Happy Birthday, Little Buddy!

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You know what’s even better than your baby’s first birthday? Your baby’s first birthday AND 65 new baby chicks arriving at your house on the same day!

Somehow a year flew by and our little boy turned one on Monday. A few days ago I looked back at his newborn pictures. Even though he’s still so little, at 24 pounds now he looks like such a big boy compared to the sweet little newborn he was last year at this time. In photos I see that soft newborn skin and fine fluff of hair, those tiny little fingers and I just get choked up about how sweet he was. I just love new babies, fresh from the oven. Looking back at those pictures, I also remember the worry, stress, and uncertainty that clouded that time, being taken by surprise when we learned he has Down syndrome. I didn’t know what to expect.

I wish I could go back and tell myself then to not worry. A year later, I feel much more of a peacefulness about his life. I don’t know the timeline of when he will check off each milestone, I don’t know all the answers, but I do know it will all be fine.

We have so much joy with him in our life. His big brother’s bedtime prayer on the night before his birthday was “thank you for blessing us with Lars.” We have a baby boy with an infectious smile and an easy-going personality. There’s so much excitement, joy, and love that surrounds him on a daily basis. On any given morning when I carry him downstairs, I ask if anyone would like to hold him while I start getting breakfast ready. Every time, three or four kids shout “I DO!” and then squabble over snuggling him. Lucky boy.

And what did we do to kick off this baby’s first birthday? Why, I hauled him to his big sister’s dentist appointment first thing in the morning, of course. And then we ran errands.That’s how you roll if you are child number six in the family. We got a few groceries (just a full cart, not a heaping cart) and had lunch.

After lunch, excitement mounted when we made a trip to Fleet Farm. I realize that may sound sarcastic, but I’m dead serious. Walking around in Fleet Farm always gives me a happy feeling, being surrounded by all the things you need for getting work done and living a good life. I love shopping in a store where the guy ahead of me in line bought a bag of walnuts and some teat dip. Today’s mission: get ready for our chicks.

Heading to the back corner of the store with the animal feed, I pushed a cart with my two-year-old girl, and my 11-year-old pushed a cart with my birthday boy. A bale of wood chips , a bag of chick feed, a red heat lamp bulb and we had two carts loaded and ready for our new chicks. By the time we walked out of the store, I had a heavy baby boy sleeping on my shoulder, so I used only one hand to push the cart loaded with chicken feed and a crabby toddler.

As cumbersome as that is, with the sun shining, a baby’s first birthday to celebrate, and chicks to pick up, life felt just about perfect. I desperately wanted to check out the greenhouse in the parking lot and pick up some flowers, too, but I restrained myself from adding another project to the day.

By the time we got to the Rushford feed store to pick up our chicks, we were well past the time that my two-year-old needed a nap. The drive from Winona to Rushford was pretty much one long toddler meltdown. All of that evaporated, though, with lifting the lid off of a box of baby chicks. It’s like having the magic and wonder of Christmas morning on an afternoon in May, with peeping tiny balls of yellow and brown fluff.

The rest of the afternoon and evening evaporated in a flurry of getting the chicks situated in their new home, making birthday supper and celebrating. It’s been four years since we’ve had a batch of chicks at our house, a lifetime in a kid’s world. Seeing the other kids get off of the school bus and discover a box full of peeping chicks was one of my favorite moments in a long time.
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With chilly evenings for the week I decided to keep the chicks cozy in an old stock tank in the side room of the barn. Lots of small eager hands helped line the stock tank with wood chips, help fill up the feeders, and help take each chick and individually dip their beak into water to give a first drink. Throughout the whole process, my mind was right back in the time four years ago when we got 110 chicks and my brother Mike and his family came out and helped us get the chicks settled. Mike’s been gone now for almost four years, but to me at that moment I had the comforting feeling like he was right here again as we repeated those same steps that we learned from him.

Just as we finished getting the last chick a drink and settled in, my mom and sister arrived for our little guy’s birthday supper. I was surprised to see them already, since it seemed pretty early in the afternoon, and then I realized it was already after 5:00. Time to switch gears to birthday mode. With a day in town and taking care of new chicks, we had a kitchen table full of groceries, the living room wasn’t picked up, and with the meal we added a bunch of new dishes to the melee, but the birthday celebration comes just the same.

While I cooked in the kitchen, our lucky birthday boy received Grandma’s full attention while she built towers of blocks for him to knock over. For supper we ate our little guy’s favorite, spaghetti and sauce. My oldest daughter, quite the baker, whipped up her own creation of a banana blueberry birthday cake after his favorite flavor of baby food. The cake was awesome.

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Our little buddy opened a few presents, including a swimming suit, which prompted my daughter’s wisecrack “Hey Mom, let’s call this his birthday suit!” and some fleece hand puppets –the very sweet creation of my six-year-old. We sang Happy Birthday a few times and he smeared cake all over everything. Bedtime came a little later than usual, and he went to bed a very tired, very loved little boy.

