeable on a variety of subjects. Sometimes I think we tend to lump people under the heading of what they do, before finding out who they actually are. In his spare time, which I’m sure was little, he said he was an avid reader. This would account for the impressive library I’d noticed in the living room. I had also noticed there wasn’t a television. When asked if he had a TV he simply said, “never watch it”. I think that was the first time in years I spent ten days without picking up a remote, and I can’t think of a time I missed it.

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Bob got out and opened the gate leading into the nearest pasture. In the distance a loosely structured herd could be seen grazing near the fence line. I was fascinated by all the calves. I do love babies of all makes and models, and these were no exception. When we got close the cows gathered around the truck checking us out before we opened the doors. Reaching behind the seat Bob pulled out several heads of iceberg lettuce. Handing them to me he said, “give them this they will love you for it”. After several days around the herds they would follow the truck when I whistled out the window. He called me the “cow whistler”. I’m pretty sure it was the lettuce that sealed the deal but he was tell me later the cows appeared to still look for me for some time after I left. Who knew I had cow pheromones?

Checking on the new little ones and filling feeding troughs turned out to be an all afternoon affair getting us back at the main house around supper time. Walking into the now familiar kitchen I was surprised to find no pots on the stove and no tempting aromas to alert my stomach something delicious was on it’s way. Asking where everyone was (and the food??), Bob J. said he’d forgotten to tell me tonight was the night they were to spray the crops. This meant a late night and a barbecue at the campsite afterwards. If I was hungry it was suggested I make myself a sandwich to tide me over. Make? Myself? Funny how quickly one can adapt to being spoiled.  I have always been the one in the kitchen so it had been near bliss for me to have someone else take over the responsibility of meals for a few days. Don’t misunderstand me I love to cook, but even when you’re doing something you love it’s nice to take a break and do something else for a while. Fine. I really got a clear understanding of why men got married at that moment.

Around ten with the little ones tucked in with their grandfather along with another promise from me to see the puppies, Bob J., Claire, Ray and I once again headed out towards the fields. This time we weren’t there to tend to the cattle but rather to the crops planted along the fields farther out. These fields, Ray told me, were mostly geared towards hay and grain for the livestock but they did have several fields of corn and other cash crops as well. I inquired as to whether I should be worried about what they are spraying and got a vague answer in return. Uh-huh. Fortunately I sat high up in the enclosed cab of the tractor with Bob J. What an experience that was. At one point he needed me to drive the tractor while he directed me. Seriously? Are you insane? It took me three shots to get my learners permit. Good Lord. Somehow, either his excellent guidance or once again the business of God taking care of drunks and fools, I managed to edge the huge machine where I was directed without running over Bob J. or doing damage to anything in the immediate vicinity. The full moon shone brightly across the crops giving the spring evening a more fallish feel to it. After several hours ,with Chris and Ray working the other fields, we stopped for the day and made our way in a small caravan to what they referred to as the “campsite”. The campsite turned out to be a very large travel trailer, well equipped I have to say, in a clearing in the middle of the woods. A massive faded striped awning jutted out from the roof with four or five lawn chairs arranged beneath it. A fire pit occupied the center of the open space with rocks forming an irregular circular border. The first order of business was to spray ourselves with insect spray. Oh good, if I hadn’t picked up enough chemicals earlier in the night I surely would have risen to full capacity on this spraying. I could hear the insects buzzing around my ears so figured the spray was perhaps the lesser of the two evils.

Chris began removing covered bowls from the fridge, handing me a plate of hot dogs and one piled with pre-made hamburger patties to take out to “the boys”. Lanterns hung from several tree branches and a fire was crackling in the pit. The additional light illuminated Bob J. at a large barbecue behind a wooden picnic table. Chris and I laid a plastic cloth over the table. Between the two of us we carried out bowls of potato salad, macaroni salad, and tossed green salad as well as buns for the burgers and dogs and all the condiments. Yum. An uncut watermelon rested in a cooler filled with ice alongside several bottles of local wine which we took care of emptying before loading our plates.

