Three Years on the Farm

We are a small-scale farm, very amateur operation, and learning as we go. Our primary lesson is patience. After that first lesson, we learn about flowers, animals, and the soil that sustains them both. This is where we stand, at the beginning of our third year, here on the farm.

When we moved here

wild geranium and sting nettle filled the yards to the brim. Chain-link fencing, irrigation pipe, and black widows occupied the barns. The walls of the workshop brimmed over with mold. Pesticides laid the field low. Yet, the house waited for us. This house, so well-known to the community, seemed ready for us and we were ready for it.

The roof needed replacing. The windows were falling shut. The driveway flooded, waters flowing up into the workshop, higher and higher.

Little by little, we mowed and tilled.

We planted a fruit grove towards the back of the field, imagining the day when all the produce we needed would be right here, and a day much later, when our lives are quieter and we have more than we need, able to bless others with that abundance, as others bless us now. Blossoms punctuate the fruit grove. I sent the children to make scientific observations on the differences between fruit trees and I wonder if we perhaps pruned the trees too hard this last winter.

I see the blackberries and raspberries coming back to life and remember we need to string additional wire to support them.

The chicken coop and our little flock of chickens came next, hauled over with my father’s tractor. The chicken yard expanded as these three years marched on, as did the flock. We replaced the feeder and nesting boxes with products from DuncansFarmStore on Etsy. What a difference it made. That plus the patience of waiting for chicks to age, we now collect an average of 10 eggs a day for the six eaters in the house.

eggs from the farm

In December, a friend offered me two lambs to test our budding interest in raising sheep. Sheep milk can be used for consumption, yogurt and cheese production, all products my children consume in bulk. Each morning I rose at 6:30 a.m. to mix their formula. My three eldest children went out in the wee hours to feed their lambs. The lambs grew, challenging our construction skills until they were ready for the wide-open world. My husband set up their pasture, or lamb yard, as we call it. Now their baaing drives him crazy whenever he is outdoors. They knew where their food comes from.

Inside the yard

the wild geranium and nettle made way for a perennial flower garden, a cut flower garden, a dahlia garden and a fairy garden. I am determined to let the fairy garden’s flowers bloom at their own pace and never cut them. This one shall be for the delight of our eyes. All the rest for my fingers to pick and arrange and share with the town through the little flower stand I began last year.

New rose bushes arrived this year, complementing the collection we inherited from past tenants. After the removal of two problematic trees, I must reassess the water need of the plants facing the road.

The interior of the home became ours quickly with coats of paints, art and antiques, a quick change in one bathroom from a bulky vanity to wall mount cast iron sink from Miss Potts Attic. The second bathroom had its remodel when we replaced our kitchen countertops. A new counter and new tiles make the room, preserving the old we can keep and replacing with new when called for.

It comes step by step.

We made mistakes in these past three years, but understand them as lessons rather than errors.

Better than all of it is the sight of my barefoot children, my son’s vitamin D levels, my two-year-old swinging herself as she sings, my daughter’s iris garden on the brink of blooming, my child’s treasure map, and the holes the bunch of them are digging to China. It is a golden childhood, and we are so grateful to give it to them.

We are but tenants ourselves.

panting of our little farm house

If we steward our resources well, this house will live on past us, to receive the patter of little feet and nurture little souls.

Step by step, little by little, and with lots of patience.

For the Love of Books

Valentine Davies writes in the book, Miracle on 34th Street:

‘Do you know what the imagination is, Susan?’ The child nodded sagely. ‘That’s when you see things that aren’t really there.’

“’Well, not exactly,’ said Kris with a smile. ‘No — to me the imagination is a place all by itself. A very wonderful country. You’ve heard of the British Nation and the French Nation?’ Susan nodded again. ‘Well, this is the Imagination. And once you get there you can do almost anything you want.’

In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith writes:

‘What must I do, Mother, what must I do to make a different world for her? How do I start?’

“’The secret lies in the reading and the writing. You are able to read. Every day you must read one page from some good book to your child. Every day this must be until the child learns to read. Then she must read every day, I know this is the secret.’

