Monday, October 5, 2009

How do you know...?

How do you know something is good for you? By the taste.

Our garden food tasted good. All of it.

There was no such thing as a child saying he didn't like something, if it was from the garden or the goats or the chickens. It was all good.

I firmly believe taste is the way we know something is good for us. Good flavors come with other good things, the things that build healthy bodies.

Our garden was full of good things, and so would we be as we ate our way through the harvest bounty. Such were the blessings from all the work.

The work was a blessing too. It felt good. That's how we knew it was good.

Such statements beg for an acknowledgement of God. But at the time we were between Gods, so while we had appreciation for all the wonder of good-tasting food and work-hardened bodies, we didn't know where to direct our thanks. All that was yet to come...

The color of harvest...

The colors fell into piles leaving stark branches behind. I could almost smell the burning leaves of my childhood, now made illegal because of pollution. How I had loved to be in charge of the burning of leaves at the curb! I earned the privilege by showing how carefully I added just a few more rakefuls to the pile and didn't allow the flames to rage.

But now the only flames were in the color of maples, and their glowing cinders slowly drifted until they were slowly extinguished on the ground, getting ready with the help of the snow to merge with the loam beneath them, slowly, slowly....

And in the stillness and crispiness of it, we scurried like squirrels to bring in the last of the harvest. The light went from somber-bright to slanted to shadowy to dusky all too quickly, and we had potatoes left to dig and squash left to cut. Everyone scurried. The wheelbarrow was filled to the tipping point and run up to the porch. Boxes were topped off, then couldn't be lifted. Small arms were filled while small legs ran for the kitchen.

Frost was coming. The great white steed of the north was about to blow out his ice-breath. By morning the grass would be crunchy-white and the squash plants droopy-black.

The goats looked on, munching mouthfuls of alfalfa and timothy to keep warm with. The bacteria in their guts happily stoked up the fires of metabolism when fed such fine fodder, and they would not be cold.

But our noses reddened and we wondered where last winter's mittens had gotten to.

Gradually the dark took over, and the feeble porch light shed no glow on the garden. It was time to quit. As we moved the piles of veggies from the porch to the kitchen, we looked over our shoulders toward the darkened plot and wondered what we had abandoned....

Inside we went about our business: homework, practicing, the cooking of supper. We had turned the heat on just the day before, and we were toasty. Clumps of earth stuck to everything, squash, children, shoes. Later we spread newspapers on the floor and lined the harvest up on them. Hands on our hips, we stood in a circle and smiled, and then got back to work.


Sunday, October 4, 2009

Root cellar?

Our house happened to come with a storage room in the basement, one without shelves but an actual room not designated for anything else. It became our root cellar as the first overflow of harvest began to take over the kitchen counters.

Root cellars are cool and moist because they have earthen floors. Dirt floors. This room of ours had concrete floors just like the rest of the basement. So it failed as a literal root cellar, but it reigned supreme as a-space-to-store-things. John built shelves.

Winter squash were the first inhabitants. They had hard skins and looked durable enough to survive for several years as storage foods. We had vast numbers of them.

The shelves were about as wide as a good-sized squash, so we lined these winter ingredients up in a single rank side-by-side.

We also had potatoes to store, and sunflower heads. We cut these off at the neck and placed them seed-side-up on the shelves. Apples were piled up on a side away from the potatoes, because their smells intermingle and I thought I might not be fond of raw-potato-flavored apples.

I think we had a few turnips, too.

Green beans went into the freezer, which was in another part of the basement.

Tomatoes and eggplants stayed in the kitchen. Their sheer abundance overwhelmed us, but even our amateur thoughts about storage were not so naive as to expect them to survive on their own for long.

I had thoughts of canning, but no time or expertise. How pretty the shelves would have looked with jar after jar of tomatoes! But it didn't happen.

We just ate them as fast as we could, on sandwiches or in the pot for dinner, whatever it might have been.

Soon a hard frost would hit and put an end to the bounty. But for now it threatened to overtake us, and we were glad to have some place to put it all that was for the most part out of sight.


Friday, July 3, 2009


JSL was a professor at MIT in those days. He often took the Wellesley College shuttle bus in, so I'd drive him to it, about 5 miles from our house. Other times he took the car all the way through Wellesley to the MTA station in Newton, and then rode the Green Line downtown and tranferred to the Red Line, which would take him to Kendall Square. It was at least an hour each way.

MIT was an interesting place. Everyone there was of course the brightest of the bright. The professors taught intense classes, and did intense research, and many did consulting for corporations besides. In fact, MIT arranged it so that every professor worked 4 days a week, leaving the 5th for consulting.

And they paid according, about 80% of the salary a high-quality professor might earn at another prestigious university, or even at a state school.

So JSL often was away on consulting trips. And that left me with the goats and the milking and the chauffeuring and shopping and cooking and gardening, and the three children and dogs and cats. But the extra income made his trips worth every effort. And except for when the heat was horrible, I managed ok. And the kids were helpful and cost-effective and supportive.

But the consulting began to dry up with the wretched economy. He was home more often, and that was a great help, but the diminishing income drained us in pocketbook and spirit. We began to despair.

And now in the fall of 1977, with our oldest child 11 and starting 6th grade, our thoughts turned to college expenses, and we realized we were in big trouble. The University of Massachusetts would just not do, but what else could we manage? We had 7 years to put away enough money for the first child, and the second was just a year behind him. And at that moment we were not putting anything away, we were just barely keeping a hold of our house.

MIT did have a plan for teachers' kids: they would pay half the expenses at any accredited institution in the country. It was just a matter of coming up with the thousands of dollars we would need for the other half.

And that seemed as likely as the economy improving. The very thought left us feeling hopeless.


Saturday, June 20, 2009


As the end of August arrived, we had a better mix of heat and cool, including a few truly chilly mornings. Maples were showing signs of turning to fall colors. And young goats were coming into heat.

Meanwhile, we were enjoying a bounty from the garden. Tomatoes were inundating us, as were zucchini. Our favorite bounty, though, came in the form of purply shiny-skinned eggplant, which we used at virtually every meal but breakfasts.

There was of course fufarah, now full of green peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, and big chunks of eggplant. We also had eggplant sandwiches made of fried eggplant slices, goat cheese, and fresh-picked lettuce. But perhaps our favorite was babaganoush, a mixture of cooked eggplant and sesame tahini, mixed with lemon juice, garlic, and a bit of salt. The fact that all this sumptuous eating was for free was hard to comprehend.

Another garden treat was jerusalem artichokes. We had discovered these in the food boxes we got each week from the coop, and though it was expensive to plant them instead of eat them, we were reward by a long row of tall sunflower-like stalks with small flowers on top. And all we had to do to add a sunchoke to the meal was to dig about their roots and pull up as many as we wanted.

We had to learn a few tricks about cooking them: to saute them in oil takes a while, until they give up and soften, then brown. Before they brown, they taste like oysters, while afterward more like potatoes. They could also be steamed and eaten like potatoes, or mixed with potatoes and mashed. But our potatoes were still in the ground, and we were happy enough to cut the sunchokes in discs or strips and add them early to the pot that would sooner or later contain all the components of fufarah.

So we ate well. A slice of our beloved pure-white goat cheese went on the top of almost everything. There was never a food as glorious as our homemade whole-wheat bread toasted, a thick slice of tomato still hot from the garden added along with lettuce, the bread spread with butter or good mayonnaise, and then goat cheese in its 1x3 inch slices aligned across the top so that a knife-cut would not disturb it. It was a bit messy to eat, but accompanied by mint 'tea', it made a 100% satisfying lunch. Or we'd just eat it in hand, or crumbled into fufarah or onto a garden salad.

So harvest brought a lot of joy, and it was just beginning.


Much to think about

By the end of August my thoughts were full of four pressing and painful issues:

1. What to do about the neighbor Nancy.
2. The meaning of my father's passing.
3. Whether to try for another baby and risk more sorrow.
4. Money.

Money was the constant theme. How to survive, really. The economy was a mess: inflation was upwards toward 20% a year, more in some spheres. Taxes were up and up, as were groceries and gas. Everything but our income, which was not tied into the cost of living. We were slowly slipping into financial doom.

As for Nancy, I held a lot of affection for her in my heart. I thought she could be a neat friend. The strange things she had said and done were mysteries to me, and didn't stick well to her in my mind. I thought maybe it was all due to her husband, who was a strange character we seldom saw. He had set up a leather-working shop in the old carriage house, but when the kids were over there playing, they never saw him do anything but lie on the couch he'd moved in there. So as thoughts of Nancy went round and round in my mind, I alternated between feeling mystifed and loving. Very confusing. As for what I might do to ensure the better outcome, I had no idea.

My father's death caused me primarily to think more of my mother's welfare. She seemed happy enough, and in one way we were all relieved: she had much more freedom to come and go and visited us much more frequently, sleeping in our family room off the kitchen, where the kids loved to visit her. Of course she was not confined there but she carved out a little niche in that spare room and often had her knitting out and a cookie for the kids. So his loss was not ours, not in any immediate way.

