Monday, May 15, 2017

I Thought I'd Ruined Mother's Day

I thought I'd ruined Mother's Day
the house was all a mess
the dished piled in the sink
I couldn't find my dress

I sat and ate my breakfast slow
determined to enjoy
the children gathered all around
my lap, their favorite toy

The time, I knew, was flying by
so much that needed done
we had to get to church on time
always this race to run

The baby's face was dirty
the toddler's diaper messed
the preschooler had a missing shoe
and his sister wasn't dressed

My daughters, who are twelve and nine
had helped their Dad make me
a breakfast so sweet and special
but there was no time for tea

The goat was waiting to be milked
the pigs, they needed fed
the chickens' eggs to be collected
and the teens were sleeping in

I sighed a sigh that was too loud
my son, he overheard
"take it easy Mom," was all he said
I uttered not a word

Just once I wanted it to be
the kind of day that I did well
without the missing shoes
the dirty faces, or the smells

Without the tangles in girls' hair
waiting to be brushed out
without the tantrums, chores, and sighs
rising tension in the air

At last we loaded up the van
abandoned shoes were found
the sweater I'd stood ironing
was finally coming 'round

And then I climbed into the van
and found awaiting there
messy faces all in smiles
and bows in tangled hair

My darlings, my loves, my reasons for being
how could I be so silly
to look upon the messes of life
as if they matter, really

I thought I'd ruined Mother's Day
with harsh words and impatient sighs
but my children must know the love I carry
so deep and full inside

Thank you Lord for children
for every dirty little mess
for tea that gets neglected
in search of each lost dress

Thank you for the love they share
for life, for fun, for me
I know these days will quickly pass-
please let me hang on and make them last-
for as long as time shall be

Elizabeth Sliwa
Mother's Day 2017


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Another Spring

I awoke to sunshine this morning. Well really I awoke to a sleepy-eyed 2 yr old who climbed into bed and fought his brother for a spot next to mom. This is the season I'm in. This is the season I've been in for many years. This is the only season my poor, neglected married life has ever known seeing as we had our first (surprise!) child ten months after we said our vows. The season of being woken each day by snuggly toddlers and sweet smelling babies about a half hour before I'm really ready to be awake. Fumbling, almost tripping down the stairs in my pre-coffee state with a baby on my hip and at least 2 children trailing me close and crying for breakfast (at this point the preschooler and possibly the front- toothless first grader has joined the party). One is screaming for cereal, another for bagels, the other wants eggs. I comply with each of their demands simply because it's the easiest and I'm a little too compliant with the demands of my children. I've gotten really good at making three different breakfasts in record time. I realize I may be asking for trouble down the road with this practice, but at this moment I don't care. This season. I look at my husband and think it's amazing how two people committed to each other can rally through so many years of lack of time, lack of money, lack of sleep, lack of just us. Sometimes I've felt it's all made us so much stronger. Other times not. But I think what keeps us going is the knowing that we are creating a legacy, as is every marriage that chooses to welcome children into it. Messy, loud, interrupting, needy, sweet sleepy-eyed heaven-sent children. It's about so much more than him or I. It's generational, lasting, worthy work.
And like I said, I woke to sunshine and birds singing, so bring on the season and all it holds.

Spring is here. The farm's been in full swing since March. The arrival of baby chicks (purchased), piglets (bartered for), and goat kids (birthed on this farm) is a sign of new beginnings. A sign that I'm not ready to give up on this old place just yet. There's promise with each new start and each new spring.

The chicks were started in the house, then moved to the barn and by three weeks were out on pasture, moved daily. Another couple weeks and they'll be ready to process. They never stop eating, so they grow fast. The pigs came as a deal -  I was selling a couple goats, the man who was wanted them was short on cash. He offered me two pigs in exchange. I convinced him three would be more even and they arrived the next day. Joe was ok with this. But they eat a lot too and he'll be ready to see them go at the end of this month. I'll miss their... piggy-ness. They really are fun.

I got some soap orders yesterday. I've been wavering on the soap lately, wondering if it's something I really want to continue. Wondering if it's worthy enough. But a good order or two is usually enough to sway me, and back on track it is.

