A Calf Born in Winter

Reflecting on death, growing up, and my grandfather’s farm

The last photo I took of my grandfather, on my last visit to his farm.

The Cows

The calf was born in winter. My grandfather’s neighbour, Alan, had interrupted our dinner and ushered us into this drafty corner of his barn, following the irritated mooing of a mother cow in the throes of labour. We shivered under ill-fitting winter jackets, watching through clouds of our frozen breath as one cow emerged from another.

The calf was a tangled mess of limbs, coated in a thick mucous, squeezed out the backside of its mother like an oversized bowel movement. The mother cow mooed and stomped her feet, but most of the time she remained still, as if she didn’t know what was going on behind her. She seemed at most mildly annoyed, as if she’d grown impatient of standing in a long queue at the DMV.

I don’t know what compelled Alan to call on us. We certainly couldn’t help him or his cow, my three siblings and I, nor my father — all we could do was watch. But that, I think, is what he thought we wanted. We were curious children. We asked many questions of him; “Do you name your cows?” “Why is maple syrup so sweet?” “What are hay-bales for?” “What happens to the cows when they get old?” Perhaps showing us where cows come from was a preventative measure.

Alan was a quiet man with a sly smile, always squinting through his bushy white eyebrows as if he were struggling to see something on the horizon—a friendly, blue-collar Clint Eastwood. His life was his farm, next to my grandfather’s, constituting a modest homestead surrounded by acres and acres of golden hay fields, and across the street from a weather-worn brown barn that housed his cows. I remember the smell of hay and the dry dusty air, the beasts’ massive heads protruding from their holding pens; their bulbous, glassy wet eyes the size of tennis balls, and their long, rough, snakey tongues grabbing small bundles of hay from my tiny hands.

The Highway

The spectacle of bovine birth is one of my earliest memories, and like most early memories, I can’t quite place it in time. I don’t know how old I was when it happened, except that it was during one of our annual winter trips to rural Quebec to visit my grandfather, and to ski the frosted, powdery slopes of the Eastern Townships.

Each year after the first good snowfall, we’d pack the family car full of snowboards and skis and make the eight-or-so-hour journey eastbound. The drive was long. Despite protest from us underlings, our eldest sibling would inevitably take the front seat, the enviable copilot of a long trek, with panoramic views and—most importantly—control over the stereo. The soundtrack was a rotation of mixed-CDs labelled with black sharpie. Mainstays included Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle”, 54–40’s “Casual Viewing”, and Dana Lyons’ novelty song “Cows With Guns”. Eventually my father, weary behind the wheel on a long monotonous drive, would play one of his favourites; Gipsy King’s Greatest Hits, Stan Ridgway’s Mosquitos, and William Shatner’s spoken-word foray into the recorded music, Has Been. Any of these albums instantly transport me to the backseat of our family van on a stretch of highway somewhere between Ontario and Quebec circa 2005. So much of childhood is spent being transported between places—whisked from one place to another like luggage—and for me, it’s the sounds of those journeys that, like the scent of your childhood home, anchor my memory in time and space.

The 401 between Ontario and Quebec feels like one of those moving sidewalks at an airport. It’s long and featureless, marked at regular intervals by identical rest stops containing carbon-copy restaurants and public bathrooms—a Tim Horton’s, a Burger King, a 7/11, and a gas station. In the air hangs the smell of french fries, coffee and donuts, and the distinct atmosphere of an airport gate. The only constant to these places is the transience, turnover, evanescence—they hardly count as places at all. In fact, French anthropologist Marc Augé would call them non-places.

Because there is no change in scenery, it’s very difficult to recognise any progress at all until you’re nearly at your destination. You even start to see the same people at different rest stops as your intervals synchronize, and you begin to feel as if you’re stuck in time, a passenger on a looping conveyor belt like a piece of unwanted sushi. All these other people — in the parking lot, in the line up for a coffee, in the restroom, at the gas pump — strangers from the road, darkened faces behind tinted windows, other lives coming briefly into view, intersecting with our lives for just a few minutes. I’d wonder who these people were, where they were going, and whether I’d ever see them again, or if this was the last time we’d share space, air, eye contact. Then back in the car, off and away, we’d leave them behind.