But then there was the loss of my little ones. The tiny body I had held after my body ejected it caused a constant underlying ripple in my awareness still, after nearly a year, and that was just the first. I had wanted a large family, and somehow I was failing to fulfill that dream. I had failed to provide 9 months of nurture for these two eagerly awaited new members of our family while they built their little earthly homes deep inside of me, and it all seemed so wrong. The emptiness was filled with the doctor's ringing voice: you will never bear another child.

But I didn't feel that way. I really felt I could bring a new baby into the world, as I had 3 times before.

I was still in the 6 months of rest that doctor's partner had recommended before I should try again, that tumultuous late August, so I didn't need to make any decisions. But it weighed on me like poverty and loneliness and death.

So my mind was filled with much to think about, and my heart stood on the precipice of deep pain. There was nothing to do but keep doing, and loving those whose care I had successfully found myself entrusted with. Time would do something with all this...


Friday, June 12, 2009


Thunder is the sound of hope to me, of change and relief. It doesn't always work out, but usually thunder comes with rain and cooler air, blustery squally air, breathable bug-free air.

And so it was in August 1977 that with the death of my father and the unfathomable ways of my neighbor came blessed thunderstorms.

They heralded fall, and school days, and goats in heat. But more than anything, to me, they heralded hope.

I had made it through another summer, and though more hot days would visit us, they would not stay. There would be no more relentless stretches of misery.

Thunder also heralded watermelons from the garden, and a harvest of corn, which was waiting for us as we got back from the funeral.

And soon the squashes would be ready, and the potatoes big enough to dig for.

Life was good. The trials of spring and summer were yielding to the turn of the seasons, and I was filled with such optimism that I couldn't help but stand out on the porch and breathe deeply.

I searched the maples for signs of color and found tell-tale yellows dappling the abundance of green in their crowns as if the sun were shining on them.

But there was no sun. It was gone behind roiling black clouds that fulfilled the thunder's promise. I ducked back inside as huge drops soaked the porch in moments.

I shivered with delight and a welcome chill, and watched the barn disappear behind a sheet of steel that connected the silvered earth with the steely skies. The children poured in soaked and huddled with me, their puddles mingling with mine till the kitchen was flooded. The thunder rolled and rolled and rolled. The lightning smashed against us, bringing the dogs to tremble against our legs. We sighed and shivered until we were actually cold, then ran for towels and dry clothes. The thunder rolled away.

The garden leaned. The beans looked beaten, and the potato vines dashed to a pulp.

But then the sun came out, the air dried out, and the garden righted itself. It was time for harvest. Summer would no longer press against us with its thick white air and too bright yellow light. Tomorrow when the furrows were no longer filled with rain, we would reach into the ground and gather the goodness.

Our reward was a upon us. My hope was fulfilled.


Thursday, June 11, 2009

Adjustments and renewals

For years my mother had kept the peace, and the past year had been stressful, but from the time my father had stopped drinking 6 or 7 months before his death, her days with him had become sweet and companionable.

Such was the irony of the peace and loneliness she felt in his absence.

I called her often just to keep her company. And she came for prolonged visits, which we all enjoyed. And she enjoyed her grandchildren and singing with John at night while they did the dishes together.

We watched August evaporate and looked forward to the first days of school, then the first fall colors.

And all the while I thought about my sister, whose baby was due in 6 months, then 5. And I began to believe again that I could have a baby, too. No matter how discouraging the doctor had been.

The thought brought a bright smile to my inner person. It felt right and good, and I was willing to give it a try.

I felt renewed. The experience of my father's death might be the beginnings of a new life.

Funeral days

My father's body was cremated. My mother was annoyed by the call she received to bring his perfectly good suit that someone else might be able to wear to the funeral parlor for the cremation. She resented that it would go to waste. But they insisted that he had to be cremated in a suit.

So that was the end of the old wool suit and the body it had housed for years and years.

The ashes were placed in an urn, which had somehow arrived at the cemetery. A tiny hole had been dug and we stood around the urn and the hole and shared a few thoughts. Then in the sterile way of modern burials we left. Later the urn with its spent ashes magically found its way into the hole and was covered, but we were saved having all that disturbing sort of memory.

As if we could think of anything else.

Later that day we had the memorial service. My brother had come, and his wife, and my sister was there still. And the five of us were there. We shook hands with old friends and acquaintances after a routine service in the bright sanctuary of the Presbyterian church I had grown up in. And later that my parents had joined and served in.

And then we went to the home of the friends who had picked me up at the train the week before. Everyone sat around talking about my father, and how alcohol had killed him. Their grieving was made tolerable by a round or two of drinks...

I didn't drink. I had, until I had wised up, but that was well in the past. So I was jarred and unsettled, and was glad when we had to leave for the three-hour drive home.

The goats needed to be milked, and we needed to regroup as a family in our own way, with soberness and also sobriety.

Turning points

The next days were full of turmoil and turning points.

We took care of the neighbors' goats while they were away. I went over and got my instructions, and then for the next three days I followed those instructions. But when Nancy got back she accused me of stealing half a bag of their feed. And no thank yous.

I got a call from my mother. My father wasn't doing well. As soon as they gave him a treatment - draining his belly of excess fluid - he deteriorated again. And each treatment left him without energy. Back in the winter the doctor had said that if he had one more drink it would kill him and he never had another, though he continued to smoke. It looked like it might already be too late.

The last days of July sweated themselves away with mosquito-y milkings at night and fly-hazed chores in the morning. Milk filled the fridge and the freezer, and on the counter the new wheels of cheese tended to mold in the unrelenting 90-degree temperatures and over-abundant humidities.

Then the call came. My father was in the hospital. The last treatment had been too rough on him. I needed to go home.

I left by train that night, and prayed the peculiar prayer that he would die before I got there: I was too afraid to see him weakened and dying. Lifelong friends were to pick me up at the Stamford station and take me straight to the hospital. When I got there he was alive, and I did see him. He was comatose.

His arms were bruised. Propped up, he half-lay under the white sheets. Mercifully he had no tubes: he hadn't wanted them back a few years before when he made those kinds of decisions, calmly, unconcernedly, in happier days. He had wanted nothing extraordinary and he had nothing extraordinary now.

I drove home my mother and my sister, who had come, and talked about this and that. I slept fitfully in the heat with the big old window fan blowing on me, the same as had kept me sane in the miserable summer days of my childhood. I consumed quantities of cold water and thought of my father with no tubes. How thirsty he must be! When morning came, we drove back to the hospital.

My sister had come in some days before, and together we visited and held vigil. My sister was a few months pregnant. Her enthusiasm about having a third child was under control. Her bump made me envious, and also hopeful that someday we too might have another child.

But we were there to be with my father, and I was not content to turn my back on him. I went to his bedside and talked to the unconscious familiar and unfamiliar face.

He responded with a grunt.

So I talked some more. And I asked him if he wanted some water.

He nodded vigorously, so I used a straw to dribble an inch or two of water at a time into his dry mouth. He scared me by choking on it, so I asked if he wanted more. He nodded earnestly.

So all afternoon I dribbled the life-giving water into his eager mounth and talked to him. He didn't say anything, but expressed his interest with small nods, all the while receiving the next inch of water eagerly.

He knew I was there, and I wondered if that worried him. We had a deep communion during those hours. I was able to give him that life-sustaining potion, water. Or love.

The next day I needed to hurry back to take care of family and farm. I was there a day when the call came: he had died. My mother and sister had opted not to go early to the hospital the morning after I left, and a few hours into the day they received the dreaded call. It was August 19, 1977. My father was dead at age 68 of liver disease. And kidney failure due to dehydration.

I ran next door and asked Nancy if she could take care of the goats while we went home for the funeral. She refused.

I got on the phone and could find no one home. All were on vacation. I begged Nancy.

Finally she relented. I thanked her and we piled in the car for the three-hour drive to Connecticut and the intense days ahead.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The 4th of July after...

On July 4 1976 Boston had a big celebration. And then suddenly we found ourselves again on July 4, but a year later.

On July 4 1976 we had thought we'd take the kids into Boston to join the crowds and wish our country a happy 200th birthday. We had thought to hop on the MTA and let the subway drop us off at Park or Boylston and walk the rest of the way to the Harvard bridge, whence we could watch the fireworks that were discharged out over the Charles River.

But Kay Ferguson's son David had gone in ahead of us and found a pay phone and called and warned us off. He said that there were several million people squeezed between the highways leading to Boston and Boston Harbor, and while everyone was behaving it would be way too easy for a small child to get separated or maybe even trampled. And we had three to watch out for.

So we had stayed home. We had local fireworks to enjoy, and we were ok about it. 

And now a year later we decided to have some friends from MIT over to enjoy a store-bought watermelon filled with berries, peaches and more melon. And we decided to include homemade ice cream. Made with store-bought milk and cream.

The day was of course hot and sticky as 4ths of July always are, and we hung out in the coolest room of the house and talked. We were the only ones with kids, so the comings and goings of small humans were met with puzzlement, which amused me because it seemed so normal to me.

