Chapter 4

The Storm Comes

watercolor painting of Lewes Delaware by Tom Benson
watercolor painting of Lewes Delaware by Tom Benson

“Why?”  This is the question on everyone’s mind when they find out that you will have, do have, or have had an alpaca farm.  How do a pharmacist and a computer programmer, neither of whom have ever lived on a farm, both of whom work for the Federal Government, decide to start an alpaca breeding farm?

I was currently living on a farm, with livestock,  and a husband who wanted to start a farm business.  Tom had been researching farm options even as I planned to go back to my safe, predictable life as a computer programmer.  He briefly researched vineyards, but we were already surrounded by boutique vineyards.  He looked into aquaculture, otherwise known as fish farming, but I couldn’t share his excitement about fish.  Finally he started mentioning alpacas.  I found the idea of fluffy, pretty alpacas very tempting, but way too risky.  Investing hard-earned money and years of work while taking a chance on wasting it all?  I couldn’t see myself doing something crazy like that!  I didn’t know then that I was about to be hit with the cosmic two-by-four.

For the last few years I had been increasingly concerned about my father, Tom.  Since his name is the same as my husband’s I’ll call him Col. Tom.  He and my mother, Ruth, had retired to Lewes Delaware after a 30+ year military career.  Lewes was then an adorable little beach town with many Victorian houses, one main road, a few shops and restaurants, and a ferry terminal from which the ferries sailed to Cape May, New Jersey.  It was about two and a half hours from our farm, and I visited often with the kids.

Both of my parents grew up in the 1920’s,  during the Great Depression.  My dad had been working on the loading docks in Boston when World War II began.  He signed up to fight and was sent to Algiers in North Africa.  He sometimes remarked that, upon joining the Army, he had the experience of being able to eat as much as he wanted for the first time in his life.  

Despite being poor, my dad was an excellent student and very, very smart.  He was great at math, but he loved history, poetry and literature as well.  He was crazy about art, and dreamed of being a painter one day. He was excited to see the exotic scenery of Algeria and Tunisia, ride camels, and study the customs of the Arabs.  It was during the winding down of this campaign that my dad’s commanding officer informed him that he was nominating him to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  My dad was sent to Amherst College in Massachusetts to prepare.  The rest of his company moved on to Italy.  Most of them would die there.

No one in Col. Tom’s family had entertained the idea of going to college.  For these grandchildren of tough Irish immigrants, college was something only rich people did.  The war, and one commanding officer, changed the course of my father’s life.  He graduated from West Point with honors, and a degree in engineering.  The Army sent him to several more schools including the  famous Defense Language Institute in Monterey California.  Col. Tom ended up a PH.d.

He stayed in the Army and lived all over the world.  In addition to WWII, Col. Tom  served multiple tours in Vietnam. He had a messy dresser drawer full of commendation medals and award certificates.  During his long career he had been a paratrooper, a commanding officer, a professor at West Point, and a base commander.  He had lived in Germany, Morocco, Vietnam, Korea, Alaska, Michigan, Texas, San Francisco, Virginia, Brazil and New York.  He had traveled all over Europe, Asia, South America and other exotic locales, plunking down his easel in spare moments and painting whatever took his fancy.  He had painted canvases in Rome, Portugal, Paris and Madrid, often sporting a corny, Picasso-style beret.

Man in beret black and white
Col Tom with his corny beret looking dashing in postwar Germany

Now my dad was starting to seem confused, agitated, annoyed; a different person than the one I knew.  Both of my parents prided themselves on being proper New Englanders.  They controlled themselves in all situations, and outward shows of annoyance by either of them had been extremely rare.  Maybe most people get more cranky when they are old, but the change in my father was more dramatic.  

On my latest visit my dad had asked me several times how to work his own camera.  Each time I answered, he seemed satisfied, but later he asked the same question again.  He had recently bought his first computer but could not work it, even after I explained it to him.  This purchase especially frightened me.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that my father’s sudden desire to own a computer was because he thought it could be used to make sense of the information that his brain no longer processed correctly.  

Col. Tom’s mother had probably died of Alzheimer’s Disease in the early 1970s. We did not witness her last years or her death. We were living in Asia then.   I’m not sure her type of dementia was ever officially diagnosed, but  we knew of erratic, confused behavior that required her to have a live in caretaker for several years.    By the time of my dad’s illness we knew that the tendency for Alzheimer’s Disease is partly inherited .  I hated the idea of being the one to bring up my father’s declining mental abilities.  I didn’t want to face what might be coming, but I couldn’t live with myself if I did nothing either.  I felt that there must be some treatment that could help him.  On the first week in January of 1996, I went to Delaware to pick up my parents and bring them back to stay at our farm.  

