Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Farm

I was not a farm kid. My grands purchased their dairy farm in their retirement. I was there two weeks out of every summer and maybe once or twice a year for a day trip when the family went up to visit. I did not get to drive a tractor the summer before my sixth grade or any other year. I never milked a cow. I didn't ride horses up there (my grands didn't have any), didn't go for walks in the woods, didn't sleep out under the stars. I didn't even go fishing in the pond by the barn that was full of geese and their green shit. No doubt about it. I wasn't a farm kid.

I did gather eggs, watched a rooster and a chicken do it outside my bedroom window one Sunday morning, learned to curse the rain, got to ride in the hay wagon while it was being baled, catered to a duckling named "Lucky" one summer for a few days (before he was given to the farm kid up the road), went to a country fair or two. I ate cow meat-- my grandmother knew the name of every cow that the slabs of brown beef came from stocked up in the freezer. She would put down the plate of meat, mashed potatoes, green beans, mayo for my grandfather to slather all over his green beans. Then she paused for attention. "This is Pet," she'd say with a grandness I never even seen in the theaters off of Broadway. "This is Clarabelle...Daisy...Red." I wasn't a farm kid but I was rather earthy and so the naming of our sustenance didn't bother me.

My mother was an entirely different story however. She wouldn't stay overnight. When we came for a day trip, it was a very long day trip. We were in the car traveling far longer than we got to visit. My mother got chased by the geese who hated her with fierceness. She refused to help out in the barn, turned her nose up at the smell of fresh manure that lay glistening on the fields, wouldn't stay for dinner. She insisted that any bacon be cooked beyond recognition, got grossed out at the occasional egg which revealed a pulsating fetus in the fry pan, would not use pepper. "Pepper comes from stones," my stepfather would proclaim. I was earthy. They were practicing to be in the sideshow of insanity.

I looked forward to my two weeks without the parental units every summer. I was a pro at taking buses back then; one of the practical skills that my mother actually bestowed on me just as soon as I displayed any interest in going downtown. And so, on the appointed day I would pack up my brown shopping bag with clothes and lunch. I'd head off to Grand Central Station to buy my round trip ticket. I sat in the front quietly behind the driver eating my food and looking out the window. Once in awhile, an older lady would sit next to me and we would talk. One time, the conversant was a German teenager whose first name was Theda. We became pen pals for a few months after that trip.

And so I got to do things like hold a cow's left leg with a rope during an almost breach birth. My grandmother was installed at the right leg cursing vigorously in a couple languages. My grandfather reached in with one hand, a fist, an arm and succeeded in turning the calf around. I also picked tomatoes, fed the chickens, went with my grands and the two farm dogs every evening to call the cows home from the fields. I studied the chart in the barn showing what traits in a dairy cow my grands could select to breed for. (Milking speed was one of them). I got to watch the vet inseminate a cow. I helped clean up the barn before the inspector came. I remember the old milk pails rattling around the back of my grandfather's red truck as we brought them to the dairy. I remember when the truck began coming to pick up the milk instead. And I remember when hay wheels began dotting the fields and square bundles of hay became passe. But I didn't get to go to public school up there.

That honor was given to one cousin who got to live at the farm for a whole year because of some unexplained school problem back home. She got to ride the school bus with the real farm kids, fell in love with the boy down the road who had gotten custody of Lucky the duck, went to a real public school wearing regular clothes instead of uniforms. I was jealous but I told no one. It wasn't any use. I wouldn't have been allowed to do the same when it was my turn to go to high school.

My high school sucked. Or at least my time there did. I wore uniforms from first grade right on up through my senior year graduation day. But that wasn't the worst. Nor was the addition of nuns and lockers and late bells. The worst thing about high school was the amount of time spent trying to get us to conform. I wasn't a farm kid but I wasn't a conformist either. I was earthy. My classmates for the most part were rich city kids with rich city kid problems and racing sex drives. Most of them were good at mouthing the prayers that began and ended each class, parroting the expected answers, following the directions in chemistry class. The girls I hung out with were unwilling or unable to blend in. My lab mate and I wondered what would happen if we mixed the contents of test tube A with those of B. "Don't d---" the chemistry nun stuttered as a small smokey fire began burning at our table. She got out the fire extinguisher. A scar remained as a mute testimony to our experimentation.

I was quiet, not athletic, not wanting sex. I was the quietest in our little group of misfits. I wondered at things. I asked questions which felt vital to me but which did not make sense to people like the chemistry nun. When I did speak up, it was to say things like "I learned that I don't want to be Roman Catholic anymore" in response to a query on the last day of freshman religion class. "You're a pisser," a girl wrote in my yearbook senior year, "in a quiet but earth-shattering way." I suspect that I might have done better in the public school surrounded by farmland than I did in suburbia, even though I wasn't a real farm kid.

After high school, I went to live with my dad. My grands' phone number was my motivation for consenting to speak with my mother again. In-between visits to the farm that I now drove myself to in Daddy's car, I became proficient at drinking and drugging, gotten raped during an aborted attempt to sell reefer, and mourned the fact that I was born too late. Too young for Woodstock. By time Woodstock II rolled around, I had quit the drugs. I had also gotten raped by a shrink and flirted with being a lesbian.

Sometime after that, my grandfather sickened and died. My grandmother worked the farm alone until she could sell it. The family she sold it to couldn't make a go of it. They sold off portions of the fields first. The house sits empty today, a badly painted relic of its' former glory that lives on in my memories.

I found frogs, found bisexuality, found a mate. My grandmother got very old. She sickened and died, taking a piece of my heart with her. My stepfather died and my mother didn't tell me until ten days after the funeral. Then came my car accident caused by a guy who thought he could smoke one joint safely and drive. He couldn't. I saw the accident coming. Still, his car ran my car into a house, leaving a hole in the cement foundation. The hole was large enough that one could see into the cellar. I thought I was going to die during the accident. But I didn't. That accident altered my life. That accident was my personal introduction to traumatic brain injury.

Recently, I marked the five year anniversary of that accident. Some things changed. My taste in reading changed drastically from science fiction and fantasy to almost exclusively computer books. I am no longer working. I have become more practical. My mother and I barely talk anymore. We have too much between us now. I've had to insulate myself against her in order to save my own tenuous grip on reality. I am watching my dad become an old frail man. In my heart of hearts, I recognize the betrayal of his brain and I am devastated. I do not know if my dad is earthy or not. I do know that he has experienced his own brokenness of spirit. There is a younger brother he still mourns. "Pray for your uncle," Dad choked on the words as he spoke them into his cell phone across the miles. I don't have a cell phone. In spite of that, I feel myself to be very much his daughter. During the two months that he came to live with us, I discovered how much alike we really are. Even my traumatic brain injury was not powerful enough to alter that.

Some things haven't changed-- I still like frogs and I am still earthy and I still don't claim to have been a farm kid. I still hate my high school and reject the things the nuns had tried to instill in me. I miss my grandmother, mourn my stepfather. I still have intense questions, although they are different questions now.

How shall I end this collection of words? I am tempted to tell you that I discovered my inner ruggedness. But that's bullshit. How shall I define my essence? What am I? In a world that is ill-equipped to deal with my battered brain, in a place that fears any differences, the words of that classmate long ago are oddly comforting:

"You're a pisser in a quiet but earth-shattering way."

sapphoq on life