For the love of books, bore the brains out of your children

Rows of books
Photo by Alfons Morales on Unsplash

In our goals of giving our children the best of what we had in our past, with the guardrails of what our generation learned, my husband and I seek to create something of a boring atmosphere for our children. Our one television stands in our bedroom moved out to the living room and positioned on the 1×12 inch board we place across the school desks for family movie nights. There are audiobooks only occasionally, usually when we travel. The movie habits were limited to selected films until the Magnolia network came on the scene and our viewing admittedly expanded on Saturdays and Sundays to include more run-on, what’s next, style viewing, a habit I once avoided better than now.

We have an outdoor space where they can run, dig and explore.

We have multiple kids so the child who wants to be alone can escape and there is always someone else to play with.

And we have books. That wonderful world of books.

My father and I stood in the remodeled barn looking at the 12 foot long, doubled-sided bookcase. He showed my antique books in Greek, in German, the History of the World, my mother’s textbooks, his old comic books. Those books, he collected and loved the books he collected. They were prized possessions even if I never saw him reading them.

The man took me to Borders and Barnes and Noble, but we loved Yesterday’s Books best. He drove me to poetry readings and gifted me an ancient computer before the days of the world wide web on which to type out the stories in my mind.

All my days in the house I remember shelves full of books: “Come to the Meadow,” signed by the author, Anne Grossnickle Himes and addressed to my sister; The Living Bible; The Saddle Club books. Eventually, these gave way to Austen, Bronte and Dickens.

My poor husband carted boxes and boxes of books from this side of the country to the other, and back again. Each week I go the library to pick up or drop off. Once a month I lumber out the exit with sixty books in my bag, blessing my children with the new month’s theme.

My husband reads one book, The Lord of the Rings, but he reads it over and over again, perennially, if you will. I keep a mental list of the “classics,” the books that influenced and shaped the culture, the books that more than a few people thought worth reading two hundred years later. I think there must be something to that.

We are readers. We are book bugs.

If we spend too much time in the digital world, it is noticeably harder to focus on print. So we make an effort and it pays off. Because the world of books, the world of literature, is a rich world, a bold world, a world worth visiting regularly.

During Lent, we instituted Reading Nights in place of Friday movies nights. We lit the fire, popped popcorn, pour tea, and sat quietly while we read individually, alone together. And it was beautiful.

Books were my companions in lonely childhood, they were my respite during times of crisis, they were my avenue to intellectual growth in the doldrums of motherhood, and I hope and pray, that I can pass that comfort onto my children, so that no matter where they may be, whatever they may endure, they will know there is a bit of rest, of joy, of escape in a book.

Child reading
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Lemons: An Answer to Life’s Troubles

I inherited my Kitchen-aid mixer when my husband and I married and my mother upgraded to a larger size to accommodate her enormous baking habit. With it, she gave several attachments, including a juicer.

It may have been five years ago. That sounds about right. About five years ago, dear friends who knew me as a child invited us to pick fruit in their front yard. Now, every year, either we ask or they remind us, the fruit is there. Come and get it.

The aged trees are laden with lemons, grapefruit, and oranges.

I used to accompany my husband until our little babes outnumbered us. This year, he took two of our daughters.

What could a family do with three gallons of lemon juice?

“When life gives you lemons,” they say.

We make lemonade.

The lemonade serves special occasions. It serves for playdates, parties, for summer art classes. It serves.

The orange juice comes out when illness strikes and we need to be more proactive than our usual nutrition. We need a boost, and all the better if it can be tasty. It also comes out for Mother Day mimosas.

The grapefruit, one year, was condensed down to a simple syrup and added to Italian sodas as part of our Italian booth at a church festival. Last year, we experimented with grapefruitade.

I moved the mixer across the kitchen

and set it on an old bath towel.

The juicing attachment goes on. I place a 4-cup Pyrex measuring cup underneath. We bring in two five-gallon buckets to collect the rinds. Empty half-gallon jars build a formation around the mixer.

We have to be more careful this year because citrus will etch the of the marble work surface that replaced the broken tile. We lay out two cookie sheets, two cutting boards and two knives. A quick assessment determined the decision to gate off the kitchen from the two-year-old.

