35 Years of Marriage–Year 16 (Year of the Sheep)

I began this series as an anniversary gift to my husband, Dale. I didn’t make the postings in time for that anniversary, our 30th, as life interrupted my plans. But, we are still married and Valentine’s Day is approaching, so I continue.

If 1998 was our Year of the Pig, 1999 was our Year of the Sheep. And surgeries, several of them. February, 1999, our 4H girls decided sheep might be easier to raise, so we acquired two sheep–one for Meghan, one for Allie. Farmers and ag-people must be ROFL at this point. Sheep easier? What a bunch of city slickers. Yes, we were/are.

We learned about care, feeding, grooming, shearing, and I used my sewing skills for their skin-tight leotards. Who knew sheep needed a covering? Apparently, that wool keeps them warm at night, and where we lived they needed it. Who knew you use Woolite to wash a sheep? Yes, yes, you do. So many things I learned, and I studied biology in college–albeit not ag bio. There is a huge difference. My experience with organisms were 1) they were mostly dead and preserved or 2) they were of the microscopic variety, and on occasion, we experimented on each other in labs, e.g. human physiology tests on heart rate, etc. Never pigs or sheep.

While the sheep were fattening for the fair, I learned about nursing. Two days before school let out, Allie broke her leg, which required surgery and pinning. Poor thing, she occupied our couch for the first week of June, and literally got a “boot” in time for the next patient, Meghan, who had a scheduled orthognathic surgery, and a wired mouth for six weeks. Finally, Dale’s knee surgery, then he had the couch. Sam and I nursed the family and cared for the sheep (since their “farmers” were incapacitated) all June. By July, I needed a mental health break.

The stress of surgeries was slightly less than the stress of switching school districts, the latter offset by pay increases. I was shy one unit of graduate level physical sciences for my new position, and I found the perfect solution–a family road trip to Yellowstone, where I could take a University of Montana research level class in geysers, mud pots, and hot springs. We looked like a family who’d been in a car accident–Dale and Allie hobbling around, Meghan with her mouth wired shut, but what a trip we had. Visited Uncle Steve in Nevada and Uncle Carl in Idaho, camped in glorious Yellowstone, stayed with Aunt Claudie in Washington. Best part? No shortage of volunteer neighbors (parents and kids) who wanted to care for the sheep while we were out-of-town.




35 Years of Marriage–Year 15

1998 was the Year of the Pig, at least in our family.  In the Chinese calendar, it was the Year of the Tiger, but that summer we raised Rufus, a spring pig in 4H, and Meghan aged 13, Allie 10, Sam 7, and me and Dale middle-aged and feeling it.

After school and for several weekends, Dale and Meghan dug trenches and poured cement for a pig pen–one that a 250+ pound pig could not escape. We were city slickers, suburbanites really, and understood cats and dogs, hamsters and parakeets. With a dismal knowledge of livestock, we relied on 4H leaders to teach us what we needed to know, basically everything. As the saying goes, “When in the rurals, do as the rurals do.” We lived on the edge of suburbia, surrounded by farmland. We could do this.

Rufus arrived straight from his birthplace, a few miles down the road at a respectable 70 pounds. He needed to gain another 160+ pounds before the Monterey County State Fair. So, began our foray into farming, which meant extra work for me and Dale, as we oversaw twice daily feedings, stall cleanings, and pig walks, drove to feed stores for hay and feed, carted water to the trough, and drove kids to weekly 4H meetings.

Pigs are smart; they bark like dogs, chase paper flying in the wind, sprint when a gate swings open. Within minutes of “rooting” in his new pen, Rufus found the waterer, a large PVC pipe with a mammary gland-like metal tube. Knowing where to find water proves pigs’ intelligence, and Rufus was brilliant. He figured out how to shower by leaning his butt against the nozzle and make a sloppy pool of mud to wallow in. Five gallons of water emptied quickly, so Dale and I replenished the supply hourly. Good thing we were on summer break.

I cried during Rufus’s “weigh-in” at the fair, anticipating the loss of my swine companion, while Meghan calculated her potential earnings from his 265 pounds at auction. I think she looked forward to sleeping in past 6 am. Rufus won his weight-class, Meghan and Rufus performed well in showmanship, and I held it together until Sunday night when the fair ended. It took me  a year to recover emotionally.

