Aunt Joanie’s Farm

In Stuff I Post Just To Keep This Blog Alive... on August 9, 2021 at 11:38 am

I believe I was four years old when I first visited Aunt Joanie’s Farm. In my memory, it was me, my parents, Aunt Shirley and Uncle Sam. My brothers- who would have been three and one, respectively, are nowhere to be found in this recollection- perhaps they stayed behind to be watched by one set of grandparents. Or perhaps I was able to completely block them out, like I often did at home. I do remember it being a very long ride from Norwalk, CT to ‘somewhere near Oneonta, NY’ which is as much as my father remembered when I recently asked him about the location of the Farm.

Being four, I occupied the airspace of a yardstick. The adult banter existed high above me. Laughter, excitement, feigned interest, the snap of a Ballentine beer hissing open, clouds of cigarette smoke-it was all up there. Every now and then the adults addressed me. Aunt Joanie crouching down in the barn to show me the miracle of a breakfast egg! nestled under a feisty speckled hen. My father, hoisting me onto his hip, pointing west to ‘where the cows lived’. My mother stroking my hair as I rested my head upon her lap while she sat at the wood block kitchen table, drinking coffee and chattering with the other women after dinner.

I didn’t know it then, but for the rest of my life Aunt Joanie’s farm, in all its bucolic splendor would be the default vision for any and all farms, whether in conversation or in my beloved books. Charlotte’s Web most definitely happened in Aunt Joanie’s barn. Though I never met her, Fern must have lived in Aunt Joanie’s farmhouse. Stuart Little paid a visit during his country adventures. Chester Cricket must have at least driven past. And every Dick and Jane book elementary school had to offer (and they had so many to offer!) mentioned animals, houses, barns, and food- all of which were abundant at the farm.

The vastness of the Farm was overwhelming, Uncle John owned all the land my eyes could see! The scents in the air- black dirt, manure, fresh cut grass, animal- mixed with a hint of pumpkin and apple were somehow ‘thicker’ at the farm. Though we were on Fall’s doorstep, the trees were still lush and green, small patches of turning leaves visible to the discerning eye, a telltale sign of the season to come.

The farmhouse and the barns were separated by a long, sparsely traveled road, probably a Route Something-or-Other. I don’t remember seeing any traffic go by, but I had my mind on other things. I couldn’t wait to meet the cows, in particular- to look into their deep, soulful eyes and admire their long lashes. I imagined they wore bells around their neck, and sometimes straw hats like in my Golden books, and of course they talked! Sometimes they even gifted people with milk in glass bottles like the ones left on our front porch by Clover Farms in the early morning.. I knew one cow’s name was Elsie, and she had ice-cream, so I wanted to meet her the most of all.

Uncle John and Aunt Joanie had a barn full of roosters and chickens, the stars of my first ever barnyard mingle. There were gates that had to be unlatched, dirt paths to be followed and then we were inside the great, red barn, outfitted with chicken pens and nests and towards the back, cool, shadowy stalls where the horses lived. There was lots of hay, both fluffy and compacted into giant blocks wrapped with twine. Unlike in my Golden Books, the chickens were a third of my height and somewhat threatening in the way they bobbed and weaved, anxious to peck at anything in their path with their sharp beaks. I hid behind my mother’s skirt for most of the chicken/rooster meet and greet. The horses, like the cows, were ‘out in the field’ so there was no feeding one a bright red apple in my upheld arm, but I hoped the opportunity would arise. My father did as well, as he was filming most of the visit on his reel-to-reel film camera. He must have said ‘Wave to the camera, Annie’ a bazillion times.

Aunt Joanie planned a feast for us all, a meal my father said he still remembers. Fresh turkey (perhaps, axed this morning, fresh), cornbread stuffing, homemade gravy, bread-and-butter corn on the cob grown on the premises, along with biscuits and the last of the season’s fat red tomatoes which lined the windowsill, salad ready. We had all worked up an appetite and were pleased when Joanie announced the meal would be served soon. It was just me and Dad at this point, as the women had (naturally-it was the law) gone on ahead to help with the setting of the table and serving of the meal. Uncle John approached us, wearing his farmer overalls, a red bandana ties around his neck and holding a pitchfork. He told us that the cows were finally coming in from the pasture and directed us over to where they would soon be appearing, while adjusting the corncob pipe that hung in the crook of his mouth. Dad and Uncle John had a grown-up conversation ‘up there’ while I twisted my father’s fingers in the hopes of speeding things up.