I had spent several months trying to get my father a neurology appointment at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.  The Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware, near my parents’ house, no longer offered any medical treatment for retired military personnel.  Bethesda still offered care, but it took multiple phone calls, and weeks or months of waiting, to secure one appointment and only those who lived in the area were eligible.  We had to claim my parents as  dependents of my husband, who was then active duty U.S. Public Health Service.  This stuck in the craw of my parents, who had seen their country through two wars and had been promised health care by the government they trusted, but there was no way around it. 

 My father was not yet clear on the true reason for this appointment, I had let him think it was a follow-up from a previous urology appointment, but my mother knew what it was about, and she was angry and resentful.  She had loved and admired this man for so long that she couldn’t allow herself to acknowledge what might be happening.  I wasn’t sure I could stand to know the truth either.  I felt like Pandora with my hand on the lid of the box.

We arrived back in Mt. Airy on Friday afternoon.  The fateful appointment was set for Monday morning.  The Weather Service was forecasting a few inches of snow that weekend, but nothing our 4-wheel drive van couldn’t handle.  The atmosphere in the house was tense, but the kids were thrilled to see Grandma and Grandpa. 

The snow began falling hard on Saturday morning and kept on falling.  The storm began to look more and more serious.  The weather predictions about inches of snow became a foot and then more like two feet.  Tom climbed on his tractor and started to clear the driveway.  In a few hours the snow was too deep to push and he had to lift it up in the bucket of the tractor’s front loader and throw it off of the driveway.  Hours kept passing and snow kept falling.

Tom on the tractor in the snow
Tom on the tractor in the snow

I was starting to panic.  I had exhausted most of my personal courage in bullying my parents into coming home with me to attend an appointment where we might find out that what we most dreaded had come to pass.  What if we couldn’t make the appointment now?  Would I start the months of waiting and phone calls over again?  And, what if I couldn’t convince my parents to come home with me the next time?  Was the Universe just screwing with me now?   

I worried about my poor husband, out in the freezing wind and falling snow for what would turn out to be more than eight hours on the tractor.  He had never worked a marathon tractoring session like this before.  When I had spare worrying time, I worried about the goats.  How would they get to the brook to drink if there were two feet of snow in their paddock?  Who knew when we could get around to clearing a path to their barn to check on them?

This last fear turned out to be unfounded.  While my mother played with the children, Tom tractored snow, and my father and I shoveled pathways from the house to the garage, the goats were calmly engaging in their own survival plan.  They single-mindedly walked back and forth from the goat palace to the brook, over an over, all during the storm.  They would end up doing this for two full days.  In this way, they kept a snowy corridor to their drinking water open.  Once again, the goats had proven their superiority as a species. 

Tom finally came in, half-frozen and exhausted, just as night began to fall.  The tractor was out of diesel fuel.  The Weather Service informed us that another snowstorm was approaching rapidly.  Our situation was looking hopeless.  This was turning out to be a record-breaking storm and now we had no fuel for the tractor.

Sunday morning came.  Snow was falling again, but a small miracle had also happened.  The diesel fuel fairy had visited.  One of the Rogers, our wonderful, generous neighbors, had tied a large container of diesel fuel to an old-fashioned, runner sled and sent it sledding down our driveway.  We had not called them, they guessed that we had probably run out.  We had fuel!

Tom and I decided to move our van up to the top of the long, winding driveway, a few feet from the main road.   This is something we had learned to do when the driveway might be impassable for a while.  It is far easier to trudge up a snowy or icy driveway on foot than manage to drive most vehicles up it.  Tom attaches the van to the tractor with a chain and pulls it up while I nervously steer from inside the van, trying to keep it from sliding off the driveway.  

With the van parked safely at the top, I hike down through the lumpy snow and chilly air to the house where my parents and children wait.  Tom goes back to his lonely, cold, snow removal job.  He moves a few feet forward, lowers the bucket of the front loader, scoops up snow, lifts the bucket in the air, backs the tractor at an angle to one of the snowy walls on either side of him and dumps the snow over.  He does this for almost another full day.    Sometime in the afternoon he trudges back down the driveway to the house with more bad news.  The tractor’s axle has broken.  

