Brothers can be quite the trial. I grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, the youngest of four children. We were all expected to help with every part of the farming process from milking cows to baling hay, cleaning calf pens to feeding the chickens. We all worked hard, entertained ourselves and of course had the usual childhood arguments: he’s sitting too close to me, she’s touching me, he’s breathing my air, and so on.
Every year as Christmas approached, I prayed for snow, lots of snow. I wanted it to be cold too so that when you walked on the snow it snapped and crunched loudly under your feet. I loved that sound. When I hear it now it always takes me back to my childhood on the farm in winter.
One of my chores was to feed the calves which were housed in the old chicken house. That old chicken house stood a good ways from the barn, next to the machine shed. You had to walk past the grain bin, the gas tank which stood high off the ground, and wind your way past the old tree in which my brother John and sister Barbara had built a tree house.
In the winter, when the days were dark and the nights even darker, it was hard – and scary – going up to that calf shed to feed the little buggers. Once you passed the gas tank, the thin light from barnyard fixture, which was mounted just under the eave of the barn, couldn’t light your way any longer and it was “dark as the inside of a cow’s stomach with her eyes shut and tail down” as Daddy used to say. The only sound was my boots crunching on the snow. It was like walking into a cave until I reached the calf shed and turned the small light on inside. I carried pails of fresh warm milk up to feed the calves; John would haul hay for them from the barn, and straw for their bedding if need be. They were warm and snug on those cold winter nights. I can still see myself as I walked back out of that black hole toward the barn, the welcome sight of the barnyard light greeting me, the night sky lit with stars.
Let me just say here that I always figured that I had it better than my two sisters because I got to go to the barn to help Daddy and John with the milking and other outdoor tasks. That was much better than doing dishes and sweeping the floor in the kitchen, things I considered too girly. I made sure my sisters knew that too. I was positive they were envious.
John is seven years older than me, the oldest of us kids. Somehow he and I were always at odds. Mother used to say that was because we were too much alike. He loved teasing me and I was gullible enough to listen to him. When I would sob to Mother about how unfair it all was she would tell me to “just ignore him” but you know how it is – impossible! To be fair, I’m pretty sure that I gave as good as I got.
Well, it came to pass one Christmas Eve that John was especially nice to me during milking. I should explain that in our house, Santa always came on Christmas Eve, while we all – except for my mother – in the barn milking cows. When we finished our chores and all the animals were milked, fed, cared for, we went into the house and voila! Santa had come and gone, unobserved by anyone! It Was A Miracle! After our special supper of oyster stew and ham and salads and cake for dessert we opened our presents, Grandma and Grandpa joining us for the evening. It was just the best night of the year.
As I said, on this particular Christmas Eve, John was nice, not teasing, not poking fun at me. In fact, he talked most kindly about Santa’s reindeer and how hungry they must get on this busy night. Wouldn’t it be a fine thing if I carried hay up to that calf shed – because that’s where Santa lands his sleigh don’t you know? I could just leave the bale outside the shed and the reindeer would gobble it up. I agreed wholeheartedly and dutifully hauled several bales of hay to a spot near the shed, no easy thing for a small kid to pull the heavy bales across the snow on her sled – one bale at a time. After we finished milking and before we went to the house I ran back up to the shed to check if the reindeer had found the hay and sure enough, it was gone! Just chaff left on the snow as evidence that there had ever been a bale there. I was so tickled – excited – thrilled and hightailed it into the house to see all the presents Santa left under our tree. (Good thing a 7 or 8 year old’s logic didn’t extend to why Santa would park his sleigh so far from the house. Since the only chimney in our house went directly into the wood burning stove in the basement I knew full well that he wouldn’t try to go down that way, so perhaps parking the sleigh by the calf shed was the best alternative.)
I’m sure you’ve guessed how this ends. I don’t remember how I finally figured it out but it did finally dawn on me that John had fed the hay to the calves in the shed – happy to have tricked me into doing his chore. And there were no reindeer – or Santa. My disillusionment was huge, but my annoyance with my brother – or rather myself for once again having allowed him to trick me – was even greater.
Ah well, those were much simpler days. John and I still laugh about our childhood skirmishes and we are the best of friends. I’d happily do anything for him now.