It’s Saturday morning. I woke today at my “normal” early hour and realized it was time to put my thoughts in order. My uncle Kenny and Kenny’s family are my Wisconsin family. I have a lot of uncles and aunts. A ton of cousins and even more second and third cousins. But Kenny and his family are my family out there. Kenny and his wife Cindy were in many ways my “Wisconsin” parents. Jenni and Corina (not to be confused with my Coreen) are the closest thing I will ever have to sisters. Tomorrow I am going Home to be with them. Words don’t and can’t really describe things like this well. You need the smell (yeah, you really need the smell), the feel, the taste, the shared experience to really appreciate them. Here is my best shot………..
Have you ever done one of those “close yours eyes and picture yourself in a safe peaceful place” exercises? When I do that I inevitably end up in one of two places. The first place is my grandma’s kitchen in Wisconsin. The second place is just across the road and up a little hill in the yard of my uncle Kenny’s farm. Where I end up for that centering exercise, I do believe depends on how hungry I am when I close my eyes. Both places are equally “the center”.
My family in Wisconsin are farmers and very conservative/traditional people. Uncle Kenny was my godfather. Some of you may know what that is. In Catholic circles your godfather and godmother are chosen to guide you in the development of your faith. They are kind of like your faith parents. In a more real sense my godparents were my connection from my immediate family to my much larger extended family. Being traditional folk, my family takes being a godparent pretty seriously.
I was 10 years old when we left the Midwest and moved to Connecticut. When we would go back to Wisconsin to visit “The Farm” I would always spend my time outside bugging my uncles. I had designated “barn clothes” that could only be worn outside of grandma’s house. They had to be taken off after I came in. The barn boots had to remain in the garage. Barn belonged in barn not in the house.
At that time we had two working farms in the family. Two of my uncles farmed together and uncle Kenny had his own. I spent time at both but really I spent most of my time with Kenny.
I would wake up or set an alarm to get up in the morning to help with milking and barn chores. Usually I would time it so that Kenny was almost done with milking (about 6 am). We would spend the time while he finished milking catching up on what had been happening to each of us while we were apart. Once we were done milking we would put the cows out. Then I would start to clean the barn and stalls while Kenny went out to feed them. I had my “jobs”. Sometimes my cousin Corina would come out and help out. Most of the time it was just me and Kenny.
After the barn was cleaned it was time for breakfast. I would go with Kenny up to his house and eat with him. That was when I would get the time to chat with my aunt Cindy as well as my cousins if they were home. Usually catching them up on the same events that Kenny and I just went over. (As an aside, Ken and Cindy were a wonder. One conservative, one liberal. One a farmer and one a social worker who was always wanting to “sell the cows”. Corina is very much her dad’s daughter. Jenni very much her mom’s. I don’t ever remember Jenni or Cindy in the barn. Somehow they were a true couple and a tight family.) Then nap time. Kenny would kick me out. Nap time was sacred. I would always ask when to come back up. Sometimes there was a time, sometimes he said he didn’t know.
When there was a designated time I would be back at the appointed hour. When there wasn’t I would wait down at Grandma’s till I heard a tractor and go bounding back up. Morning chores were getting the cows back in, feeding them (you are pretty much feeding them all of the time) and cleaning the barn (when you are not feeding them it feels like you are cleaning up after them). Then onto the days activities. Hauling manure, grinding feed, cutting and bailing hay, chopping, fixing equipment. Whatever. The list of things to do was endless. On special days we would go into town. Maybe to the tractor store or maybe to a department store to get stuff for the farm.
In the afternoon. More feeding and then the second milking. Usually I would stay around for that entire milking. Don’t walk behind that cow, she kicks. Go feed the ones I am done with. Go into the fridge and get us a pop. Kenny always had snacks in the barn fridge, usually cheese. Then it was time for dinner.
Lots of times my trips to Wisconsin were for festive events like weddings. Weddings and receptions on farms are often split or interrupted by milking time. The faster you could get your chores done the faster you could get back to the festivities. Kenny never expected me to help with chores on those occasions, I just did it. Together we could get the work done faster. The the other thing about festivities is that it was pretty much inevitable that a cow would be calving on those days and that the calving would be difficult and require our attention. It got to the point that I would ask him which cow was going to calve before the wedding. We would both laugh, then go take care of the cow that was, in fact, calving.
Eventually I grew up and moved out on my own. When I was in graduate school (the best
6,7,8, 9 years of my life) Coreen and I would make those trips from Michigan out to Wisconsin together. Usually it was during Thanksgiving. Coreen would come up and spend a little time with us, or she would go to Kenny’s house and spend time with his family, or she would spend time with Grandma. It became our tradition and when the kids were born we brought them out with us too. But I always spent my time up on the farm helping Kenny out (even though Coreen insisted that she would not be abandoned with the kids and I had to keep that in mind).
Our relationship, like all that start as child/adult, changed as we both grew up (it went from pop to beer) but we had a rhythm and pattern that remained. Eventually my own kids would come up with me sometimes to the barn. Kenny loved kids. I think we all have pictures of Kenny holding our kids in the barn looking at calves. The kids are different but I think we all have that picture. (I need to find mine.)
Looking back, what I did in Wisconsin could have been annoying for Kenny. Some little punk kid who never actually lived on a farm following him around while he worked. Interrupting the normal routine. Probably getting in the way at least some of the time. Leaving only when he needed to take a nap and bounding back to heel when the tractor turned on asking for a ride.
But it was never like that. Kenny always had time for me. He always had room in the tractor. (Even when I was much too big to ride comfortably for either of us. Later he always had time for Bailey to ride with him. He used to let Bailey drive. Kenny would steer by tugging on Bailey’s ear in the direction he wanted Bailey to turn.) He never yelled when I did something wrong. If I was going too slow on a job he would finish up the job seamlessly when he got to it. He never expected any help from me but appreciated and welcomed the help I gave him. He appreciated and welcomed the company.
Kenny taught me the value of hard work. Physical, tiring, dirty work. (Sometimes I think that my college students could benefit with a summer of grinding feed just to understand how lucky they are.) Of doing what needs to be done, when it needs to be done. Of finishing a job. Of taking pride in doing that work. Of being connected to the earth. Of being family.
Once when I was visiting during graduate school I went up to the barn at 5am to begin my day.
“Why are you up here? Why aren’t you sleeping? Aren’t you on vacation?”
“THIS is my vacation. It’s time away from computers and cameras and lasers. I love this.”
“I would be sleeping right now if I was you.” I saw the smile on his face as he quickly turned away.
There are so many memories. The first year we brought Bailey to Wisconsin Bailey brought with him the most contagious stomach bug I have ever been a part of. Every, and I mean every, person who came in contact with Bailey was laid waste by the bug. And it was not a minor bug, it was a true laying of waste kind of bug. I remember Grandma hanging laundry out and throwing up while she did that. Kenny puked his brains out while milking in the morning. I helped him especially hard that morning because I felt guilty. It was and remains to this day a legendary event in our family. When Kenny and I were saying good bye a couple of weeks ago I apologized for that. It was long overdue. In the midst our tears Kenny laughed and called Bailey a “little shit” for that. It was the most loving calling of someone a little shit I had ever heard. That was the last thing we laughed about together.
Picture of the Day