We now have close to four feet of snow on the ground, but the storm is finally stopping, and most of the driveway is cleared.  We might be able to shovel the rest by hand.   Tom and I climb back up, lugging our snow shovels to the spot near the end of our driveway that is not yet cleared, and begin to dig.  It is miserable work.  I am sweaty and cold at the same time and my arms are aching from the effort of lifting the snow chest high to throw it high enough to clear the walls.  Sometimes I do it wrong and some of the snow plops back down on my head or slides down the neck of my parka.  Sometimes the wind blows it back into our faces.  We make progress, but soon the sun is setting and the cold is growing.  We are not going to make it.  We head back down before the dark overtakes us.  I try to be thankful that we have not lost our electricity or our roof.  Others have not been that lucky.  The news is full of stories of roofs caved in from the heavy snow.

Our driveway after snow removal
Our driveway after snow removal

Something makes us climb back up the hill early Monday morning to assess our hopeless situation.  Another miracle has occurred.  Someone has cleared the last part of our driveway of most of the snow, then hooked a chain to our van and yanked it out, adjacent to the road.  This time our guardian angel will turn out to be the Rogers’ son-in-law Ed, owner  of the auto repair garage in town.  Tom and I slip and slide excitedly down the driveway to the house to get my father.  We are going to keep our appointment!

We will reach the Naval Hospital an hour and a half later only to find it is officially closed.  The entire government has been shut down due to the record snowfall.  Only some of the lights are on inside, and there are hardly any people around.  The huge hospital feels like a ghost town, but we find out that there is a skeleton crew of doctors on duty.    Most of them have no patients to care for.  This results in my father getting all of the necessary tests in one day.  He is seen by the neurologist, X-rays are taken.  A CAT scan is performed.  Blood is drawn, tested and the results explained to us.  The tests last for almost 7 hours.  This seems like a very lucky break for us as these tests would normally be spread out over half a dozen appointments,  but the marathon of unfamiliar testing begins to seem sinister to my father.  He becomes paranoid and agitated as the day wears on. 

By the end of the day we have confirmation that Col. Tom has dementia and the neurologist does not think it is in the beginning stages either, but the middle.  My dad has been hiding it well, but now that he is exhausted and disoriented from the long hours of testing, it is all too obvious.  We have to talk him into going home with us.  He does not trust us, especially me.  He will later come to believe that his mental problems are my fault; that it began this day when I took him to people who experimented on his brain.  He will begin to hate and fear me, even as I continue to make him appointments and take him back to the same hospital, hoping for a treatment that can stop the progress of his disease.  Eventually, he will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease but they will not find a treatment that can slow it.  

My father’s descent into madness was not caused by the terrible storm, but the two things  are forever connected in my brain.  The feeling of being trapped, cold, helpless, while the snow keeps falling and falling merges with the dread of endless waiting in the empty, dark hospital for the confirmation of something I don’t want to know.  My dad, the brilliant, brave, artistic Colonel is gone.  

It feels unfair that all this effort will lead to nothing except him hating me and believing that I betrayed him.  During the next few years I will often hope for a  magical, T.V.-movie ending where my father has a moment of lucidity and tells me, “I know this wasn’t your fault.”  This being real life, that moment won’t come.

Slowly I will begin to understand certain things.  We do our best, but we are not in control, not of the weather, not of our own fate.  Playing it safe does not make us safe.  We are never really safe.  I knew these things on some level, but since the storm, I really know them.  I am ready to take a crazy chance.  I’m ready to live a braver life.  I am ready to breed alpacas for a living.

Man and child in snow storm
Col. Tom and his granddaughter brave the storm

Chapter 3

Chapter 3

Goatterdammerung!

goat on playset
Heidi goat queen of Mount Airy

Judging by the frequency with which one sees their image represented on cozy, “country” décor, ducks and chickens can be seen as charming.  So cute in wallpaper motifs and ceramic kitchenware!  Goats are another story.  Once you have gone goat, there is no going back. Nothing screams “hillbilly” quite like owning a goat.  And, if you own a goat, don’t choose a billy!

 

Our goat came as a cast off from an NRA-hat-topped, tobacco pipe smoking, rodeo belt buckle-wearing neighbor.  He informed me that he had a goat he planned to shoot, if no one wanted her, because she was jealous of his kids and kept trying to kill them.  I know he planned this statement happily anticipating my confusion and resulting horror.  Good old boys are like that; they like to get a rise out of the “city folk.”

 

Of course the “kids” in question were of the newborn goat variety.  I realized that in time to avoid an embarrassing verbal outburst, but he did get the satisfaction of my momentarily horrified facial expression.  He also got the satisfaction of unloading an unwanted goat from the back of his pickup truck into our paddock and driving off into the proverbial sunset.