I’m Back!

No better way to start the new year than starting to write again. I am fighting that terrible, bad, awful flu, that same flu that the flu shot did nothing against, that same flu that makes my every cell ache, my head throb, my throat burn, my eyes run… Yes, that one. But, for the first time in days, I am vertical, so I will celebrate 2018 with a return to my love of writing. I am celebrating surviving this virus, the first “real” flu I’ve experienced.

So, why did I step away from this site for going on 5 years? A lot–too much–to cover in a first day back, but in brief here is my litany of excuses (now you know–I am a cradle Catholic–litanies are in my genes.

Dad got sick, then Mom got dementia.

Daughter became seriously depressed, then suicidal.

Youngest daughter moved away and we became empty-nesters (or parents of a few furry children).

Husband retired and volunteered in earnest.

My work position changed.

Dad fell sick again and parents needed full time care.

Parents moved to a retirement home.

Dad died; I lost my greatest muse.

I retired.

Mom passed; I lost my greatest cheerleader.

Our first grandbaby arrived.

We sold our home of 26 years and moved 700 miles south.

We moved to our new mountain home.






Teddy, The-adorable Cat

Our college graduate returned home with her furniture she could not sell on Craig’s list and her tan-colored, alpha-male cat, a rescue from a local shelter. We welcomed Samantha and Teddy with open arms, but it has not been easy. Our other rescue kitty, Jade, courtesy of another rebound daughter, has resided here longer and has made it clear that Teddy is unwelcome. It is payback time as we experience what my brothers, sister, and I did to our parents. Mom and Dad retained our stray dogs, cats, birds, turtles, rabbits that we collected (mostly illegally) in dorm rooms or apartments because pets, after all, are extended family.

Sam has returned for an extended stay-cation before graduate school to which she intends on carting Teddy in a cat carrier for the nine-hour trek to Boston University. It will not be simple, but worthwhile ventures seldom are. Teddy with his two beds (one is insufficient for the spoiled), blankets, toys, litter boxes moved in; Jade responded with prolonged hisses, bared teeth, bristled fur, and swishing tail; animal language for “Leave now and don’t come back.” Teddy responded with a saunter in her direction, no comment, no teeth bared, no fur up, and no swishing tail; animal language for “I am bigger, I am stronger; therefore, this is my house now.” Totally passive-aggressive behavior, if you ask me.  Moreover, he was supposed to stay inside for at least a week. God help us.

After one complete fur-flying, cat-scratching, howling out-and-out brawl, we consulted the internet about introducing cats. We were doing it all wrong, i.e. putting the two in the same room–at the same time. Now, Teddy resides in the back bedroom until Jade finishes eating and leaves the building. With Jade gone, Teddy visits the rest of the house then devours Jade’s food, and then they switch. After a week of this tacit avoidance, Teddy learned to take a wide berth of Jade. She, too, no longer over-reacts, although remains on high alert, hissing as a reminder, “We are not friends and never will be.” We have this system down. It may take months to get these cats acclimated, but by then, Sammy and Teddy may be flying to Boston.

In Memory of Matilda

I have not written in weeks—no time, no energy, no desire until this morning. My first period entered loudly as they always do, most of them slurping Monster for breakfast, and those who do not suck up Starbucks espresso. I have a cup of coffee to match their energy, but today was a little different. Adrien was gone all of last week at the Salinas County Fair and he returned solemn as though he lost his best friend. I get it. Fifteen-year-old Adrien raised a pig and sold it on Sunday. I asked if he said his goodbyes and he started to tear up and then I started to tear up and then the entire class hushed to hear our stories.

Me: I remember our family’s first pig. The night before we sold Brutus (appropriate as we are studying Julius Caesar), I cried. Our children did not cry until after the auction, when the truck pulled up and the pigs were marked with spray paint to determine their final destination, but I cried the night before. It was just as well, since I had serious consoling to do after the auction.

Adrian: (tears in his eyes, but thankfully, not on his cheeks) She was a great pig. I called her Matilda. She ran around, barked, and barked whenever she saw me. I fed her the last meal, and when I turned to walk away, she barked some more. She never did that before. (Now, the tears were on his cheeks.)