When all of the kids were finally in bed, I grabbed my umbrella and headed out with a flashlight to check on the chicks in the barn. They all looked cozy and warm in the glow of the red heat lamp, so all was well with all of the babies for the night. One baby turning a year, 65 babies one day old, and a good day all around. Happy birthday, little buddy. We love you!

Written May 23, 2017.

 

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Back 40 Adventures

I do believe that to grow up properly, every kid needs to spend a little time on exploring adventures. My favorite playground growing up was our “Back 40:” about 240 acres or so of cropland, CRP, woods, rolling hills, ponds, and ravines on our farm.

Around 5th grade, my Saturday afternoon jobs were to vacuum the den and haul everyone’s clean clothes from the utility room up to the bedrooms upstairs. I particularly hated vacuuming the den. Usually, I made it an all day affair stalling to avoid the 15 minutes of vacuuming, and often enough, everyone tripped over the vacuum for a week because I never actually vacuumed.

My biggest motivation, though, to complete the torture of vacuuming for 15 whole minutes was going out exploring afterward. Once I had my afternoon jobs done, I was free to head outside.

I’d grab my jacket, and head upstairs to get my special survival gear fanny pack off the hook in my closet. My “survival pack” was a bright red fanny pack with the Kool Aid man on the front. I’d ordered it after carefully saving Kool Aid Points from the back of every drink packet all summer long.

Inside I had all the survival essentials: matches that I’d waterproofed in melted wax, a short candle, an emergency poncho, a jack knife from my brother, a lighter, fingernail clippers, a candy bar, a space blanket and even a toilet paper packet from an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) that came from one of my siblings in the military.

I’d tell my mom I was headed out exploring and promise to be back by supper. Then I’d call Sparky or Bandit or Buck to come along, and the dogs and I headed out on a walkabout to the back of the farm.

I’d round the corner at the silos, go past the yellow shed and hog unit, and past the windbreak. When I climbed over the gate, leaving the farm yard and entering the open fields, that marked the official start of exploring, just a girl and her dogs.

After a few trips, the dogs knew the routine, and eagerly took off ahead of me down the field lane, zig-zagging back and forth, following any scent trails that crossed their paths and marking their territory with a seemingly endless well of “marking spray.” I walked down the dirt path of the field lane and passed the corn, soybeans, and hay, and usually headed out toward the pond.

On the way to the pond I’d usually avoid the big stand of pine trees that my family planted before I was born. I was fairly sure someone would be hiding behind one of those trees. In hindsight, the possibility of a “bad guy” randomly waiting behind a pine tree on the back of our farm, ten miles from town seems awfully remote, but at the time they seemed dark and scary.

When I reached the pond, I’d throw a few rocks in, watch the splashes, and let the dogs walk in the mud and get a drink.

Most of the time, I’d then head to the woods. On the back end of the farm, past the pond, we had rolling tree-covered hills which connect to the Whitewater Valley. I’d crawl on my belly to get under the barbed wire fence, and then follow along animal trails.

I’d walk along logs, climb up steep hills, and make my way through thick underbrush. I’d flip over rocks to check out the bugs and dig in mud with sticks. I’d collect little treasures and sometimes find secret hideouts. I’d imagine where I would sleep if I was stranded out there all night, and what I would do to survive.

Periodically, when I hadn’t seen the dogs in a while, I’d whistle and call them back. They’d circle back within sight to check in, and head off again on their adventures. As long as I had the dogs along and my survival pack, I knew I was safe.

Once I plucked a little white daisy-like flower with a yellow center, and had a sick feeling in my stomach seeing that it began to “bleed” after I picked it. Slightly afraid I’d done something bad, I told Mom about it later, and learned first hand about the blood root flower.

Another time, I brought home a dried out weed with a large swollen round bulge near the top. That’s when my brother, Greg, taught me about wax worms. I believe we later smashed open the bulge on the weed to check out the wormy contents inside.

Mostly, I just wandered…because I could. That was the era when I loved books about dogs and the outdoors, and read through everything I could get my hands on by Jim Kjelgaard, the author of Big Red. In elementary school, I spent a lot of time doing what other people wanted. Out exploring, though, I had independence. I could wander anywhere I wanted as long as I stayed on our land.

I loved the smell of wet dirt and damp fall air. I liked the sound of the wind rustling through the trees. I crunched on crispy old leaves and felt the soft squish of thick piles of pine needles on the ground. I loved the thrill of being off alone on an adventure, relying on myself to remember my paths and get back home again before suppertime.

Pine cones, bark, and little branches: the latest treasures collected from my own kids' exploring adventures.

Pine cones, bark, and little branches: the latest treasures collected from my own kids’ exploring adventures.

I was always struck by the world apart from our house. Inside our house was all the business and busyness of life, projects, things to do, TV, noise, people. Outside exploring, the world was nothing but wide open fields, woods, and quiet.

As a kid, my Saturday afternoon exploring was the favorite part of my week, and I couldn’t imagine what kids did in town when they didn’t have their own farm to explore. When looking at my watch told me I needed to head back in time for supper at six, I always felt a little sad that my exploring was done for the week.

