Yesterday was Josh’s 27th birthday. He was 18 the last time I was able to speak directly to him and wish him a happy birthday. I still tell him Happy Birthday, but he isn’t able to respond in the way a mother likes to hear her child respond. There are no hugs and kisses, no exchange of smiles, and no birthday cakes that he can eat (or pumpkin pies which he preferred). Although the world stops counting birthdays when a child is deceased, a mother never does. In addition to remembering and counting the years since birth, we count how many birthdays have passed since their death. There have been nine birthdays now since Josh’s death. Some of them I have spent in such deep grief that I have been only able to go through the motions necessary to take care of my family and livestock. Yesterday very well may have been the most peaceful “Josh’s Birthday” that I have had since his death. While not entirely alone in previous years on this date, I have typically spent the day pretty secluded even from family. This was not by choice, although being an introvert and realizing the value of alone time to deal with my heart. Mike has just always worked so hard in the summer and didn’t have time to break away from farming to be with me for the day. Alissa has always made it a point to be with me for part of the day, but she has responsibilities and I have never expected or wanted her to take her whole day and set it aside for me. I’m just not that way. I actually, typically prefer the solitude on these difficult days. But yesterday was different. I found myself alone with my husband in our mountain retreat. The day was spent catching up on chores, including canning some sweet pickles, and while Mike and I worked independently, we were close enough to converse and enjoy each other’s company. In the afternoon, Mike was forced inside by a heavy rain that fell. That made me smile. Every year except for one, it has rained on Josh’s birthday and I have always taken it for a sign that he was with me, because he loved the rain so much.
Early evening, we decided to quit working and take a drive. We took the truck and the back roads, the first few miles taking us through the creek twice, the tires splashing up the water as we continued up the gravel road. We had the windows down and were comfortable enough with just the outside air blowing through the cab. Our evening journey was perfect timing to see the wildlife and we soon lost count of the number of deer we startled. Besides the expected wildlife like deer, groundhogs, rabbits and turkeys, we were also fortunate enough to see one of my favorite animals. As we passed an orchard, I looked up on the side of the hill and saw something that appeared to be looking directly at me. I told Mike to stop and I stared but it didn’t move and I convince myself it was a fallen tree. No sooner had I said to Mike, “Is that a tree trunk?” than the object moved and I yelled excitedly, “It’s a bear!” This is only my fourth bear sighting since I have lived in Virginia. Two of those sightings were along the Blue Ridge Parkway and the third sighting was in the meadow across from our rural retreat. The bear entertained us for a good little bit. We were on a back road that gets no traffic and we simply shut down the truck and sat and watched the bear until it disappeared finally into the woods. We had a wonderful evening getting intentionally lost on the mountain roads and then finding our way back home again. We made a stop up the road from our rural retreat where we had a little bit of cell phone coverage and I called my dad to wish him a happy birthday as he and Josh share the same special day. Back at home we pulled out the butter pecan ice cream and watched an episode of THE WALTONS, a nightly routine that we enjoy when we are away at our second home. As we prepared for bed, Mike did something unintentionally that struck me as funny and I laughed so hard that tears came to my eyes and I could hardly breathe. I went to bed with a smile on my face. As I lay there thinking one more time about “The Day”, a sob threatened to escape and my heart threatened to break. Tears came to my eyes but this time, I held them back. They will come a bit delayed this year and I will sob until the tears temporarily subside and the emotions have been spent, but this year on Josh’s birthday, there will be nothing but smiles and laughter.
