An Echocardiogram, a Grandma, and Seven Calves

When the baby is missing from his crib, there is a good chance it's because he's being held on the couch by his big brother.

When the baby is missing from his crib, there is a good chance it’s because he’s being held on the couch by his big brother.

It’s 5:00 in the morning, and for right now the house is quiet.  It won’t last long, though.  School is out, and it’s day two of summer vacation.

At 6:00 a few kids will trickle downstairs. They don’t have to be awake that early for anything, but they always are. Regardless of whether they go to bed at 8:00 or late at 10:00, they always wake up promptly at 6:00.  Someday when they hit that teenage stage and I can’t get them awake until noon I might miss this time, but right now I wish the day started just a little later.

I could use a later start because right now, I’m running on baby time: lots of nursing and diaper changing at all hours of the day, intermixed with ordinary life.  Baby time also makes me continually surprised how fast a few hours can go by.  When our baby starts to squirm and fuss, that usually means it’s time to nurse again.  So often I think, “I just nursed him,” and then I look at the clock and realize that an hour or two or three has gone by.  Without a baby’s tummy to mark time, hours go by so quickly in a day.

He’s two weeks old now.  Two weeks in “ordinary time” goes by in a blink, but with a new baby, it feels like a lifetime of living happens in a matter of days.  That lack of sleep combined with a big life change makes all of time seem blurry.  Hours slip by at night, but a baby grows and changes so quickly that a few days can make a huge difference.  In some ways, it feels like he’s always been here, even though he’s so very new.

We’ve been looking at his cute little sleeping face and tiny hands for two weeks.  He’s so irresistibly sweet that I find that after I’ve laid him down for a nap in his pack and play crib, he often disappears.  I’ll look over on the couch and see that he’s been scooped up and sleeping in the arms of an older brother or sister.

In these last two weeks, we’ve also had big news to digest.  I haven’t mentioned this earlier because we were still waiting on official test results.  However, the results confirmed what we suspected when he was born.  Our baby has Down Syndrome.

It’s all come as a complete surprise, with no indications of this during pregnancy. At my 20-week ultrasound, everything checked out just fine.  I remember commenting to Jarred toward the end of my pregnancy that this had been such a completely healthy pregnancy, with everything being just right all along the way (right down to having the least back pain of any pregnancy, with my sixth baby). For a healthy, ordinary pregnancy, I’m so very thankful and it puts me more at ease now.

When he was born, we suspected he might have Down Syndrome based on a few things about his appearance, and he was tested at his five-day checkup. For right now, he is otherwise doing just fine and he’s nursing well, which is important.

Because heart defects are common with Down Syndrome, he is scheduled to get an echocardiogram done this week, which is essentially an ultrasound of his heart. During his ultrasound at 20-weeks pregnant his heart looked good and at his five-day checkup the doctor did not hear any murmur, which are both good signs.

Long term, there are plenty of things to monitor health-wise and obviously things we’ll need to do to help him developmentally, too.  To be honest, at this point I don’t know what all that entails, but I know we’ll be getting a very good education on it all over the years.

So, this little guy took us by surprise.  It’s not what we were expecting, but I also feel like everything is going to be just fine.  I believe he’s here to bring good things to our lives and we’re going to learn so much from him.  We just love him and we’ll just take whatever we need to do in stride.

And truly, he’s just a part of the family.  We’re figuring out our new summer routine with six kids at home.  We also added seven Holstein bull calves to our little farm this week. We’ll be raising them for beef over the next year and a half, and right now, our kids are fascinated by the seven cute calves we’re adding to their chore projects.

With the busyness of life around here, we’re especially thankful for Jarred’s mom, Cheryl.  She drove 1,000 miles on her own to come and see the baby, visit our family, and be a set of open arms for a week.  It’s great to have Grandma here.  All the little things she does are big to us, and she adds a peacefulness to our lives when things feel a little crazy.

That means a lot in a week with an echocardiogram for a baby, six kids home for the summer, and seven new calves in our shed.

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Of Sheep, A Dog, and Monday Morning‏

It’s a cold, windy, drizzly November morning. This is the sort of weather that really just makes me want to trade lives with Spot the dog.

My day began slightly before 5 AM, when my two-year-old woke up for the day. Her own internal clock, still stuck on daylight savings time, tells her it is 6 AM and time to be awake. Fifteen minutes later, her four-year-old brother with the same internal schedule also woke up for the day.

I also struggle with the time conversion. My trouble is that my internal clock is set to the Hawaiian time zone. At 6 AM, my internal clock says, “No, this is about 2 AM. You really should sleep for another four hours.” And then every day I wake up and find myself somewhere far from white sandy beaches, and four hours lacking in sleep.

I’m still waiting for that extra hour of sleep that we’re supposed to get from the clock conversion of “falling back.”

So today, I considered it a great triumph to get out of bed and get three kids ready for the school bus on time. Three kids dressed in clean clothes, combed their hair, ate a good breakfast, and left the house wearing shoes, warm coats, and backpacks. I strove to maintain the delicate balance of directing them to the tasks at hand “Honey, it’s breakfast time” without overly stressing them about the time crunch “AND THE BUS IS COMING!”.

At 7:30, after three rounds of hugs and “I love yous,” the bus pulled in the yard and they went off to school.

At times, I’ve seriously considered home schooling my kids. There are days like today, though, when the school bus in the yard is a colossal relief. I am truly thankful for an established public education system. In some ways, it’s amazing to me. I simply make sure my big kids are dressed and fed, and a bus pulls up and safely brings them to and from school. All day long, they learn, and I am grateful that it I don’t have to do it all.

Those thoughts were in my tired head this morning as I stood at the door and watched the bus pull out of the yard.

Then I glanced over at the couch and saw Spot, and I have to say, I instantly felt envious. Stretched out on a soft leather couch, he had just come downstairs after his peaceful night of sleep. He decided to start the day off with a nap.

Another day, another nap to take.

Another day, another nap to take.

He glanced up at me with a decidedly guilty look on his face. The look said, “Yes, I am a total free loader. But could I just stay here on the couch anyway?”

I want Spot’s winter job.

In the summer, he stays fairly busy. He lives outside, chases the UPS man, pees on tires, rolls in sheep poop, and acts as our security alarm by barking at every vehicle that pulls in the driveway. That job doesn’t really appeal to me.