I think that little explorer in me is partly what lead me to head to Bozeman, Montana for college, to Seville, Spain to study abroad, and to still have a need for new adventures. The explorer in me is also what sent my kids outside today to go play in what I jokingly call our “Back Four,” the windbreak of tall pine trees on the east side of our land. I’m fairly certain that trees, dirt, and burdocks are essentials for learning.

Goats, Grace and Golf Carts

Written August 19, 2013.

Good neighbors make good fences.  (Robert Frost had it backwards.)  That’s just one of things I learned this past week.  Another lesson learned: 13 people can ride a four-person golf cart.  Well, at least 13.  We’re not quite sure that is the maximum.

Vacation at its finest: mini golf in a swimming suit with bare feet.

Vacation at its finest: mini golf in a swimming suit with bare feet.

Greetings, everyone!  I’m back from a mini-vacation last week.  Life’s so busy I don’t really know where to start, so I’ll start with the object of much of my attention lately: a billy goat.

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The billy goat, making plans for another escape.

The billy goat, looking innocent while making plans for another escape.

While my husband, Jarred, made a trip to Arkansas to service two of his feed cart scales, the billy goat decided he really needed a change of scenery.  Of course, the time he likes to roam is just at that time in the evening when I want to take one last peaceful glance at the yard and call it a day and put the kids to bed.  That’s when the Spanish billy goat says to himself (in his Spanish goat accent): “You know, I wood love to geeve my ladeez and myself a lovely new place to graze.  I think I shall start with dee corn field and a bit of dee baby lilac bush.”

And so, he tore a hole through the sheep fence, and led his harem out to graze on tender shoots of all sorts of forbidden fruit.  Normally, at bedtime, I’d pass the goat issue off to Jarred and I’d get the kids in bed.  With my partner in crime off in Arkansas fixing scales and eating catfish, I had to take care of it.  Fixing a fence posed a small problem because A) I didn’t know where to find the fencing supplies and B) I’ve never fixed a fence before.

I managed to find fencing wire and wire cutters (in my two-year-old’s tool kit from grandma).  I called my neighbor, Bernice Gathje, and she told me to just weave in new wire to repair the tear in the square grid of fencing.  I put my crochet skills to use in wire, and began to cut wire and weave, sort of.  About halfway in, her son, Bill, pulled in the driveway.  A short time later, I had a mended fence, and he had a frozen chicken to bring home.  I’m very thankful for good neighbors that make good fences.

However, billy goats have plenty of free time on their hands.  The next morning, he busted a new hole in the fence.  This time Larry Gathje brought down a fence panel they hadn’t been using, and helped repair the latest damage on the fence.  That early morning repair gave me just enough time to get ready for my morning destination, which, unfortunately, was my cousin’s funeral.

Grace
My cousin, Sarah (Siebenaler) Hackenmiller was just a year older than me, 36 years old.  Diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis as a baby, she lived twice as long as her original projected life expectancy, but just the same, the time was all too short.  Growing up, she was one of my favorite cousins.  I remember swinging with her and hanging out in the back yard at Grandma’s, and playing with her in the pool during a family reunion.  Sarah was kind, sweet, and fun.  As a child I often felt shy at big gatherings, but she had a quiet demeanor that drew me in.

As an adult, Sarah created beautiful artwork with vibrant colors.  She possessed what her family described as a gentle strength, which she exuded throughout years of treatments, hospitalizations, pills, and surgeries.  She saw beauty in the world around her, and loved her family above all, and she will be missed greatly.

Sitting there at her funeral, honoring a truly good person’s life that was all too brief, felt all too familiar.  Hearing Sarah’s pastor sing a  solo of “Amazing Grace” made my mind drift back to seeing my niece singing the same song at my brother’s funeral a month and a half ago.  Looking at photo displays of her life, and reading the beautiful program with her life story…it was all a wonderful tribute to the her, but so hard to see.  I don’t want to attend another funeral for someone too young any time soon.

On the morning of Sarah’s funeral, just as I rounded up the kids to head out the door, my four-year-old threw up all over the rug and even on computer.  I attributed it to coughing too much, and cleaned him up and loaded him in the van.  Just before Utica he said, “Mom, I don’t feel good.” I slammed on the brakes, found a plastic bag, climbed back to his seat, and held it open below his mouth just as he began another round.

I ended the day of a puking son and a funeral with another hour’s worth of fence repair and reinforcement.

Sarah, though, put it all in perspective.  She wrote not too long ago, “Some days I mourn that I will never be that full time career woman, or the ranch wife in Montana (I know, completely different paths there), or the mom whose little blond daughter will go with her to the grocery store like I did with my mom.  But I also sit and thank God for all I do have and for still being here on this earth with the ones I love.”

I felt completely wiped out, but grateful for a puking child, which means I am a mom.  I have a little blond daughter to take to the grocery store, along with her three older siblings.  I lived in Montana for about 12 years, long enough to know I didn’t want to be a ranch wife, but I did marry a Montana guy.  Fence repair at the end of the day means I am living out in the country with a few animals. I don’t want to take that for granted.  I get to live some of the dreams that Sarah never got to fulfill.  I get to enjoy my family every day.