What a wonderful way to end another great day. Driving back it was amazing how many stars decorated the night sky without the disruption of all the lights typical in more populated areas. My head hit the pillow around three am. Thankfully, we were allowed to sleep until nine due to the late night and I intended to do as I was told.

Day four would be a break in the action. I understood fishing was on the calendar, and of course those sweet puppies. Yay.

 

 

 

 

Day two on the farm in Manitoba began before the rooster crowed, literally. The alarm dutifully did it’s job at precisely 5:30 rousing me from a well deserved sleep. Jet lag had settled in the night before following a long flight from California the day prior added to my first full day of work on the farm.

Liberally slathering sunscreen on my already pink-tinged face, I pulled on a pair of jeans, a clean tee shirt, and slipped into my work boots. Excitement began to build as I brushed my teeth and walked down the hall towards the kitchen. Pushing open the door I was greeted by the now familiar faces already seated around the table.  While filling my plate from the mosaic of dishes arranged on the center island I found myself thinking a five-star hotel could not have provided a finer breakfast. First came a plate of blueberry pancakes. Piling several on my plate and drowning them in syrup, Bob J. explained these had been made with wild blueberries his granddaughters had picked for me to enjoy. I thanked both girls for their efforts, and moved past the pancakes to help myself to a light as air homemade biscuit which I topped off with a generous ladle of thick, creamy sausage gravy. A chafing dish of fluffy scrambled eggs came after that, and to complete the menu, the most decadent cinnamon rolls my mouth ever had the pleasure to welcome.  OMG. They were hot, sticky, gooey bundles of wonderfulness dripping with butter. Chris, the family chef, must live in the kitchen to produce such amazing displays. Yum and double yum.  All this with two little ones running around beneath her feet. Amen to you girl, that’s all I had to say. Made me want to break out my “Women Rule the World” apron and slap that baby proudly on.

I took a seat at the empty chair at the table. The girls, done with their breakfast, had been asked by the their mother to remain at the table until the adults were finished eating. Both children provided me with little glimpses into their lives. Eva, the oldest, said she would be celebrating her birthday in two days. When asked how old she was going to be, she held three fingers up while proudly replying “four”. Dawn piped in one of the dogs had puppies which she would show me later if I’d like to see. I assured her I would love to see the new arrivals, adding a visit to the puppies to my to-do list. It was obvious their mother had time for something besides cooking. The girls were nicely dressed, the matching bib overall shorts outfits neatly pressed with not a spot to be seen. Eva, blessed with a huge mass of chestnut hair, had it pulled it up tightly into a thick pony tail, secured by two yellow ducky clips.  Dawn, younger by a year and a half, wore her hair down in long ringlets of gold living up to her lovely namesake the goddess of the morning. Completing the picture, her sweet young face was accented by a sun kissed band of tiny freckles running up and over her upturned nose. Both girls were very well behaved. While at the table they received just one admonishment, this from their grandfather who didn’t appreciate Eva referring to her sister as “a poop-head”.

While the two Bob’s were discussing the work schedule, Ray turned to ask his wife what she had on the calendar. Wiping her hands on the dish towel Chris said once the kitchen was empty she and the girls were going to harvest vegetables from the garden before starting her day.  Taking my now clean plate over to stand next to her I asked what “her day” usually looked like. The first chore on her list, she said, after the humans had been attended to, was feeding the livestock housed within the gates of the compound. This included an assortment of chickens, pigs, goats, dogs, and two horses. Chris went on to say there were always pens to be cleaned and fresh hay to be hauled in and laid down.  There were twenty plus hens and one rooster occupying the hen house. Eggs had to be gathered and the bedding changed for these tenants as well on a regular basis. My guess was free moments were at a minimum for this lady as she went on. Three times a week the horses had to be groomed and exercised. Ray, usually in charge of this, left it to her when there were crops to be seen to. I suddenly felt tired. A simple “I keep busy” would have sufficed. As she went on I wished I could slip back under the covers for a short nap. In between all her chores she raised two toddlers plus cooked and cleaned for the family. Perhaps an amen wasn’t enough. I began to suspect the woman should be knighted.