After the watermelon gave out, we worked on the ice cream. It wouldn't freeze. A half dozen chemists sat around trying to get the mix to harden, and nothing happened. Then someone remembered the salt, and we were soon divvying up the lovely slurry and covering the servings with strawberries. Very yummy, but too soon gone!

Everyone went in different directions before dark, and we had chores to do and never did make it to the fireworks. 

We enjoyed the fireflies instead, which flashed in syncopation with distant booms, whether heat lightning or fireworks we never knew.

With the 4th behind us, we were in the full intensity of summer. We dreaded the exuberant and abundant flies by day and the clouds of mosquitoes by night, but otherwise we enjoyed our existence: the freshest possible, purest possible, food from the garden, cold hours-old milk from the ladies in the barn, and the companionship of each other without the stress of meeting any schedule but milking and chores.

It was tranquil. Until mid-month, when peace went away never to return in quite the same way again.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Lunches supreme

When we finally had our first ripe tomatoes, in mid-July after a month of steam and sweat, we discovered a remarkable way to eat them. Only on the farm could we have indulged our urgent cravings for this treat!

We took our homemade bread and cut it thick, and toasted it in the toaster oven, then covered it with butter. 

We then cut a fresh wheel of goat cheese into 1/4 inch slices, and laid them on the bread, as soon as possible so they would soften from the warmth left over from the toasting operation.

On top of the goat cheese went one or two huge, thick, incandescent tomato slices, usually still warm from the garden and filled with that glorious earthy smell. They were red all the way through and juicy.

Then we added the lettuce, fistfuls from the later planting and already in danger of bolting before it could all be eaten. 

And then, maybe some good mayonnaise, or maybe not. And then on top, another slice of that good coarse deep brown whole wheat bread.

And then a diagonal cut, because Nana always cut things diagonally and it seemed respectful to do it her way. (She said a diagonal cut is a way of keeping your face clean because you can eat the point first intead of having to dig in sloppily on the side.)

And then the first bite, pure heaven - creamy tangy cheese with bright tomato with crunchy, slightly bitter green with the deep roundness of the whole wheat. 

A glass of cold goat milk or water stood by, and did a pile of napkins to handle the tomato-y drip. 

When the green peppers were ripe, a slice might be added to The Sandwich, but no other adulterants were tolerated or desired. It was already Perfect.


Sewing seemed to go along with the whole homestead theme. If we were going to do everything else ourselves, why not make our own clothes?

I had sewed from a young age, stitching my finger in the old treadle sewing machine my grandmother had left to my mother when I was only 3 - and supposed to be napping.

I had an aunt, Mar by name and actually my mother's aunt, who sewed, and when I was turning 7 she sent me a package full of scraps of lace and buttons. I made doll clothes from my mother's leftovers and added those things. It gave me great delight to make skirts for my doll and little tops.

Then when I was 9 I started some serious sewing. I had been knitting and weaving potholders to sell by then, but I felt it was time to start making clothes for me.

I don't remember the first article, but by the time our things came out of storage after our year in Kentucky in 1951-52 and then our year in a rented house, 1952-53, I had access to a sewing machine and began to make skirts.

I made pleated skirts with elaborate calculations instead of a pattern - just so much for the length and so many pleats to take up the width at the waist, a plain waistband, and a zipper. Some fabrics were designed to be used in reversible skirts: one side plain, the other plaid. I had to do my calculations just right to make sure only the plain showed on one side, and only plaid on the other, and make the waistband so it looked good whichever way I wore the skirt.

I also made a few gathered skirts out of fabrics with a border print. 

I continued to make skirts, also pajamas and an apron, a two-piece dress, and then in high school two formals and a madra men's jacket for my boy friend and a matching skirt for me .

The two formals I made out of the same pattern, a year apart, because the design was so interesting. Following the directions, I lined up the strangely shaped pieces in seemingly random fashion and couldn't imagine, the first time, how it would turn into anything resembling a dress. Then, with one final alignment, the whole strange mess slipped together and I had an elegant formal before me. I made the second one only to have that great experience again!

In college it was not easy to sew so I just knitted. I couldn't afford the wool so I knitted up for other people what they bought for me to work on. It satisfied my desire to work with my hands.

I made my maternity clothes, once we were married, simple tops and skirts with a cheap machine ($39!). And I made costumes for the resulting children for Halloween and for dress-up: a boy astronaut suit and a girl one, and then later Indian outfits. I also sewed for my nephews.

And then life got in the way for a while. I was working at the TM center, we went to Switzerland, and sewing was left behind. 

Usually when I sewed in was in great gulps. I couldn't make just one thing. When the passion hit me, it hit full-force, and I bought patterns and fabric and established a one-person assembly line. And I'd fizzle out after three or four garments.

Then, there on the farm, as the frantic activities of spring were subdued by the hazy, overheated days of early summer, I was suddenly overtaken by another urge to sew.

Notice that none of the items I had sewn had anything to do with fashion. I was sewing for the sake of doing it, and for clothing my body, or those of my children, or I was looking for the satisfaction of having made something useful. But making something to be stylish wasn't part of it.

So as I set about making clothes for my children, I was looking for an inward satisfaction but not with an eye toward what might help a child fit in.

In fact, even back in 1977, it was hard for a child to fit in with home-made clothes, as I found out when they all went back to school.

But by then the sewing urge had left me once again, and I had unfinished items sitting in a drawer, the pins still holding the patterns to the cut-out fabric.

My daughter was 9 1/2 and I did make her a few cute things. The real sewing fun was ahead of us, but I knew that if I had to make clothing for our family I could. With that sense of accomplishment I put it all away for another day.

Sunday, May 3, 2009


Our evening meal was fufarah, which was anything the garden handed us.

We dug early potatoes and cut them and sauteed them in the big frying pan. Baby beans also went in, cut once or not at all. By July the peas were dying, and the brown vines had mostly gone to the goats, but a few peas were left for the pot. 

The tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants were growing but were not yet ready.

But small squashes began to appear, and by the next day they were no longer small. So we learned to pick several each night, and they too went into the pot.

It was all sauteed, then served on brown rice or noodles or eaten with bread.

But just before serving, we topped the mixture in the pot with crumbled goat cheese in great quantity. This was a rather dry cheese from our constant production that used up the excess milk we had in mid-summer.  The wheels sat salted on the counter for a few days, and it was a contest to see whether we could eat as much as we made.

Not that we wanted to. We hoped to make it through the winter months with summer's bounty. 

So every few days a wheel of cheese about 6 inches across and an inch deep went into a plastic bag and then into the freezer.

The cheese softened when tossed onto hot fufarah and added a zesty flavor and a nice touch of protein. With rice and all those garden veggies we ate well, and no two meals were the same. But they were all fufarah, all summer long.

Dog days

The heat of July was upon us. It was steamy from morning to night and through to the next morning. The sun was high in the sky and cooked any creature that ventured out. The goats lay prostrate in the shade of the barn, moving from the west side in the morning to the east side in the afternoon. 

And the dogs and cats lay as flat as they could on the kitchen floor, or under the shade of an apple tree if they were one of the outdoor cats.

The people hid in dark corners with their library books and drank gallons of water, or they sat on the basement steps where somewhat cooler air could be found.

The mosquitos filled the twilight evening and stirred up the steam with their buzzing. We had to put winter jackets on to milk so we wouldn't be eaten alive and drained of every drop of our overheated blood. Only our hands stuck out into the buggy air - there was no other way to milk. The goats' tender udders were covered with bites, and as soon as their heads were freed from the milk stand headholder, they whipped around and bit at the new welts.

By the next morning, with the overnight temperatures finally lowering to the high 80s and the sun rising early and sizzling, a new generation of flies was out waiting for us in the barn. We had to cover the milk pail with a paper towel to keep them out, and while we milked they buzzed our ears and bit our necks. We had hung fly tape above the milk room and in several other places in the barn, and each strip was soon blackened with fly bodies, but with no breeze - and there was no breeze - a black cloud hung stationary and nastily around us.

We waited through the days and hoped for a thunder storm that might signal a change of weather but at least would cool us a bit. Heat lightning flashed above the trees from some distant luckier town but never came closer no matter how long we looked at it and longed for it.

Day after day the heat hung on us, unstoppable in its flow from the Gulf of Mexico to the coast of Maine. No mountains rose in between to stop it.

But two young creatures roused themselves at the end of each day, even in the persistant heat, and shook off their lethargy. The beagle boys were ready for their nightly hunt, and who knew what raccoon or neighbor cat was waiting for them! Their eager noses began to twitch at sunset, and by dark, when we were all dashing in from the barn with our itchy hands and full buckets, they were ready for their nightly run.

Off they went, only the white tips of their tails visible, and then only their yodels audible. 

When they came back, called in at the last minute before we went to bed, their bellies heaving and their tongues heavy, we made sure they had a bucketload of water each. They flopped down and went to sleep, their legs still running the woods. 

And we flopped down on top of the sheets and spreadeagled and tried to think comfortable thoughts. Soon the sun was up again, the buzzing began, and we searched the sky for clouds. And there were none. The dogs slept...