Me: I am sorry. I completely understand. Pigs are amazing creatures—so intelligent, certainly much smarter than sheep (hoping to get a smile).

Adrien: Yeah, she knew me. We had great times together. I tattooed her name on my arm so I will always remember her.

Adrian unveiled the scripted, black inked Matilda on his forearm. Priceless.

Okay, time to get to studies like Julius Caesar. I love this class. I am going to miss them. We bonded in the same way Adrian did with his Matilda (not that I should compare a class of sophomores to a pen of pigs—well, maybe). I am going to miss the way we seamlessly move from a sob story to laughter to somber discussion. This seldom happens, but when it happens, it is as indelible as a tattoo on the mind or heart.

Mom and Dad

I haven’t written a word, except for work, in weeks or so it seems.  I hear words and stories all the time in my head, but my heart and hands are unwilling to type. My parents are fading away like a brilliant sunset that turns silently into the dark night. Together yet apart. One in assisted living, one in nursing care. What tears our family apart is that they cannot be together. I should be writing about my 15th year (of my 31 years of marriage), but I don’t care to. My marriage will never be a strong and vibrant as what my parents have, despite their weakening hearts. Their devotion is not unlike the couple in The Notebook, where the wife has Alzheimer’s and the husband has heart disease.

Dad has his litany of ailments and Mom is a “loon,” most of the time. Ironically, it is during Mom’s lucid moments when she complains, “Take me home, Jack. I want to go home” that Dad suffers the most. He feels her pain, tears well in his eyes. Dad needs assistance, not as much as Mom.  He changes the oxygen tank which he drags wherever he goes; for the most part, he is tethered now to a machine. I see him wearing down, running out of air and time. He dresses himself, pays his bills on time, and walks the long walk up the two flights of stairs to fetch Mom. What he cannot do or struggles with are daily showers and laundry and cooking, so he is on the assisted living side in the same retirement community, which Dad refers to as the “institution.”

Meanwhile, Mom resides in the nursing side of their retirement complex/institution, refuses to walk, prefers to be pushed in the wheelchair, and wants to sit near Dad as she watches Fox News. Dad is as sharp as any SNL comedian; he would rather watch CNN, anything but Fox Network, but he defers to Mom, as he has for years. The rest of us know his true thoughts as he withholds little from us. Mom has no idea of the time or day or year or what she had for breakfast or what happened five minutes ago, and considering how she gets her current news, it is no wonder she is confused all the time. Sometimes our family changes the station to Comedy Central and Mom is happy because Steven Colbert is as “patriotic” as anyone on Fox. What Mom knows is family and that she is not home and that she wants to go home.

I have no doubt that my parents will go home together–probably within hours of each other. They cling to each other exclusively as do swans or turtle doves or wolves or gibbons or loons, other animals that also mate for life.

31 Years of Memories–Year 14, Part 2

Second Half of a Duck’s Life 1996 – 1997

Registration forms for the Monterey County Fair were due in July. Meg and Allie, who were showing rabbits and pigs, suggested showing Quackers in the poultry division. We agreed that Quackers could join us at the fair, but no one had any desire to hold him. Quackers would be strictly “shown for judging,” but not in the “showmanship” event. No one in the family, or in the entire 4H club for that matter, wanted to participate in showmanship competition with that duck. Far too dangerous.

In showmanship, the 4H member demonstrates how to handle the animal, such as a sheep, pig, cow, or a duck. The competitor’s job is to present the animal to the judge and to demonstrate how easily he/she commands the animal. As an example, in pig showmanship, 4Hrs use canes for physical prodding to maneuver pigs around the corral. Come “fair time,” it is apparent which kids exercised their pigs and which kids did not. Pigs that dart while barking like dogs and that run down other pigs or small children or elderly are pigs that received inadequate exercise by their 4H member. Other pigs that stroll along with gentle encouragement by a cane to reveal their well-developed ham-hocks or muscular shoulders are pigs that received regular exercise. Poultry showmanship involved holding the animal and there was no way any of us could handle this unruly duck. The duck could compete, but not in showmanship.