 

Heidi the goat was our first four-legged livestock acquisition.  A goat is neither dumb like a chicken, nor meek like a Pekin duck.  They are technically domesticated, but in no way are they lacking in wildness.  They will obey when they feel like it because they are very sociable.  If they don’t feel like it, good luck doing anything about it!

 

Heidi was white with large, irregular, brown spots on her fur, and she weighed about 60 pounds.  Her cutesy name turned out to be the only thing girly about her.  Heidi was no demure little lass. She had a beard and horns and a big, big attitude.  She was like a small, but powerful tornado, and she loved her new family very much.

 

Casey and Nick were anxious to play with Heidi, and she was equally excited about playing with them.  She trotted right over to them, lowered her head, and quickly butted each of them in turn.  She moved so fast that it was like watching a badly edited movie.  One minute the child was standing in one spot and a second later the child appeared a foot behind the previous spot.  No actual movement seemed to occur.

 

Heidi was not trying to hurt the children, she didn’t even knock them down; she just wanted them to understand that they were lower than her.  Goats have a simplified social order based on the fact that the animal who is higher up – literally – is the one in charge.

 

This was the last time that my kids would consent to be around Heidi if she was not on a leash.  They still liked her; they just didn’t trust her.  I, being considerably taller than Heidi, had no trouble with her unless I let her climb up something and get higher than me.  In fact, Heidi accepted me as her mother immediately, and would follow me around with or without a leash whenever I allowed her to.  She often rubbed the side of her face on my thigh, scent marking me as hers.    If I sat on the ground, she would plop down beside me and allow me to scratch her between the horns.

 

pet goat with children
Heidi with her family

While we set out to build a goat barn in the paddock previously occupied by the cow, I read two books on goat care from the local library.  Both books advised that goats must never be kept alone.  They are herd animals and suffer terribly when they have no herd. Poor Heidi was living alone in a large “dogloo” dog house with only the intermittent company of her human family.  We would need another goat.

 

Tom laid a foundation for the small barn and moved an old shack onto it with the help of my brother Kevin.  He then walled off half of the shack for hay and grain storage and added a hinged goat door that Heidi could walk through on her own.  We christened it “the goat palace.”

 

A few weeks later, I waltzed into the show goat barn at the Great Frederick Agricultural Fair and stupidly announced to the teenaged girls present that I wanted to purchase a goat as a companion animal.  Never do this!

 

I knew these goats were usually sold after the goat show, but failed to realize that they were being sold for meat.  What DID I think they were raised for?  Milk?  Fancy soap? Pulling a cart with granny in it like in a Heidi movie?  I don’t know.  I am a stupid person.

 

The typical goat here has been raised by a young girl as if it were a pet.  It is bottle fed, trained to walk on a lead, groomed and fussed over.  Many have fancy collars.  All have cute names.  They are loved as pets but sold as meat.

 

A crowd of desperately hopeful little girls rushes toward me.  Apparently goats are not perceived as livestock for guys, because there are none here, just sweet little girls and the goats they adore.  I feel like I am choosing who gets a reprieve from the gas chamber at Auschwitz, but I pick one goat, refusing all others, even if those with teary owners.    I am a terrible person.

 

Our new goat has markings that make him look like a miniature Holstein cow but he is reddish in some spots.  He is wearing a pink, rhinestone collar.  His name is Cinnamax, but we  will end up calling him Max.  He is sweet and hornless and does not butt the children, but he does butt Heidi right back when she goes after him.  They race around together joyfully.  They smack their foreheads together alarmingly.  We now have goats – plural.

goats with human family
Heidi and Max

 

The goat paddock is quite large, and it was mostly made up of very large weeds.  Its fence line encompassed part of our brook, so there was plenty of clean water to drink, but very little grass.  Looking at it closely, I wondered if the cow might have been a prop used by the wily former owners of this place to make it seem more bucolic.  One cow with very little grass and no shelter?

 

I needn’t have worried because it turned out that Heidi and Max did not like grass, but loved to eat weeds.  It is not true that goats will eat tin cans as they sometimes do in cartoons, but they will eat huge multiflora bushes with inch long thorns, and they will eat these right to the ground, killing them completely.  They will eat bull thistle, poison ivy and tree bark.

 

Goats are often used to clear underbrush and weedy lots, and they will do this better than a bush hog or any other machine.  As they will only eat grass as a last option and their manure is a very good fertilizer, the paddock would wind up looking like it was maintained by a high-end lawn service.