I would however, like his winter job. Spot moves back in the house, and he goes on the dole. Other than outside bathroom breaks, he spends his days lounging for hours on end. He sleeps on the couch. He sleeps tucked away in the secret hiding place under the table in the sun room. Sometimes, he mixes things up and sleeps on a pillow that fell on the floor. If Spot and I could just trade jobs for one day, I’d be so happy.

While Spot the dog lives like a king (an inbred mutt king, I suppose), we model our sheep after the White House.

Apparently, during World War I, Woodrow Wilson kept 18 sheep on the White House lawn. The sheep saved man power by trimming the grass, and even earned money through the sale of wool.

At our house, we didn’t get around to mowing our kids’ fenced in play area that one last time for the winter. Looking at sheep that still wanted to graze but didn’t have much fresh grass, we added the kids’ play area to the sheep pasture for the time being. The sheep trim down the grass by the tree swing and play set, and hopefully, by spring, all the free fertilizer will be worked into the ground.

It’s very presidential of us.

It’s also pretty amusing. There’s something very entertaining about looking out the kitchen window and seeing sheep graze just a few feet away, plucking up grass by the washline or tree swings. Every time, for a split second I think “Oh no, the sheep are out!”

Sheep grazing by the swings and playset...a sight I never would have predicted two years ago.

Sheep grazing by the swings and playset…a sight I never would have predicted two years ago.

And then of course, my mind wanders to the sheep I see in cartoons. In my head, I picture the sheep sneaking up on the trampoline when nobody is watching, four skinny legs and fat woolly bodies bouncing up in the air. I picture a sheep snickering as she shoves her buddy down the slide, four legs sticking straight up in the air with a woolly back going down the yellow slide. Someday, maybe I’ll catch them in the act.

So, that’s life on a Monday morning. My oldest kids headed off to school, the sheep are doing who knows what at the playground, and the dog is gearing up for a full day of napping. I’m pondering a cup of coffee, but from the bathroom, I can hear my two-year-old asking for help with toilet paper. And so, my week begins.

Shared this story on The Prairie Homestead.

Westward the Chickens: The Great Roundup, A (Mid)Western

Folks, turn on your deep, gravelly Sam Elliot cowboy voice as you read this today. Go ahead and put in your dip o’ chew. Things are gettin’ a little mid-western ’round these parts. This here ain’t no Louis L’Amour, but it is a bona fide true story.

Winter was a comin’ on the midwestern horizon. As she stood on the front porch sipping her morning coffee, she gazed out upon the land. Miss Kathy felt the chill in the wind and knew the nip of winter was in the air. The steely gray skies on cloudy days had the suggestion that winter indeed was a comin’. Miss Kathy gazed out on the corn stubble horizon, and off in the distance, thought of the herd.

Chicken herd, that is. Well, maybe it weren’t even a herd anymore. Heat of summer and a few careless young hands led to a few losses, but the plucky chickens that survived were a fine lookin’ bunch.

One of the chicken herd surveying her new surroundings from the fence.

One of the chicken herd surveying her new surroundings from the fence.

All summer long, the herd grazed contentedly in the eastern pasture, growing long and lean in the summer sun, spending nights up in the high country of the rafters of the breezy chicken house. But with winter approaching, Miss Kathy knew it would soon be time to make the drive, moving the herd to the wintering grounds of the snug barn by the house.

If left too long in their summer paddock, the trail approaching the chickens would become nearly impassable as the winter snow drifts blew in. The hired help was only waist high, the oldest wasn’t but six years old, and it wouldn’t take much of a snow to make it too difficult fer them to break a trail to water the chicken herd. Why, it wasn’t even a quarter mile to the summer chicken house, but that would be just far enough to leave chickens forgotten on stormy winter days.

And they couldn’t have that. They were depending on those chickens. Well, maybe they weren’t depending on them chickens, but the family was mighty hopeful. Why, some day, one of those hens just might lay an egg.

Preparations were made in the barn for the chicken herd. The little ones scattered in a snug layer of straw, and the trail boss rigged up a brand new window, feeling right proud to make something with his own two hands.

On the day of the roundup, the greenhorns filled their bellies with buttermilk pancakes and sippy cups of milk. The trail boss brewed coffee, preparin’ for the day ahead. When the last pancake was squashed into the floor and the baby had a dry diaper, it was time to head out. Well, maybe not. Turns out, the young crew all wanted to watch Saturday cartoons before gearing up to work.

It seemed to be a simple task. After all, this crew lived in Montana cowboy country for years, where they’d repeatedly seen pictures of John Wayne on display. They’d also watched City Slickers several times, causing Miss Kathy to become an eternal devotee to Jack Palance, the old cowboy. Yes, they reckoned they knew all they needed to know about chicken roundups, but as every chicken rancher knows, sometimes it is the simple tasks that wreak the most havoc on a soul.

They set out on foot, having no horses to ride and knowing horses would just squarsh the chickens, anyway. The roundup began just after high noon, starting off with several minutes of little greenhorns circling around the feathered herd. Plenty of squawking ensued. No surprise, the herd had no interest in being handled. Why, you might say they acted like a bunch of chickens. Indeed, they were.

The trail boss caught one of the plucky ladies, and a few minutes later, wrangled a second bird. The last few, however, proved to be mighty cantankerous. The chicken ranchers backed off, leaving the herd to cool down a bit. Those stragglers retreated to the high country up in the chicken house rafters, and with no fight in them, they were easily caught. Soon after, the entire chicken herd flocked together in their new winter barn.

All in all, it wasn’t a terribly long move, just a couple hundred feet west. Unknowing observers might have said, “Aw, how cute, a kid carrying a chicken across the yard,” not realizing that in fact, The Big Chicken Roundup of ’12 was in progress. Yes sir, that roundup took a solid fifteen minutes, maybe even twenty after helping the ranch crew put on shoes.

Reaching out her fingers fixin' to touch a chicken.

Reaching out her fingers fixin’ to touch a chicken.

With a successful chicken roundup completed, the green horns celebrated with trick riding on their bikes and a little tree climbing on Maple the Maple.

Mighty happy to hold a fluffy kitten after watering chickens.

Mighty happy to hold a fluffy kitten after watering chickens.