Golf Carts

I especially enjoyed them all during our mini-vacation.  After goat adventures, fencing, and a funeral, our planned trip to Jellystone in Warrens, WI seemed all the more appealing.  Twenty-one of us hung out together in two adjoining log cabin condos.  They threw in a golf cart with our cabin rental, and we filled that poor little thing far beyond capacity time and time again to shuttle ourselves to and from the water park area.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo of the overloaded clown car, but I can assure you, we drew surprised glances everywhere it went.  I also can assure you we traveled at reasonable speeds…I mean, really, floor a golf cart on a hill, and it only goes at walking pace when loaded with that much weight…

By day, we hit the water slides, lazy river, pools, and mini golf, ate, and then ate some more.  By night, we hung out, kids took moonlit cruises on a golf cart and played card games, and we roasted marshmallows over a big fire.

Cody, Katie, Thor, and Justin: Four cousins floating on the lazy river.

Cody, Katie, Thor, and Justin: Four cousins floating on the lazy river.

For me, it was a complete break from my continual mental to-do list: no laundry, no re-organizing, no extra chores, no cleaning.  While my kids napped, I sat and watched a show about cooking wood-fired pizzas and felt completely guilt free.  I hula hooped.  I played some mini golf in my swimming suit with my nieces and nephews.  I took a late night ride through the woods on a golf cart to get cappuccino with my sisters.

After a few days of hard core family adventures and outdoor pool fun, we appreciated coming home again.  And in the words of my cousin Sarah, “I sit and thank God for all I do have and for still being here on this earth with the ones I love.” I am thankful for all of it. Although, billy goat, I’m not sure that includes you.

Seven Lessons Learned in Seven Days‏

Children possess uncanny permanent marker detection…just one of the life lessons I learned this week.

Life’s been especially busy around here lately. My husband spent a week in Montana working on a scale monitoring system project while I took care of the kids at home. In the busyness, there’s plenty of opportunity for learning. Here are some lessons I learned in the last week:

Laying down together under the warm heat lamp, the new lamb and our three-year old.

Laying down together under the warm heat lamp, the new lamb and our three-year old.

Bears Knock Down Pictures
Our youngest child recently turned two. Every day, her growing vocabulary and creative exploits tell us more and more that she definitely is no longer a baby, but a real, live two-year-old. One of her most recent “milestones” is learning to stretch the truth.

A few days ago, I didn’t pick her up out of her crib right away when she woke up. With a few minutes to kill, she filled her time by undressing herself and emptying her crib of blankets.

I also noticed the picture that normally hangs above her bed was missing, so I asked her what happened. She looked at me very seriously, shook her head, and with a disgusted look, said, “Bear knocked it down, Mom.” Oh, the teddy bear did it. Of course.

If only baby books had a spot to record “Child’s First Fib.” I can’t say my heart swelled with pride, but I was a bit impressed by her convincing delivery. I’m sure with time, she’ll improve on her technique, and stop blaming her mishaps on inanimate objects like teddy bears.

Children Possess Uncanny Permanent Marker Detection
It’s a well-known truth that a bag left unattended will receive little attention from a child, unless it contains something inside that a child shouldn’t touch. Yesterday, my husband left his laptop bag on the floor. The laptop bag is a familiar sight, one that doesn’t generally draw much attention from our kids.

However, this time it happened to contain a blue Sharpie marker deep within.

While I was in the kitchen doing dishes, my busy two-year-old walked in to tell me, “Need a bath, Mom.” I turned around to see her, bare from the waist down, legs covered in long blue streaks that reached from one foot, up her leg, across, and down to her foot on the other side. She also had a big lovely patch of blue on her lower back.

This is a girl who loves the bathtub, and I do believe the coloring episode may have been premeditated with that end result in mind. I incorrectly assumed, however, that she used our kid-friendly washable markers. After she soaked for half an hour and still had bright blue streaks, I realized the marker was a permanent one.

After a little more questioning, she showed us the marker in her super secret spot behind the couch. She of course left the cap off, drying out the marker so we can no longer use it. The blue stripes of her body art, however, look as though they will last for quite some time.

Good tires are Worth the Money
On my husband’s drive to Montana last week, he drove through a big icy section in South Dakota. In one particularly bad spot where several cars lined the I-90 ditches, he lost traction and slid into the ditch himself.

We generally give very little thought to our car because we use it so rarely, and we were both amazed when we realized how old the tires were. After the ditch episode, our car received some much needed attention in the form of four new tires.

On Jarred’s trip home, he again encountered a long icy stretch in South Dakota. This time, however, the roads were even worse. Once again he drove past ditches lined with cars, but this time, his tires gripped the road and he arrived home safely. Good tires are worth the expense.

