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A barn full of memories

A stop inside to collect tarps suddenly became a step into the past.

My son, about to haul a truckload of brush and deadwood from his yard, called asking to borrow a tarp and some rope, knowing we'd have both at hand. Hadn't he watched or helped us cover balers, tractors, tedders, rakes, and hay wagons from storms often enough during his childhood? Now a young man with a penchant for landscaping, he knows where to come for everything from wheelbarrows and rakes to stream rock, border logs, saplings, seedlings, and cedar shavings for mulch. A couple of tarps for covering a load? The farm would surely provide.

I found one folded up in the stall that Cynthia had occupied for so many years – an 8-by-10 pen sectioned off from the main barn floor. These days, we use it as a storage area for lumber and loose hay. But stooping for the tarp I suddenly recalled how fully the little oval-eyed Toggenburg goat had warmed this niche in the barn over her lifetime – how often I'd bent to pet her and how closely she'd attended our twice-a-day labors, thrusting her head through the open door as the cows filed past into their stanchions.

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I thought of the healing companionship she'd offered to the occasional ailing calf quartered with her; how she'd notch up my mood with a simple bleated greeting as I prepared to milk.

I found another tarp draped over the side of Ben's former stall; our big black Percheron is still very much with us, but in wintry weather, he and his Belgian mate, Buck, now share the main floor of the barn with our remnant herd of seven cows.

The disused stall's window was open to the overcast day, the ceiling joists, feed box, harness, and hames draped with cobwebs, and a quiet, gloomy mustiness prevailed. But when I looked at the floor, still vaguely pawed and imprinted, what rushed to mind was the oaty sweetness the place radiated when a young Ben burst in from the night to fill it.

By this time I realized that my simple errand to collect a few tarps from places I no longer frequent had completely unmoored me from the present. But it was too late to do more than wallow a bit more in the sensory memories of the farm in full force and flower.

Peering through the wire into the old chicken coop, I found it looked much as it had when our flock of 20 black Australorp hens jockeyed for roosts on the cedar rails, contented moans mixing with sharp clucks of protest until finally the birds all rested, wing to wing, heads on breasts.

We no longer kept hens after encroaching development and predation by niche-squeezed wildlife posed too great a risk for free-range fowl. Oddly, neither Charlie nor I ever emptied the nesting boxes of hay, which, though dry and brittle, still holds the rounded shapes of the broody hens.

Before carrying the tarps up to the yard, I regarded the three stanchions in the parlor, the pump pressure gauge, spray hose rest, hooks for the wash rags and drying towels, and the corner occupied by the rust-etched hot-water tank. I could all but feel the steam that rose as cows were prepped for milking.

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I delivered the tarps to Tim one evening before joining friends in town for dinner. Had I stopped long enough for a real visit, I would have told him everything they'd uncovered.


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