Three thirty in the morning, after tossing and turning for at least an hour, I finally gave up and got out of bed. I often wake early, in part because my body got use to waking early to milk the cows before the grandkids arrived. After the twins and Analia were born eleven weeks apart, I started watching them during the week when their moms returned to work. I can’t lie, it isn’t just the internal clock that keeps me from sleeping. It’s also my age. The bones ache more at fifty, and finding a spot that is comfortable for more than a few hours sometimes proves impossible. Between my aching bones and the sounds of two raccoons fighting outside our open window, I just couldn't sleep. The reality is that the natural world is not the ideal picture we often try to paint it to be. It is, in fact, often very cruel. When I think about the way we as humans treat each other, I have to think that perhaps we are not so evolved from the vicious survival instincts of the natural world that we consider subjected and inferior to our intellect. But these thoughts are much too deep for such an early morning, and I would rather sip my coffee ( perked the old fashioned way on my vintage 1950’s stove in my enamel coffee pot), smell the applesauce bread I am baking in the oven, and focus on the good that I have in my life.
Yesterday found us getting around after breakfast and heading to the optometrist about 40 minutes away. A friend joked that we really are moving towards our new life now that I have started scheduling appointments for yearly checkups to coincide with visits to our mountain home. Mike and I have not made a public announcement, but we have also not kept it a secret that we are moving towards semi-retirement. We have worked very hard over the years and while we are still young, we are blessed to be able to slow down a bit and begin to enjoy some of our blessings. This has been an intentional decision on our part as the demands of trying to maintain and manage three separate farms was taking a toll on us physically. In addition, because of the many irons we had in the fire, our relationship with each other and others often suffered. We know wisdom lies in creating a more manageable life for the two of us. These decisions sound trite on paper but took years for us to work through mentally and emotionally. I recognized the changes that were coming shortly after Pops passed away four years ago. Mike and his dad were inseparable as they farmed together. I could see the fire going out of Mike when his best friend no longer worked by his side in the fields. I fought the inevitable with my own stubbornness, not wanting to let go of the dreams and ideals that I had created in my own mind for our future. It took me a lot of time and I created a lot of hurt for myself and Mike until we finally were able to both see the new path that lay before us. My dream was to somehow pass the torch to our children or grandchildren and farm the land that Mike's family had farmed for three generations. I have always been so proud to married to a third generation farmer and to continue farming the family land meant a lot to me, even if it was not my biological family. It wasn't to be. The family farm started by Mike’s grandfather and where his mother still lives that we rented has been leased by a nephew who bought some of our beef herd. We still have a small interest in the herd with a few head of our own, and our nephew helps with their feed and care when we are away. We have always had our garden on the family farm but planted less produce this year and while we intended to sell produce part time in Verona, our garden did not do as well as we expected. We finally made the decision to not sell produce from our mobile stand but rather just sell the excess to a few long-standing customers. So mostly now, the family farm is being leased by another. We have our fifty acres and home in Staunton, most of which is crop land. We planted a big portion of it in soy beans this year and the rest of it we use for making hay. Most of our hay is sold to feed local equines. In addition, Mike continues to make hay at the family farm, as well as two other local tracts of land. In all, he makes close to a hundred acres of hay. Beef sales and hay sales have long been our sustaining income and are our main focus as we reduce the work load in other areas of farming such as produce or the cow share program which I mostly let go about a year after the grandkids were born. I still have my Jersey girls which currently remain at our home in Staunton, but while we are in transition, I have simply let them raise their calves instead of milking them twice a day. (I separate Faith’s calf once a week and get enough milk for our needs.)
With the family farm eventually becoming the property of all four siblings and our interest there potentially creating issues with others who might desire the farm and the changes made in our lives when we lost Mike’s dad unexpectedly as well as the transitions that we made in our own lives toward slowing down and appreciating life and each other more, we decided to follow a mutual dream and purchased approximately fifty acres in a rural area of Southern Virginia. The property is a piece of a bigger tract of land that was divided among heirs and eventually sold off. The 1930’s farm house has been completely remodeled and offers simple, country living at its best. While we are not far off the road, we have no neighbors that we can see from our home and wild life abounds. The majority of our property lies behind the house and offers gorgeous views and plenty of private hiking as well as pasture for my Jerseys and a few Herefords eventually when we move permanently. While the house has been completely restored, the barn needs a lot of work but was once used to milk cows and will function as such once again when we are finished restoring it.
