Springtime on a farm is a lesson in the arc of life in every form. Along with the great joy and excitement for a child, it goes without saying that echoing the great playwrights of all time, new life carries the blank easel of possible doom, fright and fight, and heartbreak.
I remember the most intense love-hate relationship with baby pigs for all of these reasons. There is nothing more potentially vicious than a sow with piglets. It took sheer courage to step inside the farrowing barn after having been scared out of my wits by a charging sow. The desire to sneak a peek at the tiny, velvety pink litters of piglets struck down my fears momentarily.
My father swooped me up out of harm’s way more times than I can count, until he finally laid down the law, banning me from inside the aisle way of the farrowing barn, proclaiming it was off-limits to me until I was at least 30 years old.
As a compromise, he agreed to let my sister and I bottle feed a cast-aside piglet from time to time, which proved to assuage my yearning. He would always preface it with the warning that there was likely heartache ahead. “I wouldn’t give it a name if I were you …” which prompted a name before the door closed behind him.
We celebrated piglet christenings, screamed over the realities of being christened ourselves by those stinky little creatures, and cut intricately-placed holes in old socks to create clothing. We lost sleep, we lost peace and searched endlessly for signs of hope.
The sternest spanking I ever took was for attempting to sneak a piglet onto the school bus because I couldn’t bear to leave it alone for the eons of hours that school demanded.
“What are we going to do with her?” my mother questioned more than a time or two.
“Well, we can’t let her die!” I proclaimed.
“I wasn’t talking about that pig — I was talking about YOU!” was her answer.
I named all the animals. I couldn’t bear to think of giving up on anything without recognizing its wonder in the world. Stray litters of kittens found all over the farm in those days happened often, as our farm was an easy dumping ground from various directions. I had lists of names going at all times.
Penelope was a stray kitten that grew to love me and could not leave me alone.
“She cannot come into the milking parlor,” my father admonished.
She would climb the leg of my coveralls and hide in the hood of my coat. “What are we going to do with her?” I heard my father mutter.
There were funerals, too numerous to count. Popsicle sticks and magic markers and eulogies were required often. I honed my speech-writing skills, and my debate tactics, in the name of all that matters, on all those baby animals, returned to the earth.
To some it might sound absurd, but do you know what I take away from all of this? My goodness, we were lucky kids, growing up in that place and time.
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