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Surprise request

I was still smarting from the neighbors' attack by rocks, and feeling like an idiot for not knowing what if anything to say to them or do about it, when I got a surprise visit from Nancy, the mom.

I felt that unpleasant adrenalin burst and braced myself for the unpleasant encounter that was only seconds away. I wanted to avoid a confrontation at all costs as always. I didn't want to find myself telling her in angry-frustrated-tearfilled fashion just what I thought of a man who would drive his children into a neighbor's yard and have them attack the neighbor's garden with rocks. 

I probably was still holding my breath when she walked up to me - I was on our porch - and said, 
we need to be gone for a few days, can you take care of the goats?

After we talked about the details, I said yes. 

In the back of my mind I wondered if she even knew about the rock attack. And whether I should tell her in case she didn't.

We went over to her barn so I could see her set-up and learn what needed to be done: feeding both goats and chickens, milking goats, clean-up, bottling milk...

I agreed to do it, and said not a word about the incident.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


A few weeks after my miscarriage, I started having migraines again. 

They made me curl up in a ball and want to avoid everything. I hurt from the base of my spine to the top of my head and over into my eyeball. And they gave me a tight feeling in the pit of my stomach.

They came every 3 days and lasted a little over a day. Or sometimes they came for 3 weeks and then I was immune for another month or so.

It made it hard to be a good mom, to have any patience at all, to do chores, to weed the garden, to cook, to drive, to listen to anything or think about anything.

They were a hideous waste of time, and they wouldn't stop. I tried changing my diet but it didn't help. I couldn't make an appointment or set a date with friends or help out at school because I might not be able to show up. 

The pain, hideous as it was, and relentless as it was, was only part of the problem. Not being able to live was another. 

And there was nothing I could do about it because nothing worked.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Storm of stones

One pleasant June Saturday I was putting in a little extra time weeding the garden because the weeds were just as tall as the peas, close to my height. They had sprung up after a warm rain, and I was determined to find the plants we had intended to raise.

Instead of kneeling for hour after hour - or at least minute after minute - I took some newspaper with me and sat on it while I weeded. The cats brushed against me as I sat there beneath walls of vegetation that spread as far as the eye could see in all directions. It was a bit steamy down there out of the breeze, and even at the tops of the weed stalks there was little movement.

As I was plucking away, I was somewhat surprised to hear the sound of a vehicle close by and approaching but I thought the neighbors might be loading or unloading their pickup nearby.

Too true! 

As I sat there in the weeds, I heard a thud quite close to me, then several more. Rocks were falling nearby. 

I pushed myself to my feet and there before me was a shocking site: the neighbors' truck was backed up to the edge of our garden and their children were lobbing rocks into it. 

All I could think to say was HEY!

When they saw me, they jumped down from the truck and ran, and their dad, who was driving, stepped on the gas and zoomed back into their yard.

In reality the rocks were stones maybe the size of a fist or so, and they lay here and there around the garden, having knocked down as many weeds as vegetables. I picked them up and added them to our tidy pile, and little material harm was done.

But the hostility was disturbing. Clearly they hadn't seen me or expected anyone to be around when they launched their attack, and I don't know how many more rocks they might have tossed into the garden if I hadn't been there. The thought that someone would enlist his 12 and 10 year olds and his 3 year old to throw rocks into a neighbor's garden was seriously disturbing. Our kids played with theirs! How could anyone think of doing such a thing?

We did nothing. What could be done? I felt we were dealing with an irrational man, one capable of violent acts. It left me rattled, uncomprehending, confused...

Phone calls

We used to talk to Nana every week or two. She was my mom and while not much earth-shattering happened between calls, it was nice to check in and chat. So it was a little strange that she hadn't called for a while. And neither had I - we were busy and time just slid by.

We had a few calls but everything was as always, other than the big space between them.

In June she did call and mentioned that my father had had another treatment. They had drained excess fluid from his belly again. Not much was going on, a friend had died, my sister was expecting, just family chatter.

They lived about 180 miles away in Connecticut. It was awkward for them to visit because my father didn't like the outdoors very much, and he also smoked a great deal. They had come up in the late fall soon after we moved in, and he hadn't liked smoking out on the porch. 

And we really couldn't stand having smoke in the house, not just for the minutes it took to inhale a cigarette but for the months after when the smell lingered on and on. 

That combined with his dislike of leaving home and also of driving any distance meant that we didn't see either of them very often. 

Before the farm we had gone to Connecticut to see them a couple of times a year, and usually continued on to New Jersey to see the other grandparents. But the farm made leaving impossible.

So we hadn't seen them, but we'd talked on the phone. And now we were not doing that as much, but our chats were full of homey news and I always enjoyed them, and Nana did too. I knew we'd get back in the swing of it when we had the farm routine under our belts.

Dusty's other brother

Poor little Charlie, Dusty's littermate, had been killed by a car when he was still tiny, so Dusty was a lone dog except when he romped with Spanky next door. 

But then Dusty's breeder called and said that a third puppy from the litter needed a home. His family, she said, had small children and the young fellow was not good with them. On the other hand, since our children were older...

Of course we said yes.

So Dusty's long-lost brother, now full-grown, arrived. We were eager to see if he was as wonderful as Dusty.

He wasn't. He was snappish and sullen, and obviously had suffered through a lot of mishandling.

But we embraced him - from a distance - and made him part of the family.

Whatever Dusty's thoughts, he kept them to himself. And when evening came and he could smell delicious woodsy things on the air, he showed Sam how to go howling off into the woods in their pursuit. 

Two beagles howling in the woods is a formidable sound. We always knew where they were, but what did the suburbanites who surrounded us think was happening? Surely some poor animal was suffering...?

Indeed, later we found that the woman who lived all the way through our woods and hers and up the hill to the estate beyond had concluded just that and was contemplating sending her teen son out with a rifle to put an end to the agony of whatever poor beast was suffering so.

The dog boys couldn't be called home until they'd tired of sniffing and yodeling, but just before we went to bed we'd call them: Dusty! Sammy! and in they'd come, bolting up onto the porch and in the kitchen door, skidding across the floor, panting with hanging tongues, ready for a bowl of fresh water and a good scratch behind the ears from their beloved stay-at-home friends. 

After a few months of nightly forays, Sammy began to mellow out. He never did engage with us as Dusty did. But Dusty was exceptional, and Sammy was just a dog, and for that reason alone Dusty loved him. 

Saturday, April 25, 2009

School's out!

What a relief it was when school was out! What fun we had together! It's not so much that we - mom and kids - hung out together all day long, but that the kitchen was homebase, where the young adventurers would come back several times during the day from their forays into the neighborhood. 

Once chores were done, their time was their own. They had long hours with friends, and also we made frequent trips to the little library in the tiny village of South Natick, just less than 3 miles away and as close as any public area. The waterfall below it was especially enticing on hot days, though we mostly just looked at it as we hurried by on some errand. An ice cream cone at Brigham's or Friendly's accompanied most trips into Wellesley to buy groceries. 

In the car we sang and talked and sang some more, mostly camp songs from my childhood. We loved the two-part sections and any song that could be sung as a round.

Back on the farm, the heat of the day was spent reading, each of us gorging on the tall stacks of books we brought home from the library.

June was kind in that most evenings were cool even at the end of hot days, and that meant more time for the garden. Now that we were eating spinach, chard, and peas, the evening hours were ushered in by a quick run to the garden for ingredients for our perpetual summer meal called fu-fa-rah. It consisted of whatever combination of garden goodies that were harvestable with whatever additions the fridge and larder yielded.

A typical early summer fu-fa-rah would be sauteed peas, greens, rice, and goat cheese, of course drunk down with frothy, cold goat milk. 

The one harvest we could count on even this early in the season was rocks. This was an area where the glaciers had scraped and ground the bedrock and left stones and boulders behind. Large and small, they seemed to rise up all summer, so that every time we went out to the garden, new ones were lying on the surface. 

The family ritual was to pick up as many as any one of us could carry, then pile them up in the yard-wide margin between the edge of the garden and the property line. Soon we had a miniature stone wall growing up beside the garden, reminding us of how the real stone walls that lined our property had come to be. 

Picking rocks and peas was fun in the cool of the evening, especially when we didn't have to worry about getting everyone to bed. On breezy nights the mosquitoes were no bother. The display of stars overhead called for lying on our backs on the grass so that Dad could tell us their names, and point out the constellations. It was a season in-between, soft and sweet.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


That is, HAZY, HOT, and HUMID! The first of June left us wrung out. Suddenly the temperature in the shade was 90 and the humidity everywhere was close to 100%. The air was nearly white with it. The goats lay sprawled out in the shade, and we hid in the house with the windows closed, hoping to keep the heat out.

Meanwhile, the garden grew.

A few days later the temperatures went down, but the humidity stayed. Even when it was 75, it was too hot to work and we liquified as soon as we lifted a finger.

But since the weeds had grown just as the veggies had, we needed to weed. 

I took my turn in 15-minute spurts. During the day the sun beat down and I drained cup after cup of water. In the evening, when it was cooler, the mosquitos came out and ignored every repellant we dared use. And the weeds kept growing and we kept plucking away at them. 