That evening, as the sun sank in the west, the family headed out to the barn. Inside, four lively kittens scampered in the hay bales, chickens pecked at the sunflowers left over from the garden, and four half-pint kids ran circles around all of it. Just six months before, when they moved into the place, that building sat cold and empty. And now on that chilly fall night, the lights glowed warmly, and the barn teemed with a fullness of life that made the trail boss and Miss Kathy feel right content with living in the country.

This post linked to The Prairie Homestead’s Homestead Barn Hop #141.

When Life Hands You a Puffball…‏

Written October 7, 2013.

If I look out in the sheep pasture and see something strange on the ground, generally speaking, “maybe we could eat that” isn’t the first thought that comes to mind.

However, there are exceptions to every rule. Last Saturday happened to be one of those exceptions.

Freckles the sheep helps show off the puff ball discovery in the pasture.  (When did sheep and puff balls enter my life?!)

Freckles the sheep helps show off the puff ball discovery in the pasture. (When did sheep and puff balls enter my life?!)

We originally set out for the Great Apple Harvest of 2013. With four long-established apples trees on the back corner of our land, I had happy visions of bags full of apples. I would bake them into all sorts of things that would fill our house with the aroma of fall and make everyone swoon with homey contentment.

As it turned out, the apple harvest was pretty much just that: AN apple. Okay, realistically we maybe found 30. And, they certainly were, um, “organic.” Of the 30 apples, Asian beetles and bees inhabited at least half. I could almost hear the bugs drooling in sheer ecstasy, “Oh…I’m living in a house made of food…nom nom nom….”

A few weeks ago, my husband mentioned it was time to pick the apples. At that point, I really was in denial about fall setting in, and I told him I just wasn’t ready for apple picking. Funny thing, apple picking isn’t really like making a dentist appointment, where you pick the time that works for you, and maybe put it off for a month if things just don’t fit in the schedule.

By the time we moseyed back to pick our apples, we found most of them on the ground, already turning into compost. I had visions of apple sauce, apple butter, apple pies… Compost is all well and good, but nobody comes into a house and says “ooh, is that compost you’re making ?” and if they do, it’s probably not a compliment.

After strike one on the wimpy apple harvest, I thought “Hey, we’ll just add the last of the rhubarb, and make apple rhubarb pie!”

A few weeks ago, we discovered that the rhubarb rejuvenated itself and we had a whole new crop of crisp stalks ready for the picking. When I saw it that day, I just wasn’t ready to tackle a pile of rhubarb, and figured I’d come back another day. (Are you noticing a theme?)

And…strike two, rhubarb. Thank you to the goats and/or sheep who escaped and munched off my last good batch of rhubarb for the season. All we found were a few trampled stalks and some telling raisin-like droppings. Why, goats and sheep, why?

They didn’t even add brown sugar or oatmeal. It couldn’t have tasted good. It’s also apparently slightly toxic for them, according to the internet. I never noticed any animals with ill effects, so they must have all eaten just a little, sharing nicely. Polite sheep and goats. That’s the silver lining.

The other silver lining? Tomatoes! With no killing frost, our tomato plants are troupers. They are out there in the weed patch garden, just making tomatoes like crazy. My husband and a collection of kids picked off the last of the tomato bounty. It is a beautiful sight to behold.

Tomatoes, glorious tomatoes!  Doesn't it look so farm-y with the barn in the background?

Tomatoes, glorious tomatoes! To me it looks like a little slice of country heaven with the barn in the background…

Our best harvest of all, though, happened to be the one thing we had no plans of finding. A day or two ago, looking out across the yard, I thought an ice cream pail must have blown into the sheep’s pasture. On closer inspection, I discovered a volleyball-sized mushroom that I swear just showed up overnight. A puffball!

Way back in the recesses of my mind is a memory of one time coming home from the Fall Festival at St. Aloysius with a giant puffball mushroom that my mom then fried and we ate. It was such an oddity that it stuck in my head.

Heading online once again, I checked various websites to find out about our amazing pasture fungal growth. Turns out, if the inside is creamy white and uniformly smooth with no gills, it is indeed edible.

Oh yes, we are in puffball heaven. We hunted down five puffballs total. That makes four more puffballs than we could ever really consume in a reasonable amount of time.

The Great Puff Ball Harvest of 2013.  Holy puff balls!

The Great Puff Ball Harvest of 2013. Holy puff balls!

And that’s kind of how it is in life. Sometimes, you think it’s apples that you’re going to find, but it’s really puffballs. And puffballs aren’t apples, but they are pretty amazing.

Puffball pie, anyone? Just kidding. We did eat them sauteed with onions in plenty of butter. On top of our Saturday night pot roast they tasted utterly delicious. (That’s just how Martha Stewart would say it.)

And for dessert, we did manage to whip up a fabulous apple rhubarb crumb pie with the last pickings of the season.

Pot roast with wild mushroom and apple rhubarb crumb pie. Not bad for some stuff we found laying in the yard.

A side note:
Completely unrelated to anything about puffballs, on Sunday all of my sisters and I attended Les Miserables at Rochester Civic Theater. Ordinarily, sisters getting together isn’t that big of a deal, but there are six of us, so it does become a big deal. By our best count, it’s been 18 years since we last did anything together with just the six of us sisters together. That makes this newest photo of the six of us all the more special.

The six sisters together: Karen, Deb, Mel, Kathy, Vicki and Sues.  For the record, I also have seven brothers. : )

The six sisters together: Karen, Deb, Mel, Kathy, Vicki and Sues. For the record, I also have seven brothers. : )

Your Friendly Local Wicked Stepsister

Written August 8, 2013.

Feather boa, fake mole, lace gloves, crazy hat, mismatched socks, blue eye shadow…all just part of my Tuesday morning this past week. Oh yes, and did I mention that I’m going to be a MOVIE STAR?

That’s right.  I’m going to be on the big screen.  Well, I’ll be on a big screen in a park in Lanesboro, anyway.

The stepsisters aghast at seeing the lovely Cinderella enter the ball. Emily Spende, Stela Burdt, Tom Flaig (not allowed to see Cinderella), and Kathy Mosdal. Photo courtesy of Lanesboro Community Theater.

The stepsisters aghast at seeing the lovely Cinderella enter the ball. Emily Spende, Stela Burdt, Tom Flaig (not allowed to see Cinderella), and Kathy Mosdal. Photo courtesy of Lanesboro Community Theater.

For the second year in a row, the Lanesboro Community Theater is creating a series of silent films for “Silent Movies in the Park After Dark.”  Local people with little to no acting experience (that’s me) get to be in a movie, with no pressure of rehearsals or memorizing lines.