To pass the time, I’d play games in my mind, gazing out the window, imagining a skateboarder riding the up-and-down of power lines, counting houses where strangers lived their lives and made their own memories. At times the sheer magnitude of the world would hit me, a tidal wave epiphany of the unfathomable vastness of the world and its inhabitants, the number of people who I would never meet, the lives I will never have lived. Then, just like a passer-through at a rest stop, the feeling would vanish, and I’d be watching the moon go down behind the power lines, stealing glimpses of television screens through glowing windows. Within each passing house the call of lives unknown to me, never to be known to me, the universe expanding.

Arrival

Eventually, the quilt of indistinguishable small towns, rest stops and snow covered hills would give way to taller buildings in closer proximity, overpasses and restaurants, community centers and libraries—the tendrils of a city. Long stretches of straight road began to break open into on-ramps and exits, a linear path suddenly invaded by overwhelming possibility, alternative destinations marked by massive green signs. My dad would hunch down over the wheel to read them as they passed, counting the exits until our own. The street lights would cast sweeping columns of orange light across my face as they passed.

As twilight overcame the purple sky and the city came into view, a silhouette of twinkling monoliths huddled together on the horizon, we’d begin to wake from our travel comas and daydreams, brought back into the present by the buzz of the city. Whenever we passed through Montréal, we’d stop for fresh bagels at Fairmount Bagel in Mile End, a destination both of my parents raved about from their childhoods. We’d pick up a bag of all kinds to bring to my grandfather’s farm, still a couple hours away, over the Big Green Bridge and deep into the trees.

It was always dark when we arrived at the farm, the car steeped in quiet by then, all passengers lulled to sleep by the hum of the engine and rhythm of the highway. I was too young to have a sense of geography or location, but I recognised the curve in the road leading up to our destination. The end of the journey was marked by the sound of tires crackling on a gravel driveway, our headlights passing over old bleached timber and tall grass, and the barking of my grandfather’s dogs.

The Farm

My grandfather’s house was very much a home for grandparents. It was surrounded on all sides by endless fields and forests. Originally built in the 1800s, my grandfather had renovated extensively since he bought the farm in the 1980s—leaving exposed wooden trusses on the walls and ceilings which gave it the cozy feel of Little House on the Prairie. A wood-burning stove sat in the middle of the living room, usually with a boiling pot of water to humidify the parched winter air.

Like most buildings from my youth, the farmhouse’s layout was never complete to me, filled in mostly by bits of distorted memories that drew hallways at impossible angles, and rooms larger than they could be. Only when I returned as an adult did I fill in the blanks and see the farmhouse as it truly is. Many doorways hid rooms I never entered. From the kitchen, there was a dark cemented basement my siblings and I dared each other to explore. Two big, cushioned couches adorned the living room, flanked by towering bookshelves I never much looked at as a kid, but later learned to contain a selection of books about trains, mechanical engineering, philosophy, botany, and the Second World War.

My grandfather remarried late in life to a woman named Danielle—she was always there, so I just saw her as a grandmother. She took very good care of him. She’s an excellent cook, a true Julia Child, and made nearly every one of his meals. She never complained about it; I think she liked taking care of him, and he wasn’t much of a cook (a meal in his books, in true Dutch fashion, was pickled herring on toast). Each night during our visits, the rich aromas of Danielle’s cooking would permeate the house: tomato sauce, garlic, spices, meatloaf, steak, and potatoes, melting into the air, carried by the sound of boiling water, spattering oil, and a knife slicing against a wooden chopping block with expert precision. It was always a production. Meanwhile, we’d turn on music in the living room, share stories and laugh.

Winter filled heavy the branches of the forest, and my grandfather’s cast-iron wood-fire furnace filled his old farmhouse with warmth. As kids, we whined and complained about the slow crawl of boredom which would overcome us after the initial excitement wore off, but there was nowhere else we’d rather be.

Exploring

My siblings and I would often explore the farm during our visits, when we weren’t skiing. There wasn’t much for a kid to do, really, but explore. There was a lot of space. The farm was surrounded by acres and acres of rolling fields (peppered with cow patties year-round) and forests, much of which was planted by my grandfather over the decades. He was a dedicated tree-planter—we called him “the Forest Spirit” and joked that plants would sprout at his feet.

There were very few neighbours around. The highway was dotted every mile or two with houses, mostly farms identified by their family name. Everybody knew each other, my grandfather included. In farm country you come to lean on your neighbours, not just to help with bailing hay but to keep you from the loneliness that can easily creep in. The closest neighbour was Alan.

