(Excerpt from the memoir Nettles and Roses)
Mama’s goat barn before it was condemned. Oil painting by the author.
In the summer of 1965 Mama placed a two-hundred-dollar silent bid on an abandoned house and the three acres on which it sat; the property abutted her land. Actually, the house had been a cozy cottage at one time. However, the elderly woman who had lived there, being crippled and unable to use the outdoor toilet, had emptied her pot on the floor of a spare bedroom creating a disgusting odor. The stench and the fact that the electrical wiring was outdated caused the property to be condemned, but the old house was a perfect acquisition for Mama. The barn where the goats and sheep were penned was large and drafty compared to the little house.
After shoveling, shall we say, a deep layer of “used food” from the bedroom, Mama filled the room to the ceiling with sweet smelling hay, and once the broken furniture and trash from the kitchen and sitting room were cleared, she spread a layer of hay on the floor, and introduced four nanny goats, all milkers, to their new home. Landis Spurbeck, one of the elderly bachelors Mama had befriended, built a raised milking stanchion with a feed bin in what had been a kitchen.
As for lighting, Mama could milk her goats by the light of a kerosene lamp as she had in the barn. The fact that the building had no electricity was almost a plus, since when the summer sun set late, light for milking wasn’t necessary, and when the winter sun set early, the glow of a kerosene lamp reflecting off the loose hay covering the floor created for Mama a sacred space.
Over time, the goat barn became Mama’s preferred living space. She still slept and ate meals in the house, but the quality part of her day was spent in the barn among her growing family of small animals. Besides goats, she had chickens, turkeys, ducks, sheep, ponies, cats, dogs, and even a pot-bellied pig. As her farm family scratched for corn and munched on hay, she would often sit on a bench reading her Bible and was inspired by the words in as much as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, ye have done it unto me.
At the beginning of October, planning for a spring birthing season, Mama arranged to have a neighbor release his billy goat in the pasture with her four sweet and even-tempered nannies. The billy’s disposition was quite the opposite of the nannies’, but worse than his temperament was his stench! There’s a reason for the expression “stinks like a goat”! Nannies have no odor, but billies stink with a strong musky scent, which comes partly from their urine and partly from glands located near their horns. During rut, billies usually spray their faces, their beards, the inside of their front legs, and their chest with urine. Nannies find this disgusting scent irresistible and will rub admiringly against this fragrant ladies’ man. The consequence? When Mama positioned each nanny in the stanchion and rested her head on the animal’s side while milking, the stench got on her barn clothes and in her hair. Lack of modern bathing facilities added to the problem. When a basin or a bucket is the only bathtub, and one’s hair is pinned up in long braids that wrap around the head, a full top-to-bottom bath was typically taken once a month. Consequently, during the rutting season, Mama was scented with the oduer of billy-goat musk.
Mama was never fashion conscious. Her printed cotton summer dresses, winter corduroy slacks, sweaters, jackets, and coats came from rummage sales or second-hand stores, as did her shoes and boots. During warm-weather months, she usually wore cotton print dresses whether she was planning to go to town or working in the barn, but her winter go-to-town and barn attires were distinctly different. Her winter-town-attire was fairly conventional: corduroy slacks under a cotton dress, a quilted car coat, and a diagonally folded wool scarf tied under her chin. But her winter-barn-attire resembled that of a Tibetan yak farmer. She wore wool pants over long johns, layers of sweaters, a long coat cinched snuggly with a giant safety pin, a stocking cap, and a muffler wrapped around her neck. On her feet were oversized rubber-bottomed, leather-topped boots with grubby liners. Most of the time Mama was dressed in barn attire.
Occasionally, Mama went to town during the week to buy grain, dog food, and a few groceries, but she went every Saturday to attend services at the Seventh-day Adventist Church. It typically took Mama two hours to complete barn chores: carry buckets of water to fill watering pans, feed grain to all the grain-eating creatures, milk nannies, give milk to all the milk-drinking creatures, and strain the milk. Sabbath mornings were especially hectic, since Mama’s favorite part of the Sabbath service was Bible study, she had to head to town by 9:00 a.m. to arrive on time. So, she did chores in her church clothes, nylons and a dress, while wearing her barn boots. After straining the milk and setting it on the back porch to cool, she quickly washed her face and hands, unpinned her braids, fluffed the hair around her face, re-pinned the braids tightly, put on her church coat, grabbed her Bible and rushed out the door.
Having nannies enamored with an odiferous billy goat altered where Mama sat while at church. From the time I was a child until I left home to attend college, she typically sat on the right side of the sanctuary in the central pew section. Post the billy goat’s entry into her life, she sat in the back row — you might say in “her own pew.” She knew she smelled, and she knew she couldn’t do anything about it. Even if she had bathed the night before, she realized there was no way she could avoid coming in contact with the billy’s musk in the morning. It was to her advantage that several of the elderly men were farmers and emanated the distinct scent of “cow barn.”
A granddaughter shares memories of Mama’s goat barn: I recall evenings with Grandmother when I would nestle into the hay as she milked the goats and prayed. There were a lot of goats and the prayers went on and on, blending with the sound and rhythm of the milking. All of the prayers were for blessing and protection, with frequent requests for wisdom and understanding. She would begin with her nearest and dearest (which included her animals as well as the pets of family and friends) and would then make her way through the names of every person she knew in the little town nearby and then those she knew personally throughout the state and the country. She would pray a blessing for each of the states of the union and for the nation’s presidents past and present. At the time of my particular memory, she would have been praying most fervently for President Ford. After praying for the entire country and for all the newscasters and movie stars that she could name (Phil Donahue being one of the important ones at this time) she would proceed to name and ask God to bless each continent and then each country. Prayer times were always sealed by her requesting of God to “send myriads of your blessed holy angels to encompass each of us and the entire planet round about.” My grandmother’s prayers not only influenced my young mind to consider the entire world, but also ingrained in me a sense of connection, care, and responsibility for all beings.
In this moment I can see her twinkling blue eyes, I hear her giggle, and I feel her prayers touching me. My relationship with her continues outside of time and space and her influence continues to inform my understanding of the spiritual interconnectedness of all that is. I am deeply grateful to have such a spirited, soul-full, and loving Grandmother. We are blessed beyond measure.