 

Heidi, and Max could often be seen perfectly balanced on the branches of the apple trees in their paddock, happily stripping the bark off with their teeth.  We lost two nice apple trees in this fashion.

 

When Heidi escaped from her enclosure, which she did regularly, she had several favorite pursuits.  One was to climb the steps of the children’s play set and slide down the slide standing up.  Another was to jump on top of any available car, truck or tractor and do a little tap dance of glee, gaily scratching the paint.  Then she would eat any available roses, race around the pond over and over as if she were a demented track star, and end up on the back porch looking into the sliding glass door trying to find her family.

 

If you have not seen a goat in action, it would be hard for you to believe just how well-coordinated and agile they are.  I have seen Heidi race through her paddock at top speed, leap into the air with all four hooves apart like a Kung Fu master and come to a dead stop on top of her slippery dogloo. I would not have believed this to be possible if I had not seen it more than once.

 

A friend told me about a goat of hers that would race across her lawn and leap onto the outside ledge of her living room window  to tease her dogs and make them bark frantically.  And the goat would do this over and over again, landing on a 4 inch ledge, next to a large glass window without ever touching the window itself, until the dogs were mad with frustration and rage.

 

Max was equally good at escaping.  He eventually taught himself to jump a five foot stock fence by ricocheting at an upward angle off of a nearby tree.  We saw him do this.  He grew to be larger than Heidi, but he remained her second in command.  His genteel upbringing and his gelding may have accounted for his slightly calmer behavior.  He was every bit as funny as Heidi, but far less manic.

 

Owning a goat will not only make you question the laws of physics, but also your Judeo-Christian upbringing. Goats are scary smart, while sheep are famously dumb.  Sheep are easily frightened and seem unable to act independently.   Goats are exuberant, funny, brave, and very independent.  They have big personalities.  Sheep can literally get stuck if they fall over and then die within hours because they cannot right themselves.  This is called being “cast.”  Goats are survivors.

 

Why are sheep the ideal biblical metaphor for God’s people while goats are so often portrayed as demonic or devilish?  Goats express a fierce joy in daily living and a will to survive that is incredibly inspiring.  They make us laugh and they love us .  Are they sometimes a little devilish?  Well, yes.  But I’d still rather be a goat than a sheep.

 

With the goats came worming, never-ending fence repairs and trips to the farm store for straw bales and sweet feed in 50 lb. bags.  The goat barn had to be mucked out and fresh straw put down.  The goats had to have their toenails trimmed.  Our lives were getting ever more farmy.  Our friends begin to include “They have goats!” as part of our introduction to other people.  We pose with the children and the goats for a Christmas card photo but find it too hard to control two excitable toddlers, two excited goats and one remote camera.  We use a photo of ourselves on the tractor instead.

 

 

Farm family on tractor
Christmas card

 

Chapter 2

The incredible duck caper

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that persons possessing a small farm must be in want of free livestock.

ducks2

If you recognize the paraphrased first line of a famous novel above, please thank your English teacher.  (Thanks Dr. Ruth Sharp!)   Aside from the fact that I have always wanted to paraphrase that particular bit of genius, I feel it is rather fitting for our small farm situation.

There really are loads of people who feel that anyone with a cute farm will be thrilled to have their cast off ducklings, their child’s incubated chicks/science project, their unwanted cats, and even a goat or two.  We ended up with all of the above.

By 1996, we not only have the two children, but we also have an abandoned, white cat named Caspar, and a perpetually revolving cast of unwanted chickens and ducks.  I say, “revolving” because it turns out that chickens and ducks are quite difficult to keep alive on the farm.

Most of our ducks have come to us from the Southern States farm store, by way of my own sister, Beth, who suffered from a lifelong duck obsession.  Beth had moved from New Jersey to the town of Mount Airy a few years after Tom and I moved to our farm.  As she had recently divorced, and was raising three children alone, it made sense for her to move nearer to her family.

Our mother was a duck feeder.  She often took us children, to various ponds or parks to feed the ducks stale bread, but Beth was the only one of the 5 kids who would try to grab and hold the ducks.  She was often duck bill-pinched, but remained undeterred by these painful rejections of her adoration.

Having never lived in a rural setting – yet, years would pass before Beth realized that one could buy live ducklings.  After moving to Mount Airy, she began to do just that.  Beth would raise these in her bathtub, in her house in town, and dump them in our pond when they outgrew her place.