He was a quiet man, and one of the hardest workers you could imagine. Unlike the quintessential, brusque farmer depicted in Grant Wood’s American Gothic, he was gentle, serene, almost zen-like; and his meditation practice was farmwork. It’s all he’d ever known, and he was a farmer to the bone. You wouldn’t tell by looking at him, but he had ox-like strength. He’d fix problems through brute force, the kind of guy who wouldn’t puzzle too long over how to get something done, he’d just do it, “by hook or by crook”.

Alan had a kind face which housed a resting happiness and fulfillment you could see through his smile and squinting eyes. He loved being a farmer. When he rode his tractor he looked like the kind of farmer you might see on a shredded wheat box, assuring you that their product is organic, and also reminding you that there are still places where people harvest food from the ground, toiling day in and out, living a simple life somewhere most people wouldn’t consider to be anywhere at all.

When my dad was younger, he told me, he helped out around the farm now and then, mostly with renovations and tree planting. Once in awhile Alan would call for assistance with a two-man job around the farm, the kind of two-man job one strong and stubborn farmer just couldn’t do alone.

One time a neighbour’s cows had escaped through a broken electric fence, so he called my dad over to help round them up. The fence was still on and pumping voltage, but the wire had become split. To fix it, Allen simply grabbed hold of both loose ends of the wire with his hands, his muscles spasming with every pulse of electricity, and tied them together in a knot.

Another time, he broke his leg in the barn when he fell and got caught between some wooden beams. When he was being taken out to the ambulance, he was stoic, still-faced and almost vacant, more mildly annoyed at the inconvenience of a broken leg than incoherent with sheer pain — much like the cow in labour, come to think of it.

He would also bring us tapping for maple syrup in the woods around the farm. He’d take us down a snowy forest road on his tractor, hopping off at every silver bucket nailed to a maple tree to collect the sap. At the end of the road was the sugar shack, a makeshift lean-to containing two massive metal vats which would boil the sap into maple syrup. Alan would give us spoons to taste the hot syrup, and pour it over fresh snow to make maple taffy. We’d always bring a couple of cans of syrup home with us, enough to last us until our next visit.

Later in his life, Alan began to develop Parkinson’s. His life depended on working with his hands, which gradually began to betray him. Eventually he couldn’t take care of the cows anymore and had to sell them, leaving the barn empty except for old farm equipment — massive steel machines sitting in darkness through seasons, waiting for someone to slide open the rolling barn door and put them to work. If not used, they develop rust, the oil curdles; it goes against their nature to sit unused. It’s not what they were built for.

One day Alan took his shotgun out to his barn and shot himself. I found out while I was attending university in a city on the other side of the continent, years after my last visit to the farm, and to be honest, years after I’d paid Alan any thought. I pitied him a great deal. I think he felt useless without his hands. He was over 80 years old, and had lived a long and fulfilling life working the land. Work was his life, and when he couldn’t work, he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t run idle, it just wasn’t his way.

People grow old and die; this is a painful truth of life we all must come to know. Hearing of Alan’s passing, and the method of it, hit me deep in the part of my brain where most of my cherished memories live — those of cozying up in the farmhouse in winter with close family and good food, long stretches of road nestled between fields and forests frosted with snow, shivering through a tractor ride between maple trees. All of these were now tied to a tragedy in ways big or small — neighbours to a sad story.

I rarely heard my grandfather mention Alan again after his death, except in casual reference to his property — as in “I’m storing a couple things in Alan’s barn” — or to the widow he left behind, who continued to live in his home down the hill for a couple years before being moved to a care home.

I wondered how it affected my grandfather to have such a close neighbour and, I suspect, friend die so suddenly. He never opened up to me about it, or to many other people to my knowledge. To be fair, I never asked him about Alan, either. Maybe he’d have talked about him if I’d only asked, but I didn’t want to pry. My grandfather — and, to a larger degree, many men from his generation — are private, unsentimental people who as a rule don’t bother others with their emotions. A neighbour dies and it’s sad and you move on.

Two Last Visits

The last time I saw my grandfather was the summer before he died. Visiting home from university, I decided to borrow the family car and take a road trip to visit my sister in Montreal, then a couple hours further to my grandparents’ farm, retracing the route we so often took on those younger visits. At times along the road, it felt almost like a pilgrimage to some sacred place. Some scenery was familiar, some wasn’t. I was seeing everything through a new lens, from the driver’s seat this time. I’d certainly changed, but the road had not. I stopped at the same rest stops we had when I was a kid, the same now as they ever were, stuck in time. As I pulled into the crackling gravel driveway, I could see that the farm had changed as well. New dogs greeted me at the door, and a large renovation had taken place over the garage.

