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Hard Things

Posted in Adventures With Humans

Spring Creek Farm

When I was three, our family moved to a hobby farm set in lush, rolling hills in Southern Ontario. At that time, the mid 60’s, the farm was an hour’s drive from the offices where my father worked as Director of Research and Technical Services for a large packaging company. All three of us kids were oblivious to how adults worked, and didn’t have the sense to understand how much he suffered from the stress of his job, but anyone could see that he loved the farm, was always glad to pull into the driveway, set between the lawn that rolled slightly, easily down to the spring-fed pond, a hay field held to the south behind a cedar fence, a bank barn straight ahead with the stream running alongside of it, and the white stucco farmhouse to his left as he got out of his car. I didn’t appreciate the beauty of it then, but I was three. Give me a break.
Running a farm is demanding, as there are the lives of beasts involved. They aren’t a game that you keep in a drawer and take out only when you feel like it. We had beef cattle, horses now and then, chickens early on, and ducks for a while until a Dalmation dog we had been given–the dumbest dog to take a breath, ate most of them. The dog, though cute as hell, was untrainable, astonishingly so. It was as if God made the thing, realized how dumb it was, and put fun spots on it to make up for it being a moron. We couldn’t have her on the farm, so gave her to someone who saw only the spots, and did not live on a farm.
The red and white Hereford beef cattle were the main deal, and this meant cutting, baling, and storing hay for them every year. As a three year-old, I hung out and watched the others do the work, but as I grew, I helped feed, and learned the details of running the place. During the summer, I took to using the tractor and raking the hay. This involved hours spent driving the little Ford 8N with the big rake behind, my Walkman rigged with soft foam so that the cassette tape inside wouldn’t skip and I could listen to music–Billy Idol, The Police, while following the swaths of cut hay around the fields, flipping it all with the rake and organizing it into long rows, ready for the baler once the drying was complete. I didn’t mind the job. We were never paid, but seemed to grok that this was part of the deal, that this was necessary.
My brother and sister, seven and eight years older than me respectively, after a time, were away at school, or travelling leaving me solo. I had already tucked in with a group of kids from neighbouring farms, both hanging out, and doing the work of bringing in hay for their farms and ours. We weren’t just good; we were artists. We knew how to finesse the bales of hay up off of the field and onto the wagon with one smooth effort, more like a choreographed dance, than a hard, hard job. Our loads were perfect. My friend Barb and I once moved hay for a gentleman farmer a few roads over. We were then probably around 12 or 14 and looked slight perhaps, but were all sinew and muscle underneath. I remember the stunned look on the man’s face when we loaded the wagon without so much as a hesitation, almost dusting off our jeans in a way that implied, “Did you have anything difficult that needed doing?”
The only challenging job I remember, was a field of stupidly heavy bales set up on a field belonging to a farm behind ours. The hay, a late summer second cut that had been left too long, was thick and woody instead of the preferable soft green. It was a hot, humid, close summer day with a concerning thunder storm in the chocks, threatening to let loose on our bales. This was the first time and only time so far, that I took speed. We all did, well, not my parents. Dad was at work and mom was elsewhere. I don’t remember feeling different, but I do remember that we managed to clear the field of bales and get them in the barn with remarkable ease. I loved my friends. I loved how good we were at all of this. Hard job, yes, but I didn’t hate it. I don’t think any of us did.
It was a drag to be the only kid on that farm for those years. I had always had a bike, and would cycle to the neighbour’s farm a concession over like it was nothing, then something clicked and I bought a road bike. I felt an energy that needed dispersing, and cycling became a thing. Once chores were done, I could head out onto the roads, often riding for hours. This was better than hanging around that dark farmhouse where my parents excelled at not talking to each other. There was ancestral darkness, and my mother’s drinking that left me floundering and I think, confused, but the cycling took me away. I began lifting weights, and at one point, had been training so much that I broke the chain on a stationary bike. I wasn’t competing at all, and nobody suggested it, but I felt relief in cranking the pedals up a hill. I felt my body was a good machine, whole, could go forever, and I loved figuring out the mental tricks, the techniques for climbing long, steep hills. I liked the challenge, never quit, and delighted in reaching the top, not because anyone was watching, because they weren’t, but just for myself; I was in my own movie. By the time I finished University, I had thighs that were ridiculous. I would go out and cycle for such long rides that you’d think that with all of the friction, I could have made a pearl. There was nothing about cycling that I hated, ever.