I Can’t Do It All
In the week while my husband worked in Montana, I held down the fort at home. I fed lots of things: our four kids, the fire in the wood burner, the goats, the bottle lamb, the chickens, the cats, and the dog. I cooked, cleaned, and kept life moving on as normal. Single parenthood is tough, even when it’s temporary.

I knew the extra workload and stress took it’s toll when, at the end of the week, I got a bad cold and ached all over. Even more telling was the fact that nobody else even had a sniffle.

Boring Anniversaries are Wonderful
On Saturday we celebrated our 11th anniversary. We pondered getting a babysitter and going out to dinner, but I was wiped out, and so was my husband after his road trip. We simply stayed home. All of us enjoyed the rare sunshine and nice weather that day, and we ate an easy meal of leftover chili for supper. We didn’t even get to our low key plans of watching a movie together on the couch, thanks to a certain two-year-old who had a rare rough night falling asleep.

After the big party we had last year where we renewed our vows, our kids were a little disappointed that our anniversary just seemed like a regular day. My husband and I, in contrast, thought it was a great day. A week apart gave us both renewed appreciation for each other, and we were happy to crash at the end of the day in the same bed.

Blessings Come in Strange Packages
On Sunday morning, I shook my head in disbelief at once again seeing a world of wintry white outside. I already felt sapped of energy from being a little sick, and the snow just made me feel exhausted as I pondered getting everyone ready and out the door in time for Sunday School and church.

Blessings, though, come is strange packages. Our neighbor called and jokingly wished us “Merry Christmas” and also told us that church was cancelled because of the weather. Instead of rushing out the door in the morning, I headed upstairs and filled up the bathtub. I soaked away the congestion, aches, and all of life’s tensions for about an hour. The magic of warm steamy water and a husband downstairs acting as ring leader of a cleaning operation greatly improved life. Turns out, the snow was just what I needed that morning. It was an unexpected blessing.

Persistence Pays Off
Lamba Lamba Ding Dong is our newest little project around here. He came from our neighbors who are too busy to feed a late-arriving bottle lamb. He arrived as a scrawny little thing that didn’t do anything but lay under the heat lamp and barely drink part of his bottle. A few weeks later, his growing body is filling out his skin, and he runs and greets us at the gate at feeding time. On nice days, our kids take Lamby outside and he follows them around like a loyal puppy.

A child shall lead them: Spot and our other "dog," Lamby, following their buddy.

A child shall lead them: Spot and our other “dog,” Lamby, following their buddy.

While the bottle feedings 3-4 times a day get tiresome, I do have to say that I’m a momma that loves seeing something grow from my care. It’s one of the most gratifying parts of my job. Nurturing definitely has it’s rewards.

Lamb, kids, tires, anniversaries ..that’s some of my life’s learning for this week. I just hope next week’s lessons don’t involve any more sniffles or permanent markers.

Written April 2013.

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.

Green Eggs and Hampered Plans

Apparently, chickens understand English.  They also have super-human hearing and are telepathic.  That’s the only reasonable explanation.  It seems they overheard the whispered conversations over the breakfast table:

“There’s only three of them.”
“Yeah, it’s barely worth keeping them around for the winter.”
“They’ve never laid anything.”
“And they lay less in the winter, unless they have extra light.”
“I don’t want to pay the light bill on that whole building just to get a couple of eggs.”
“Me neither.”
“Maybe we should just give them to our friends that have lots of chickens.”
“Yeah, just start fresh in the spring with a bunch of chicks, like 50.”

Yep, with no eggs in sight, Jarred and I lost a little faith and interest in the three chickens that remained in our depleted “herd.”

I love walking inside our shed and hearing their soothing little clucks and seeing them wandering around, but with four kids, a dog, and five cats…well, I’ve got enough things to take care of, thank you very much.

These feathered ladies theoretically reached egg-laying age around Thanksgiving.  I know that mother nature runs on her own time, and that chickens, like people, don’t automatically produce on their “due date.”  But still, no eggs in sight and the prospect of a long, dark winter with low egg production?  It didn’t exactly make me fired up about making an extra daily trip to check on the welfare of three non-productive free-loaders in our shed.

In fact, with the holiday crunch upon us, sending our chickens off to boarding school at our friends’ hobby farm, where lots of chickens already roam about, sounded a bit appealing.

And so, I’m fairly certain the chickens overheard our hushed kitchen conversation.  And you know how it is with chickens, they don’t exactly react well to stress.  Nobody ever says “cool as a chicken.”

With the prospect of getting relocated to parts unknown, they did the only thing they could do to save themselves.  Feeling the squeeze, they squeezed out some eggs.

Presenting our very first egg, held by our excited baby girl.

Presenting our very first egg, held by our excited baby girl.

Yes, just days after this conversation considering a chicken relocation, the chickens had a little Christmas miracle.  Actually, seven of them.  After supper, my husband, Jarred, and the kids went out to check on the chickens’ food and water.  Just for kicks, my daughter checked in the nesting boxes.  Nothing.  As usual.  Then Jarred took a peek in, and nestled in the little mound of straw that neatly conforms to a chicken body lay a little green egg.