My grandfather hadn’t changed at all.

After sharing a home-cooked meal as wonderful as I remember, he drove me into town — a small, modest but pretty place on the Canadian-American border, the kind of place where locals recognize each other and have conversations on sidewalks. He had an appointment for a blood test that day, just a quick one, and had to pick up some medication. He also had some work to do: he was meeting some colleagues from the local museum about putting in a fence at the historic schoolhouse. He was on the board of directors for the museum, which documented the estate of a prominent local family. Much of his time went into that museum over the years, though I’d never been. When I expressed some curiosity he gave me a private tour of the collection. I was enthralled — there was so much rich history in such an unassuming place. You never would have expected. All I had to do was ask.

Something else was different about the farm on that visit. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Perhaps it was the weather. Most of my memories there involve sheltering from the cold, or massaging my feet by a fire after a long day of skiing. In summer, by contrast, the life of a farm is outside. So much was as before: the wonderful dinners, the smell of old wood, the art posters on the wall. In visiting, I think I’d wished to rebuild something of the past, like walking into a picture frame. Instead, I found something surprisingly new. In retrospect, it may have just been myself that was different.

As I packed up to leave from my short stay, my grandfather mentioned he wanted to take some photos around the farm with me; he’d recently bought a new camera and wanted to see how it compared to my fancy DSLR. So we walked around the large property: to the chicken coop — click — the greenhouse — click — the garden — click — the old barn, full of antique farming equipment he stored for the museum—click.

We ended up last under the trees beside the old barn. I asked him to step into frame and took his photo. I think it encapsulates him nicely: surrounded by trees he planted, next to his old barn, outside; the Forest Spirit in his natural habitat. Shortly after, I packed up to leave. I promised I’d send him my photos to compare. He and Danielle gave me some snacks for the long drive I had ahead, and we said our goodbyes, as it turns out, for the last time.

He died the following winter of multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer. He’d been sick for a while, but he never let on about it. He carried on in ill-health with an admirable defiance (or call it stubbornness). Much like Alan, he never stopped working on the farm until he was physically unable. Despite his fading energy he managed to work outside every single day — planting trees, renovating this, fixing that. He had hired help lately, but still, he’d dig his own hands in the dirt to make way for the roots of a sapling. Over his life he planted an entire forest around his farmhouse — acres and acres of trees — which he tended to throughout the year. There were generations of them standing in tall rows. It’s amazing how much life one person can make.

I returned to the farm one last time for his funeral that summer. I didn’t think I’d be back so soon after my last visit, of course, but was glad to go. This was quite a different visit, yet again. There were so many people. Almost our entire extended family came, which was rare. Some even from as far as the Netherlands, where my grandfather grew up. The air was emotional, but also convivial.

The barn, now mostly empty, was decorated for a dance. China lanterns cast a soft glow on the old, twisted wooden walls. As I milled about, I met people whose names I’d overheard on phone calls and in passing reference over my years of visiting the farm as a kid. Some faces I vaguely recognised from my childhood visits, and many others I didn’t know at all. There were colleagues from the museum, neighbours, friends. Under such circumstances it occurred to me how far and deep our roots run, and how many people we affect — my grandfather in particular. He was a rock of his community.

After a few days’ stay, the festivities came to an end and the overnight guests packed up and left. My dad and I were among the last to leave. I packed my bags into the car and said goodbye much like the summer before, but with a different energy, with a stronger sense of finality.

Not long after the funeral, the farm was put up for sale. Danielle had remained there by herself, but it didn’t make much sense for one person to live in such a large place, and I think it was emotionally draining for her to continue living there. After some negotiation a buyer made an offer, and just over a year after his death, my grandfather’s farm was sold and passed to new hands, for a new family to make their memories, closing the chapter on many of mine.

As I watched the farm disappear into the trees behind us, I wondered about the finality of things. We rarely know in advance whether something will be our last experience of its kind; the last time you’ll see somebody, or visit someplace; the last time you’ll witness a calf being born on a cold winter night (for most, probably also the first)—or the last time you’ll drive down a windy road to your grandfather’s farm. There is of course a last time you’ll see, do, or say anything. It’s overwhelming to get lost in that forest of uncertainty.

As gravel gave way to pavement and we sped down the road, I turned around watched out the rear window —for likely the last time, I watched the farm recede into the trees, and into my past.

Writer & Video Producer.

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