Finally, Dad said ‘Let’s go, Annie!’ and my heart swelled in anticipation of meeting my new cow friends!

My father and I walked towards the field, Dad holding my hand and pulling me along, carrying the camera in his other. The sky was a muted orange, there was a chill in the air and soon the sun would dip below the horizon. We arrived at the western field and stood at the wooden fence. My father pointed out the herd of cows approaching, still so far away they were only inches tall. They slowly rumbled forward growing larger by the second. To me it looked as if there were a thousand of them, black and white, solid brown, solid black-all incredibly substantial. They were much more intimidating than my Golden books had let on. (Between this and the chickens, was this my first brush with ‘fake news?’)

At about the same time they arrived, maybe ten feet from the gate- colossal creatures, not a bell in sight ,I felt my fathers hands, under my arms, firmly lifting me up and over the fence. The confusion set in: the herd approaching, my father, on the other side of the fence-the safe side-his camera lifted to his face, gleefully directing me to ‘smile at the camera, Annie!’. Perhaps this was the first time I experienced shock, as I felt the color drain from my face, my heart beat out of my chest and I was confronted with forty 500 pound animals heading my way at a fast clip. The ground shook. I shrieked and began to cry, lifting my arms up like a sorry little wishbone, begging my father to lift me back out….but he was busy filming and laughing. The cows were now looming in my space, mooing, I felt a bump on the back of my head-probably a cow sniffing at this curious being. The air became muffled with the presence of the cows breathing and mooing behind my back, like something sinister, scaring me to death. I clearly remember reaching the ceiling of fear-wherein my will to be saved turned into a low-key, ‘oh well’, surrendering-and acceptance of my fate. That I did not literally faint is a testament to a four year old fortitude I did not know I possessed. When I could no longer hold my arms up, I grabbed onto the fence, my face pressed against the post, not wanting to witness my own end.

After what seemed like hours, my father finally put down the camera.

He lifted me back over the fence to safety. I sobbed and sobbed, hiccupping from a loss of breath, clawing his leg with all of my strength and vowing not to let go.

“Oh, Annie! Quit your blubbering!’ he demanded as he pulled my arms from his leg. ‘They’re just cows! What are you even afraid of?’

The trust I had in my father began to unravel that very day. Before that, I lived with an assumed sense of security that my father would be my protector, whooshing in to save me like the Superman we watched on television. Clearly though, looking back on it, it marked the beginning of a deep fear, not of cows, but of him.

Prologue: We both have our versions as to what happened that day. My father insists the cows were already by the fence, lazily munching on clover, meandering about, swatting flies with their tails. (In the the e-mail about the farm he refers to the incident as ‘the time you were afraid of the cows’ and ‘when you were crying about the cows’) In my mind, they galloped over the horizon like a herd of buffalo in an old western, hooves beating the ground, shaking the earth, menacing. The cows may as well have been wolves, and my dad threw me to them. I don’t think he meant to terrorize me (I HOPE, at least).. I’m forever grateful it did not affect my love of farms or cows. I wish I could remember telling my mother what happened-I must have, right? My father has since left me all of his reel-to-reels…and I know the trip to Aunt Joanie’s Farm is among them. I think it’s time to get them converted and find out. Perhaps the truth is where it usually is: somewhere in the middle. I cannot convey how much I hope my version-and one of my strongest memories- is wrong.

* Of course a four year old could not have been as aware of the pastoral ambiance…I mean, what four year old would use the word bucolic-so I made sure to use every cliché in the book, my favorite being Uncle John in overalls and bandana, holding a pitchfork and sucking on a corncob pipe! What the hell! lol!

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