So did the veggies grow. The cherry tomatoes were showing more color and we were eager for them to get to a truly ripe state. Tiny peppers appeared, and the eggplant flowers added an elegant color to their corner of the first garden. And tiny beans were emerging from below the blossoms that had borne them. 

The peas were getting exasperated with the heat, though: they stopped producing and the vines turned to straw. We gave up and fed the vines to the goats, who seemed to think of them as dessert. 

Gradually the number of hazy, hot, humid days increased, and the respites between them disappeared. I kept the radio on in the faint hope that the forecast might change. We quietly played games in the house (though VJ never missed a chance to tend his glads out in the full sun). With no A/C, the coolest place to read or nap was the floor. We spread out so as not to suffer from each other's added heat and dozed in a drowsy stupor so the hours till we could enjoy the cool of the evening would pass more quickly. 

But some nights it never cooled off. Then we lay spread-eagled on our beds and sweated the hours away.

And July and August were yet to come.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

School's out

The baby goats were getting big, and happily drank down daily their two quarts of milk, then ate hay all day long and nibbled at whatever grain might have been spilled in their yard. They also practiced their escapes and generally wreaked havoc with the fencing. 

One favorite activity of us all was called 'goat TV'. We'd stand by the hour and watch them cavort. Sometimes the human children got into the mix and all 10 or so wild beasts dervished together.

Dear Old Dad made the mistake one day of lying in the warm sun, in a spot of soft grass that appealed to him and happened to be in the kid pen. He was soon covered with young goat damsels. The blade of grass in his mouth didn't last long...

We couldn't wait for school to get out so we could take a break from getting up too early and start enjoying each other in a less-structured way. The children had been playing with the next-door neighbors. Their children were similar in age to ours except for the youngest, who was just emerging from toddlerhood. Other children in the neighborhood played with ours, too. I envisioned a summer of ball games and running through the sprinkler and the squeals of a dozen or more happy vacationers. 

But it was not to be. 

The family next door seemed to share our interests, and I was full of hope for a real friend in the old house so near ours. But things weren't progressing too well. Our family seemed to be greeted with suspicion every which way we turned.

It wasn't our lifestyle per se, it was the sense that we were out to cheat them somehow. The father particularly seemed looking for offense, but both adults at times acted oddly. It seemed to begin with the warm weather, when we were all outside so much more often.

One incident seemed innocent enough: the neighbors' year-old puppy, a doberman gangly and goofy and named Spanky, came loping into our yard when I was the only one home, trotted up onto our open porch, and grabbed Dusty's feed bowl. I opened the door to coax her to let go, but she was already heading for home. 

I ran over to their house myself so I could keep an eye on where she went. That other property had a big barn plus a carriage house on it, in addition to their home, and I knew Spanky could take the bowl anywhere, then lose interest, and I might never find it.

But she went straight to her house, where Nancy (the mom) and her mother, visiting from another state, had just come home from buying groceries. 

I ran breathless around the corner to their door. Spanky was already inside, greeting Nancy with huge wags. The bowl was sitting just outside the door.

Both Nancy and her mother looked at me curiously, then Nancy went into the house with bags of food. I explained to her mother that Spanky had come over and carried off Dusty's bowl, and I was there to get it. I picked it up from where it lay at her feet.

But she objected. She said that Spanky didn't do that, wouldn't do that, and I could leave the bowl there. I started to laugh, then saw that she was entirely serious, grimly serious.

I looked for Nancy to come out to tell her mother that that wasn't Spanky's bowl, but she didn't. 

I left without the bowl, figuring I could pick it up later when grandma wasn't around. I was filled with confusion. Spanky was certainly acting as any puppy might, and I found it mildly amusing. It was human behavior I just didn't get, the flat contradictions and doubting my word over such a trivial thing.

That was just the first...

Interlude: Thoughts on writing a personal history

I want to be completely honest about our time on the farm. It was a great experience, full of growth and life-altering occurrences and circumstances. But it was also a most difficult time, and writing about it brings me pain and must be worse for the reader.

So I have held back as we plunged ahead into the Summer of 1977. It was more than anything confusing and frustrating. And yet....

Monday, March 30, 2009

Goat bread

So we had a boarder who contributed cash, and we had all our own milk for free because we sold enough to pay all the goat-related bills. 

We also had the veggies growing taller and more robust in the garden, with the promise of an excellent harvest and food available without cost well into the winter, and maybe through till Spring.

The only costs were the time and energy it took to weed and keep an eye out for bugs, and to continue to remove the rocks that seemed to grow right along with the veggies. Fortunately there were not many bugs.

To round out the early mid-summer menu, while we were waiting for the bulk of the produce to be ready, we ate a lot of goat bread.

It seems that the major bakeries, such as Pepperidge Farm, had outlet stores where anyone could go and pick up day-old bread. And then when some of it hadn't sold, after about a week, goat people (and others with animals) could go and get it. What was left was the really old bread, stale, often in ripped bags, sometimes moldy - 100 pounds for $5. Five cents a pound.

That was considerably less than the cost of goat feed, and in some cases approximated their feed in quality. Of course we never fed them the moldy bread, so there was some waste. But for the most part, the ability to buy goat bread really helped the feed bills.

We'd go to the back door of the store, off the alley, and back up with the station wagon, then go in and take from the shelves in the store's back room whatever looked good to us, 100# at a time. We all helped pitch it into the car. Then we'd drive home and back up to the bulkhead and carry it down to the freezer, to be thawed several loaves at a time for each feeding.

The goats loved it. They'd grab a slice or two as we held it out to them, gobble it down, and come back for more. Their favorite was cinnamon raisin...

And if they refused a slice, we knew it wasn't wholesome, even if it looked ok to us.

Of course it didn't take us long to start eating the bread ourselves, and that meant we could save several dollars a week, with bread $1 a loaf.

So we made it through the early Summer while we watched the garden grow.

a little the help from our friends...

The financial pressure hadn't abated. And then one night a win-win solution popped into our awareness, something that had been there all along...

We had gone as a family to the TM center for a pot-luck supper and a video. At the back of the room was a man we had met a few times. He was looking for a place to live.

And we had the downstairs bedroom, with its own half-bath.

And he could pay a few hundred dollars a month. In short order we had made our arrangement, and he moved in the next day.

The money was welcome. And he added to it by bringing fruits and lebneh and other foods from his native Palestine. He taught us to enjoy many Middle Eastern dishes as well. 

Our big house was capable of housing one more. And so we backed away from the precipice of financial disaster and began to breathe again.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


We were pretty overwhelmed with the goats, but we knew chickens, ducks, horses, any farm animal with the exception of pigs (John had had to drive by a pig farm as a kid), would be in our future. 

One solution was to start with some broilers, and just raise them in the good old garage, the garage that had already housed goats. Then we could put them in the freezer and be done with them, without having to have a hen house.

So I poured over chicken catalogs. I didn't know there were such things, but a goat friend shared one with me...

Of course cost was a big issue, and it was tempting to buy LOTS of chicks so the cost each would be less. 

I tried to interest friends in sharing the load. But in the end we were on our own. So we ordered 30 chicks. 

I couldn't imagine how they'd come mail order, but the day arrived and a mailman drove up the driveway with a single low box of peeps, tiny beaks sticking out of the airholes.

I had made a small pen in the garage, coverd the floor under it with shavings, and set up a heat lamp in a box, plus a watering bucket and a feed dish. I had bought the right kind of feed for baby chicks and it was waiting in their dish.

So all I had to do was pour in the chicks and watch.

They were yellow fluff, and the tips of their wings were beginning at this age of one day, to turn white and stiff - real feathers. 

They went right to work drinking water. Every one was healthy. They pecked at food, ran in to the box, out again, plunked down and slept, and repeated it all. I was caught up in watching them and could hardly draw myself away. The kids loved them when they got off the bus...

So they grew. Every day they were whiter and less fluffy. They began to look like adolescents, gawky and squawky instead of peepy. 

I could see how they would be ready to eat in 6 or 8 weeks. They were bred to be eating machines. They ate enormous amounts of feed, going from one sack of grain in the first week to several sacks a week toward the end...

We 'harvested' them in late June, when they were fat, by catching them by the necks and tossing them into the burlap feed sacks our goat feed came in. We cut slots in the bags and placed them in the back of the station wagon. By the time we got all 30 handfuls into the bags, most of the holes had heads sticking out. 

Then I drove them down to the packing house and returned that night to pick up 30 naked broilers in plastic bags. I don't know where those little yellow balls of fluff went...

And the plastic bags went into the freezer and we cooked them two at a time all Summer and early Fall.


Our fancy colonial-style house had 4 bedrooms, one down and three up. We couldn't imagine sleeping on different floors, so we all slept upstairs. 

But VJ was definitely the sort of fellow who should have a room of his own. It's where he read his huge collection of books about dogs, gleaned from our little local library and anywhere else he could find one. Plus his room was somewhat long and narrow, with only one good spot for a bed. 

So that left one bedroom for mom and dad, and one for Fritz and Margo.

