My mother didn't like my farm. She didn't like the smell. Farms always smell like barns and pig shit and chicken shit or the shit of whatever animal you have around the place. They smell like fermenting grain in the bottom of the feed barrels and old dusty hay and oat straw. There are warm animal smells and cold wet dirt smells, stews and pies and compost heaps. Last year's garden and this year's garden. They smell like old oil spots under the tractor and gasoline and horse manure. I think it smells of life. My mother didn't.
I had an old two-story white farmhouse with a big kitchen. We had oil heat, but I had a little wood stove, what the locals called a "garbage burner" in the kitchen. There was a old hole rotting into the old wood around the sink where the kitchen pump used to be. A family of mice lived in that hole from time to time. My then husband was always setting traps to kill them, trying to catch the babies to flush them down the toilet. But they didn't do much damage. My pantry wasn't ravaged and strewn with mouse turds. They didn't seem to need much. So when I saw them, I'd scare them back into the hole and when my then husband was gone to work, I'd call the kids in and we'd watch the baby mice and set breadcrusts out for them to eat.
My kitchen was a combination of farm smells too, because I cooked and baked in it. I canned tomatoes and made maple syrup and rendered lard after butchering. I cut up rabbits and singed the pinfeathers off of the geese. My cat slept in there and so did the three dogs and on the back of the kitchen door, we hung our barn clothes - the stuff we put on every morning and every evening to do chores.
We milked goats and fed pigs and rabbits and gathered eggs and cleaned out stalls. We put gas in the tractor and pulled the plow and later the harrow over 50 of the eighty acres before hooking up the planter with oats or hayseed. In August, we oiled up the baler and baled hay and in March we droved the tractor as close to the woods as we could get it in the snow, pulling a wagon full of taps and buckets and then set off on snowshoes the rest of the way to set the maple taps.
I had my own pig. A sow I named Ophelia. She wasn't a Duroc. She was a Hampshire, and she let me help her through three litters. Then we raised her kids and ate them. When we sold the farm, we ate her too. I didn't think she'd get a good home anywhere else. She was too old to throw any more litters and strangers would just butcher her anyway, so I figured we could honor her by eating her ourselves. So we did.
I loved that farm. But my mother hated it. She loved and honored her parents, but I think she must have lived her life longing to get off the farm and away from the hogs, and she did. She liked things "refined." Not like a country-club snob might. More like a good Norwegian housewife and a thoughtful Christian snob for whom cleanliness and godliness were the ultimate in housekeeping. The times they visited they always stayed in a motel in town and my mother always cleaned something. All mothers do that, I know, but she did it with her nose wrinkled up and an air of distaste that seemed to blame me for hauling her back to her roots where she didn't want to be. Or maybe that was my daughterly guilt. That's another story, anyway.
My folks brought my grandparents to visit once. We had just had a pig butchered and i was busy rendering lard in my large smelly kitchen, when my mother and grandmother walked in the house and my grandmother blew the whistle on mom. "Oh, Ellen," she said. This is a nice place. I don't see what's so terrible about it." And she bustled into an apron and got to rendering with me while my mother, all red-faced from trying to pull her own fat out of the fire, started washing something and saying things like, "Well, I never said it was terrible. It's got a lot of potential when they get it fixed up, I'm sure." Yeah, right, Mom.
My dad and my grandfather wandered around out to the barn and the chicken coop and the old log house that was falling down in my side yard and back to the orchard where it was beginning to be painfully obvious that we'd need a new septic tank sometime soon. My grandfather was about as lively as I'd seen him in the last couple of years. Except he'd say peculiar things like, "I remember when we planted those trees. Oh, golly, didn't they grow. That was right before the war, wasn't it Clara?" My grandmother, honest to the bone, "Oh, Louis, you don't know what you're talking about. This is Barbara's place You've never been here before." "No, no, I remember. Don't you remember? I thought we planted'em out the other side of the hen house, though." "We've never planted any trees here, Louis. We've never even been here. That was Iowa. We're not in Iowa, Louis."
Grampa paid no attention to these corrections. He recognized the trees and the barn and almost everything on the place. He never seemed to actually think he was back home again. He just recognized everything, like he was seeinig it in a movie or something. He didn't talk about the house as if he'd lived there. Only the farm itself was familiar, but in a topsy-turvy way. Nothing was quite in the same place as it used to be. He was confused when we drove into town, because he couldn't recall the bridge over the river. Seems it used to be farther downstream, over on the other road. It was the best visit from my folks that I'd ever had.