A glance into the next nesting box revealed the mother lode. Or perhaps I should say, the mothers’ load.  Six perfect little green-tinted eggs.

The kids came into the house presenting eggs, and I screamed like we just won the lottery.  My six-year-old looked at me like I was nuts and said, “Mom, what’s the big deal?” using that mom-is-ridiculous tone that she’ll perfect in her teenage years.

She’s right.  It’s not a big deal.  Chickens lay eggs.  All the time.  A few eggs in a nesting box isn’t exactly newsworthy.  Well, unless you are me, and then you’d dedicate half a page of the local paper to this feat.

Because for me, well, it IS a big deal.  I’ve never had my own chickens before, and now we have real live egg layers.  Just because I know that egg-laying happens all the time doesn’t make it any less amazing, because it is.  What a feat to tuck inside a chicken all the necessary components to make an egg shell and its contents, and to be able to replicate that fantastic process on a daily basis.  That’s a lot of output for such a small body.

It’s the same amazement that I feel when our kids poke a few sunflower seeds into the ground, and a few months later, the towering plants are twice as high as their six-foot dad.  I understand photosynthesis and cell reproduction and many of the biological processes that make it all happen, but that said, it’s still magical to me.

Growth and life are amazing.

My maternal instinct, combined with a child-like excitement, just can’t get over how great it is to see things grow and thrive.  It simply doesn’t get old.  I put over 200 bulbs in the ground this fall, and I can hardly wait for spring to see the little shoots of green start to peek up.  How can those lumpy brown things that look like onions create blazing red tulips when the rest of the world is still brown?  And how can my long-legged three-year-old already wear some of his older brother’s handed down 5T pants?  And now we can really just walk across the driveway, and go collect eggs for breakfast?  Amazing.

So on the morning after winning the egg lottery, we ate green eggs and ham.  My five-year-old argued that the book version contains both green eggs and green ham, not just eggs with green shells.  My six-year-old argued that it didn’t matter, we could still call it green eggs and ham.  I said they are both correct.  While they argued over semantics, we for the first time ate eggs that came from our own barn.  And that is cool.

Also cool is the fact that a trip to go check on chicken welfare now includes an egg treasure hunt.  I do love a treasure hunt, especially if it involves something good to eat.

So, my chickens, rest easy.  You effectively hampered any plans for relocation.  You now earn your keep.  You ladies will help our kids grow up with a very tangible understanding of where eggs come from, so thank you.

Finally, in the bigger picture, I am also so very thankful.  In this week heading toward Christmas, in the wake of a national tragedy involving children the same age as my own, I count the blessings that I hold close every night.  I am blessed to see life unfold in my children.  I am blessed that together we get to watch our chickens and kittens grow.  Life is a miracle.

Lessons Learned from Gardening‏: Letting Kids Plant is (Mostly) Wonderful

I really need to get out more often.  Sometimes show tunes from Oklahoma pop into my head for no apparent reason, especially if I don’t get enough sleep at night.  Looking out at the end of the summer garden from our porch on a lovely fall day, “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” popped into my head.  I resisted the urge to spin around grandly like Julie Andrews atop a mountain meadow (since that’s the wrong musical), but since nobody else was around, I started singing it, but then I had to fix the lyrics, since our corn really didn’t do much this year.

There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow, there’s a bright golden haze on the meadow.  The corn is as high as only my thigh, and the weeds look like they’re climbing clear up to the sky…oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day, I’ve got a pretty strong feeling, sometimes things don’t go my way.

Anyway, the garden is on my mind today.  Anyone driving past from the road probably takes a gander and thinks, “Man, those folks should just mow down that weed patch,”  or maybe at best, “Look, I see a few sunflowers in that big pile of weeds.”

All in all, if ample opportunities for learning equate success, then I’d say our first garden “on the farm” is a success.  Perhaps the garden is not a success by traditional standards, but I’m all for learning and didn’t have delusions of weed-free grandeur, anyway.  Without further ado, here are my Lessons Learned from Gardening:

1.  Letting Kids Plant is Wonderful.  Planting days with kids playing in the freshly tilled black goodness rank among my favorite days this year.  I love letting kids feel ownership about our garden.  They planted in a fairly free-form manner, with creative rows and non-specific marking techniques, a very fun experience.  This leads me to number two…

2. Marking the Rows is Even Better.   The downfall of casually marked rows is that weeds overtake the whole darn garden by the time seedlings grow big enough to identify.  This isn’t any great epiphany I’ve revealed, but some things you just have to learn by experience.

3. String and Sticks: Cheap, Yet Priceless.    Mark my words! Next year, sticks and strings will mark the rows!  And if I forget this over the winter, please remind me so we can keep the weed population a little more in check.

4.  Sunflowers are Awesome.  Nothing gratifies kids and adults alike like planting a seed and seeing phenomenal growth.  Our sunflowers blew past the weeds, shot up during the July drought, and just give us a grand sense of awe everytime we stand near them.  It really is a little bit of magic to see something dwarf even the tall neighboring field corn.  I can’t wait to have sword fights with the gigantic dried stalks.  I know I can out-joust a five-year-old.