These two, 7 and 9, were good friends, and both liked to lie on their beds and read. But they also liked their privacy, and their special things, and time apart.

One fine day, Fritz solved the problem for us. He dragged his sleeping bag into a large - long, and narrow - closet that had been built off the main upstairs hall.

And he took his reading lamp and his pillow and several dozen of his favorite books, and made himself not only a bedroom but his own house.

We didn't think he'd actually sleep in there, but he insisted. It was his own space, and he loved it.

So now we had 4 bedrooms upstairs. 

Later we remembered an old daybed that was tucked away in our unused family room, and measured to see if it would fit. It did. Exactly. Its 3-foot width and the 3-foot width of the closet matched perfectly, like two puzzle pieces. 

The sleeping bag would have to go on top of it instead of sheets and blankets because there was no tucking room down the sides. 

But there was space at the head for him to put a box to hold his books. And he lay in there and read by the hour.

But sometimes, when all was quiet outside and the sun had set, we all piled onto our big bed in our bedroom and read together, sometimes 5 separate books, sometimes one that one of us read alone from. Growing legs hung off edges while we all shared great books. 

Sad sad sad...

The garden was perking along. We were fascinated by the potatoes, which were growing vigorously, white blossoms breaking out on the ones that would grow white spuds, and purply ones on the reds. We couldn't wait to dig them, though it would be months before the new potatoes would be big enough.

The eggplants and tomatoes were racing each other to produce the first fruit.

The peas were so good we stood in the garden eating them off the vine, even though they were still quite small.

The beans were making bean blossoms, and those were turning into baby beans...

And amidst all this joy in the garden, and the fulfillment of much planning and waiting, and despite all the sweet little buds growing into real little beans and peas, 

And right there where the baby goats entertained us, and tried to reach the tiny crabapples starting to form beneath the beautiful and abundant pink flowers...

I woke up one morning with an all too familiar feeling, and before the day was out I had had another miscarriage.

Two in a row was bad news.

My doctor generously proclaimed that I would never have another child.

The object of my every thought was no more.

And without children - an infinite string of children - what was the point of the farm? All this work was for the long-term, for EVER. And suddenly the end of the road loomed up and stifled the very purpose of all our hard work.

Well, not all. We had a 7 year old son. A 9 year old daughter. Another son who had just turned 11. We were very blessed.

But my arms felt empty, and my heart more so. I could enjoy what I had, but my whole vision of eternity - endless increase - was stifled.

It was a sad sad sad day. .  .   .     .       .

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Disbudding and other removals

Goats are born without horns - good thing for the moms - but little bumps begin to appear soon after birth. Especially in little bucks, who may show points breaking through when they are only a day old. 

It's really quite stirring to realize how well equipped baby goats are to survive in the wild. They can run at their mother's side by the time they are a couple of hours old, and within days can and do turn their little heads toward an attacking foe (farmer's son for example) and lower their heads. Those little horns would not do much damage during the first few days after they appear, but by the time the kid is only a month or two old, he is capable of presenting a formidable shield - albeit on his head - to his enemy.

On the other hand, it is devastating how well equipped baby goats are to get tangled in fences, beat down doors, and poke innocent visitors. 

So it is considered good practice to remove the horns before they get fairly started. 

Before the little horns erupt through the skin, they can be felt in the form of little buds. If these buds are removed when they are small and unerupted, the goat will be hornless and safe.

To disbud a kid, the procedure must be undertaken for little bucks within the first week or less after birth. However, since little bucks may in actuality be little burgers, it may not be necessary to go through the disbudding procedure on them. It depends on how long they are to be kept.

For does who are destined to be milkers, it is possible in some cases to wait a little longer than a week. But once the little horns erupt, the whole process becomes more challenging.

For one thing, the bud is bigger, and for another, the disbudding tool will not fit neatly over the horn and be able to remove the base of it. And if the base, or bud, is not gone, the horn will grow.

Even a small piece of bud left on the skull of the goat will result in horn growth, certainly not into elegant horns but instead into lumpy pieces that may break off and bleed.

So it's best to get right to the disbudding.

Disbudding irons are like soldering irons: there is a handle at one end, and a hot steel rod at the other. In the case of the disbudding irons, the end of the rod is designed to fit around the unerupted horn bud: it has a recessed center, with a ring around the outside.

When the iron has been plugged in and becomes hot - very hot - it is time to capture the kid. Holding his head firmly - this may be a multi-person job - the brave farmer ascertains the exact location of the horn bud by feeling for it, then presses the rod over it.

How long to hold the iron in place is a matter of practice, so the first time the new farmer disbuds the new goat may be a nerve-wracking experience. For both. If the iron is not held down in place long enough, the bud will not be encircled and killed, and the whole process will have to be repeated or the goat will end up with ugly horn-bits. If the iron is held in place for too long, it will burn through into the....

Well, new farmers usually don't cause dire damage, they just usually end up not doing enough. 

The ideal result is that the horn bud has its blood supply cut off by the encircling rim of iron, and can be plucked off bloodlessly. 

There is a lot of smell of hair and screaming of goat, but it's over with in a minute or two. Per horn. Then the baby's head is dusted with antiseptic powder, and he is let back into the kid pen to tell his little brothers and sisters what is in store for them.

We don't love doing it. But it is far better than horns.

And it is also far better than converting little bucks to the genderless sweethearts they must become if they are to escape the butcher knife. This conversion process involves tiny robust rubber bands the inside diameter of which is the size of cheerio holes and rubber band stretchers and once positioned the rubber bands cut off circulation and end the process by which bucklings become big smelly bucks. 

So the early life of little goats is not all play. But then they forget about these things, and go on with their bouncy little lives.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A flood of milk, a wheel of cheese

And so the very warm days of May saw us committed to staying home and enjoying the life we were putting together on the farm.

The baby goats had been nibbling hay from the beginning but now they were really enjoying it. The result was that we had more milk for ourselves. Lots more milk. Streams and rivers of milk.

So it was time to start in earnest preserving it for the winter ahead, and that meant making cheese.

Each day, we would put what was left of the the morning milking, after the babies were fed, into half gallon bottles for us or those who were buying from us. And we would put what was left of the evening milking into a pot to make cheese.

The coagulant for the cheese was rennet that we bought at the drugstore. The bacteria to ripen the cheese and give it flavor would come from the air. 

We brought the milk back on the stove to a good temperature for the coagulant to work, about 110 degrees, then added the rennet dissolved in a small amount of water. Within a half hour or so the milk would begin to separate into curds and whey. By morning the separation was complete, and we'd cut the curd into inch cubes so even more whey could escape.

Meanwhile the bacteria were beginning to grow in the milk, changing its character in a way peculiar to each type of bacterium.

As long as we worked with meticulously clean pots and stirrers, and with fresh milk, we found only wholesome bacteria growing. But under less ideal conditions, the milk could produce yeasty or foul cheese. And sometimes if conditions were just right, we produced just curds with little bacteria and hence little good goat-cheese flavor.

After the curd was cut, it was time to put it in the collander. We used several layers of cheese cloth to retain even more of the curd while it was straining.

The mass of curds needed to sit for a while in the collander, usually several hours into the new day. Then we transferred it to a cheese press and cranked down on it. 

The press was a tube about 6 inches in diameter, with a disk that fit into it. A heavy wood screw could be cranked and made to press on the curds. Whey could leak out the bottom.

The harder we pressed it, the better it would keep and the harder texture it would have.

We made an effort to get most of the whey out of the curd. When we decided it was done, usually by the next morning - 36 hours after the process had begun - we took the wheel out of the cheese press, salted the outside to help preserve it, and put it in a plastic bag in the fridge. For many months we were able to produce a wheel a day.

Some went into the freezer. The texture was a bit crumbly after freezing, but perfectly good for a topping for spaghetti sauce or hot veggies.

At times we also left wheels out on the counter, and watched them closely for spoilage, rubbing salt on them each day as a preservative. If the cheese ripened at room temperature, or the warm temperatures of summer, they could ripen to a delicious flavor and smooth, firm texture. But the spoilage rate was high, and mostly kept it in the fridge to ripen.

We had plenty to eat, and plenty more to freeze for the winter ahead.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

First camping trip, part 2.

The morning after Bobby Kennedy was shot, we packed up our things again and headed toward Yosemite, which was still a very long day away, if not two. It all depended on how well the babies did with traveling, and of course how the car held up and so on.

The car actually turned out to be a problem. We pulled into a service station to get gas, the attendant checked under the hood, and then reported the dire news that we had developed a leak in the transmission line and we had no transmission fluid left. And no mechanic was on duty. But we could come back tomorrow and get it fixed.

We were worried about burning out the transmission, so we found a campground right there in Bakersfield California, and set up our tent. It wasn't the setting we had envisioned when we had set out: our ears were glued to the radio to see if Bobby Kennedy had died; we were camped on a bed of dust at the base of a major highway; and we were hardly in a place where we could go for a hike or see wildlife.

Actually, we did end up seeing a bit of wildlife: wild-colored jays kept stealing our food. The little ones took delight in it. Until one bird came out of nowhere and stole a graham cracker out of VJ's hand.

