“So is this what it was like when I first started coming here?”
Roger straightens up between the two cows he is milking, pushes his cap back and starts to slowly shake his head. His eyes though are in full twittering delight and with great drama, between not so quiet bursts of laughter, he places a hand on my shoulder and mustering up all the solemnity he can, which at the moment is precious little, he says in a voice thick with mock gravity “Yes, yes it was.”
We both laugh now, remembering the silly and unnecessary ‘chores’ I did back when I first started coming to the barn. Back then, I did busywork in a working, busy barn. It wasn’t that I didn’t know any better. Well, okay, it was that I didn’t know any better but my ignorance was bolstered by my desire to be helpful or at least look helpful.
I suppose I could’ve just asked what needed to be done and then gone ahead and done it. But I didn’t. I suppose I could’ve just watched quietly or I could’ve amused myself exploring the old barn. But I didn’t. I couldn’t just stand around and watch Roger work. Instead, I saw a broom and just started sweeping. Roger did give me a 10-second lecture on how to use the manure scraper (“It would’ve been 5 seconds if you hadn’t been a college graduate!”) but I didn’t have to attack so passionately every fresh pile of poop on impact. Nor did I have to so enthusiastically push forward whatever I had just pushed back and spread out what I had just piled up. I went around that barn like a toddler at a tea party- lots of commotion and nothing really getting done but with really stinky pants.
Ah, but those were heady days in the barn: heady, clean days. Sweeping and scraping were about the only things I was able to do that didn’t involve constant monitoring by Roger and so I did them with fervor. I swept corners that hadn’t been swept in years, I swept behind tools that hadn’t been swept behind in months and I moved bags of I don’t know what that hadn’t ever been moved and swept behind them too. When I was done I swept again and when I was done sweeping I scraped and then scraped again. With me around, this wasn’t going to be just a cow barn!
No matter how remote the chance, the threat of burning the place down or getting myself killed prevented me from doing anything truly helpful. Still, the outside aisles have never been so chaff free and both cow pies and cobwebs trembled at my frequent….very frequent, passing. The barn hasn’t been as spotless since.
Roger finds ‘help’ like this quietly entertaining. He has good-naturedly suffered through many good-intentioned people coming to help him; from those who spend more time propped up on a shovel than pushing it to those who can’t stop pushing it. Being a one-man dairy operation, Roger has honed his chore routine to such a fine efficient edge that any radical variation to it is looked upon as Casanova might look upon a teenager on a first date, lots of action but nothing really getting done. My earnestly eager antics in the barn didn’t have a chance of being anything other than comical to Roger.
I also remember the quiet tolerance and patience with which my efforts were received. Roger was always appreciative even when my efforts made more work for him or got in the way of what he was trying to do. He never once wondered, at least out loud…at least so I could hear, what it was that needed so much attention. For nine months Roger held in the fun of seeing me overly complicate the simplest tasks. It must have been a very long nine months for him.
As new skills were added to my repertoire, my chores slowly became useful and more involved and I had less time to fiddle away. Still, with each new task I always over did the easily done and each time Roger suffered in silence. I did eventually master the proper use of the broom and scraper and today I am more judicious in my cleaning-sweeping and scraping just enough and no more. It is, after all, just a cow barn.
If I over do jobs now- push up the feed more often than needed, reposition the wheelbarrow once again, respread the hay yet again – Roger will teasingly let me know it; “If you push that food around anymore they’ll never find it,” he will say or “If you sweep anymore we are going to have to pour a new floor.” or “ If you walk down this aisle any more empty handed someone is going to think you’re getting married!”
Don’t assume, though, that Roger is a tyrannical taskmaster when it comes to doing chores his way. He will show me how he does something and I will try to do it the same way but I always miss the subtleties and end up with my own poor variation of his practiced technique. If my way is causing me more trouble than it should he will come over and suggest a different approach but he never demands it. “You could try it this way but it is up to you. Do it however you want, its your job.” He will say. And he means it.
This is much different from how Roger was taught by his father, Hugh and how Hugh was taught by his father, Delos and how Delos was taught by his father Martin. There was no gentle guidance back then and no various ways to get something done. There was one way and one way only to do anything- the way it had always been done. “If my brothers and I didn’t do it the right way we’d hear about it, alright. My father and grandfather were tough, no nonsense men but they had to be to survive. Something different was not something they were too interested in. If one way of doing something worked there was no reason to do it any other way. Still is this way with the old man. He can be stiff as a board sometimes when it comes to new things.”
Roger has tried hard to soften the grip of 150 years of doing things one way. In fact, he will deliberately do something different now just because it is different. He will tell you he does so to break up the routine, which I am sure is partly true. But he will also do things a new way because he knows his father is watching and he wants to give him something to think about…”See if I can bang a few boards loose on the old man!”
I’m not above this kind of gentle needling and Roger hasn’t completely slipped the grasp of his rigid heritage.
“You might want to clean up the manger before you feed them their haylage.” Roger tells me one morning, as I am perched on the feed cart ready to feed. The manger is where fresh food is placed and the uneaten hay is always cleaned up before any silage is fed the cows. Because. It is a direct line from Martin to Delos to Hugh to Roger.
“I was thinking that they would eat the leftovers up if I put some fresh food on top.” I respond and Roger, who may think or even know that this is the most foolish thing he has ever heard will only say back to me “Might work, why not? Give it a shot. You’re not going to kill’em….I don’t think. We could use a few less cows around here anyway.” This is how I learn the right way to do my chores.