For me, it all started with a simple email from Barb Benson Keith asking if I’d like to be one of Cinderella’s stepsisters.  My first acting gig was this spring as Jessie the waitress in the play “Leaving Iowa,” where Barb directed.  I have great respect for her optimistic, organized, energetic style, so getting an email invitation to be in a silent film that she’s directing put a big smile on my face in an otherwise rather “blah”day.

I showed up the morning of filming not quite sure what to expect.  When all was said and done, the whole experience felt like getting to play pretend in the dress up corner at preschool, except I played with adults who lead fairly ordinary lives most of the time.  We threw on some costumes, listened to a few quick stage directions, and started pretending…I mean acting, while Barb Keith filmed.

It was all fairly simple, with no rehearsals, two takes maximum, and then on to the next shot.  We completed all the necessary filming to be crazy stepsisters in just two hours before lunch, and that included a costume change to dress up for the ball.

As an added bonus for me, my two other fellow stepsisters are moms whose children attend the same ECFE class as my own kids.  We’ve become friends as we’ve spent two hours a week together over the school year.  That made spending a morning together as wicked, crazy stepsisters all the more fun.

Without a doubt, it’s the most fun I’ve had in a long, long time.  Picture absolute silliness on the order of things that you usually don’t do once you leave elementary school.  Truly.

I can’t think of the last time I got in a mock fight with two other lovely ladies who gave me a fake punch and tried to put me in some sort of wrestling move.

I certainly can’t remember the last time that happened while I wore a lovely floral print dress with shoulder pads.  It’s also been ages since I wore a feather boa and a leopard print hat and had instructions to paw at a prince.  Really, it’s been such a long time since I’ve done any of those things.

My oldest daughter also added to the fun in this whole movie experience.  My seven-year-old asked to come along and watch the festivities.  I happily brought her, knowing I could trust her to not be an intrusion.  On the way in that morning I joked, “You can tell the kids in your class that your mom is a movie star!”  But then even better, and much to my daughter’s delight, Barb Keith asked if she’d like to be a dancer at the ball.

You can probably imagine the answer.  On the way home I told her, “Well, now you can tell kids in your class that YOU are a movie star!” And then we both giggled.

Thank goodness Grandma Cheryl, who was visiting from Montana, styled my daughter’s hair into a fancy French braid before we left that morning.  She had just the perfect hair for the ball.  Thank goodness, also, for Grandma Cheryl’s willingness to babysit my other three kids at home while I was gone.  Her help made it possible for me to leave the house and do something completely out of the ordinary.

That morning filming “Cinderella” was a total change of pace from the entire summer and from my ordinary “be a resonsible adult” mode.  Everyone needs a chance to cut loose once in a while.  It really made my whole day, and probably my week.

More than anything, I can’t wait to see the final result.

With the filming complete, Barb Benson Keith will turn it all into what looks like a classic silent movie: black and white, complete with captions between scenes and old time music.

“Cinderella” will be part of “Silent Movies in the Park After Dark” in Lanesboro on September 14th and 15th.  They’ll be played at Sylvan Park, the city park on main street in Lanesboro.  If you are interested, just mark it on your calendar and bring some blankets and lawn chairs to cozy up for an evening outside watching locally made movies.

It’s a free, family-friendly event.  Maybe I’ll see some of you there!

A Chicken Birthday Update
On my 35th birthday, I got up at 5 AM and loaded up the whole flock of squawking birds.  My sister-in-law, Tricia, was nice enough to let us borrow Mike’s pickup which has a topper, making it perfect for hauling a load of chickens.  By 6:15, my daughter and I headed to KB Poultry just outside of Utica.  Sun shining, early morning dew…it was a fine birthday morning to be Kathy the Farmer, driving a load of chickens in a pickup.

Mission accomplished: Sixty-seven chickens loaded up on my birthday.

Mission accomplished: Sixty-seven chickens loaded up on my birthday.

Note to self for next time: Put down straw in the back of the pickup ahead of time.  In the short time it took to load them and then drive seven miles, 67 chickens made an absolutely terrible mess on the floor and all over themselves in the process.  Thank goodness for a pressure washer and a nice husband at home.

Mess aside, driving home after dropping off the chickens, I just had a smile plastered to my face.  Driving Mike’s faithful pickup that he’s had for about 20 years, listening to his cassette of twangy Australian classic country music, early morning and a job already done…it just felt like Mike was smiling at all of it.

As an unexpected surprise, we actually had 67 chickens!  I only ordered 60, but the hatchery throws in a few “bonus birds” just in case of loss in transit.  We never actually counted them until that day.  That many chickens completely fill our upright freezer and then some.

This weekend I fired up the grill and we had a little chicken barbecue after a day on the Mississippi.  Thank you chickens, you are delicious.

35: The Chicken Birthday

Written July 29, 2013.

This Friday is a momentous day at our house.  It’s my 35th birthday and Chicken Day.

Eight weeks ago, 110 peeping balls of fluff arrived at our place, 60 meat bird chicks and 50 laying hen chicks.  When I ordered that many, I probably was in a bit over my head: no experience raising that quantity of chickens, no experience raising meat birds.  I knew I’d be fine, though, because just 15 miles away I had the seasoned resources of Mike, my brother, and his wife, Tricia.

Back In June I excitedly wrote about the day the chicks arrived. I now count the day as one of my favorites.

When I pulled in the driveway with my load of chicks and excited kids, lots of helpers were ready and waiting.  Mike and his family came out to help, along with my sister, Karen.  Later in the day my sister, Sue, and her kids came out to see the chicks, too. Mike helped get our little chicks off to a good start, putting up tin around their little pen, adjusting the heat lamps, and mixing molasses in their water to give them a little boost.

As my niece, Katie, helped dip each chick’s beak in water to give them a first drink, I snapped some pictures of baby chicks cuddled by kids.  With a flock of kids, a few adults, and 110 chicks all squeezed into the small pen for the occasion, we were teeming with life and activity.

If I could go back in time, I would take more pictures of that day.  The only pictures I have of Mike from that day are his hands helping my daughter hold a chick.  It’s a reminder to me to take pictures not just of the kids in the family, but the adults, too.

Mike reaching out his hands to help my excited daughter hold a broiler chick.

Mike reaching out his hands to help my excited daughter hold a broiler chick.