In 1986 I got married, and we had two kids. We liked both of them, despite the second one screaming for a whole year. I think his screaming was a way for the universe to tell us that having four kids, which was our plan, was stupid and we should stop at two. Carrying him, walking him, trying to figure him out was a challenge after our first kid who was easy and a peach. There are photos of my husband and me during that time and we did look exhausted. One day the screaming stopped, and who knows why, and we fell into the normal rigors of parenting. Did we ‘hate’ that initially exhausting bit? We were ready for it to stop, but we didn’t ‘hate’ it. We suffered under it, and we do describe it as ‘awful,’ but, at least personally, I think there was a narrative that it would all work out. Or, it could have been that he was cute as hell; we were crazy about both our kids, so, you just ‘do,’ and keep ‘doing.’
In the late 90’s I went through a menu of anti-depressants, one of which was Wellbutrin that yes, helped my mood, but also boosted my energy more than a little. At that time, we had a beautiful old house in a small town. I was still cycling, still feeling there was something inside that needed to move. One summer day, I was sitting on the back deck steps and noticed that the view directly in front of me included, yes some lilacs, but also a compost bin and a crummy, crimped, ugly chain link fence. I spent the rest of the summer building a long, undulating, field stone wall along thirty feet of the fence, added a low garden retaining wall in front of the lilacs, and two small ponds, you know, just like that–thank you Wellbutrin! I would drive the van to my friend’s farm, pick rocks, bring them back, mix cement, gradually forming it all into something structurally sound, and much better looking than the compost bin. While my husband still questioned my sanity, I enjoyed every minute of the process. It felt, maybe like bringing in hay, that I could see the fruits of my labours; in the field, I had pride in the perfect loads, the square corners, and here, the subtle, poetic beauty of the field stones–now a back drop for our yard, our gardens.
I don’t think there was anything I did involving the regular running of that house, that family, that I ever ‘hated.’ My husband was an actor so could be away for chunks of time, leaving me to do the things, and that was fine. I built a new, larger, three-stage compost unit, set away in a corner. Once a year, I would turn the compost, and yes it was hard work, but I didn’t hate it. I built a red, swinging seat that I hung underneath the apple tree in the side yard, and I loved that whole process. Fixing plumbing? It felt good to fix it, to know how. Even shovelling snow became an art. Or chopping wood; once I was outside, I never wanted to come back inside; I loved the air, and the effort. To be fair once the kids were old enough and began dealing with the wood, they also liked to stay out. It’s not a terrible job. For me, this along with the grocery shopping, caring for the kids, cooking meals, laundry; it was all part of it. It was all meaningful. Nothing was nothing.
In October of 2022, my mother, at 86 years old, was moved from her apartment, to a long term care facility near my sister. I had been tending my mother in her declining health, COPD, macular degeneration, mild cognitive impairment, an essential tremor, and then a compression fracture in a lower vertebra that compelled her to use a walker. I wasn’t a fan of the move; I can’t bear retirement facilities. Early on, when we moved mom off of the farm, I toured a few for her then, and more than once, walked in the front door, then turned right around and walked out, sensing feelings of despair vibrating through the hallways. This move wasn’t my decision, but it was made, and that was that. Right away, my job was not only to care for my mother until she moved, but also to go through all of the furniture and whatever was in the closets, and either set it aside for her, or get rid of it.