The one thing that never changes is that there are always more chores to do. You do a chore once, you finish it and you move on to the next one. If you keep doing the same chore over again the next one will never get done and if it never gets done you will never leave the barn. Pretty soon, you’ve burned up all the hours in a day and didn’t get all your chores finished. A farmer who leaves chores unfinished is a farmer who eventually leaves farming.
When I started, Roger said nothing when I bumbled around, keeping his amusement to himself. Today though, he has finally let the punch line out and a laugh that has waited nine months to emerge is out and high-stepping around the barn.
What brought this all about was the presence of Trish, Roger’s wife, in the barn.
“Good morning” Trish calls between snippets of a merry tune she is humming.
“Good morning Trish. Do you have a day off today?”
“Yes I do, and tomorrow too. Go ahead and ask me about Monday.”
“Wha….” and before I can form a word Trish sings ”Monday too!”
“Today I am Ike. I gave him a day off. So I am here doing what Ike usually does. He said to just do what you say and I’ll be fine.”
Ike is Trish and Roger’s middle son. He usually comes up to the barn around 7 to help with the chores but a day off and a chance to sleep in is not to be ignored.
“So what would you like me to do?”
Trish says this in such an enthusiastic voice that her attitude is infectious. This is remarkable because I seldom am awake enough at 6am to catch anything other than 10 more minutes of sleep.
“Well, it will be a nice change to have a cheerful face in the barn for once.” I say loud enough for Roger to overhear. He obliges by coming over with a huge smile plastered across his stubbly face.
“If you are going to do what Ike usually does you’ll have to do it sitting on the pile of newspapers, reading.” Roger teasingly responds.
“Don’t you have some cows to milk?” I ask Roger.
“As a matter of fact I do. Don’t you have some chores to do?”
“We were just discussing that. We might go off and have some breakfast instead.”
“Well, make me some too. I’ll be right behind you.”
Roger turns and heads back to his milking, satisfied he got to be a ham with a little ribbing on the side.
“Are you two always like this?” Trish asks through a fake scowl.
“Pretty much” I say.
“Well” her smile returning, “what do you want me to do?”
It is a bit silly for me to be telling Trish what needs to be done in the barn. Trish has worked in the barn for more than 20 years and she is far more experienced and much more of an expert at chores than I will ever be. But she takes the tasks I give her gladly and goes about her jobs smiling and humming and happy not to be stuck in an office.
The catch is that as she does her jobs she does other jobs she thinks also need to be done. Most of those jobs though are the ones I had just finished doing. The result is that Trish and I yo-yo around the barn repeating ourselves so many times it is like the barn has suddenly developed a stutter.
This, of course, is not lost on Roger. Nothing in the barn is lost on Roger. He keeps an eye on everything in the barn, not obviously so but attentively so and tries to know what is up at all times. With Trish, he keeps an especially close eye out. He is not worried about her, he just likes to know where she is and what she is doing. Part of it is because he wants to keep track of what he no longer needs to do but part of it is also because he wants to be able to have fun with her whenever he can. Trish breaks up the everydayness of chores and Roger welcomes the chance to play.
Trish also, unknowingly, breaks up the sequence of the chores that Roger and I have developed over the years of early mornings. The timing of the chores is important because the start of one chore often depends on the finish of another. Our chores have become a three-hour dance routine of steps and coinciding moves choreographed to get our jobs done and to stay out of each other’s way.
Roger usually leads and I try not to get kicked. The cows determine the flourishes and variations. The steps sometimes differ but the rhythms remain the same set to the beat of an age-old way of life. I scrape the aisle while Roger takes bales out back, I spread hay while Roger starts milking, He cleans up in the milk room while I feed haylage, I sweep up corn while he feeds grain. He finishes up while I read the paper.
Trish adds a syncopating beat to this rhythm, a welcome, cheerful diversion from the regular slow drumbeat of our morning routine. But she is playing jazz, improvising as she goes and I can’t figure out where she’s heading. Every time I suggest a new chore to do she has done it, at least once, already. “That’s okay”, she says “it won’t hurt if you do it again. I’m sure the cows won’t mind.”
The redundancy of it all is baffling but harmless, harmless but baffling the redundancy of it all. I shake my head befuddled but also bemused, happy that Trish is dancing chores with us this morning.
Roger is peering through the legs of the cow he is milking watching Trish give milk to the new calves, again.
I walk up to him and catch him grinning from ear to ear.
“What are you smiling about?” I ask him suspiciously.
“How many times do you think those claves are going to drink this morning?” Roger replies, knowing that ‘once’ is the right answer, usually.
“At least twice, Roger, maybe more.”
“And how many times are you guys going to push up the feed?”
“Well, at least twice, Roger, maybe more.”
“When the old man gets here it will probably be three times, maybe more!” Roger laughs, enjoying the chaos that our chores have become today.
Trish comes past carrying empty pails and smiles at us, happily doing her, and my, chores this morning.
“I’m going to the calf barn now” she proclaims and we watch as she ducks out the milk room door.
Roger turns back and asks, “Didn’t you clean up the calf barn earlier this morning?” perfectly well knowing the answer.
“About 20 minutes ago. But I’m sure it needs it again by now.”
“She’ll be back soon, wanting to feed the calves some more.”
“I think I’ll push up, Roger, if that’s okay.”
“It’s okay with me!” he says chuckling “and don’t forget the calves!”