One morning a few weeks after our chicks arrived, my two-year-old helped me with the morning chores.  We fed the chicks and then moved on to the sheep.  Instead of my usual “on to the next thing” mode, we stood there for a while that morning just hanging out in the barn.  I leaned on the fence while my daughter stood in the feed trough to peek over the fence and watch the sheep getting a drink.

We stood there, quiet and peaceful, until my daughter was done watching.  That was one of those moments where I stood still long enough to feel overwhelmingly grateful…grateful to have a sweet little girl who made me stop and appreciate what I have.

Later that morning while I was upstairs doing laundry, I got a call from my mom telling me there’d been an accident with Mike’s helicopter.

In the weeks that followed, I continued making treks out to the chicken house to take care of the chicks.  Some days, my eyes got too blurry to scoop the chicken feed.  Every single time I go there, I think of my brother.  I see the work of his hands on the pen.  And all the time in my mind, when I look at those chickens,  I do what I think Mike would do.  Through his years of education, years of farming, he did so many things the right way.  He took care of animals the same way he took care of people.

And so, every morning in the last eight weeks I headed out to the chicken house to feed and water the chicks.  Now that they’re bigger, I’m out there three times a day.  In the chicken world, broilers (chickens grown for meat) are what Mike described as race cars.  Their growth is fast, reaching full size in just 6-8 weeks.  Like a high performance vehicle, meat birds need optimal conditions for a peak performance.

I’ve been working hard on my race car birds: feed, clean water, dry bedding, access to outside.  In eight weeks, we only lost one broiler, very early on.  I’ll call that a success for a first timer.  As they grow, I keep wishing Mike could see my chickens.  The kid in me wants my big brother to see them and be proud.

Eight weeks later, my daughter feeds the now full-grown broiler chickens.

Eight weeks later, my daughter feeds the now full-grown broiler chickens.

My broilers hit the finish line on Friday, Chicken Day (and my birthday).  We’ll load them up and make the short drive to Utica to have them butchered.  And soon after, I’ll have a year’s worth of chicken in my freezer for my family.

I grew up on a farm with beef cattle and pigs, but I never really involved myself in any of the farming.  This summer, then, is my first time raising meat for my family.  I have to say, there’s a certain amount of pride in raising food to feed your family.

I also have a very real and genuine appreciation for the effort and care involved in raising an animal for food.  It’s easy to give very little thought to picking up a package of skinless, boneless chicken breasts at the grocery store.  As a package of frozen food from the store, the image of a chicken on a farm seems awfully distant and disconnected.

This year, though, “farm to table” is very clear to me.  I know that every single time I pull a whole chicken out of the freezer to cook for my family, I’ll think about how I raised that chicken this summer.  I’ll know just where that chicken spent it’s days, and I’ll know just how much effort it took to raise that little fluff ball into a big meaty bird.  I took care of them, so they could feed us.

And while raising a few chickens isn’t anything momentous in and of itself, in the bigger picture it’s just a part of how I want to live.  I want my kids to grow up in the country where they know where food comes from, they know how to work, and they know how to appreciate the simple joys of life.

So on my 35th birthday, I’ll celebrate the accomplishment of raising my first set of meat birds, and celebrate getting to live a life full of blessings.  I’ll celebrate getting the chance to spend time with my brother this year, and learn some of his farming wisdom.

While I certainly intend to live to about 100 like my grandmas, the reality that my brother’s entire life was only nine years longer than my current age is a real reminder of the preciousness of every day.  I don’t know what exactly it is that I’m supposed to do in life, and I don’t know if what I do is “enough.” I do know, though, that I’m thankful to be alive and 35.

Camp Mosdal

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Written July 15, 2013.

When summer was just around the corner, we picked up a 12-person tent.  We tucked it away safely in the attic, just waiting for that nice night when we’d set up that new portable house in the yard with the kids.

Then another snow storm came, and another.  And then came the rains.  If you live around here, you know the ones.  The tent sat untouched for about four months, nearly forgotten.

It might not have seen the light of day this summer if it hadn’t been for a sheet of paper tacked up in our kitchen, labelled “Summer of Fun 2013.”  It’s the list we made in about five minutes one morning in May before the school bus arrived, back when the kids wanted school to be done for the year.

When I see the list on the wall, it feels like it came from a lifetime ago, long before anybody could imagine that we’d lose my brother this summer.  I wouldn’t call this the Summer of Fun at this point.  The list is still up on the wall, though, and this week my seven-year-old noticed we really needed to get something checked off the list: Camping.

Last Thursday seemed like the night.  We celebrated a highly anticipated fourth birthday at our house.  With the weather forecast looking good, we decided to haul our two tents out of the attic and camp that night to celebrate.  Our brand new tent is a giant: a 10′ x 18′ two room behemoth.  It’s just shy of the square footage of our kids’ two bedrooms in the last house we owned.

The kids and I hauled our new treasure out under the shade of our walnut tree on a nice flat spot and began to assemble it.  While they excitedly helped, we managed to not lose any stakes in the high grass and nobody busted a zipper or tore a hole in the screens.  With four little kids running around, that seemed pretty successful.

To finally get it all set up, my husband and I exchanged a few short comments with each other, as per the requirement when assembling a new tent.  And when it finally stood complete, all was well.

Our kids immediately began hauling armloads of toys into the tent, to make it a little more “homey,” of course.

Our plans for the evening pretty much ended with “hey, let’s set up the tents,” but with short notice on a week night, a few of our kids’ cousins and my sister, Karen, came over and also spent the night.

In the midst of hauling out blankets, pillows, and sleeping bags, we almost forgot about my son’s birthday cake.  I sat it out on our porch table with candles ready to light, and then got busy doing other things.

Four!! Birthday supper celebration.

Four!! Birthday supper celebration.

Cats, however, love birthday celebrations and do not forget about such things like birthday cake.  I came out of the house with an armful of blankets to discover three cats circled around his highly anticipated angel food cake, busily gnawing away.

My biggest disappointment is that my arms were so full of blankets.  My gut instinct desired nothing more than to scoop them all up and launch them from the porch.  I believe they sensed that as well, and with my scream they called an end to their birthday party and instantly scattered.

Birthday cake issues aside, we had a great night.