I began clearing things out, trying to do so when mom was asleep or otherwise engaged in a TV show, or a meal; I didn’t want to upset her. To be clear, I haven’t been fond of my mother. She was never there for me to the point where I wondered why she and dad hadn’t just settle with raising cattle instead of kids. Neither seemed the warm, loving parent, but everyone tells me “that was the generation,” an excuse that makes me want to chew glass. The thing was, my father initially tried to commit suicide in May of 1972. He was overwhelmed with his job, an overbearing mother, and the world. I was nine that year, and our family never spoke about dad’s attempt. Nobody talked about our aunt, schizophrenic, suffering under the same, arduous matron. Everything concerning mental health was left a mystery to us kids. My mother started drinking, and the stage was set for the wind-up. In December of 2004, my father succeeded in killing himself, on a snowy night, in the barn, like Hemmingway. We all reeled. I continued on as I had already been working with one therapist after another, eager to discover answers to nagging questions, buried down deep, mysterious and elusive. My mother went to a counsellor a handful of times, but found herself better fitted to gin as had been her habit for decades. When the farm sold, and it was time for her to move, she still had all of dad’s suits. I suggested that she hang on to them until she was ready to let them go, until she had worked through some of the pain, thinking that she would do this in her new apartment–that she would take this on as healing. I was supporting her here, so thought she might take note of this and make an effort. On a day during my clean-out labors in preparation for her move to the facility, I opened the closet in her apartment’s second bedroom and stared at all of dad’s suits still hanging there. By this time, I was physically tired from all of the carrying and sorting while still preparing meals for mom and helping her shower. My brother who lived in North Vancouver, normally visited a couple times a year, so there had been opportunity for him to tackle this. My sister, closer by and who was helping as much as she could, also could have done this. We should have done it all together, but there I was. I wasn’t prepared for how difficult this was going to be until I began putting the suits into bags for donation. I felt a fury rising up through me, a rage, a fierce anger aimed at my remaining family: I was angry that my mother had made no attempt to take care of anything, to be at all responsible despite talking a big game. I mean, when I was away at school, mom had a job driving a school bus and would have a screwdriver before heading out on her route to pick up and drop off children. What was I supposed to do with that? It would have been a fine thing if she had rallied, accepted the help offered her and made even a small effort to fulfill her role as ‘mother,’ the remaining parent in our family. I was angry at my siblings, not only for not taking care of this, but also for not seeming to suffer at the thought of our father’s darkness, from the brutality of his suicide as I seemed to. I tell myself that they do suffer it, but how is it that neither of them are brought to their knees, weeping while considering the pain he must have been in leading up to, and on that night. I fumed, while hauling out the bags of suits. I stomped down the hall with them, teeth gritted behind my covid mask. Down in the parking garage, I set the bags into my van like you might young children, and drove to the donation bins located on the Tim Horton’s edge of the Canadian Tire parking lot in town. Enroute, I felt my anger change, morph into deep sadness–a longing for my father. I began crying, doing my best to hold it together while setting each bag up into the cradle on the donation bin, then letting it drop into the echoing darkness. This wasn’t weeping, this was out-and-out crying. I sat there in my parked van for some time, waiting to get myself together so I could at least drive.  I would glance into my rear view mirror and see people come out of the Canadian Tire, with cans of paint, cement trowels, whatever they needed for whatever project they were tackling that day; collecting their points, going about their lives. It was at this moment that I realized how much I hated–really hated doing what I had just done. I hated everything about it. I hated what the suits represented; my father whom I loved, who tried so hard but got beat; a scenario that was completely out of control. The donation here was not a ceremony, but a last resort, the housekeeping detail of a ridiculous family; yes, the first thing in my whole life that I truly hated doing. There was nothing to show for it, no beauty left behind, no admirable technique involved, and made worse after learning that my brother, who showed up for only three days to help during my mother’s actual move to the facility, went on to spend a whole month with his wife at their vacation condo in Quebec.
We all do what we can. Sometimes, drugs help. Sometimes a drink is nice, but then often it is not. We stack as best we can, with the finesse befitting of time put in. We build, we create, we cycle like demons, and at a certain point, if we’re at all awake, we begin our search for answers to questions that we did not know we had, that we sense coming from somewhere deep in. Our answers, I have learned, are not found solely in ‘the thing,’ but rather, in our relationships with the people around us while we did ‘the thing.’ Relationships are everything. They take work, and to not make an effort, to not get over yourself and consider the other, well, that’s called being a complete dick. Bringing in hay without my friends, with instead, crummy, soft undependables would have made it a chore. We haven’t spoken in years, but I really think we loved each other then, and still do. We always showed up for each other and you don’t forget something like that, especially when you go without it from those whose job it was in the first place.