Currently we split our time between our two farms and our two homes. We put in some long days in Staunton catching up on work, making hay, selling to hay and a few long-standing produce customers, providing child care for the grandkids, keeping the grass mowed at our home and Mike’s mother’s place, and caring for the animals. I am still canning and freezing produce sometimes doing so in Staunton and other times bringing it with me to our rural retreat. While we do work to begin cleaning up, clearing brush, restoring the barn and chicken house, taking down some decaying out buildings and such at our mountain property, we make it a point to intentionally slow down and spend time with each other while we are there. We also have made it a point to just stop what we are doing and invite friends and family in for get-togethers, cookouts, picnics and meals sitting on the wrap around porch of our old farm house.
We, like so many folks, have experienced tragedy and loss in our lives. Sometimes it seems like we have had more than our share, but I know that's not true. Tragedy strikes all of us and as we age, we realize that while some see loss at an early age, if we live long enough, we all experience it to some degree. As Mike and I become more aware of our age and the brevity of life, we are trying to make wise decisions that give us time to enjoy all that we have been blessed with in this life: our children, grandchildren, extended family members (including Mike’s mother and my grandmother in their eighties), and each other.
I use to be a night owl staying up late after my children were asleep. That’s where I found my alone time but farming, especially milking cows, changed that for me. It was a reluctant change at first but slowly I began to enjoy the early hours long before the rest of the house was awake. Now there are no children at home but even with just the two of us, I find myself enjoying the peace of the early morning hours when my mind is clear from clutter. These are the moments I find to journal and to write. I like to take my cup of coffee and sit cross legged in one of my favorite chairs with my lap top across my knees. I especially love the early mornings at our rural retreat home. From the sun porch, I can see the open meadow where the deer graze in early morning but are soon joined and replaced by the neighbor’s half a dozen or more mules. This morning I did not have time to relax with my coffee, instead drinking it quickly and packing the car for the return trip to our farm in Staunton. With a birthday party today for Analia, one of our granddaughters who is turning four tomorrow, we had to get on the road and get back this morning. I’m always filled with a bit of sadness when we leave our retreat, but that is balanced by the joy I feel at seeing our family in Staunton whom I always miss. After a false start (because we forgot something and had to go back) we headed down the road and had to straddle the mother coon and her nursing kits in the middle of the road their eyes wide with surprise at the first vehicle to pass in a number of hours. Though they are such a nuisance, I was happy we didn’t hit them with the tires and they would live to continue creating their nightly chaos and threaten the chickens that I anticipate having at the new place before next spring. I will probably eventually wish the little buggers were not around but this morning with the surprise and fear I their eyes, I was happy that they survived the near mishap.
The air is always a bit a cooler at our mountain home but was especially cool this morning. Although it is the last of July, the temp barely made it to 70 yesterday and there was a cool breeze blowing all day. We had a mere 53 degrees this morning.
The day promises to be busy, filled with Little People, friends and family and as I sit with my computer across my knees as Mike drives the distance between our two homes, I am thankful for the chance we have to enjoy the transition between “old” and “new” as we slowly make changes in our life and embrace the future while treasuring the past and breathing in the present.
Things back home in Staunton are more hectic, less organized, more labor intensive and tiring but hold a whole lot of blessings. Monday's blessings include four Little People whom I wouldn't trade for the world, nor would I trade my time with them for anything. However, they do wipe me out! I told Mike I am glad the three, four year olds were born before I turned 50 because I could never handle what I did four years ago now! Three exactly the same age have been an immeasurable blessing and a lot of hard work for Tita! Now we have little, four month old Rory who has joined the fun. Rory was teething today and required frequent diaper changes and lots of Tita time. The older three had their own challenges with bumps and bruises, disagreements between the three of them, two "accidents" when one could not be bothered to quite playing in order to go to the toilet, and so on. Monday afternoons find me always completely exhausted but thankful for my time with the Little People. In only one year, the three older ones will head off to school and I will be shaking my head and wondering where the time went.