As for my day, it had been decided I would accompany Bob J. and Ray to the feed and grain while Bob P., the elder statesman of the group, stayed around the compound to keep an eye on the children. Bob P. mentioned he was going to town for supplies later in the week and if interested in seeing the town I was welcome to join him.  Accepting the invitation I was ushered out the back door to head to the feed and grain.

Piling into the cab of the old work truck I was positioned once again between the two men. We drove down yet another deeply rutted dirt road before pulling out onto the main highway. Now, in Northern California this main highway would have been considered more of a byway but in the area we were in I believe it was the main traffic bearer. At least it was paved, unlike most of the roads connecting the farm. Whether it was the truck had no shocks at all or they were just old and worn I don’t know, but with each rut in the road it felt like another vertebrae snaked it’s way into the back of my brain. Ray, definitely the conversationalist of my two companions, talked to me about the fields of crops we were passing, explaining what this row was growing and the next in between filling me in on the general history of the people living there and the area as a whole. Asking what crops were grown on their farm he explained we would be working in the fields later in the day so he would show me first hand. Apparently there were also sprinkler systems to be maintained, animals to be monitored, and then later in the day, very late I was to find, the tractors would be put to work spraying the crops. Nap please.

Being in the middle afforded me an equal vantage point to observe both men simultaneously. Certainly they were drastically different physically. Ray, the taller and leaner of the two had dark red curly hair reaching to just above his shoulders. Slightly balding at the top, he covered the thinning spot with a ubiquitous ball cap displaying an embroidered maple leaf across the front. The only time I saw him without that hat during my stay was at meals when Chris insisted it be left on a hook by the door. Bob J., easily three inches shorter than Ray, was by far the sturdier built of the pair. In comparison to Ray’s mop of longish curls, Bob’s brown straight hair was tidily trimmed over his ears. Both his face and neck bore the imprints of a typical “redneck” tan which had turned the skin above the collar line a deep rusty gold. The bronze color contrasted startlingly with the most gorgeous pair of sea blue eyes ringed by lashes most women would most likely die for. He wore his fifty two years easily, nothing telling his age aside from a touch of gray sneaking in around his temples and a latticework of fine lines branching out from his eyes and mouth. All in all a very attractive man. Uh, not that I noticed.

Aside from looking like polar opposites, Bob leaned towards being on the quiet side. Ray, on the other hand, was prone to story telling, stealing the spotlight whenever he could. Ray shared his impressive repertoire of jokes with me at every opportunity often laughing uproariously before the punch line had even been delivered. Bob, I noticed, mostly surveyed the sky during Ray’s joke telling giving me the impression he’d probably heard these stories many times before.

Thankfully the truck slowed, coming to a complete stop in front of a bank of silos giving my spine a chance to realign. A train track stretched as far as the eye could see on either side of the massive buildings. Bob J., explained local farmers had used this grainery to store their crops until it closed, along with many others in the province, several years back. He spoke at length about the dwindling labor pool and crop processing and shipping issues making it difficult for the farmers to get their grain to market. Many families worked farms that had been handed down generation to generation for decades and were deeply vested in their land and their way of life. There was something incredibly lonely about the tall empty buildings before us. It reminded me of many small towns around the area where I lived in Arkansas. A deep country way of life leaning precariously on the precipice of extinction. Towns marked by banks of store windows bearing wax “x’s” with dusty main drags where old men sat in front of empty shops drinking sweet tea in worn rockers remembering better days. Young people mostly moved on in those no name towns to the larger cities for a chance at better jobs and a higher standard of living. Always found something profoundly sad about watching a town die.