She did not ask permission for these duck relocation projects.  In fact, she was wont to show up when we were not at home so that her ducks could just appear in the pond, as if they had flown down for a stopover during their yearly migration.  This might have been credible if the ducks had not been Pekin Ducks.  Domesticated ducks do not migrate without the help of irresponsible, former duckling owners – with bathtubs that need a good scrubbing.

Pekin ducks are quite tame, and they will follow your children around nipping at their fingers and ankles on a regular basis.   I can say, from personal experience, that once human-fed – they will allow little girls to hold them and carry them about without too much fuss.  They will happily swim with your toddlers in their kiddie pool.

ducks3

However, they will also want to breed. Ducks are loud and rambunctious breeders.  The male flaps across the surface of the pond, loudly honking, in pursuit of the female.  She, is either completely unwilling, or really playing hard to get.  This behavior can go on for half an hour or more, several times per day, for many days.    This will occasion uncomfortable questions from your small children.  It is also advisable to caution your small children not to discuss this duck behavior in public.

Sadly, where there is breeding, there will, inevitably, be brooding.  The female duck will want to make a nest in which to lay her eggs and care for them.  Will she make this nest in a place where she can easily escape from predators?  No, she will not.  Duck after duck chose the same spot under the back porch.  This is a spot that makes sense only to a duck’s brain.  It is far easier for a fox or a raccoon to crawl under a porch quickly than it is for a duck.  This point was proven time and again and punctuated with the tears and sobs of small children.

By the time she is in first grade, Casey will write a memorable school essay that ends with the bitter, misspelled sentence,

 

“The fox alredy ate my duck.”[1]

 

Tom will try to build a floating raft for the ducks to take refuge upon when nighttime predators threaten them.  The ducks will, of course, shun this alien contraption.  One thing they will not shun is the overflow  drain at the far end of the pond.

Our pond was filled on one side by 3 underground springs, and it drained into a creek on the other side.  The drain was an overflow pipe that protruded slightly from the surface of the pond, and went straight down for a few feet.  It then made a right angle turn and continued about 12 feet underground before emptying into a nearby stream.

One chilly morning, I am walking down by the pond.  I have just put the children on the school bus.  The air is crisp, and I enjoy the peaceful sound of my boots crunching on the frosty grass until I hear a faint “quack quack.”  Where is this sound coming from?  All of the ducks are paddling around at the other end of the pond.

The quack quack sound repeats. It is surely coming from much closer to me than any of those ducks on the other side of the pond, but still I see no duck nearby.  At this point, its source seems almost next to me.  What else is next to me?  No!  I refuse to entertain my next thought.  “Quack quack!” Is the sound a little more urgent now?  It is coming from inside the overflow pipe a few feet away.

The pipe is too long for me to reach down into it.  It is too narrow for the duck to raise its wings and fly out of.  Is it likely that the duck brain will say, “The only way out of here is to walk down this long, dark tunnel and see what is at the end?”  No, it is not.  Will I be able to sleep at night, knowing that the duck is slowly dying in the pond drain?  Could I shoot the duck?

I run up the hill to my house and phone my sister Beth.  Soon after, I am standing hip-deep in my pond, frantically pouring bucketfuls of water through the drain while Beth waits near the spot where the pond drains into the stream.  We will attempt to fire hose the duck out of the drain.  The duck quacks louder than ever, not wanting to be washed into the dark unknown.

I pour and frantically refill my bucket and pour again.  I am cold and wet and cranky.  I keep pouring but the quack quack noise is as close as ever.  I am about to give up when the duck finally loses its footing.  It flies out of the pipe and plops into the creek with an undignified splash.  Beth is jubilant.  We have rescued her duck!  I am still cold and wet, but amazed that our Wile E. Coyote-style solution actually worked.

The lucky duck doesn’t seem aware of its dramatic salvation.  It waddles off as though nothing unusual happened.  When Tom comes home, he covers the pond drain with a small tire from a discarded wheelbarrow.

Ducks will continue to die, but some will not die before Tom and I get to doctor them a few times.  This is important to my narrative as – I feel – it reawakens a long-dormant desire in Tom to play veterinarian.

Dr. Tom always gets to clean the duck wounds and suture them.  I, nurse Kate, am supposed to hold the duck as still as possible.  This is often difficult due to the maggots that will crawl out of the wound and over my arms.  I KNOW they are not dangerous, but my brain cannot accept this without silently shrieking.  Maggots!