Brenna wanted to help me milk the goat this morning. We're only milking one so far and only once a day which is a nice way to transition back into the busy-ness of milking. The last couple years I relied heavily on my children to do the milking and realized that: 1. I missed it, and 2. It just wasn't done as properly as it ought to be done when the kids were relied upon. This caused me stress, so I've been milking again and enjoying my brief solitary barn trip every morning. But this morning Brenna decided that she was really missing out on life by not helping with the milking, so she came with me.
Her 9 year old fingers are long and slender and feminine. It takes strong hands to milk. I notice my own practiced hands and forearms are sore for a few days at the beginning of each milking season. 'Cause seriously, it really is a workout. She patiently squeezes and squeezes. Amelia the goat is understanding. It takes me an extra ten minutes this morning out in the barn to teach her how to properly get those teats to spray milk, and into the bucket. She's tried in previous years and has given up in frustration. She was too little. This year it's different. When it's over, she's pleased and I'm pleased and the goat's pleased. Win win, win. And Lucas, I forgot sweet Lu. He joined us and was quite proud to be given the job of feeding the bottle baby. What's not to love about this season?


Monday, January 23, 2017

Post Mortem

It was 80 degrees and humid that morning in August when I stepped into the unflattering and oversized white bee suit and zipped it up to my neck. The netted hood, I wore over a baseball cap so that the cap's brim would keep the netting even further from my face. It attached by zipper to the body of the suit. Full coverage. This hive had a reputation for being aggressive. They say an aggressive hive is the result of an aggressive queen. I could understand the possibility of that. 

                                     Isn't the behavior of the brood                       
                              always in direct correlation to the queen?
                        Another sobering reminder for me how important
                                       the role of motherhood is.

With bees, I read that the only cure for an aggressive hive is to find the queen, destroy it, and introduce a new, hopefully even-tempered queen. Otherwise, the hive will always be aggressive and somewhat dangerous.  I had tried to look for the queen amongst the drones, worker and nurse bees. I had researched how to find her, how to encourage the nurse bees to raise a new queen. But I was an amateur. I couldn't find the queen. Admittedly, I hadn't spent too much time trying. It's hard to spend an extended amount of time studying an aggressive hive.

All this I pondered, as I filled the smoker with some wound up green baling twine retrieved from the barn, threw in a fire starter and, with the help of Joe who would stand a safe distance away, my hive tool, a bucket and strainer for honey, plodded down the field towards the white painted hive bodies resting on pallets...
That day, I would find the hive pleasingly more docile than previously. I collected a good almost gallon of sweet wildflower honey, not counting the 6 or so full frames of honey I left for the bees to overwinter on, and was sweat drenched and achingly exhausted by the time we finished an hour later. Collecting honey is serious work.

Over the next several months I kept a casual eye on the bees. Distracted with the daily preoccupations of raising a bunch of children, (along with a gaggle of goats, and a coopful of chickens), admittedly, I was happy that at least one thing in my care was semi self sufficient and left them mostly alone. I'd glance their way when out in the goat pasture (their hive abutting the north side of the field fencing), and each time noticed them happily buzzing around, the guard bees always at attention at the hive opening. They were good. In the fall we added an extra super for more space for their increasing numbers. Eight extra frames for them to make honey and grow new bees on. All was going well.

It was two days ago that I was on a walk by myself. It had been a hard, long day and I quickly exited the house to walk our property trail and regain some sanity as soon as Joe had arrived home and before the last light of day gave way to night. It was a still, cool evening, but not too cold. I was reveling in the pleasant quietness of the nature around me and I decided to take a detour cutting across the bottom field to check on the bees on my way back up towards home. In the winter, one must be cautious not to stress the bees by checking them too often. They go into a semi conscious, semi hibernative state and flock together to keep warm, only leaving the hive on occasion and on mild days to take "cleansing flights" (aka, to poop). One way to check them without opening the hive box is to knock on the side of the box and if you hear a buzzing response, usually all is well. Or, at least they're alive. The weather was relatively mild, but I didn't have my protective suit on and light was fading, and I knew the children would be looking for dinner, so rather than lifting off the cover, I decided to do the knock test.