We spent a long day there, dreaming of Yosemite, still so far away.

The next morning I got up early. The ground was hard, the light bright, the temperatures warming rapidly. The babies were still asleep. Bobby Kennedy was dead...

I made oatmeal and sat in the car waiting for the others to start the day. Finally everyone was up, fed, wiped clean; the car was repacked, then the children added. Off we went to the service station.

The day crew checked the transmission fluid and the line was full. It had been an error.

So we drove to Yosemite. We made it that same day. We put up our tent and got out our stove and lantern and put the sleeping bags in the tent and blew up the air mattresses. Then we walked around just breathing the sweet air. The skies were blue, only a few clouds to the west. We gaped in awe at El Capitan and washed clothes and ate a meal in the village. And I eyed the horses that were for hire, thinking how much I had enjoyed riding one horse one time when I was about 14. Maybe, just maybe we could afford a trail ride.

John had no interest, so I volunteered for him to stay with the babies at the tent. We made the reservation for my ride for the next afternoon and I looked forward to it eagerly. Meanwhile we cooked on our little stove, took walks, and generally felt free and easy in the pleasant openness.

The next day dawned gray and threatening. When the time came for my ride, I decided to go even if it rained - I might not get another chance, since our time at Yosemite was about to end. So we drove to the corral. I was surprised to find I was the only trail-rider. I climbed on my assigned horse eager to be off, and fell in line behind the leader.

I waved goodbye to my amazed two year old and long-suffering husband, and as we rode off it started to rain. The leader put on his raincoat. I didn't have one.

We rode down a long one-horse-wide trail into the woods. The rain was getting heavier by the moment, but in the woods it was a little lighter. Except for the drips from the pines.

The ride was to last for an hour. I was getting cold and the adventure was quite different from what I had anticipated. He and I tried talking but the noise didn't carry well, so we just rode on in silence.

I was cold and chattering and wondering at my unique folly - no one else had ventured out! And I began to wonder how much longer the ride would last, at the same time feeling guilty for the thought because we had spent good money on the ride...

As we walked along, I was lulled into a peaceful state despite the wet and cold.

It was then that I saw movement up ahead and the leader pulled his horse back abruptly. A mother moose stepped out of the woods and crossed his path, followed by her baby.

The leader pulled his horse back to mine, and exclaimed in such a way that I was amazed at his obvious fear. He explained that a mother moose with a baby is dangerous even to a man on a horse, and he had never seen one before, nevermind one crossing his path a few feet from him. He felt we had been very lucky to avoid a conflict. I had just seen a lovely wild beast and she had hardly seemed dangerous. But then I was new at riding a horse in the woods.

Eventually we got back to the corral. The horse was in as much a hurry as I was. The family was waiting in the car, and John had my jacket for me. I put it on but couldn't get warm. We went back to the campsite. It was heavy gray, dark and rainy outside, but probably not much past four p.m. I crawled into my sleeping bag and shivered, while John got supper under the protection of the tent flap. I couldn't get warm. Finally it was bedtime. I fed Margo, then fell asleep. In the morning I had a horrendous cold.

It was time to head home, and then once we got there, time to pack up all our belongings and move to Massachusetts. As we drove through central California, I realized how I would miss it. I had lived there for three years, John for four. It had taken me nearly all those three years to come to grips with this strange land we had been living in: it was not the least bit New-Englandy. But I had grown to love it after all, and now we were leaving.

So it was a bit of a sad trip, but we vowed to go back. Back to Yosemite, Bridal Veil, ruggedness, woods, mooses, and camping with our kids. We had camped, we had fulfilled our dream at last, and we were ready for more.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A trip... part 1. Error and shock...

The basement was huge, and the kids had enough room to roller-skate down there when the weather was rainy. We also had a washer and dryer, a freezer, and lots of left over space. In one corner we had built shelves to store things on. 

And on those shelves, just within sight, was our camping equipment. 

One hot summer day after I had gathered up the laundry and was carrying it to the washer, I noticed it sitting there idle, and memories came back of our very first real camping trip. 

The red sleeping bags, the blue tent, the green camp stove and lantern... BIG SIGH! We could not figure out how to get away with everything that needed taking care of. 

So the memories came flooding back with great poignancy.

John had finished his dissertation, and soon we would be driving East so he could take his first job at MIT. In between we had a couple of precious weeks and we knew just what to do with them.

That is, we knew we wanted to go on a real camping trip. The question was, which of the many great sites in California would we visit?

We picked Yosemite. It was a name from our childhoods and the name alone flooded our minds with magic and mystery.

It was a long two days' drive with a 2 year old and an infant, so we decided to spend the first night with friends in Pasadena. We drove up the 'back way' from San Diego after a difficult day of packing clothes, disposable diapers that we had just heard of and were trying out, food, and all the camping equipment in our old Pontiac Catalina sedan, and leaving room for a car seat and a car bed. 

(In those days there were no car seat laws, and we always traveled with the baby of the moment lying loose in a car bed that was made from the pull-out body of an old baby carriage. A baby carriage is - never mind. The image makes me cringe.)

We left late, and arrived after dark in Pasadena and fondly greeted the friends we didn't see very often. We would be sleeping in their house that first night, and John carried things in from the car while I fed the babies, nursing Margo and getting VJ some supper they'd saved for us.

John came in from the car after carrying in most of our needs for the night with a puzzled look on his face. After looking around and going back to the car several times, he said that the clothes box was missing.

I could just picture it where I'd been adding small shirts and shorts, on the far side of our bed. I could just see how it could have gotten overlooked...

We couldn't go on without it. The thought never entered our minds to buy new clothes for us all. Instead, John suggested that he go back to La Jolla, pick up the box, and return in one big round trip. It would take him till past midnight...

I thought hard about alternatives but came up with nothing. 

This dumb little mistake was to put him in time and space at almost the exact point of an historical event that will forever be part of the history of our nation and perhaps humanity....

While he was gone, we watched TV with the family. Bobby Kennedy was speaking in LA. The speech was inspiring! It fired our young spirits with hope for justice and peace.

Then, when it was over, and he left the podium, and the news crews were tying up the broadcast, suddenly the cameras switched to the kitchen, where on the floor lay...

This was June 4-5, 1968. Bobby Kennedy lay dying, and we sat in shock. John was still gone and I wondered if he'd have the radio on and would have heard about it. Finally he arrived, an hour or so after the shooting. He had come up the coast instead of the back way, and had gone through LA. He reported that he had heard and scene much commotion, sirens and police lights...

No such thing as a free goat...

As we went to goat shows and saw the truly beautiful animals being shown there, I began to appreciate the elements that made up that beauty, and I began to see what 'dogs' our goats were.

Of course we just wanted goats for milk, so what did it matter?

What we had failed to appreciate in the beginning was the small issue of the need to breed milkers every year so they would continue to produce milk.

The normal cycle was annual: Starting at a year, a young doe had her first kid. That meant she was bred at 7 months. She would produce milk for the next 10 months, the last three of which were when she was pregnant with her next batch of kids. After that her supply diminished to almost nothing, and her owner would dry her up and give her a rest for the last two months before the next batch of babies was born a year after the first. 

Let's say she has her first kid or kids on March 1. She is then in milk until the following Jan 1, and gets a rest until the next March 1 when she has a new batch of kids. She would have been bred on Oct 1.

Some few goats can produce for more than 10 months, but the rule of thumb is that they need to be 'freshened' every year. 

The by-product of this freshening is baby goats. One the first year, two or three or four or five thereafter. 

In a dairy with 5 milkers, that would mean something like 15 babies, half doelings.

Newborn does can be raised to make more milkers, sold to someone else for that purpose, or eaten. Newborn bucks generally must be eaten, though some are sold as pets.

Leaving aside the unfortunate young males, there are usually still more little does than a dairy needs to replace the mature milkers, who produce well for at least 5 years.

So they need to be sold. And if the dairy is a business, they need to be sold at a profit, or at least at break-even.

So this is the situation we faced: we had many small does, and it would have been great to pay some of our bills by selling them. 

And of course our goat-people friends were trying to do the same thing.

And that's where shows came in. It was a place to show off one's gorgeous goats, and it was a place to get ribbons that proved the goat was gorgeous.

And after a few shows I realized we did not have gorgeous goats. Nice ones, milky ones, but not good-lookers. 

It could be argued that the looks of a goat have nothing to do with the ability to produce milk. But it's not so: each aspect of a great-looking goat has to do with the ability to produce. These traits define dairy-goat beauty.

So when we didn't win ribbons, we didn't sell goats.

A lot of our first goats were very low cost, or FREE. They made good milk. They didn't win ribbons. They made as many babies as other goats, and they ate as much as other goats. We just couldn't sell their babies.

And that's when I realized there's no such thing as a free goat.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Interlude: John gets a job

John had a big decision to make and then we could go on our first camping trip.

We had owned the equipment for 8 months or so, and had yet to get away and really camp.

Meanwhile Margo had been born. Then it was winter. Then the final typing (with a typewriter!) of the dissertation, all the while waiting for word about jobs and our future.

