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  • Mj Pettengill

And on That Farm, She Had a Cow


Daisy, Sunrise, CCO

When my mother was a maiden, she lived on a large working farm, not far from here. It's a sprawling estate owned by a long-standing, wealthy family that hired out the proper personnel to run it. 

Her father—my surly, rough-cut grandfather—was the head herdsman of a respectable number of dairy cows. While his wife, my grandmother, the other Mary Jane, ran the boarding house. Between my aunt, uncles, and cousins, my bond to this farm was significant. Even my great-grandfather, Bill, had come down from Canada to work there.

On this farm were many other animals, orchards, vegetable gardens, and a maple sugar-house. Tucked into the upper-side of a mountainous ridge, it over-looked what many of you may remember as Golden Pond. It is a landscape that's impossible not to love.

My mother got married and, although not too far, she moved away. It seemed we were always close-by, long enough to sing Over the River and Through the Woods, several times. And we often visited. Her oldest sister and husband, also a farmhand, lived on the farm as well. We spent many holidays together. 

When I was about eight-years-old, I started staying on the farm as a playmate for my cousin. She was a year younger than me. The farm was my home away from home. Not only did I get to know my grandparents better, but it was convenient for my mother to have one less child to deal with, and my aunt's little girl had a playmate.

Farms are not for everyone. But I consider myself lucky to have had that childhood experience and then grow up to have my own respectable farm. I live on one now, only without animals. 

When raising my children, I was both the farmer and the farmer's wife. It was challenging at times, but we rose up to meet it. I was a home educator and integrated the farm into our curriculum. We had chickens, goats, and bunnies. The latter was unplanned and quickly escalated into a situation that is fun to recall. Still, when it was happening, I failed to see the humor.

My children and I are musicians. We performed small concerts for my parents, and they enjoyed watching us interact with the animals. They spent many afternoons at our home.

Until recently, I didn't realize that I never had an authentic farm experience with my parents, particularly with my mother. Sure, we had vegetable gardens while growing up, but my father tended to them. My mother always grew spectacular flowers. She did have a green thumb. Hers was left, and mine was right.

To have spent so many years on the same farm, yet rarely together, now strikes me as odd. I can barely recall being there with my mother. I see it in photos. When I was very young, we would gather at the boarding house, but never around the animals, at the barn, or in the gardens. But it's still a question that I ask myself. I was there, but where was she? Where were any of them? Even my aunt never seemed to leave the house. My cousin and I spent most of our time in the barn or pastures, around cows and horses, mostly. The only relative that I interacted with in the farm-sense was my grandfather. I watched him and wondered if he would ever smile. I don't think that he did. Maybe that's why I smile too much and too often. I am making up for him.

Over the years, during my days as a mother, teacher, and farmer, I'd share my experiences with her. She reminisced about her father doing this or that. But she never did those things. She watched him, and she watched me. 

When my children were babies, I invited my grandmother over to show me how to make jam and pickles. She taught me to use paraffin wax and only whole fruits. There was nothing artificial in her process. If I were to enter my canned goods in a fair, I would get a million blue ribbons. But I only talk about it and never do. I'm not the competitive type.

My mother was a talented seamstress. I could not ply the needle if my life depended on it. But we both loved flowers and birds. I do grow flowers, but now, at this time, I am mostly into wildflowers, herbs, and plants for making medicine. We grow vegetables, berries, and have fruit trees here.

Ever since the passing of my mother, I notice that time works differently. How could it be? I write about the importance of viewing the world without her in it the theme of my book, Down from the Tree.  I have learned that this awareness is my grieving process. It is also when I take notice of what really happened so long ago. Realizations appear in dreams. At least if you are paying attention. 

I often dream of the farm. I am sitting on the edge of the tremendous sloping mountainside overlooking the lake. It is a favorite spot for hawks to fly overhead, and often they do. 

There is tall grass all around. Sometimes I see my mother. It's different from dreaming of the others. The sphere of mothers and daughters is much broader, with more possibilities of getting lost. 

When she first showed up in this sacred place, she didn't know that anything had changed. She was unaware of the truth of her leaving the earthly plane. When the light faded into darkness, I held a burning torch over our heads. She laughed. I asked her if she knew where she was. 

Her laughter stopped. Even in this realm, she had not yet reached her point of awareness. On the other side of the full moon, we sat together and apart, at the farm where we both grew up. 

Like most women, our cycles waxed and waned, sometimes falling into dark corners. If we became buried beneath the surface, we were okay if we believed in that one crack of light that was enough to show us how to push our way out.

As our ancestors come and go, we are the keepers of what's left behind. Whether we are aware of it or not, this is the case. We may or may not know what we carry with us. Their fragments are embedded in both our DNA and psyches. With or without our conscious permission, they are imprinted. There is more to this. We inherit their grief, trauma, and pain, but we inhabit their good qualities as well. 


Setting dreams aside, I embrace my worldview. It is not the same without my mother in it. I dare walk to the edge of the ridge and even risk losing my footing. Should I fall, I am ready to break apart. It is from these pieces that we find what we must accept to attain our wholeness and belonging.


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