On this Valentine’s day, I thought I would share something different. It seems like the right time to share a story about love and how that love helped shape my compassion for animals and my passion for exploring and adventure.
I peered out the frosty window as the sun peeked over the distant tree line. Everything was covered in the first heavy frost of the year, and a thin blanket of ice. Each crystal was glistening in the October sunshine. All too soon, the frost would be replaced by snow that would quiet the world like a heavy blanket for months to come. The frost on the old window was mesmerizing, swirling from one edge of the window to the other in intricate detail. Soon thereafter, the sun cleared the trees and frost-filled world began to melt away.
I was so caught up in the glistening world before me that I didn’t even notice them at first. Curled up together on the front porch, just below the window, soaking up the first rays of warmth from the sun, were seven kittens barely a few months old. “Grandma, I think the kittens are cold and hungry.” I said in the innocent voice of a child. “Do you have any cat food?” “They are farm cats. They are supposed to eat mice” she explained as she glanced out the frosty window to see what I was watching. “But they look so cold” I pointed out. “The one with the black tip on his tail cat get in the ball to even warm up” I replied matter of factly. “They can warm up in the barn. There is plenty of straw to lay in.” “Please Grandma” I pleaded.
Five minutes later we were collecting eggs from the chicken coop for the heartiest breakfast these kittens would ever know, complete with some fresh milk from the barn. After all, kittens need fresh, creamy milk from the cows if they are going to chase mice all day!
My grandma never could say no to me, even when she probably should have. I returned from the chicken coop with fourteen eggs and the smallest chicken of the bunch. She was cold too! Apparently my grandma drew the line at chickens in the house.
(Yes, thats little chick in my arms. The back of the photo says “October 1971- 28 degrees)
Later that afternoon my grandma helped me make a warm straw bed in the barn for the kittens and a special spot in the coop, next to the heater, for little chick.
Having grown up on a farm as the daughter of immigrants, her childhood was much different than mine. All animals had a purpose on the farm. If then didn’t then they weren’t of much use. But through my eyes, she slowly began to see the world a bit differently again. The eyes of a child.
For much of my childhood, my grandma lived on the farm with only my uncle, my grandfather having passed away when I was three. I am still amazed at how easy she made the work of running a farm look. I remember her washing clothes with the old wringer-washer and hanging the clothes on the line in the yard to dry in the summer breeze. The endless hours she worked in her vegetable gardens with my help. (I did far more eating than helping)
The farm was every boys dream, with hundreds of acres to roam and explore. From the time I was five or six, I was given the freedom to explore on my own as long as I took the dog (Spotty) with me. Spotty was an old, overweight, mixed breed who’s pace matched that of a young boy. Her white and black fur made her easy to spot from the kitchen through my grandmas binoculars. I doubt that Spotty could have protected me from any of the wild animals that roamed her northern Minnesota farm, but she made the both of us feel better about my adventures.
Often times, my grandma would join me on my expeditions, disguising her motherly instincts as “I need to pick some berries” or “The table could use some fresh flowers.” Spotty and I were always glad to have the company and we knew that she would happily share her berries!
I spent most every summer at my grandma’s until I was a teenager. We had a bond that is hard for me to explain. It was the first relationship that I knew where talking wasn’t required all that much. We could pick berries, go for walks, feed the animals, sit in a fishing boat…..just enjoying each others company. We used to go on long drives down the local gravel roads in search of flowers, deer and sunsets. When I was old enough to reach the pedals, she even let me drive the car, while she searched for animals or flowers along the road.
The next time I visited my grandma after the frosty morning, there was a large dish of cat food on the porch beneath the old farm house window. Over the years she fed many stray cats and an occasional skunk or raccoon out of that dish. Every time we went to the grocery store and bought cat food, I could hear her quietly mutter to herself “Stupid cats! Too fat to chase mice anymore!” But that dish remained full until the day she left the farm for good.
And so it began on that frost October morning with a littler of barn kittens, a runt chicken names little chick, and a grandmother who loved me very much…… a lifetime of compassion for animals and a desire to explore as often as I can.
I return to the farm as often as I can these days. No matter where I travel or live, it will always be my home. The place where I can close my eyes, feel the warmth of the autumn sun and hear her calling me in for dinner.
A few images I have taken exploring on the farm over the years.