This could be an inspiring story of duckly devotion, but none of these ducks will end up surviving long, sutures or no.  That fox or raccoon will be back to finish the job.  Cute as they may be, animals that have been bred for food are not really smart enough to survive on their own.  Real farmers know this, and faux farmers learn it the hard way.

Will this keep us from taking on more discarded livestock? Of course it won’t.  The ducks were merely a gateway drug in the acquisition of livestock.  Next we will agree to take on a troubled goat named Heidi. Our slide down the slippery livestock slope begins to accelerate.

A few years later, my sister Beth will find herself trapped in a dark hole of sorts.  She will not be able to see the exit.  No amount of pouring on my part will be sufficient to wash her out into the sunlit, fresh air. This will turn out to be one of my last happy adventures with Beth. She will soon descend into a desperate depression and slowly, inch by dreadful inch, kill herself with alcohol. She will drink until her brain is damaged and her life is ruined. She will lose her job, the love of her children, her ability to walk and yet she will keep drinking until her heart just stops.

Think about Beth and the duck if you ever find yourself in a similar situation. The exit was there for both of them, but the choice to walk through the darkness into the unknown felt more terrifying than staying trapped in the hole. The duck was lucky enough to be forced to move through the darkness, enter the terrifying unknown, and find a miracle on the other side. Forcing another person to do the same is pretty close to impossible.

ducks1



[1] This situation will only be complicated by repeated readings of the Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck.  

Chapter 1

photo spring house on farm
spring house with vine

Be careful what you wish for

 

It began with the farm. A lot of us dream of moving out to the country to live in a more picturesque, slower-paced setting, with cows and trees, and fields of corn blowing gracefully in the wind. We hunger for a place where our kids can run free with their friends and their dogs, far from any traffic or dangerous people. I was one of those dreamers. Having been raised in large cities, military bases and one “planned community”, I wasn’t sure the places of my dreams still existed.

When I was expecting my second child, my husband Tom and I began to look for a new house. I have to admit, it was my idea. We had a nice house in a very urban neighborhood, close to both Washington D.C. and Baltimore. The restaurants and shopping were good, the traffic and schools were not. So far, my tale is boringly normal. You can dismissively call it “cocooning”, label it a “white picket fence fantasy”, or blame it for the evils of suburban sprawl, but so many of us want it just the same. And, what we can’t always justify for ourselves, we want even more for our children.

We had no particular town in mind, but we thought we would look further North and West from D.C. Tom began checking the Want Ads in the Washington Post for houses we could look at. I began to look at the places my friends lived, and evaluate each one in turn. One of my friends lived in Mount Airy, Maryland. It was quite far from Tom’s work at the FDA in Rockville, Maryland and even farther from my former employer in Bethesda, but it had a uniquely charming feel to it without the price tag of the charming locales closer to D.C.

Everyone knows someone who bought a strange, questionable house because they fell in love with it. Turns out we WERE those people, the ones other people use as a cautionary tale. And it would only get weirder as the story went on.

We cluelessly told our friends, “Were not ready to move, we’re just going to start looking.” We planned to look at many different houses and neighborhoods, and comparison shop. We planned to have lists and maps and pros and cons. We would do this methodically, logically. As John Lennon once wrote: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” I think some of our friends might still be laughing at us.

The first house we looked at was the one listed in the Washington Post. It had four bedrooms, was all brick, and was located in Mount Airy, Maryland. The size of the lot was not mentioned in this advertisement. The F-word (farm) was certainly not mentioned in this advertisement. One can only admire the cunning of a person who would list a 25-acre farm with a 100+ year-old house as, simply, “all brick house” in a real estate ad. He knows the land all around the house is lovely. There is a cute pond with overhanging trees, a bouncy brook full of small fish and bright stones, fields of golden hay, apple trees, and a paddock with a real cow in it. It’s like a postcard from Amish country. Why not make people drive out and see it before they cross it off their list?

While I was the one who wanted this quieter life for the children, I was not looking for a place like this. As I was imagining getting up the long, curving, steep driveway in winter, Tom was imagining the tractor he would “have to” buy. While I tried to drive thoughts of small children floating face down in ponds from my head, Tom was entertaining thoughts of the monstrous garden he could have in the spring. As I walked here and there, shaking my head at the thought of a well, Tom was asking the owner how many “outbuildings” were allowed. I was pregnant with child number 2, warily looking at a house with no closets, air conditioning, dryer or nearby neighbors. Tom was falling in love. We moved in the weekend before Halloween in 1993.

Living on a beautiful property in the country was more amazing than I could have imagined, but a lot harder as well.