5.  Eggplants and Swiss Chard Thrive in Hot and Dry Weather.  We have boatloads of both in the garden.

6. We Don’t Really Like Eggplants and Swiss Chard.  At least, not in the quantities they proliferated in our dirt.

7. Mulch = Good.   It really works.  I spread several inches of straw around our cucumber and muskmelon plants, and the areas remained fairly weed-free all summer.  The sad irony: the cucumbers and muskmelon plants all died.  But hey, at least they weren’t weedy, right?

8. Bugs =  Bad.  We didn’t use any sort of chemical herbicide or pesticide on our garden, and apparently, that made it look like a bright, shining beacon to every insect in the county.  It’s hard being the organic island in the sea of treated corn fields.   Bugs saw our garden patch and thought we were saying, “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”  They huddled and breathed free all over our garden, and ate our lettuce, cabbage, an entire zucchini plant, and on and on…  We had a grasshopper infestation of biblical proportions, and being so well-fed in our garden, I’m sure they’ll return nice and strong next year, too.  Yay.

9.  Not Pickin’ a Bale o’ Cotton.  My husband found a packet of cotton seeds in the novelty seeds section in a hardware store in Montana.  We took them here to Minnesota, and I had grand visions of my children toiling under hot sun, learning the trade of picking cotton.  The image of Sally Field, crawling on hands and knees with bloody bandaged hands, harvesting the last puffs of her cotton crop in that movie Places in the Heart came to mind.  Or more likely, a home-grown cotton ball fight would’ve been a lovely way to spend a Saturday afternoon.  Either way, cotton didn’t show up.  It probably didn’t help that this Minnesota farm girl had no clue about cotton seedling identification.  Never really weeding that part of the garden probably didn’t help, either.

10.  Amish Tomatoes Rock.  We bought our tomato plants from the Amish Auction, and those buggers produced like champions.  Before the plants flopped over from weight of tomatoes and kid trampling, some were as tall as me (5 feet 7 inches, if you’re curious).  My one-year-old daughter loves the deep burgundy-colored cherry tomatoes that grow on those plants, and frequently has tomato seeds stuck to her chin, her hair, and behind her ears.  Among several failures, those tomatoes are a shining success.  Hallelujah!

Our tomato-lover, chowing down with a cherry tomato in each hand.

11. Operation Bean Tent = Success.  Thankfully, our bean tent worked just as planned.  The custom-engineered maple pole frame survived every windstorm, and the beans climbed up and produced just as promised on the seed package (which is more than I can say for some other seeds).  Yep, those tree-trimming scrap branches and that $1 packet of bean seeds produced bucket loads of enjoyment this summer.   Our tomato-eating baby girl is also now a bean-picking machine.

Standing in front of the towering sunflowers, happy to discover more string beans.

12. Our Soil is Par Excellence.  One neighbor told us that the soil in our neck of the prairie tests as the most fertile anywhere, even better than the soil in Iowa, where people feel quite lofty about their soil quality.  This makes me puff up my chest a little bit, even though I have absolutely zero influence on the innate soil quality of the area, and it was pure luck to stumble upon such nice land.  Just the same, with my lackadaisical weeding practices, I fully believe in the quality of our soil.  We grew weeds more resplendent than any I have ever seen before.

Finally, a few garden notices…

AWOL: Potatoes, peas, and carrots.  If any of you know the whereabouts of these vegetables, please contact us.  Our potatoes went AWOL after a promising beginning, and the peas and carrots never really reported for duty.

RIP:  Cucumbers, pumpkins, gourds, zucchini, watermelon, and muskmelon. (Or do you call it cantaloupe?  I never know what to call it.)  Whether it was the bugs or the over spray from the helicopter crop dusting the nearby corn field, either way, you died before your time.  You looked so promising, and so many unfulfilled dreams lay in your wake.  You are missed.  Thankfully, we can just resurrect you next year in our new-and-improved garden.  See you then.

Spring is Keeping Me Awake at Night

Written April 9, 2012.

It’s 2 AM and I can’t sleep. Maybe it’s the full moon. Maybe it’s the mediocre cup of instant Folgers I brewed and drank at 10 PM. Maybe it’s the fact that my husband, Jarred, will be here tomorrow after spending the last two weeks back in Montana working on loose ends. Maybe it’s the landscaping plants sitting outside the Rushford Hardware Hank that beckoned me on the way into the store this evening, and now leave me laying in bed making landscaping schemes and dreams.

Maybe it’s that my 2-year-old keeps getting out of his bed to come and snuggle up next to me for reassurance in this new house, with his giant hard plastic hippo flashlight in tow. Maybe it’s that all the creaking in the hallway from late night foot traffic is waking up the baby, making her cry and then keeping me awake. Maybe I can’t sleep because there are two people sleeping in our king size bed right now, and neither one is my husband nor me…and even though neither one is waist high, the whole bed seems to be occupied.

