Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Loss in Our Community

I started writing this piece over a month ago but the grief was too raw for me to finish it. Today I was able to complete it. I am sharing this story because I think it's a beautiful example of the connections we can make with the people around us. 
I sat down to write about baby chicks, planting potatoes, and conserver finances today. But I just can't do it. What my heart really needs to write about is community, specifically a loss in our own little community this week. Our dear neighbor, Ms. B, passed away on Saturday. I've mentioned her before on this blog when those two stray dogs attacked our chickens. She called the sheriff's office for us and gave them a piece of her mind. (I only wish I had a recording of that phone call!)

When we moved into our house Ms. B was a largely homebound widow who had lived in the house across the street for 33 years. Our other neighbors had known her back in the days when she got outside more but we caught only the occasional glimpse of her, usually clad in her housedress and spreading corn for the deer behind her house. I can remember waving to her from a distance but she was rather grumpy-looking and had no smile to match her wave.

For nearly two years it went on like this. I had met and talked with every other person in the neighborhood except the elusive Ms. B. I felt awkward about marching up to her house and announcing our arrival in those first months and I certainly wanted to respect her privacy. To be honest, she looked really cranky.

Finally, about two years after we moved in, Ms. B had several of her family members over to pull down an old shed on her property. Mr. Chanclas and the kids went over to see if they could help and to salvage some old lumber from the building. I followed them over and there was Ms. B, standing in her driveway in a gray sweatsuit smoking a cigarette. She had long gray hair and big, round granny glasses. She had a low, sweet smoker's voice and she looked each one of my children in the eye and committed their names to memory. She treated them like real people. And she generously offered any usable lumber from her shed to Mr. Chanclas and me. I liked her immediately. I could see that my distant, initial impression of her was all wrong.

I remember telling Mr. Chanclas a few days later, "I'm going to make friends with Ms. B." It's hard to make friends with someone you never see, though, and I didn't have another opportunity to talk to her for several months. Finally I called her to ask if she had seen what kind of animal had made off with my guinea fowl. She didn't know but she was so sad to hear that we had lost our birds. Then she wondered if I might know anyone willing to help her by cleaning her house and tending her yard. She had paid a neighboring family to do it for years but their kids had all grown up and had full-time jobs now. I said I would do it and that was the beginning of our friendship.

Over the next few months I scrubbed toilets, vacuumed carpets, trimmed trees, dusted furniture, and fed the deer for B. Mr. Chanclas cut her grass with her big riding mower, which she then generously let us use to cut our own acre, too. (We have a little push mower.) I enjoyed every minute of it. It turned out that Ms. B had an enormous heart full of love for animals and children and people and all tender things. She could swear like a sailor, wield a firearm, and cut a person down to size with words (all while smoking an unfiltered Pall Mall), but her eyes would tear up at the thought of an animal in pain or an ailing child. She had never had children of her own but loved her extended family and always spoke very lovingly of them. She was extremely generous, always ready to loan us a tool from her collection for whatever project we had under way at the moment.

Ms. B had amazing stories of a pretty adventurous life, even though she had been mostly confined to her home for the last decade. She had been a police officer back when women didn't do that sort of thing and she had spent years riding motorcycles with her late husband. Her stories and observations kept me in stitches. One day she told me how, after twenty years of marriage, her husband had pulled out an accordion and started playing. She had no idea that he knew how to play the accordion and thought that it was one of those things you should know about a person after that many years of marriage. She told me about the time Mrs. M's husband had a medical emergency and the Life Flight helicopter landed in the road between our houses to pick him up and carry him off to the hospital. When I invited her to go shopping at Target with Little Sister and myself she refused, as she always did. I tried to entice her, telling her she could ride on the electric cart with Little Sister. She hooted and agreed that that sounded fun and told me that she calls those things "drunk carts". Of course, I think of that term every time I see one in the store now.

At Halloween we took all of the neighborhood children trick or treating at her house. She had set up an extensive and elaborate candy buffet in her living room. Every ghost and goblin in the neighborhood trampled through her living room and went home with scads of Tic Tacs and chocolate kisses and God knows what else. She loved it. And so did we. I think it was the first time she had had any trick or treaters at her house in over a decade. My children felt like they had gained an extra grandmother, someone else to love them and spoil them. I had gained a friend.

At Christmas time I set up B's artificial tree and decorated it and the rest of her living room. We played Christmas carols on her boom box and she smoked and watched me struggle with all of those damn plastic branches (insert Branch A into Slot A kind of thing). She had an astounding quantity of Christmas decorations (filling a dozen plastic totes) and I only made it through a few but the living room looked truly festive.

My plan all along was to do the cleaning and the yard until my children and the other neighborhood children were old enough to take over. I thought we could keep it in the neighborhood for a very long time. Then, in January, Ms. B got sick. She ended up in the hospital with double pneumonia, breathing with the aid of a ventilator and heavily sedated. It was scary to see her like that in the hospital. But when she woke up she was glad to see me and I knew she knew who I was. Over the next month she improved and got off of the ventilator and was able to breathe more easily. She was moved out of the ICU into a regular room. I visited her once a week and kept her up to date on the neighborhood happenings and my children's antics. Another neighbor and I fed her cat and her deer and watched out for her house while she was gone. My oldest daughter and the oldest son down the street washed all the windows of her house so that they would be nice and clear when she got home.  But Ms. B died before she was able to come home again.