I knocked.
I knocked again.
Again, harder.

I knew without even lifting the cover off  the hive. The bees had died. Thousands of them. I had been thinking this was how it would be and I don't even know how I knew. Maybe because it really would be too good to be true for my bees to survive two winters in a row with so little intervention from me. Maybe because it seems that nothing we try on this farm has worked out even nearly as seamlessly as we'd planned. Needless to say, I was left feeling guilty, and a little devastated, and a little the failure.

Upon inspection, The hive was filled with honey. So starvation was not the reason. They appeared to have died all at once. Or at least within mere days of each other. And recently. After performing the best post-mortem I could being so green with this and all,  I deduced that I really know too little about bees to properly assign a cause-of-death, which made me feel even worse.

Mites? Dunno. 
Dysentary? Could be.
Moisture in the hive? Maybe- I did discover some large water droplets in the hive. I do know that moisture is deadlier than cold to them. How did that get there? In a hive properly installed and with ventilation, moisture shouldn't be an issue.

Either way, the bees are no longer.

Yesterday I did the work of taking the hive up from the field and processing the honey. Today, the honey is still draining from the comb into a large pot on my dining room table. It was cold, and so straining is slow. It's light yellow and the stickiness still clings to everything Charlotte and Isaac touched as they were helping me.  It looks enough to fill three half gallon jars. Impressive. Enough to keep us in honey until the days are warm and long again.  Enough wax for dozens of salves. I inspected the hives once more, hoping to find something that would clue me in as to their demise. I didn't.

But I did find that queen.
And she was extraordinary.
If she'd been aggressive, I couldn't tell.

I don't know if there will be more bees here in the near future. Right now, I'm feeling inadequate in my bee-keeping skills, enough to dissuade me from pursuing it further until I can really devote some time to the craft. I should join a beekeepers club, find a mentor, learn more, do this properly. I'm not sure what I'll do. Time is so scarce right now. It's amazing to have fresh, raw honey, but that can be found and purchased easily enough from another local beekeeper.

If this is my last experience keeping bees, I'm thankful for the memories made and the stories I still have to tell. There are some good ones.

Perhaps another time.

Or perhaps you'll be hearing about new hives come some spring.


Thursday, December 15, 2016

Auction Day

The thermometer read 5 degrees on the outside and 41 degrees this morning on the inside of the farmhouse. The coal stove had gone out sometime in the night. We were all most pleasingly warm under our thick quilts and comforters and unaware. "Drafty old houses are like swiss cheese with a door, at least in this weather", the man of the house muttered as he re-lit the stove, "Swiss cheese with a door." Outside the wind was so fierce that the red barn was barely visible from my kitchen window. We both shuddered at the task ahead, and not just from the cold. It was auction day. Before Joe left for work and after the baby was fed and settled, we headed out with Connor's help into the frigid cold to load the spring bucklings. I gave them a quick ration of green hay which still smelled reminiscently of summer. They munched aware unaware that it was their last meal on this farm. Their birthplace. It was surprisingly easier than we thought it would be to load them onto the truck, the cold and a full belly making them compliant and manageable. Not that they aren't usually. Goats are great like that. Friendly, personable. But they're also stubborn. We took them 3 at a time and made 2 trips. We're fortunate to live just 4 miles from the auction barn. The barn was clean and organized and the employees friendly and helpful. I lingered a minute as I said good-bye. They gazed at me uncaring as they chomped on more hay.

Bye boys.  

As we pulled back up the driveway, Joe said, "You're going to miss them a little aren't you? Watching them out there in the field, hearing them call for you each time they see you?" "Yeah" I said, "a little." And I knew we were talking about more than just me.

Tonight, I'll attend the auction with a friend. I'm not sure I wanted to go, but feel I should anyway. Especially if this is something we'll be doing more of in the future. Tonight is the Holiday Auction. The one attended by much of the ethnic community seeking out a lamb or goat for their holiday feasts. It supposedly brings the best prices for goat of all the auctions throughout the year. This and the Easter goat sale. We'll see. As for the money, Connor says he should get some for all the farm chores he does, I say I'd like to keep most for the expansion of the farm, Joe says we need it for bills. And that's that. I suspect we'll all get a cut.