My husband, Jarred, even installed our porch swing that evening.  We bought the swing on Craig’s List about a year ago, but just never got around to installing it.  Just when I’d grown accustomed to that porch swing sitting on the ground like a legless bench, all of a sudden, we had a swing!  My little boy sat on it and said, “It’s for my birthday!”  Just knowing I can now go out and sip iced tea on the porch swing makes me feel utterly content.

But, back to camping.  We had fireflies all around, a bonfire, kids giggling in the tent, and a beautiful summer night.  By midnight, the last holdout went to bed.  (Ironically, it was our two-year-old.)  We slept outside under a starry sky, in the peaceful silence of a night out in the country.

And despite our kids’ fears, nobody was eaten by coyotes, not even a little bit.

That peaceful night didn’t last very long.  Around 4 AM began the song bird wake-up call.  By 5 AM, the rooster and my birthday boy were both up.  They both share a love of making excessively loud noises every morning.  By six, pretty much everyone was awake.  Soon after, a groggy but happy load of kids swung on the porch swing.

I believe if you can’t get a good night of sleep, you better at least have a good breakfast.  I whipped up a batch of pancakes while my sister made bacon.  Jarred decided to cook rugged-camp style, and he made a bunch of bacon and eggs over the red coals of the bonfire from the night before.

And then we had a stroke of genius. Almost out of syrup, we mashed up a huge bowl of strawberries that came from the neighbors’ patch.  And then, we topped it all off with a big batch of whipped cream, made from a half gallon jug of cream we got from Kappers’ Dairy in Chatfield.   We ate outside at the porch table with our little crew of campers, eight kids and three adults.  Great food, fun kids and good coffee seemed like a great start to a day.

Enjoying a big breakfast on the porch after a night of camping.

Enjoying a big breakfast on the porch after a night of camping.

We didn’t have any plans, but after breakfast, we herded the kids out to help feed and water the chicks.  Our former fluff balls are rapidly growing into big, meaty birds and good looking little hens.

This happens to be the time of year when our windbreak is loaded with black raspberries.  Jarred had the inspiration to gather a bunch of bowls, and many of us headed out to pick berries.  (And pick, and pick, and pick.)  With a busy crew of helpers, we had 15 pounds of berries when we finished.   The berries are small, and many of the berry pickers were young, so we felt all the more impressed with our bounty.

A bounty of black raspberries harvested from our yard.

A bounty of black raspberries (black caps) harvested from our yard.

By then, it was time for lunch.  I fired up the grill and made burgers.  And for dessert, we finally got around to the birthday cake.  We sawed off all areas of possible cat-contamination on the cake.  Naughty cats. For the tail end of the longest impromptu birthday celebration ever, we sang happy birthday, had cat-free angel food cake, ice cream and berries.

 Cousins celebrating our four-year-old's birthday with some cat-free cake and ice cream.

Cousins celebrating our four-year-old’s birthday with some cat-free cake and ice cream.

Without really making any plans other than deciding to set up our tents, Camp Mosdal turned into a great day…and a half.  By late afternoon the campers went home, and we crashed, tired but happy.

And if you happen to drive by our house, you might still see the tent set up.  Four days later, it still is, anyway.  You can also still find a heap of blankets dumped in our living room from our festivities.  Tents and camping equipment, just like Christmas decorations, are much more exciting to set up than take down.

A Series of Fortunate Events

Normally, milking a goat for the first time would be a pretty memorable event for me. But this past week, I almost forgot I even did that. It’s really spring and life is running at full speed at our house.

The to-do list started while driving home in the evening on the Sunday after the big May snow storm. I noticed that the final patches of snow melted in the fields. I pointed it out to my kids, reminding them how we still saw plenty of snow around at noon that day. As I contemplated feeling confident enough to finally pack snow pants and mittens for the season, my six-year-old said, “We need to get our crops planted, Mom.” That’s what he calls our garden.

Wait a minute. He’s right. What?! Snow pants…garden…I’m sorry, but I just have trouble wrapping my head around a garden when I helped my kids build a snowman two days earlier. I just haven’t allowed myself to get excited about a garden this year when every time I look at seed catalogs, we get a snowstorm. With summer vacation just a few weeks away, it’s finally sinking in that the time is now to get all of our projects in high gear.

New Kids on the Block
The goats living at our place have been quite busy themselves.

 Our kids holding the new goat kids, with their little sister impatiently waiting for a turn.

Our kids holding the new goat kids, with their little sister impatiently waiting for a turn.

Right now we’re hosting four “foster goats” at our place. They belong to my brother and his family. On Tuesday, I looked out at the goats in the pasture and wondered when my husband put our little lamb in with the goats. Then I noticed the “lamb” was the wrong color and half the size he should be. We had a new baby goat!! I wandered into the barn, and discovered Big Momma (because that’s her name, of course) had not one baby, but twins. In this age of instant communication, I snapped a picture with my phone and sent it to my brother and sister-in-law to share their new baby news.

Then I noticed that Big Momma had a big swollen udder on one side and a teat swollen like a water balloon. I’m no goat whisperer, but I am a mom, and I know from experience that that sort of thing hurts, a lot. I called my brother, Mike, and we talked about it, and I decided I’d try to milk her by hand to relieve some of the pressure.

Now, before you get the wrong impression about my animal skills, let me tell you about my previous goat experience: Once, when I was in third grade, I saw pygmy goats at a petting zoo while visiting my sister in Oklahoma. One of the goats nibbled the corner off of my paper bag from the gift store, which bothered me enough that I still remember it to this day.

I remember that many of the goats at the zoo were hugely pregnant. Somewhere, there is a picture of me from that day sitting on one of those pregnant goats. Because when I saw a big heavy pregnant momma, I thought it would be fun to take a picture riding her. Now isn’t that, um, sweet? So, that is my experience with goats. Yep, I’m a regular James Herriot.

Between my husband (who also has never milked anything) and I, along with the assistance of four kids, a billy goat who bumps you when you bend over, and a curious dog, we managed to get about a pint of milk in a bucket, and probably another cup on the floor. We fed the goat milk to our bottle-fed lamb, who at first had no interest, and then decided the milk was quite tasty, and he sucked it up.

We took the edge off for Big Momma, and Lamba Lamba Ding Dong (Lamby) had some milk that came from a live animal, not a bag of powder. It was already past bedtime for the kids, so we called that a success, or good enough, anyway.