The morning of the fair, we lined the familiar orange crate with a bedding of hay to drive the 20 miles with Quackers’s head peering out of the crate. He squawked the entire way as though giving us directions, as though he knew where he was going. At check in, the poultry division leader immediately called for the largest cage available—likely one used by Macaws, Iguanas, or something even larger. The leaders banded Quackers, checked him for disease, and pronounced him “a healthy, prime specimen.” Quackers attempted to bite their hands, but these seasoned professionals knew exactly how to handle this difficult bird.

The first day of the fair was children’s day, where processions of schoolchildren marched through the animal exhibits. Most of these kids lived in the city and only saw farm animals at fair time. The poultry barn was the first barn in the livestock area, so the children’s’ energy and enthusiasm for the day was at a peak of excitement. Posted at each entry to the barn, above each block of cages, on every post were signs cautioning people NOT to put fingers in the cages. Beneath the warning, in smaller print, was an explanation that this disturbs the fragile birds. Young children do not read signs, so teachers, chaperones, and poultry leaders cautioned children to look, but not to touch the cages. For some, of course, this was not a warning, but an invitation. Quackers was at the far end of the block, near the back, waiting. Kids ran their fingers along the cages just as they would run a stick along a picket fence, enjoying the thud-thud-thud and resulting flap-flap-flap as the birds freaked and flew to the back of the tiny cage for safety. Except when they arrived at Quakers.

Quackers squatted at the edge of his cage, ready to bolt for freedom, ready to reclaim his yard, ready to bite whoever dared approach. One crying, screaming child after another learned a lesson that day, and the poultry leaders loved that bird even more. At the end of judging, Quackers won Best of Water Fowl, Best of Show, and $14.

Quackers earned family respect and admiration by winning the titles of Monterey County Fair Champion Water Fowl and Best of Show in Poultry Division awards. He gave us excitement (chased children and wild animals from our yard), money (won $14 from the County Fair), and fertilizer (everywhere he waddled in the yard and on the deck), but the lovable Quackers, pet extraordinaire and award-winning duck, met an untimely death in the form of a neighborhood dog (or raccoon or skunk or possum or cat—the duck had many enemies) in early fall.

I will never know what beast the duck encountered, yet I have no doubt that there was quite a struggle. Judging by the down feathers and fur floating in the air and on the trees, the blood-stained dirt, the trampled bushes, Quackers must have inflicted his share of wounds upon the perpetrator (as he did on all of us). As the sayings go, “He who lives by the sword must die by the sword” or “All bills must be paid.” The duck attacked everyone, except perhaps Dale—the alpha male of our flock, who dared enter his domain. In fact, the night before he died, Quackers brutally bit a skunk on the nose. I knew what was going to happen next, so I darted out the garage and into the backyard, which, of course, meant the duck now had to chase yet another invader from his yard. I owned the house; the duck owned the yard. He quacked, released the skunk’s nose, and went after me. The next day the duck died and we cried.

We received the call from our whimpering children who arrived first and witnessed the carnage. It has taken years of therapy to relieve them of the trauma. Though the girls considered Quackers a general nuisance, avoiding him at all costs, their phone call betrayed their true feelings, “Ducky’s dead. He’s dead.” I cried with them. He was fodder for many a story—shoot—he could have been a book.

Dale drove quickly home to bury Quackers beneath our fruit trees, a veritable orchard and pet cemetery in our yard. Beneath each fruit tree (and we have dozens) lie the remains of cats, dogs, rabbits, birds, hamsters, and now our duck. Dale had skinned several of our previously dead animals, just like out of those crazy, southern backwoods shows on television. Rex, our 4H show rabbit who died years before, was our first model with a hide we deemed too precious to waste. Dale skinned that thing, stretched and salted it, and we both used the sample fur for years in our biology classrooms. In fact, I passed the “skinning” technique on to my biology classes, as we “harvested” the hides of fetal pigs from dissection, using them for hacky-sacks or mini-footballs (pigskins for pigskin).

However, Quackers’s death was different. The wafting down feathers might have made a pillow or jacket, but not this time. Quackers required a deep hole and resting place near the plum-tree and beneath his old swimming pool. Our family needed a break from the drama.