Picture us a few years later. We now have two children, a 4-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son. We have added a clothing dryer to the house and an air conditioning system that kind of works. We still have no closets. We realized AFTER we moved into this old farmhouse that there was no trash pickup. I am driving with two small children to the dump once a week. It makes me feel guilty to see that huge mountain of trash at the landfill and know that I am contaminating the earth with my trash. It was easier when the trash magically disappeared in a truck from the end of my driveway.

Our television receives one channel, and only if it is not windy. This explains the tall, ugly, metal towers that loom over so many pretty, white farmhouses. A regular antenna is not going to do the job way out here. We have dial-up Internet, but the speed is so slow that it almost doesn’t feel worth it. There is no cable out this far from town, and Satellite Dish Internet is prohibitively expensive.

Move a plant and you can usually expect it to suffer and struggle to grow again, sometimes for a couple of years. That is often the case with people too. It’s silly to expect to feel “at home” when you change homes, even if you have moved many times before. It gets harder as the years go on. I know I am lucky to have a solid roof over my head and a lovely place where my children can be free to run, play, yell, throw rocks, pick dandelions and splash in the creek, but living in the country is an adjustment.

Tom still goes to work at the same job he had before he had children. I am the one whose life is now lived out on this farm, in this town, where everyone else seems to have friends and family nearby. I believe that living here, in this quaint town, on this pretty farm, is right for my children, but it doesn’t always feel right for me. I miss having a job with a salary and a title. I felt smart and important then. When we signed the contract on the farm, I had to write “housewife” on the documents; “mother” is not a job title as far as our legal system is concerned. I’m terrified that I will be unemployable when I finally try to return to work. I’m terrified that my marriage will break up and I will have to work at Burger King for the rest of my life. My children will be embarrassed by me and ask me why I didn’t “work” like their friends’ mothers.

These fears are something I cannot share with others. I will only sound spoiled to those who had no choice, or judgmental of those who made a different choice. So I share this only for the sake of those who chose the same path as me. Doing what is right for yourself and doing what is right for your children are two different things. If no one else in your whole world appreciates the sacrifice you made, just know that one other person does.

Casey and Nick are thriving here though. They can run and play as much as they want. They nap when they are tired, eat when they are hungry, talk when they want to, even yell and scream – outside. They are not yet trapped in a schedule where outside time is doled out in tiny increments called “recess.” They have no interest in watching television or going to the mall.

We are surrounded by wildflowers. I have a wildflower guide that I can use to identify some of them, but others are more mysterious. I quickly learn not to ask the locals, “What flower is this?” The answer is, invariably, “That’s a weed.” Apparently real farmers do not believe in the concept of wildflowers. That only leads to Disney-like naiveté regarding nature. Next comes the Bambification of deer, which are like large, furry rodents to real farmers. They eat your corn. Enough said. Wildflower guides are for yuppies.

In any case, my children are in love with wildflowers. They pick them for hours a day, often to bring to their appreciative mother. How nice it is to have an endless supply of beautiful gifts all around us! Of course this leads to problems when we visit people who have proper gardens. It is hard to understand why those flowers cannot be picked at will. A few years later I will attend a pasture lecture at the Agricultural Extension’s demonstration farm site. When no one is looking, I will take small pieces of two plants marked “WEEDS” on signs with angry red lettering. I will re-plant these on purpose when I get home. One is a Japanese Honeysuckle vine; I planted it along the fence line for its divine fragrance. The other is a Trumpet Vine. It will grow right up the brick face of the house to Casey’s room on the second floor, and, from her bedroom window, she will see the hummingbirds feed from the red flowers.

But, for now, Casey and Nick are still outside, picking flowers, throwing rocks and whacking things with sticks. This last behavior will elicit shocked outcries from other mothers when my kids are invited for a party or sleepover. People whose children are allowed to watch violent movies and television shows will wonder at my terrible mothering choices. Sticks and rocks! Why can I not see how dangerous they are? Remarkably, no living creature is ever harmed by this lapse in judgment on my part; or, almost none. Nick and his cousin Tommy will decide, a few years later, to see what happens when they whack the nest of some paper wasps with a stick. Nick will then learn that older cousins, even adored ones, are not necessarily smarter than paper wasps.

As of yet, we had no plans to go into the alpaca business. We had no plans to have a real farm at all. (See John Lennon quotation above.) I blame this change of plans on two things. One of these I call “the slippery livestock slope.” The other was a personal tragedy.

Memoir of an Alpaca Breeder

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