Sand Mountains
Before the little goat kids stole the show at our house, the big attraction of Tuesday was a new mountain of sand. My husband ordered two truckloads of sand for the base of what will eventually be a concrete floor in our shop. For the short term, though, our kiddos play in sand pile heaven.

We topped the sand pile with a child-sized wooden bridge, a free find from the curb in Utica. The bridge is meant to be a landscaping feature, but temporarily on a sand pile, it makes a perfect spot where the kids can dig a tunnel. Everyone, of course, needs a little spot to dig and hide.

A New Herd of Grass Mowers
Automatic, self-guided grass mowers were another addition to our springtime projects. On Wednesday, we added ten ewes to our list of random farm animals that we are collecting. Seeing sheep in our pasture is nothing new, since last year our neighbor rented out the pasture for his sheep. This year, however, we actually bought the sheep. After the sheep arrived, I looked at my husband, Jarred, and said, “We just bought livestock for the first time.”

Next project on the list? Fencing off more land for the sheep. They want plenty of grass, and we don’t want to mow everything. Win, win.

A Herd of Kindergarteners
Friday was a big day at our house: a birthday party with a slew of kindergarten boys, and a brand new play set for the yard.

When we moved here a year ago, we left our swing set in Montana, with a promise to the kids to get a new one here in Minnesota. Our kids reminded us fairly often of that promise. A Sunday conversation led to a great solution to our play set dilemma. My brother’s kids were outgrowing theirs, and we needed one…perfect!

The play set that is now in our yard is the same one that I remember playing on with my nephew and nieces while I babysat them back in high school. The wood set is about 15 years old, but my brother’s an engineer, so that sucker still looks just as sturdy and as good as new. With a new colorful canopy in place and the slide still a bright yellow, it’s a hugely exciting addition to our backyard.

On Friday afternoon, my kindergarten boy, along with ten buddies and a few cousins, all played on it for the first time. Our kids had no idea that my husband was getting that play set, so when they hopped off of the school bus and spotted it in the back yard…well, I bet you can imagine the excitement… I have to say, I love it, too.

As if a birthday party and new play set weren’t enough, the goat named Baby also had a new baby that day. Little kids at the party got to see a brand new goat kid, play in an enormous pile of sand, climb on a new play set, and play with Lamby, who roams around the yard like a second dog. We capped off the night with a bonfire, and called it a great day.

On Saturday, I was pretty much worthless after wrangling a busy party, but my husband had the energy to make a new tree swing for the giant oak tree in our backyard. He built it big enough for an adult, so we all took plenty of turns on it. The kids declared that it was a Mother’s Day gift for me, and so, it was. I do love tree swings.

Mother’s Day Queen
On Mother’s Day, my cup runneth over with little kid presents: a paper locket necklace, a decorated picture frame, toast in bed, and a paper crown declaring me “Mother’s Day Queen.” I wore my crown, ate specially made toast, and read to my kids the Mother’s Day letter I wrote for them, the one printed last week in the paper.

Wearing new my crown and  locket, reading a special letter to my three-year-old.

Wearing my new crown and locket (and my pajamas), reading a special letter to my three-year-old.

My kitchen floor is a muddy disaster and I could give you a mile long list of imperfections around here, but all that aside, when we have four kids running around chasing a lamb, holding baby animals, playing on sand piles, and swinging from a tree swing, sometimes I feel like we are permanently on vacation out here in the country.

The Tale of the Missing Chicken Foot: A True Story

The feather-covered chicken leg, complete with a foot, laying near the welcome mat on the front porch one Sunday morning a few months back barely caught my attention.

It wasn’t until my husband questioned the chicken leg’s presence that it occurred to me that it wasn’t quite normal to have a stray leg just laying on our porch.

That’s how I know I grew up on a farm.

As a kid, we had pigs, beef cattle…and farm dogs. With farm dogs around, it was never especially surprising to see a random animal part laying on the lawn. Some of my best anatomy lessons came from deciphering what exactly it was that Buster hauled up on the lawn to chew. Disgusting? Yes. But it is honest. Farm dogs find the best chew toys in the least desirable places.

With that in mind, a stray chicken leg didn’t seem like any cause for alarm. Once my husband mentioned the leg, however, I had an epiphany, “Hey wait a minute, WE have chickens.” Generally speaking, that shouldn’t be much of an epiphany. In my defense, my mind was racing between getting kids out the door to church and then heading to Grandma’s.

Pondering the rightful owner of the chicken leg planted a sinking feeling in my stomach. Our dog is just naughty enough to not really be trusted to leave chickens alone. Gulp. While my husband loaded the wood burner, I headed to the shed to do a little animal welfare check.

Walking into the shed, a quick scan revealed our three chicken ladies were missing from their usual hangout on the gate railing.

Oh no.

I kept looking, expecting to see bits of chicken feathers or some sort of evidence of chicken destruction. Finally, my eyes found some relief. The three chickens were all standing close together on the floor.

Instantly, though, it stuck me as odd. They all seemed closely huddled together, were hanging out in a corner where I’ve never seen them before, and they were on the floor. Usually they prefer sitting up on a higher vantage point.

Then I saw it.

The middle chicken was standing on only one leg.

My heart sank. My mind raced in a million directions. What in the world do I do with a one-legged chicken? Do I have to put her out of her misery? And how should I do that? I really should know how to butcher a chicken. Can chickens live on one leg , like dogs can live with three? Could she maybe just hop from here on out?

As I pondered my predicament, I looked for blood spots on her and the floor. I couldn’t see anything, and surprisingly, she didn’t look like she was in pain. Perhaps she dropped the leg as simply as one of those lizards that can lose their tail? She seemed to adapt so quickly to the loss.

Soon enough, I had my answer.

When the two other chickens shifted slightly, she stirred and moved. As she shifted, she uncurled her leg that had been tucked up and placed it on the floor, as normal as ever. Yep, normal. Two legs, fully functional and intact. My life suddenly felt much easier.

 Beware of missing feet: Ideally, chickens should have two feet at all times, like the hen pictured above.

Beware of missing feet: Ideally, chickens should have two feet at all times, like the hen pictured above.

Turns out, she just tucked up her leg to be cozy on a chilly day.

As for the chicken leg on the porch, a nice man in a large blue truck relocated it to a more suitable long-term resting place.

We may never know the full story. All of the forensics experts seem to be occupied with other investigations. A coyote is a “person of interest” in the case. Last fall, a chicken disappeared on the very day that a neighbor spotted a coyote in the field next to our house. Neither the chicken nor the coyote have been seen since.

