Monday, December 15, 2008

THE BARN - A Christmas Memory

Every November , as the malls seem to shout at me in a blur of red and green obligations I have the odd feeling come over me of having come from another planet, or at least another time zone. I am coerced into this yearly treadmill of buying more and more in a hopeless quest to satisfy all expectations. I feel downright cranky. I find myself hunching down in my jacket to hold it all at bay.
I am stuck in a time warp longing for Christmas the way it used to be , with naivete’ and simplicity, the way that of course is gone forever.

Christmas Eve of 1958 still glows in my memory as brightly as the bold colored paper chains that festooned our wild fir tree. I was eight years old and had always been frightened of the dark but I was determined to slip outside that night, for my desire for magic would overcome any rising fears.

The suspense had been building for days. I had come across an amazing short story in a library book that had fired my imagination so that I had thought of little else. It went like this: The lowly animals that had witnessed the birth of the Holy Child were forever after given the power of human speech on Christmas Eve. And the story hinted that only children, the pure in heart, could hear them. Of course it was true, I never doubted the tale for a moment, except maybe the pure in heart part. I wasn’t entirely sure I qualified there, or even what it meant. Maddening in its lack of details, I had read the scant pages over and over searching for clues. What time was this supposed to happen? And was there a time limit, say dawn? Would the cows speak to the horses or just to their own kind? What would they say? I knew somehow that there would be no idle chit chat of the weather or the quality of the hay that year. There would be reverent murmuring concerning the wonder of the Christ child appearing amongst their distant ancestors, and I was going to be there to eavesdrop.

The barn was not ours. We were a family of British immigrants who had settled in rural Canning, Nova Scotia in the spring of 1957. My new school was a nightmare. I was the center of unwanted attention and taunts each time I ventured to speak in my crisp English accent. Self concious and painfully shy, my salvation came in the discovery of the farm. It was directly across the road from our rented home, a rambling farmhouse with a truly enormous red barn housing both beef and dairy cows, pigs and work horses.

For days I had hung around the edges of the pastures, hunkered down under the bushes watching the newborn calves and longing to touch their soft black and white patches. My trail was becoming noticeable. The elderly farmer spoke to me suddenly but warmly,
“What’s your name?”
“Kathryn,” I whispered.
“I got a sick one in a stall. Bloated. Needs to be walked.”
He turned abruptly towards the barn and I followed, and he handed me a rope with a calf on the other end. A blatting unhappy creature with a hugely distended belly. I kept her moving for hours it seemed, the dangerous gas subsided and she survived and recovered. Mr Roscoe grinned at me and said “You done good.” And I shone.

A whole new world opened up to me of birthings and dyings, of haymaking in the endless days of summer, the daily cycles of feeding and milking and the delight and mystery of the cream separator. Its physics were beyond me, it was simply pure magic that caused separate streams of milk and cream to pour from the spouts as I cranked the handle round and round.
I had become his shadow. I learned to chew the end of a stalk of timothy in companionable silence and to spit like an exclamation point. At nine I could reach the brake with my toes, and so he taught me to drive his battered old tractor, a delicious secret I could never dare divulge to my parents.

I turned up for breakfast daily before the crack of dawn. Breathless from running uphill and scared in the dark, I would burst into the warm kitchen, compose myself, and place my egg on the counter. A strange ritual that my mother insisted upon. The Roscoes had dozens of chickens. They sold eggs. They had eggs galore. But my mother would not be indebted to anyone so each day I repaid one egg. My dear mother never knew of the secret perversion of proper table manners I took such delight in. Mr Roscoe would scoop out our soft boiled eggs, plop mine onto my plate for me, and provide toast for dipping into the glorious mess. At home we ate eggs properly ensconced in silver egg cups, spooning out dainty bits with tiny teaspoons.. “Properly” was a word I had grown up with.

“You know, you can call me Britt,” he once said to me at at breakfast. “And you know her name is May,” indicating his plump apron clad wife with a nod of his head. May couldn’t say “th”, and she called me Cassie.
But I couldn’t do it. Although this lovely couple filled the role of grandparents in my life, I had just too much British reserve. The idea of dropping the Mr and Mrs was just too startling and if my parents had caught wind of me adopting such deplorable manners I’d never hear the end of it.
Mr Roscoe bought me a pony. They said it was for the grandchildren but I knew better. It was me he took in his funny old car with the rounded fenders and smoky smelling velvet upholstery to find the horse. We travelled every back road of the Annapolis Valley only to settle on Bessie. She was old and cantankerous and frequently laid her ears back and I loved her fiercely. There was never a saddle and the bridle was mostly baler twine but I never questioned any of it. I had my heart’s desire, a pony to love and the intoxicating freedom of tearing though the hayfields at a fast gallop, my fingers entwined in her mane and our ponytails flying behind us. My mother never knew of the times the old pony had stumbled and I had come flying off, the wind knocked out of me and a fresh round of bruises to hide.