I don’t know what it is, but I can swear can feel an energized humming all around. The florescent lights under the kitchen cabinets make a soft, slightly annoying hum, but I don’t think that’s it. I think the humming is coming up from the ground. I think it’s spring. It’s soft grass, crabapple trees in full blooming pink, tractors industriously crisscrossing up and down our road, and leaf buds opening on trees, practically glowing in the fresh green.

All of it makes me just too excited to sleep. Living in a rental house for the past year felt a little like suspended animation. We spent a big part of that year in a holding pattern, wondering where and how were going to land. But now, we’ve landed.

Our kids were thrilled to discover a gigantic evergreen in our windbreak, perfect for climbing and complete with an existing tree fort.

And best of all, it’s spring. It’s my favorite time of the year. It’s easy to fall in love in spring. Eleven years ago I remember hanging out on the roof of Jarred’s house in college, sitting up there with him in the week before finals. The excitement of freedom from school in sight, and looking out from the rooftop vantage point at the town of Bozeman, Montana, where every apple tree was in full pink bloom, and the sun was shining warm in the clear blue sky, made the whole world seem lovable. I was smitten with life and engaged in three months. That’s what spring, and of course the right guy, can do.

The feeling is much the same here at our new home. There’s just so much energy, promise, and new opportunity all around. Coming from dryland Eastern Montana, where our annual rainfall was just 13 inches, I feel like I’ve now been unleashed in Minnesota at the all-you-can-grow buffet. Looking at plants and seeds, I have to rein myself in and practice portion control. I just want all of it. I want to gorge myself on plants and grow everything, until I feel gluttonous on flowers.

Part of me feels like a kid getting to play farmhouse. I get to have my house and yard in the country that is all ours, and stare out at rolling fields of rich, black dirt and have all the fun of seeing big tractors in the field and watching crops grow. And like a kid, watching the farming all around me is just pure fun. I fully realize farming involves the reality of equipment breaks, bankers, ever-changing federal farm programs, uncertain crop prices, and so much more. And that makes me all the more content to simply be an enthusiastic fan on the sidelines of farming.

While I’m just a spectator to the fields all around us, in our own house and yard, we can get our hands dirty with several years’ worth of projects. I look around and I’m just itching to give some attention to countless little projects that need some paint, a little repair, some love, and a little sprucing up. Doing them on our own time, the progress will be little by little. In my head, though, I can run it all at fast forward speed, and see the end product like it’s one of those movie montages.

If life was a Hollywood movie, we’d have this whole place looking pretty as a picture in about three minutes.

You know the kind, the Happy Hollywood Fixing up the Farmhouse Montage. If life was a Hollywood movie, I’d wear overalls and a red handkerchief on my head, the standard “working hard in the country” movie costume. In the background, a happy, hoedown-y song would be playing as you’d see the progress of improvements on our farm. I say farm, because in Hollywood, our 7.6 acres is most definitely a farm because we have a farmhouse, silo, barn, chicken coup, and sheds. Farm, right? No tillable acreage aside from the garden? Eh, details.

Visualize, then, some happy music as the backdrop of the “hard work” montage. I’d have a paint roller in my hand, painting up the outside of the house, and 10 seconds later the house will look all spiffy and new. Then I’d work up a sweat in the garden, wipe my brow with the back of my hand and leave a dirt streak there (you know you’ve seen this before). Next, Jarred and I saw logs with one of those two handled saws (firing up a more practical Stihl chainsaw just isn’t as romantic). Add in some zany hijinks where our kids are chasing chickens, and then the chickens chase the kids.

Then we’d wash the rounded fenders of our 1940’s pickup truck (because that’s what all movie farmers drive). I’d accidentally splash someone else with the garden house, and then a crazy, silly waterfight would break out. By now, the end of the hoedowny song comes, and we collapse on our backs onto the green grass with our arms stretched out, with that satisfied, hard-work-feels-good smile on our faces as we sigh.

And ba-da-bing, the camera pans across the farmyard, where everything is neat and trim and freshly painted, and all the flowers are growing perfectly under the wraparound porch. In the next shot, we sip our lemonades on the porch swing, gazing upon the sunset (even though the porch actually faces east, but that doesn’t matter for Hollywood purposes). All of the improvements would be done in the course of a song.

In real life I’d love to just grab a paintbrush and some perennials and be left to my own devices for days at a time. But if you’ve read any previous weeks of this column, you know my reality is four little kids to take care of, and you can probably guess that making “good progress” on anything often involves either losing sleep or leaving the kids to their own devices for too long, and then picking up the pieces (often literally) of whatever they’ve gotten into.

Our two-year-old was definitely less than thrilled to discover a burdock for the first time.

It’s late. I really should be in bed. Tomorrow morning, I will regret being up for an extra few hours tonight. I’ll feel crabby and groggy and just want to sleep when the kids are clamoring for a bowl of cereal. But yes, I am excited. Spring is in the air. It’s new life, new beginnings, new opportunities, endless possibilities. I can feel it all around me, and I want to go play.

 © 2012