RIP Chicken foot. Long may you scratch in that big chicken coop up in the sky.

Chores, Chicken Memorials, and Children: Our First Summer in the Country

A summer that was both bursting at the seams with fullness, and at the same time all too short… I think that’s how it’s supposed to be, though.  Life should always leave you wanting to come back for more.

As I write this, we are on the last day of “no shoes, no shirt, no problem” summer vacation.  I know the calendar says September, but I’d really like another August.  Jumping on the trampoline until 9PM and then heading in for a rhubarb crisp night cap is all done.  Up and at ’em breakfasts and a big yellow school bus in our yard, bright and early, will be taking its place.

Two of my kids will be climbing up the big steps of the bus, leaving only two kids at home.  I’m feeling the usual ambivalence about school starting and summer ending.  I don’t know whether I want to cry or jump up and down with excitement.  Currently, it’s the former.  Over and over everyone tells new parents, “They grow up so fast,” and yet it still comes as an overwhelming surprise.  How do I have already have a first grader and a kindergartener?  Didn’t I just have our first baby just a few years ago?  Oh yeah, that’s all it takes.

Whether I like it or not, school is here.  Last week we headed to the school open house, where my daughter’s first grade teacher asked the customary ice breaker, “What did you do over summer vacation?” My daughter’s first response?  “CHORES.” At home my daughter later commented that she couldn’t wait for school again, because school is EASY, but the summertime means kids have to work ALL THE TIME.  The poor girl.  I didn’t realize I ran a slave labor camp over the summer.  I did allow the inmates to go swimming, play at parks, and get ice cream, though, on several occasions.  (Time off for good behavior, then back to the trenches.)

While at “summer work camp” our kids didn’t slave away making our new MN license plates, but they did proudly install them with the impact wrench.

Actually, this whole summer’s been a series of firsts for us, as the first summer in our new home and our first summer as a family in Minnesota.  We filled the last three months with new little discoveries, I watched our kids grow and develop, and we immersed ourselves in life in the country.

I’ve always loved exploring new places and discovering things I didn’t know were there.  In elementary school, I’d spend my Saturdays exploring the woods in the “back 40” of our farm, in the valleys that connect to the North Branch of the Whitewater River.

This summer had that same sort of exciting feeling of discovery.  We happily discovered the rhubarb patch behind the chicken house, discovered black cap raspberries in abundance on our land, discovered  the chicken house actually has a cement floor (and someday, we will scrape the floor clean to reveal it all), in the cement under the water hydrant we discovered the name of the little boy who used to live here, and we took in a kitten discovered in the windbreak.  On the bigger scale, we are in the midst of meeting a whole new social circle and getting to know the area around our new hometown, as well.

More than anything, though, what we did this summer was just soak in our first summer living life in the country.

We ate meal after meal on our new outside table, which I love all the more because it was free and comes with a great story.

Back in May, I prowled St. Charles during the City-Wide Clean Up with my kids (my always-willing bargain hunting companions).  That sunny afternoon we picked up ice cream from the Oasis and drove around in the van, licking cones and scoping out the cast-offs.  “Eeew!  Look at that old couch!  I bet a dog barfed on it.”  Such colorful children I have.

I then spotted a nice table out on a sidewalk.  I pulled over to take a look, wondering how many children I’d have to abandon to get the table in my van.

Almost instantly, two guys from across the street asked me if I wanted it.  Before I knew what was happening, they hoisted the table up, and carried it back across the street to where my van was parked.  And as I pulled the double stroller out of the back of the van to rearrange things, those two guys flipped the table over and grabbed tools out of a pickup to take off the table legs.  In no time flat, they had the table legs removed, and they were jockeying the table top and legs into my van.  Did I mention that these guys weren’t even the owners of the table, just people from across the street?

Within five minutes, I had a table for six tucked into my van, along with a double stroller and four kids.  It was an Indy 500 Pit Stop of the bargain-hunting world.  I pulled away after thanking them, absolutely dumbstruck and giggling to myself.  That’s small town life at its best, when two strangers willingly drop what they’re doing and help a mom load a table into her van for no other reason than to just be friendly.  Thank you again for the help, whoever you were.

That table, combined with some new wicker furniture from a Craig’s List find, combined to make a porch that’s seen some heavy-duty lounging this summer.  Sitting out on the porch with a blanket and watching rain pour down in a thunderstorm became a new favorite for our kids.  And I just realized the other day that I never even once sipped iced tea out there on a hot day.  I really need another summer to get that straightened out.

Life in the country wasn’t all about lounging this summer, though.  We also had a few real life lessons about animals. Over by the back fence, we have a homemade cemetery where the kids buried three chickens and the kitten.  They discovered first hand that little animals are fragile, and can’t take being squeezed too hard or accidentally locked out from water and shelter on a hot day.  Life is precious, fragile, and once its gone, it doesn’t come back.  When the first chick died, our kids learned the routine for a proper burial, digging a hole, placing the chick in the ground, and my six-year-old took it upon herself to deliver a lengthy eulogy and prayer.  We lost those animals all in July, and by the end of the month, they knew the routine, and even our three-year-old insisted on delivering a special prayer for the kitten.    

A happy day, when the baby chicks first arrived.

As valuable as those lessons about life and death are, I’m especially happy that we haven’t had any more “learning opportunities” since July.

On happier notes of farm life, we watched so many things grow and thrive this summer.  Our chickens that arrived as tiny little fluff balls earlier in the summer are now sassy teenagers of the chicken world.  Our sunflowers in the garden are triple the height of our amazed kids, towering over the nearby cornfield, and most importantly, towering over even the most ambitious garden weeds.

And of course, our kids all grew like crazy this summer.  No surprise to any parent, all the pants that sat dormant all summer are now worthless for the fall.  I watched grow spurts where a single small child ate a bratwurst and a half for supper and three eggs plus cereal for breakfast.  I saw our baby’s chubby thighs stretch out into longer legs and her feet jump a shoe size in two months.

Our baby enjoyed a lovely dog bowl foot soak while Spot got a drink on a hot summer day.

Taking it all in, from chores to chicken memorials to children, we had a summer that was both bursting at the seams with fullness, and at the same time all too short.  I think that’s how it’s supposed to be, though.  Life should always leave you wanting to come back for more.