Back at home it's now 12 degrees. Still -6 with the wind chill. We cover the chicken coop with a tarp and cinder blocks and wrestle the blasted wind for 10 minutes to keep it from blowing off. The coop's too drafty for days like this. I give them an extra scoop of feed, check on the goats in the barn and head indoors. I can't feel my fingers. My thighs are numb.
Joe leaves for work.

Inside, the temp's up to 56. The babies are in triple layers. There's a pot roast in the crockpot. The kitchen is still a mess from breakfast and a hurried evening last night. After feeding and changing the baby, I hand him to Ava and set the kitchen to rights. I decide the only way to warm up the kitchen properly is to bake. Ava and I decide a nice rustic brown bread to accompany the roast and maybe some gingerbread cookies would be a good choice. As the baby plays with some spatulas in his seat and with Lucas' help, we grind and measure wheat flour, and cornmeal for the bread. In the blender go raisins, water, olive oil, molasses. In the mixing bowl, water, honey and yeast are  proofing. They all get mixed together and kneaded. Brenna laughs as she powders the baby's nose with flour. The bowl of dough gets set on the back of the coal stove to rise. I'm looking forward to this bread. On days like these, a hearty homemade bread is especially savory.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

More, or Less

The anxiety gets to me sometimes. Yesterday it rattled my senses as I tried to focus on what needed to be done for the afternoon. Laundry, dinner, clean out the girls closet, Christmas shop, check Connor's essay. My hands actually shook as I hastily made chocolate chip cookies in an attempt to see progress completed on something. Baking's good for that. For seeing a project through and enjoying its end. I let Luc help. I had Gunnar in one arm and so I made them with a baby in one hand and a two year old's help. I made a mental note to check Craigslist for backpacks. He's about big enough now to be carried on my back. I'd get so much more done. Don't rush this phase. Don't rush this phase... He's asleep now, and already I miss the feel of him in my arms.

 The anxiety was in relation to the thoughts that plague me about this old farm. Every once in a while, and more lately, I wonder and hope and plan all that I want for this place. Yet the dreams I have for it might be too lofty. I think:

I don't want a hobby farm.  I want a working farm. That takes time, and money and both are short right now, and maybe they always will be. Even now, money so tight, always saying no to the kids for this or that, I feel guilt for not working a "real" job. I'm a registered nurse. I'm a registered nurse with 15 years of experience. I could get a good job. I could get a good job tomorrow, if I wanted. But I want to be here, raising my kids and working alongside my family farming this land. Is that selfish of me? I don't want to miss a thing, yet I don't want it to ruin us, this choice for me to be home, to try and take an old farm and breathe life into it. Joe works hard. He's started a handyman business he's building from the ground up. A business he's good at. With eight children, someone has to be home, behind the scenes, keeping things running and I'm glad it's me. We live in a poor farming community. "There's no money in farming" is evident all around.
The spring bucklings are going to auction in 2 and a half weeks. We'll see if it was worth it to raise them these 8 months. It wasn't hard if you don't count all the fence repair. Maybe the payoff will be encouraging. One can raise a lot of goats on 20 acres. Could we handle more goats and do it well? Or maybe it wont be profitable and we'll be back to square one. Sheep? Seems to be more of a demand for lamb. Maybe sheep and goats. We'd need better fencing, a herd dog... why can't I just be satisfied with a few silly animals? Do I really want a working farm?
And my soap business. I want it to be profitable. Time and labor, marketing, packaging, labeling, and supply purchases weighed it down before. How can it be done differently and competitively and still be worth all the time and effort financially? Others seem to do this successfully. Am I not committed enough?

I guess this is the plight of the entrepreneur- doubting and second guessing and guilt until one day, for a small minority, a breakthrough is made.

I just need to figure it out. And who needs money anyway? Is is really that important? Why can't I just relax and enjoy this life without the constant push?

Those were the thoughts that were blazing a red hot trail through my mind tangling themselves together and making me my hands shake.