The offers trickled in over the Spring of 1968. The first was from JPL, Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, NASA's lead center for planetary exploration. A great job! We decided to go to Pasadena and see if we would thrive there as a family.

Then came an offer from two departments at MIT, back in home turf since we had both grown up in the Northeast. The Chemistry department and Geology and Geophysics put together a joint offer that would cover all his areas of expertise.

And then an offer came from the University of Oregon to found a new planetary sciences department with colleagues already established in space sciences. The offer involved the geology and chemistry departments and the Center for Vulcanology, and some involvement with the astronomy department. 

Our trip to Pasadena helped us eliminate JPL right away. The smog was intense and we found ourselves lying on the floor with no energy. JPL's offer included the most money, but we rejected it for reasons having to do with our ability to stay alive in that environment.

(Smog in those days was a much bigger problem than it is now. A pall of chemicals rested over most of the major cities in those days, especially LA.)

So it came down to MIT and the University of Oregon. One established, the other growing. One with a huge reputation, the other striving for one. One with an urban/suburban flavor, the other in a big small town. One home, the other away. One without a touch of wilderness, the other right in it.

We could go camping as soon as he decided. Everything that happened in our lives after that would depend on the decision. It was a decision that would affect John's profession and who we all became over the next 60 years....

We put our heads together. And in the end, he chose MIT, and then we went on our first big camping trip. 

Interlude: Vacations - preparation

Just as a garden is a big solution to the inevitable and expensive need for food, camping is a great solution to the need to take a vacation.

John and I had both had favorable camping experiences at Girl Scout or YMCA camp as kids, so the thought of camping trips hit us very well. Even before we were married we were planning where we would go. Someday. When we had a car. And gas money. And camping equipment. And kids to share it all with.

The first opportunity to put the concept into practice happened when he was nearing the end of his student days. His dissertation would be done soon, and he could reasonably expect good employment. So we went shopping.

We bought: an 11x11 blue canvas tent; a Coleman camp stove; 2 sleeping bags that could be zipped together; 2 air mattresses; a Coleman lantern; a Rubbermaid wash tub; a clothesline and pins.

It came to about $90 at a time when John was earning a stipend of $250 a month. We had a long-term view of the use of all of it, though, and it seemed a worthwhile purchase.

We went to Mt Palomar, a couple of hours from our home in La Jolla CA, and tested everything out. At that time we had baby VJ, who was a little over a year old. It was a bit warm at Palomar, but otherwise it was a great way to check out that we knew how to put up the tent, take it down again (causing us to add a whisk broom before our next trip), start the stove, and use the lantern. At the end of the weekend, we were all set to go on a real trip.


When the first hints of uncomfortable heat came every Spring, we began to think of vacation.

Vacations had been an important part of every Summer. We'd always headed North to get out of the heat...

The Spring of 1977, our first one the farm, was no different. 

But then we looked at each other. 

There was no money.
Gas prices were at an all-time high.
There was no time.
There was no one who could take care of the goats and the garden.

There would be no vacation. Not as long as we ran a farm.


Before we moved to the farm, I had been leading a sedentary life for nearly a year. 

And there was no building up the muscles period with the farm. One day we didn't own it, the next day we did. One day we had no goats to move from place to place, no goats to milk, no barn to build, no garden to cultivate and plant, no hay to move...

We did all these things. John did the big heavy stuff, but I was determined to do my share (despite morning sickness that was worse at night than the morning). 

I learned that 40 lb bales of hay can be picked up and thrown up into a pickup IF you wear gloves so the wires don't eat into your hands. Forty pounds was less than the weight of my youngest child. Shouldn't be a probem!  (Though truth be known I had never thrown him...)

And I managed stubborn 150 pound goats, though they did stand on their own four feet. But even the kids - children - could do that.

What I needed to be able to work up to was to carry the 100 lb sacks of dairy feed from the garage to the barn, a distance of about 200, maybe 250 feet.

After we had been at the farm about 6 active months, I gave it a try.

I figured I would need to get it over my center of gravity, so I hoisted it to my shoulder. The grain toward the front slumped down, and so did the grain toward the back, and altogether the bag took on the shape of shoulder with only a little adjusting.

And I walked with it to the barn, and managed to slide it into the grain barrel, open up the top, and begin the day's milking.

I was very proud.

Feeling the heat and humidity...

On the first warm day, the morning was just delightful. And then the afternoon seemed a little too warm. 

I was really annoyed with myself. I had been cold for months, and now that the sun was shining I was complaining of the heat? It was only 80 degrees!

I was weeding the garden. My back was turned to the sun. In short order I was drenched with sweat.

After an hour of misery I realized it wasn't the heat, it was the combination of 80 degrees with about 80% humidity. 

The goats had moved into the shade, and Dusty was lying on the porch. I took a hint.

The problem with quitting weeding at that point was that the weeds were loving the heat and humidity as much as the rest of the garden. They were neck and neck. Head to head. Indistinguishable! And I wasn't going to the rescue.

I was actually quite disappointed in myself. As a kid I had turned red-faced at the slightest increase in temperature, when other kids were playing happily along. So maybe I had less tolerance for it. 

But such fussiness did not fit into my vision of self-sufficiency. I couldn't picture the farmers of old whining because they were hot, or stopping the planting and hoeing and the hope of their families making it through the next winter because the humidity was uncomfortable.

But no matter what my attitude about it, no matter how many little chats I had with myself about enduring and suffering through for the greater good, I still got heat cramps if I was out in the sun for too long.

Not that the indoors was much better. We had no air-conditioning, and so often these warm and humid days were accompanied by little breeze.

And on top of this dysfunction in the heat, my disappointment with my ability to perform, I realized there was no solution. Either we lived the dream and suffered through bitter winters (which never overthrew my ability to function) and hot humid summers, or we gave it up.

It probably didn't help that whatever winds there were were from the south-southwest, straight up from New York City. You could taste the foulness of the air, and maybe some of the wooziness was due to the pollution.

Whatever the case, my inability to function in even late-spring heat was threatening to our whole homestead concept.

Feeling the heat

In late April we had a balmy day, 80 degrees, and only a few days after we were still feeling the chill of a typical Spring.

The skies were mostly clear, and the bright sunshine was welcomed by us and the plants in the garden. Dusty and Kiki and the kittens lay out in it, and the goat moms took naps in it, while the babies bounced along on all the high points of their flat little corral and rejoiced in it.

It was goooooooood!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Interlude: M Obama plants a garden...

Michelle Obama says she is doing this so that children will learn about eating better.

I hope another message develops as her garden begins to grow, though: growing our own solves lots of problems (overweight, high costs of foods, hidden additives, and many more). And eating local is ultimately going to be the only way to eat.

Here's the article: Michelle Obama Plants A Garden

The Oatmeal Wars

Oatmeal is a great wholesome inexpensive food, and we had it often. We also had other hot cereals, but mostly oatmeal.

We all liked oatmeal, and I liked the idea that it would last till lunch  in small tummies.

As I sat up in my bed each morning with morning sickness, and supervised the getting-ready-for school of various of the three children, John supervised the milking and other outdoor chores and made the oatmeal for breakfast.

John grew up in New Jersey where there was an abundance of fruit, and loved to add fresh berries from our blackberry bushes, where they could be found in abundance in the late summer. His morning routine included covering his oatmeal with them before he flooded his bowl with goat milk from the fridge.

But in the Spring there were no berries. Instead, he dug into our supply of dried apricots to add flavor to his oatmeal.

And to get them soft, he cooked them right in the pot with the oatmeal flakes and water. 

The three grade-schoolers did not like their oatmeal with soft dried apricots in it!

So they didn't eat it.

Each morning I'd come down after John and the offspring had left in their different directions, and I would find one empty bowl and three bowls filled with fruity oatmeal.

They weren't eating any breakfast at all.

So various ones of us suggested to Dear Old Dad that he not put the apricots in.

And he said, "But it's better that way!" And kept putting them in.

And each morning the children said they wouldn't eat it because of the apricots.

And that was a war that lasted for a very very long time. Until berry season. Each year.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


Back in the Fall when we first moved in, an older boy from around the corner became friends with VJ. His passion? Gladioluses.

He shared with VJ what he had learned about them and gave him some of the bulbs he'd just dug from his own flower bed, and together they looked for a spot in our large front lawn to plant them in.

VJ was in charge of mowing the 2 acres, and it had needed several trimmings in the Fall before the cold weather set in. This was 2 acres with the kind of lawn mower that a boy, walking behind, pushes.

He got to know the lawn well, so when the time came, he and Tom were able to pick out a choice spot for the glads. 

Tom knew all about varieties and both boys were eager for Spring and then Summer to come so they could see what colors had resulted from Tom's experimentation the season before.

Back in the Fall they had dug a small garden, maybe 4 x 9 feet, toward the front of the property, out by the road. It was exclusively for glads. We watched them from the house as they dug hour after hour.

Whatever magic they put into the preparation, by mid Spring they were able to show us dozens of gladiolus spikes poking from the soil. 

But we still had to wait for the flowers. The 10 year old and the 12 year old kept an eye on them...