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When he was done bringing me up to speed on the silos, we moved on down the road twenty minutes or so. Under a huge sign reading “Feed and Grain” the truck turned into a large parking lot looking more like a pick up dealership. Trucks of all shapes and sizes filled the parking spots, some hauling trailers and some not.  It seemed there was a stock auction that day which explained all manner of livestock peering out of windows in trailers or simply standing in the beds of the trucks. Huge chutes were releasing grains into pick up beds as we walked inside the massive warehouse. A welcoming gush of cool air washed over us as we walked into the main store area. Jeans and boots were definitely the outfit of the day. Pallets with enormous bags of food were being checked out by the cashiers. I wandered off as Ray and Bob J. went about their business. While perusing one aisle I heard a small tinkling noise. Looking down I was pleasantly surprised to find a small pig returning my stare. Around her neck was a pink and white bandana and below that hung a studded collar with a tiny gold bell dangling from a hook. “Oink”, it said. “Hello” I said in return using my native language, not well versed in pig. I was to find out shortly this was a mini pig fittingly answering to Petunia. Petunia it seemed was owned by the proprietors of the place and somewhat of a local mascot of sorts. If cuteness could be bottled this little one’s owner could be making some big money.  Petunia and I accompanied one another down several aisles before she left me to follow a family with a small dog on a leash. Fickle these pigs.

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An hour later with all their purchases loaded in the truck we turned back toward the farm to have lunch before going out to the field. Lunch? I had packed in enough food in a 48 hour period to sustain me if lost in the wilderness for two months. Like a camel I could probably have lived on my stored fat indefinitely. However, once again seated in that comfortable kitchen I found myself tucking away another delicious meal followed by a bowl of fresh fruit and cream. Amazingly I could still button my pants.

Ray stayed behind after lunch to help Chris in the barn, leaving Bob J. and I to ourselves giving me time to find out more about my long distance friend. I shall begin there at my next writing.Each day added a dimension to my adventure. Many things I’ve done in my life have held a little risk. Let’s be honest nobody says “I do” four times in a lifetime if there isn’t a bit of daredevil in their soul. Many things I regret, many things I treasure. It you never color outside of the lines how will you know what you might have missed? Day Three coming soon. As always stay safe. Hopefully their will be hugs and a rejoining of the mainstream not too far in the foreseeable future.

 

 

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Sitting outside watching the grass grow this morning I found myself reflecting on my trip to Manitoba in 1999.  Often when I mention to someone I hail from Nova Scotia I am greeted by a puzzled look so for those of you wearing a similar expression with regards to Manitoba I will further describe it by saying Manitoba is a Canadian prairie province situated between Ontario and Saskatchewan above North Dakota.

I still find it surprising after living in the U.S. all these many years Americans seem to have so little information about their nearest neighbor to the north. On arriving here in the middle of my fourth grade year it became clear to me almost immediately American geography teachers didn’t spend much time discussing the ins and outs of my native country. Our first stop in America was Southern California. After a few weeks of acclimating ourselves to the incredible difference in climate and culture my stepfather and mother purchased a home in Fullerton, California close to where his new office was located. Once settled in, I was enrolled in an elementary school close by to resume my education.  Curious about the new arrival from the far north, my new classmates bombarded me with questions asking if I had lived in an igloo or hung about with polar bears which I found incredibly uninformed trains of thought. The fact I knew so much about their country coming from Canadian schools and they knew so little about mine struck me as odd even at that tender age. Still does. However, I digress.

In 1999 I was single. Over the span of the previous year I had developed a solid long distance friendship with a widowed farmer named Bob from Manitoba who I had met on line. Emphasis on the friendship here. Neither of us were looking for a relationship at the time. For my part I was already casually involved with someone and had a busy job demanding most of my attention and for his he and his family ran a working farm that left little time for much else. This made our friendship both comfortable and tangle free. We had spoken often by phone and even more often on the computer finding we had not only our country but many other interests in common.  Bob was a middle aged widower with two grown children and several young grandchildren. The entire family, including his elderly father, lived and worked the farm in Northern Manitoba. The crops and cattle raised on his acreage served to both put food on their table and provide income for their family. During the summer months extra hands were hired to work the fields and help with the cattle.