Why can't I kick this? Hang it up. How long is too long to try and make a go of it? Honestly, a real effort hasn't even been made. I've had 2 babies in the three years we've lived here. Maybe next year will be the year we figure out what we want from this place. Maybe we don't want more than what we have now. Maybe what we really want is less. I need to figure this out.

I'm not sure I like this post. I'm not sure I can make you understand. The words aren't coming out quite right. Perhaps I won't publish it. But I want to be transparent. We may leave all this behind someday and I want to have this memory of why. Or we may be here forever, and I want to have this memory of how it was in the beginning, a first generation farmer.

Cookies done, Lucas gleefully covered in chocolate, I needed air. I took the kids out, cleaned the barn, and trimmed the goats' hooves with Christmas music a little too loud in the background. It felt good. I was reminded once again how much I like this work.  I checked under the goats' eyelids for signs of worminess. I was pleased that all seemed good. Nice and pink. Everyone appeared large and healthy and hearty. No worming needed this fall. Nice.

I cleaned out the barn. The pitchfork handle's loose again.

And why can't they make pitchforks that last? We can't afford a tractor, although we'll need one if  this farm gets any bigger. It's not cheap to buy pitchforks each year either. Little costs, all add up. So many of these little costs in farming...and life I guess.

I'm grateful we've reached a point where the goats cost us almost nothing to maintain. They have plenty of pasture and hay that we receive in exchange for renting another portion of our pasture out to a local farmer who cuts it. He takes some and we get some and it works well for both of us. They've been healthy (with the exception of one older doe we lost this Spring ) So the money we get for those bucklings will be all profit. Just in time for Christmas. That's something.

Work complete, I feel a renewed sense of energy. The anxiety is gone. My children are laughing at some silly play they're involved in. Lucas is talking to the goats. It does them good to be out here too.
I remember I'm a mother first, always first, and I dance with them in the barn to Emmanuel before we flip off the lights and head for the warmth of the house. It's just getting dark. Meatloaf's in the oven. The baby will need fed when I get inside.

I'm a fool for this life.

Or maybe just a fool.


Friday, November 18, 2016

The Garlic's in

The perfect way to pass a sunny 65 degree day in mid November is to plant garlic.

Except to be honest, I didn't really want to plant the garlic this morning. I was pretty comfortable on the inside of my house, and the baby had just fallen asleep. But the garlic was here on my kitchen counter beckoning for days, and I seem to have a compulsion for such things, so...

I took Ava and Brenna out with me, told them this could be our science for the day. It'll be fun! I said, as they reluctantly stabbed at the hard earth to loosen the soil, shoveled composted manure into a wheelbarrow, and raked it into the plot. Brenna got upset with Ava for taking her favorite pitchfork. She stomped off to pout and then just as quickly took up a cheery game with Lucas. I let them be. Ava didn't want to bury the bulbs into the soil. She had just painted her fingernails. I let her hand the garlic to me instead. I don't paint my fingernails anymore. I spoke about how deep to plant them, how far apart. That we'd cover the whole bed with straw in the end to protect them over winter. I explained that each little clove would undergo a miraculous transformation and emerge a large bulb full of it's own little cloves. I'm not sure she was truly listening, but she's too polite to tell me of her disinterest. The chickens, upon learning there was fresh turned soil around hastened to our little patch and started digging through, upsetting the bulbs I had just planted. I may have thrown a pitchfork at them. Perhaps they'll go back into the coop today.

When we were all done, Ava looked at the remaining bulbs in her hand and asked if we were just to throw them out. No silly, I replied. We'll eat those. Upon hearing this, she narrowed her eyes at me suspiciously- "
If we can just buy garlic to eat, why in the world do we have to plant it?" God bless her. She had a point. And this was the question I'd been wrestling with in my mind all morning as I spent that precious hour and a half baby nap time planting garlic. And I don't really know the answer. Because I'm still unsure of why this 21st century wanna-be farmer, wanna-be blogger goes through these motions that appear so meaningless to the modern world (and even myself sometimes). How easy (and cheap) is it to buy garlic at the store? Quite.