It took so very long that Christmas Eve for the family to settle down . I must have dozed off, for suddenly it was very late and the light no longer showed through the crack under my parents door. I pulled on my clothes over my pyjamas and tiptoed down the stairs with my heart beating loudly, hoping I wasn’t too late. The dash across the road and up the driveway to the barn was terrifying through the shadows of the maples in the stark moonlight. I never thought of my footprints in the new snow and do not know to this day if they were noticed.
I eased the barn door open carefully. Toby, the border collie met me wriggling with happiness and I whispered thanks to her for keeping quiet. The warmth and familiar odors of the barn wrapped me like a comforting blanket and my racing heart slowed. Enough moonlight shone through the dusty windows to outline the backs of the cows, old Bessie, and the profiles of the work horses. I stroked each face in turn, speaking soundlessly to each animal in my thoughts. I knew without a doubt that they could understand me that way because I had read Black Beauty. Merrylegs, Ginger, and Beauty all understood the unvoiced word. Cows however were not in their circle. Cows I was not so sure about.

“Barbie, don’t you know this is Christmas Eve? Don’t you know that you can speak now?” I willed the silent questions towards a spot between her horns. The jersey chewed her cud, meditating, and blinked her large eyes. At the end of the row of cow stanchions I blew my breath into Bessie’s nostrils. “ This is a Holy Night, you know, girl”. The pony snorted softly and said nothing discernable. I tried speaking out loud. I sang the first two verses of Silent Night. I didn’t know any more of it. I hummed O Holy Night. I didn’t know any of the words. My promptings were having no effect at all. The cud chewing and digestive rumblings of the cows were the only response forthcoming.

I retreated to an empty calf pen and covered myself with straw. Toby, grinning in a ray of moonlight, wriggled in beside me and I pulled her close and waited…and waited in the quiet darkness, my mind busily reviewing the library book for further clues. Suddenly it came to me! Cows, horses, pigs, hens, a dog, numerous cats and kittens all sheltered within this barn, but there was no donkey.
Was the donkey the missing crucial ingredient? I pictured the little animal in the Christmas story book. A grey donkey with the cross of Christ described in the black lines along it’s back and across it’s shoulders. Of course! If this barn had a donkey he would be well aware of his blessed heritage. The other creatures would know to look to him for leadership and the stage would be set for the unfolding miracle of reverent conversation.

With a curious mixture of disappointment yet satisfaction with my own explanation, I crawled out of my warm nest, kissed Toby goodbye, and ran like a deer through the snow, downhill this time, and to my bed, shedding bits of straw up the staircase and along the hall.

More than fifty years have passed and I’m blessed with a family of my own, a seaside farm and a many years of horses and ponies. Our barn is ancient but solid, its’ timbers put together carefully with wooden pegs. A place of calm focus away from the holiday frenzy of the shopping mall . And across the field stands the venerable old barn of my next door neighbors. Inside, in the light from a dusty window a small grey donkey looks up from his hay. A small grey donkey marked forever with the cross of Christ in memory of a stable long ago.



flydragon said...

Hi Kathi,
Thanks for visiting my blog.
I too, have the same feelings about Christmas these days and long for the ones that I knew as a child. What a wonderful story about your Christmas in 1958. It kept me glued to the page.

Undaunted said...

What a beautiful post. You were such a lucky girl. I'd swap today's hectic life for those simple pleasures any day.

asti said...

Hi Kathi,
Nice to meet you over at my blog and thankyou for your comments. I absolutely loved this beautiful post. Oh, for simpler days. I too feel overwhelmed by it all and have tried not to get sucked in, especially where my children are concerned. Unfortunately my hubby went and ordered some of the stuff I was trying to avoid for them...(well meant, but I groaned inside...aarrghhh). We don't see eye to eye on this point :)

kathi dunphy said...

Asti, shopping for kids has got to be gruelling these days..who would have guessed a generation ago that marketers would come up with dolls called Bratz, dressed and made up as little hookers...and that moms would buy them for their little daughters to aspire to ? And today a radio interview about the increasing prevalence of torture scenarios in kids video games.....where are we all going?

Gwen Buchanan said...

ahhhhh.... that is the sweetest story ever, Kathi... sweet little thing, you were... you are a natural with animals and one with nature.. now I know why...

I agree about the Christmas pressure... it is hard not to go with the flow... to be the outsider these days.. it takes character... much better than being homogenized though!!!

Thank you for this lovely tale...

Gail said...

Hello Kathi...I wandered over here after seeing your mud woman mention at Zoe's blog! So creative and what fun to have her oversee your garden! She is fantastic! Happy, happy Christmas...a very lovely post btw. Christmas used to be so magical; it's my goal to bring back those magical feelings. Gail

JulenaJo said...

Kathi, you were so lucky to have such a childhood. Thank you for sharing your story--it made tears prick my eyes, and it also made me laugh! Beautiful! We are so much alike, it makes me shake my head in amazement. I can't believe you sneaked off to the barn just to see if the animals would talk...I'd NEVER have been so brave, even though I was certain they did so, too! You're my hero!

kathi dunphy said...

Thank you all for your kind comments, I'm so glad this memory was worth sharing and that it connected with you. It wasnt easy being "the wierd kid",but I will have good memories to live in when Im old and senile.

disa said...

I love it ! Very creative ! That's actually really cool Thanks.