For whatever reason the idea of farm life has always fascinated me. So, when Bob suggested he send me a ticket and I fly up and work the farm for a couple of weeks and get acquainted I jumped at the opportunity. Now, mind you, I believe family and friends thought I had slipped a cog. In truth, Bob, as genuine as he appeared to be with what I’d gathered of him, could well have been a serial killer or madman for all I knew. In my defense I did run a background check on him before boarding the plane and other than some driving infractions couldn’t find anything damning in the report. However, though I returned to the bosom of my family unscathed, I would caution you not to try this without considerable more research. Often in my life I have been a prime example of the verity of the old adage, God takes care of drunks and fools.

Foolhardy or not I boarded a plane in San Francisco for a ten day stay in Manitoba. The Air Canada flight landed late evening in Winnipeg, the capital of the province, where Bob and his entire brood waited at the gate to greet me. What a lovely family. Though entertaining some active butterflies before landing, after meeting everyone who appeared on the surface at least to be a normal family unit helped to settle things down to a manageable flutter. Our destination, I was told, was a three hour drive north from the airport. Whew. After a long flight I could have probably dozed off in the back seat if not for the animated conversation coming my way from Bob’s daughter-in-law, Chris, and her two small children riding up front to keep me entertained. At last we pulled into the long driveway leading to the ranch compound just as my eyes were preparing to do a forced closing. Once my gear was unloaded I was shown to my room and how to locate a guest bathroom in the main house (there were three houses on the property) and left to my own devices. I woke up the next morning to the tantalizing aromas of brewed coffee and bacon doing a dance in my nostrils. Throwing on shorts and a tee shirt I followed my nose to the kitchen.

The front yard neatly framed by the large bay windows in the living room seemed to extend forever ending at a fence barely visible in the distance. Tall grass waved in a brisk spring breeze and abundant sunshine poured in across the carpet. Lovely. Since I seemed to still have all my viable body parts and hadn’t been murdered in my bed I relaxed into my adventure excited about what lay ahead of me.

The kitchen was a generous comfortable room which included an eating area furnished with a long well loved table and eight mismatched chairs. Behind the table a stone fireplace took up about a third of one wall and next to that was a door I would learn later led to a mud room leading out to the back yard. The large island dominating the cooking area was where breakfast was being served. A tall stack of steaming hot griddle cakes rested next to a Spode blue china plate piled high with sausages and crispy bacon. Maple syrup, real Canadian maple syrup (yes there is a difference), sat in a pool of it’s own making in a glass pitcher at the end of the counter next to dishes of sunny side up eggs and fried potatoes. My people. Breakfast is by far my favorite meal of the day and these people knew how to bring it to the table, so to speak. The eggs, I was told as well as the breakfast meats were farm fresh. I tried not to picture the piggy who had given up so much for my enjoyment and concentrate on how amazingly delicious everything was. Chris had even made the jam sitting in colorful pots in the center of the table out of berries from her garden. Being a person who seems to recall everything she’s ever done by the food she ate, I had a feeling this was to be a memorable vacation. Bob said to expect generous meals during my stay, which was happy news to my stomach which was already feeling celebratory. Working on a farm, he went on to add, requires long hours and plenty of hard work so keeping my strength up was important. Okey dokey.

After filling myself nearly to the top with Chris’s delicious meal, it was suggested I change into more appropriate work clothes such as jeans and closed toed shoes to keep the insects at bay before meeting Bob and his son-in-law, Ray out by the barn. While waiting for instructions with Ray while Bob was in the barn, I asked him why I had heard him refer to his father-in-law as Bob J. Ray told me the family referred to the younger man as such since he shared the same first name as his dad making things less confusing when calling one of them out in the fields. Bob emerged from the side door of the barn wearing knee high boots and paint stained coveralls looking a bit like a Jackson Pollock painting. A crooked finger over one shoulder indicated we should follow in the direction he was headed. Walking in silence through the yard gave me a moment to take in the scenery around me. To the left was a tall open structure apparently used to shelter an enormous stack of round hay bales that reminded me of the shredded wheat my grandmother used to serve for breakfast. A forklift was parked at an angle next to the storage area and behind that a tractor and a variety of well rusted farm equipment. Beyond the white fences was a long pasture where cows were grazing. Four or five plump chickens were chucking around the ground by the fence scratching and picking at the dirt. I found myself wondering if they were for eggs or would I find one in stew for dinner during my stay.

