This is Ashley. She knows how to castrate cows…

When I was sixteen, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere other than the house I had always lived in. Never mind that the Georgia summers were so hot and humid you could only go out before 10am, and when I did go out, usually to pick blackberries or wild plums, I had to lather myself in a toxic cocktail of sunscreen and bug spray, and wear heavy rubber boots to avoid unpleasant encounters with rattlesnakes, water moccasins, or fresh cow patties.

I grew up on a farm. That was unusual enough among my classmates and friends. What made it even more unusual was that it was my Dad’s hobby. For months now, my husband and I have been engaged in a ponderous debate about the pros and cons of maybe getting a guinea pig as a pet for our son. My Dad had thirty COWS.

They roamed about the farm, eating grass, generating fertilizer, and seemingly searching for escape routes, since we were always having to chase them off our dirt road and back into the pasture. (In one famous incident, my Mom had to rush out of the shower barefoot, and clad in only her underwear and one of my Dad’s old shirts, to herd the bull out of our neighbor’s yard. An hour later, when she drove to her church organist job in the town eight miles away, that story had already reached the choir.)

Along with the cows came an endless series of tasks: they had to be herded from field to field; supplemented with hay and feed in the winter, and water and mineral salt in the summer; inoculated; dehorned; given fly-repelling ear tags; and eventually loaded onto trucks headed for destinations I didn’t like to contemplate (although I was a vegetarian for most of my teen years). Every winter and spring, there would be new calves: adorable, big-eyed, knocked-kneed creatures, who would cautiously creep up to nibble my hair if I sat still enough in the middle of the pasture. But along with the calves came late night calving problems, sometimes involving the vet, and usually requiring the use of a medieval-looking device called a calf-puller.

There were other unpleasant tasks as well. The day I arrived at college, my Dad introduced me down the hall of my dorm with, “This is Ashley. She knows how to castrate cows.” Luckily for me, the guys, including my future husband, were all on a different floor.

The farm was a mixed blessing for me. From a very early age, I was allowed to wander alone through acres of fields and forests, a freedom I’m sad to say my own kids will probably never know. I enjoyed the thrill of walking so far into the woods I wasn’t sure I could find my way home.

But the farm was isolating too. With all of my friends living miles away, I felt like an outsider (I didn’t realize until I was an adult that most teenagers feel that way, no matter where they live). I envied my friends in town the ability to walk to a classmate’s house or to the grocery store (once, I decided to walk to the only market close to us to buy a soda. It was a three mile walk each way, and I ended up being much thirstier than I was when I started).

I left home for college in Massachusetts when I was eighteen, and only came back once or twice a year after that. A few years later, my Dad retired, and my parents packed up and moved out West. The farm, I heard, was sold to a new owner, who tore down all the barns we had built and cleared a lot of the trees. So, home, as I knew it, is gone.

I’ve carried it with me though, through four different towns, in three different states, in different parts of the country. They’ve each been a “home” too, in their way, and I’ve made one or two lifelong friends in all of them.    My current home is in a beautiful town sandwiched between a small tree-covered mountain range and the Pacific Ocean.  You’d think it would be overdeveloped and pretentious, but it has a reputation for being foggy and cold, so the status-minded Silicon Valley types take their salaries over the hill.  It’s true that you often have to drive through a thick layer of fog before the sunlit beach and town suddenly appear, a moment that always reminds me of Brigadoon.  But it’s a friendly, down-to-earth, ocean-weathered paradise, where you can find Priuses and pickup trucks in equal measure.  Plus, I can easily walk to at least four different grocery stores for a soda, and there’s not a calf-puller or a rogue bull in sight.

Still, in that place in my head where I am perpetually seventeen, and not sure how on earth I ended up here or what I should be doing, I take refuge in the hammock I hid out in the middle of the woods, in a strange circle of rocks, just off the north pasture.  It may be hot, and humid, and covered in cow manure, but it will always be my home.


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. thegamesahead
    Aug 10, 2011 @ 18:43:48

    I remember your dad introducing us with that line on the day we moved into the dorms. I was standing on a chair at the time and could barely see your face from my perspective. It was hidden by your long hair, and you seemed to be making every effort to shrink away. Fortunately, I knew many kids back home who knew how to castrate cows, and I had just finished a summer working at the local vet’s office. We shared many enjoyable stories that fall about farm living and “animal guts,” as Eric put it. (“They weren’t guts,” I corrected, “they were ovaries.”) I still remember many of those stories fondly … but I’ve also never forgotten the way you looked standing with your dad in our doorway.


  2. mandalaymai
    Aug 10, 2011 @ 19:32:36

    It’s true that the feelings of isolation or of wanting whatever “the other” is the same for every kid, though the specifics of my childhood were so different. Except for the times that I visited you in the country! For me it was that my home life was very Indian, so we had Indian parties and temple instead of church – that kind of thing. I always felt on the outside of things. That is, until I found you crazies to hang with! 🙂


  3. ash
    Aug 11, 2011 @ 04:53:11

    Vern, I had been wondering if you remembered that intro. I remember you and Gwen especially. I had forgotten that you had worked at a vet too, although I do have memories of our sharing graphic stories. Guess my upbringing did give me a lot of experiences to bond with people over. I think Eric and I commiserated a lot over our Dads’ extreme hobbies.


  4. ash
    Aug 11, 2011 @ 04:59:05

    And Mai, I always thought your house, and all the things you did, like the classical Indian dancing, were so cool! Guess the things that make us outsiders are also the things that make us interesting, although they’re also the things that are often the most embarrassing when you’re a teenager.


  5. Kim
    Aug 15, 2011 @ 01:39:06

    Hey, you left out the horses! And canoeing on the lake (camping beside the lake, setting the lake on fire…). Kittens!

    You’re house was awesome and I have as many memories of it as I do of my own.

    That introduction from your dad, though. I wouldn’t have been shrinking away so much as threatening life and limb. Sheesh.


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