Life, Winning


There are tears. There is trying too hard. There is caring too much about small, broken lives. There is the perfume gushing in the open car window, from black locust trees dripping with blossoms along the highway on my way home. There is an evening glow across tree-covered hills and partly-mowed fields.

A few hours ago, a young woman gasped and slid down the exam room wall to the floor, curled her knees to her chest and sobbed under the bench. Her dog was critical, I explained. Bleeding internally. He might survive if we gather ourselves and act.

I pull into the driveway. Beside our red barn, ostrich ferns curl fiddleheads, thick and unbidden, inside a disheveled stone-bordered bed. Next year we will eat them; they will always taste like spring. Unfurled, they invite our kids into imaginary worlds. They are the color of hope.

Caught in a car engine fan belt, the cat’s front paw dangled by a thread, bone jagged. Her wide lovely eyes, slim six-month-old shoulders, and softest long black hair contrast her grotesque injury. I bargain for her life, knowing prompt surgery costs the owners too much and costs the emergency hospital staff time that we don’t seem to have on this busy holiday weekend.

Two days before Memorial Day, frost singed our seventy tomato plants, which we’d planted with an eye on weather and too much optimism. I walked between their bruised-looking leaves, wishing them green. Regret tempted me to lie there among them in the dirt, feeling defeated. Within a week, though, fresh growth pushed from their shriveled tops—life, winning.

Two hours past my shift’s end, I have just made the last phone call. The overnight doctor, with her jaw set against her overwhelming task, has taken notes on all my hospitalized patients. As I’m leaving, a patient codes. I turn my back on the capable CPR team and walk out.

For our anniversary, we intended to buy a fruit tree, or maybe two to pollinate each other. I find myself digging seven holes—three cherries, two plums, two apricots—into hard, rocky soil behind the house. Together, we line the holes with black, composted manure from beside the barn. As the sun drops, we hold each young tree straight, tucking it into our lives. Relaxed in this work, we talk about how good it is to watch things grow, and how, someday, there will be fruit.



Something New Every Day

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Last week, my dad taught me how to drive a tractor. The grass and burdock and parsnip had begun growing at an ominous rate. We beat back weeds around the house with our ancient push mower, until it sacrificed itself on a hidden stump. Looking across the fields, we knew we’d soon be in over our heads if we didn’t take action.

Our used tractor search, made possible by my dad, who started driving old tractors as soon as he could just reach the pedals, culminated in Dad driving Eloise home. We bought this early 1960’s era Ford 4000 just up the road. A good deal, with the brush hog mower, our little blue and white tractor came with the name “Eloise” scripted across the front.

I’d never driven a tractor before. The last time I straddled onto this type of machine, I was a kid, and it was my grandma’s riding mower. My legs just reached the pedals. I was a determined, do-it-myself kind of girl, not content to simply pick up sticks while Dad cut the grass. After some instruction, I fired up the engine and started making wide sweeps under the oak trees in my grandma’s front yard. On my second or third round, I found myself heading straight for her lamppost. I panicked.

I don’t remember climbing off the mower, perched on the steeply angled lamppost. I do remember staring at the metal curls around the cursive L in Grandma Ruth’s screen door, working up my courage to creak it open. I remember approaching her, seated at the front kitchen window, and looking at the floor as I told her what I’d done. I remember lifting my face to see the crinkles beside her eyes, her barely-concealed grin as she glanced out the window, where my dad was backing the mower off the lamppost. “Last time I was on that mower,” she chuckled, “I drove it straight up a tree, and it wouldn’t go backwards or forwards from there.”

2015-05-13 16.14.23Last week, I sat on our new old tractor with dad standing beside me, carefully making sure I understood how to stop it. I experimented with my foot on the left brake and the right brake and both at once. I worked the clutch and changed gears and slid the hand throttle up and down.

Finally, I eased Eloise forward, creeping along in first gear, then sliding the hand throttle down to encourage the engine. As I touched the left brake and completed a turn, I lifted one hand from the thin, hard steering wheel. I pumped my fist in the air and yelled, “I’m Driving!”

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And Now For Our Next Trick


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The table saw’s blade spins vertically, and its sharp hum becomes white noise beyond my ear covers. Biting the wood, the saw’s tone pitches upwards, more insistent, serrating tight growth rings. This wood is hard and heavy. Pounding nails into scraps of it, Sam has called it “Krypton,” meaning the only material tough enough to defy Superman. We pried these two-by-six boards out of our dropped ceiling this winter and stored them for this purpose: building a chicken tractor.

Last week, we turned some of the ceiling boards into a snug duck house. It squats in the barnyard with its siding and roof salvaged from a lean-to that leaned 2015-04-26 17.05.17too much and fell off one end of our barn. I cover it with some discount paint, which turns out to look purple. Our adolescent ducks, whose final swim in our bathtub left our entire bathroom wet, peep-quack contentedly into their house at night, to be locked away from predators.

Tonight, we rip boards lengthwise into halves and thirds, trying to lighten what will be the chicken tractor frame. It must be big enough for 20+ chickens, strong enough not to fall apart, and light enough to move without a real tractor. We’re feeling good about the first two qualities; fingers are crossed for the latter.

I love building like this—salvaged and self-designed. Since the materials come with imperfections, our process feels forgiving, accepting of my minimal skills 2015-04-29 02.41.50and tool-wielding flaws. Slight deviations and minor mismatches aren’t necessarily my fault. From demolition comes a sturdy structure with a purpose. Building things seems like magic. I think of Jimmy, who fixed our farmhouse walls. He liked to brush off his hands with a flourish and say, grinning, “And now for my next trick.”

Now, it’s 10 pm. We have our storage-room-turned-workshop door flung open to the cool night, and the table saw parked near the door. The full moon dilutes the stars. When the saw winds to a stop between long cuts, and I lift my ear covers, I hear spring peepers and some pickerel frogs’ guttural croaks. Sawdust makes me cough, but I’m standing outside, catching eight and ten foot boards as Andrew pushes them across the saw, through the doorway, to me.

We rip a whole stack of boards, so a rhythm emerges. Andrew starts the saw, begins to slide a board into the blade. I square my feet, reach my hands to grasp the two narrower boards emerging towards me. Silent in the loudness, we balance the splitting board between us, matching our push and pull.

When one board is two, he switches off the saw. I roll one piece away from the slowing blade so he can grab it safely. I lift the other piece up, over the blade, and we stack it. It’s a slow dance, with the saw’s blur of danger and the steady moon, feeling my partner, so alive, through the dense wooden plank.

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