As I transplanted zinnias and marigolds, calendulas and snapdragons this spring, my hands in the dirt and the required, and repeated water sprinkled morning, noon and night (for several days) bade characterized images of my parents onto the stage of my mind.
Early spring on the farm always started with a crop of new babies – baby animals and plants. New life of all kinds abounded.
Some babies began life robust and seemingly invincible but others seemed too small and fragile to ever withstand the inevitable rigors of existence. Every litter seems to have a runt – the littlest one that gets pushed and stepped on or crawled over in the fierce competition for nursing - and often dies; and every garden seems to have a place where plants struggle for root or light, water or warmth.
My father watched over all the animals each year but he took special notice of the littlest ones. A significant part of my childhood memories about my father see him descending stairs to an unfinished basement with carefully warmed milk for a calf or lamb or piglet. Permanently etched on my mind’s eye is the bright spot (from a heat lamp) with him but a shadow bent over the injured or ill animals, diligently feeding them every hour on the hour.
He told me once that the smaller they are the more often they must be fed. Their tummies are tiny and they can only take in small amounts, and when they are weak just swallowing the liquid takes a lot of effort. He saved many a dying or motherless baby by dribbling liquid into its mouth forced open by his thumb and then holding its mouth closed so the liquid had no place to drip but down the throat.
As soon as calves or lambs could stand on their own and suck he would take them back to the barn. He had many strategies to ‘encourage’ a cow or a ewe to allow the stranger to suckle with (or instead of) their own baby. I have seen two calves yoked together at the neck. If one eats the other can also. I have also seen the skin of a dead calf or lamb wrapped and tied onto a weak living calf or lamb placed into a pen with the mother whose baby died. They usually will, eventually, accept that calf or lamb as their own and raise it. This procedure also meant long hours supervising the newborn; placing it in the pen and taking it out, making sure it was dry and clean, and even using a tube to get vital medicine into its stomach.
I also watched his bowed head and slumped shoulders when nothing helped and the animal died. His sorrow wasn’t just for the money each represented in a stringent budget. I felt and heard and saw his reverence for life. I also felt that consequence of illness or death keenly if some neglect or laziness on my part contributed to it.
My mother tended the house and garden. The kittens and puppies were even tinier and by the way, cats will nurse dogs and dogs will nurse cats and care for them like their own sometimes.
Mom’s image is very different from my father’s. I can see her hair, tussled with the breeze and her shoulders silhouetted against a grey blue sky full with scudding white, puffy clouds. She leans, imprinted laughing there in my thoughts, on a rake or hoe or shovel, surrounded by dirt and rocks and flowers and children .
My mother taught me how to transplant things and showed me the seeds emerging from their husks as they poked up out of the ground unfurling leaves. She also showed me rocks to pick. I often wondered – can rocks have babies? No matter how many we graveled into the mud hole in the driveway there were always more each spring.
Mother taught the delicate handling of kittens or pups with still shut eyes. She taught that less handling is often more because of how fragile something may be: both animals and people. From her I learned that seeds need water, that they may need cold and dark as well as sunlight and warmth, and that above all else diligence is required. You can plant a seed properly, get it to sprout and begin to grow AND miss one watering and have it visibly stunted or even die.
Mom showed me detail: tiny emerging carrot seed feathers so easily crushed by rocks and clods - feet or dirt; fascinating soil textures – slick, sticky wet clay that hardened like rock and glittering bits of sand as well the black loam developed from manured years of toil and till; birds and buds in all their varied glory or color and sound; and even the rocks themselves, wet or dry, along with discarded broken bits of lives (ceramic, glass, china, and rusted metal toys and tools) that surfaced continually. (Our garden occupied the former site of several homes that had been relocated as the village moved away).
Each spring I learn again and then add to the childhood lessons of tenacity and tenderness, diverstiy and diligence instilled by loving parents. Parents that lived the precepts they taught; goodly parents; parents with reverence and respect for all good things. A mother AND a father, that showed not told and followed thorough instruction about work or sorrow, joy and laughter with accountability. Parents!