We wish we had reached out to her sooner so that we could have been friends longer. But I know we are all grateful for the time we had to enjoy her friendship and company. The day after she died I came across a saved message from her on my answering machine. She had called me from the hospital the week before and left a long, rambling message, sending her love to each of us by name and ending the call with a gentle but strangely final-sounding goodbye.

We still miss her. But I bet the motorcycle rides are awesome in the afterlife.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Meet Zeus: Making Shift's Newest Household Member

We got the dog. And he is wonderful. It is so nice to have a dog in the house again. I didn't think I'd ever feel that way again but I do.

Meet Zeus, our 9-month old Great Pyrenees/Anatolian Shepherd mix. (The kids named him; they have been going through a huge Greek Mythology phase lately.) He is large (62 very fluffy pounds) and still growing but I don't think he will be enormous like some Pyrenees and Anatolians are (especially the males).

Zeus is perfect in all the ways I need him to be perfect: he loves children, he loves adults, he loves other dogs, he tolerates all other species with the utmost patience (even our cat Lupe, who is Not Very Nice), he doesn't pull on the leash, and he is extremely fluffy.

He does have a penchant for chewing anything around him (including the window sills) and he will steal any morsel of food off of table or counter top (and he is huge so it is easy for him to reach it). I can work with those things, though. Really, the fact that my kids can just wrap their arms around his fluffy bulk and love on him is the best. Big Sister's soccer teammates adore him, as do all of the kindergarteners at Brother's school. He is one of the gentlest dogs I've ever known.

Welcome to the homestead, big guy!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Making Shift Homestead Updates

Whew. I have so much to talk about I don't know where to begin. There has been all kind of homesteading madness going on around here lately. You can always assume that if I'm posting less it is because I am doing more. In chronological order:

The Chicks Arrived And They Are Doing Great
It's impressive how quickly those little puffballs can grow. The meat birds (there are 16 of them) are much larger than the two layers I ordered. That is very interesting to me. I can hardly keep enough food and water in there for them. They go through it so quickly that I have to refill about four times a day. That schedule, combined with the warm, animal smell of 18 chicks that is emanating from my guest room, reminds me why I am always so glad when the chicks grow up and move outside. It just plain smells weird in the back hall. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you see it), as soon as these birds move outside the duck and goose shipment arrives. Hip hip hooray!

I Got a Microscope For Doing Goat Fecal Exams
How I got the microscope is pretty cool. I went to my first ATX Swappers food swap and met a really nice biologist named Nancy. I mentioned my blog and when she went home and checked it out she read my post about needing a microscope in order to do my own goat fecal exams. She had some vintage microscopes she had salvaged from an old biology building and she offered me one. She even brought it over to the house, which was beyond nice. One day I hope to repay her in fresh goat's milk! Now I just need to get some slides and I'm good to go...

The Scavenged Bed Frame Is In Use
My dear brother-in-law fixed up the new bed frame last weekend while he was visiting. He just snuck outside early Sunday morning and got it all done. He even brought his own tools. Now that's good company, right?

On Monday morning I cut some extra bed rails (I don't think I'd ever operated a circular saw while wearing pajamas and safety glasses before). Then I got the bed all set up in Brother's room. It looks fabulous. I currently have his futon mattress on it and it really needs a box spring and regular mattress. Someday I'll get around to changing that.

The light colored bed slats are the new ones I made

I Sold the Goat Feeder
Remember that free goat feeder/ hay rack that I got off of  Craigslist? My goats were never going to be big enough to use it. Ever. They could have lived inside it if it had been designed differently. So I sold it on Craigslist for $150. Oh YEAH. As I told Mr. Chanclas, "I just flipped a goat feeder."

We Are Getting a Dog
This is A Big Deal for us. Our sweet old dog, Penny, passed away last summer. She was a mutt I adopted from the SPCA in Maryland back when I was single and living in a one-bedroom apartment. She was always My Dog. This new dog will be Our Dog, belonging to all five of us. I'll keep you all posted on this. We have a dog in the works but I don't know if he will be ours yet.

I hope he's not this blurry in real life. Isn't he adorable?

I Planted Potatoes
I did. I planted them a few days after Valentine's Day. I haven't seen any signs of life yet and I'm hoping the two hard freezes we have had since then didn't kill them. I'm such a haphazard gardener. I really need to get with the program on this. It appears I am better at raising animals than I am at raising plants.

I'm Hosting Another Clothing Swap
I'm so excited about this. The last swap was great and this one looks like it's going to be even better. I've been saving up clothes for months and I have LOTS to swap. I'll report back about the swap after the fact.

And that's about it, folks. I left out the part about how I tore down half of the chicken run and then turned around and put it right back up two weeks later. Let's just say the T-posts wore me down when I realized they were not coming out. So a big coop/run overhaul will have to wait for another day, another season.