Still, the  feeling I get from doing it myself, and including my children, whether reluctantly or not, is the way I've chosen to live my life and spend my time for now. And it's good. It's not heroic, It's not life-changing, but it's good. Plus, I told her. Just wait until Spring. Those little green shoots are one of the first living things to appear in the garden, and what a thrilling feeling. We'll think back to this gorgeous November day after a cold and bitter winter and be thankful for the time we spent. Hands in the dirt, planting the garlic.

Monday, November 14, 2016


When he called, from his hotel room, from working out of town, I was in the recliner reading a book to Charlotte and nursing the baby. The book was Let Me Hold you Longer by Karen Kingsbury. One of those books that I usually can't get through without watery eyes at the least, or being reduced to a slobbering, sniffling mess, dependent on my mood and (if we're being honest) the particular time of the month. Tonight, thankfully, it was the latter.

He asked how the day had gone and I told him of moving the new bunny to one of the chicken pasture pens. That the boys had gotten it down from the hayloft for us, and how he seemed so much happier to be on grass and have room to explore and leap and nibble. It just seemed so much more natural than the smallish cage he was in. I meant to tell him that I tried to grab an old apple from the apple tree next to the pen to give him a treat, but that there were two dead bees inside and so I decided not to, and also I wondered if those bees were dead from the neighbor spraying his field because some residual spray inevitably makes its way to our backyard. It's impossible to avoid. I wondered if that was the case how many more bees had been killed. And then naturally I was reminded that it had been too long since I'd been down to check on the bees. They seemed good in August. I need to go soon.


I told him that I'd been so patient with Isaac and that Isaac had behaved himself rather well today (a trouble we're having), except that near bedtime he decided to call the baby a buttface and said it over and over and was punished for that and then laughed at me after being punished and so I told him it was time for bed and he said, "no" and so I got really mad then and perhaps was too severe. I told my husband that I was still feeling guilty for possibly overreacting even though we'd made up with cuddles and bedtime stories. But the level of his naughtiness lately combined with the titch of postpartum anxiety I still seem to be experiencing is a breeding ground for all sorts of episodes between the two of us lately. Gosh I love him. He's the neatest kid ever. But we're having a tough time of it. 

I told him that both the baby and Lucas had pooped three times today.

I told him that I'd let the chickens free range today because we were out of chicken food and I didn't get to the store and that buying $14 bags of chicken food each week was getting old for a bunch of chickens that haven't layed eggs since September. They were perfectly content to free range. I told him I'd prefer that anyway. He reminded me of all the poop they leave everyhwere. He prefers them neatly penned. I also told him that I'd changed the timer on the light in their coop to turn on from 2am -6am rather than the 7pm-11pm that it's set to now. I'd read somewhere that was better for egg production. Lord knows I've tried everything.

I told him that I'd finally gotten the three bags that have been sitting in the back of our van for a month to Salvation Army. That I went into town hoping that the apple trees I saw on clearance two days ago would still be there. I went with my credit card because times are a little tough, and $10 apple trees are worth it. They were all gone. Once again, life got in the way of planting apple trees. Spring, perhaps.

I told him that my mom was still sick (bronchitis) and that my Dad couldn't find his keys and would he please check his truck?

I told him that I'd put Whisper (our elderly-est) goat in one of the kidding pens for a couple days because I could tell she was in heat and didn't want her bred. Last year she had an accidental breeding and did not produce enough milk for her baby (due to being so old, I assume). I didn't watch it close enough and that beautiful little strawberry blonde doeling died, and I was so mad at myself for not catching that.  Whisper has given us many beautiful babies and oodles and oodles of milk in the 6 years we've had her. I've noticed lately that she's been hobbling a little. Walking slower. Lying down a little more. Not racing to the hay feeders like she used to. Last evening when I went out she was sitting in the pasture just looking up at the stars. She's 12. It's almost time. I hope she can enjoy one more Spring and Summer.

That's all of what I'd told him. And it was good to have that conversation because he's usually the talker in our relationship while I tend to be the listener who holds things in. And then we talked about his day which had nothing to do with children or animals or poop, but was still a good day. And we said I love you, and we said good bye.