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Heading to a wooden corral towards the back of the barn I was handed a pair of coveralls an told to pull them on over my clothing. K. Four or five cows wandered about in the paddock area which Ray informed me we were going to move to one of the outer pastures. From what I gathered from the conversation between the two men the cows had needed some sort of attention before rejoining the herd. What I know about cows you could put on the head of a pin and have room left over so my learning curve was to begin at the zero mark while participating in this process. An old work truck hitched to an equally well used trailer was backed up to a chute. Bob J. said this was what we would use to get the animals onto the trailer. We? What do you mean we kemosabe? He went on to say cattle could be resistant to this procedure. Oh goody. The coveralls, it appeared, were there for my protection because when cows get excited their digestive systems join in and send a delivery out the rear which may come in my direction. Let me preface this by saying I have always had a sort of a poop issue. When babysitting as a teen I would get a total gag reflex going when changing a dirty diaper. I remember when pregnant with my daughter someone told me “when it is your child, it won’t bother you at all”. Hmmmm. My stomach didn’t read that chapter in the Baby Book. There were days when I thought I was going to have to hire someone to complete the process. At any rate, I wasn’t going to admit this to these two men so, “damn the torpedoes full speed ahead”. For what seemed like the next four hours the three of us gently muscled five cows up the ramp. At one point Ray and I were at the rear portal of one animal literally shoulders pushed to its flanks shoving it in the right direction. At the same time the cow was yelling what appeared to be obscenities and pushing fecal matter out at a rate I had yet to have seen prior to that day or since. Ewwwww. Not quite what I’d read in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

Once the cows were loaded we all hopped in the cab of the truck and headed out of the yard. The countryside around me was absolutely breathtaking. Wildflowers bloomed prolifically in every direction alongside the dirt road. Overhead a bright blue sky entertained a few puffy white clouds as well as several birds flying lazily above the trees. We passed growing fields I was told were planted with hay and alfalfa. Next we came to a long row of what was obviously corn even to my uninformed eyes and then the fields opened up to long verdant pastures. Arriving at our destination Bob J. hopped out and opened a gate allowing us access to the expanse of grassy area where some of his cattle were grazing. It was so much easier convincing the cows to exit the trailer than it had been getting them in there thankfully. Once they were unloaded we drove along the parameters of the pastures. Feeding and watering were next on the list. Ray explained they supplemented the cows diet with a mixture of hay grown on the farm plus vitamins and minerals.

By noon the sun was high in the sky and I was starting to get both hot and tired. Water containers were loaded in the truck bed for our use but it was decided to head back to the house for lunch. I couldn’t believe I was even considering food after the amount I’d eaten earlier in the day but I bellied up to the bar as they say and managed to put away my second meal of the day. At that point I thought a nap might be in order but it seemed our day was just getting started. For the next five hours I worked helping load hay in another work truck, cleaning out the barn and then I drove the fence line with Bob J. while he repaired several areas of the fence threatening to allow the cattle to escape.

At one point he lifted his shirt up. My mind immediately went “whoa neighbor”. Turned out he wanted me to check his back for ticks and sure enough one was evident. Handing me a cotton ball soaked with rubbing alcohol he asked me to dab the little bugger until he backed out. Okay poop and ticks simply too much for one 24 hour day. Sure enough it worked. Feeling I’d had enough learning for one day I was dropped off by the men at the house to get cleaned up and get ready for yet another meal. Sleep came quickly that night with my alarm set for 5 a.m. to begin work again. Check please.

Thought I’d write this trip in segments as each day brought something new. Never for a moment have I regretted this experience, though as I mentioned I probably could have done more research before heading out. Have a great day. Day two coming next.

 

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