And we get to work.

One capable and well-trained child cuts the citrus, filling the tray. We switch the empty for the full tray and I begin juicing. She fills the next tray. Once filled, the bucket needs to be emptied. She carts it across the field to the grove of baby fruit trees. It takes her a while to come back. By the time she does, I am ready for her to cut more.

We work in rhythm with each other. The man of the house reenters the kitchen with labeled gallon-size freezer bags. He blends the admittedly pulpy juice and fills the bags, carrying a batch of four or five to the outside freezer.

Little girl juicing lemons at a Kitchen-aid mixer to make lemonade.

After many bags of citrus, bucketfuls of rinds and two days later, the job is done. A thorough clean-up reveals a little etching on the marble. That makes my husband and me even since he etched the opposite since of the counter. This one was my doing. It is good to have equality in marriage.

There are so many things we are powerless to stop in this world.

There is so much heartache, so much bad news, so many things that never should have been.

So when it’s time to harvest the fruit, and it must be harvested before it is too late; and when it is time to juice all that citrus, and it must be juiced before it rots on my countertops, we allow ourselves to be beholden to something that is good, natural, rewarding, and, well, sweet.

We allow ourselves to join in a bigger world, a world of neighbors sharing with neighbors, which we pay forward in our homeschooling co-op and hospitality. We teach our children about family projects that take multiple hands.

The reward is the juice that comes from it.

You have to work to get there, but it’s better than anything packaged and sold in a store.

Jars of grapefruit juice.

We freeze the juice in those gallon bags and take it out throughout the year to make strawberry lemonade, lavender lemonade, Palomas, and smoothies. Bigger than that, we make memories and receive the generosity of others.

“The man and woman who let us pick their trees, they must be really wonderful,” the hardworking child gushes.

In a world that is hurting or disconnected, it is good to return to the land, to the ideas of farming in which neighbors work together to bless each other.

And it is very, very sweet.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Why we celebrate the Lunar New Year

Lunar New Year began February 1 and concludes 15 days later. My grandmother was born and raised in Shanghai. She attended a British boarding school. Raising a biracial family in the United States in the 1950s brought its challenges and the goal of the time was assimilation. We were not culturally Chinese, except on those days when we went to Chinese restaurants. Then we knew to eat family style; and when we poured our green tea, we took it plainly, no cream or sugar added. And once a year, there was talk of Chinese New Year, and a question of whether or not to travel to Oakland, San Francisco, or San Jose to celebrate it.

We did one year, but not again. Still, there was talk of it.

Bringing the new year in

Chinese New Year decorations

Three or four years ago, we began to observe the Lunar New Year in our home as a way to celebrate my grandmother and offer her the gift of something old and familiar, though naturally in a distinctly Chinese-American way. I learned more of the traditions from storybooks and educational books than from the source, but the heart of it is one we can all understand.

At the heart of the Lunar New Year is a reunion.

Family comes together. Lucky money is given to youngsters enclosed in bright red envelopes, decorated with gold lettering. The feast is spread with symbolic foods. Wishes of a happy and fortunate new year are shared. I wear the jade necklace my mother gave me and the gold earrings my grandmother gave me in the days when I invited myself to stay the night at her house in Modesto, rather than drive home between work shifts. We ate and watched old movies. She told me about the old days in China, the days of employment and dances, the days of office work and flirtations, the days of the war, the days of leaving home and the strangely new and foreign days with an unfamiliar Greek-German family in the United States.

Chinese New Year joins a list of celebrations in our house, one more festivity for my children to anticipate, prepare for, and delight in. There may be children of mine who hold little connection to that Chinese heritage. There may be children of mine who have few, if any, memories of the woman for whom we began these celebrations. But they will know we celebrate. They may ask why we celebrate.

And when they do, their older brothers and sisters will tell them the story:

“Mommy’s grandmother was from China. She came here when the Communists took over. She married an American and all the Americans had to get out. The rest of her family had to stay behind.”

The week and a half before Lunar New Year, there were so many interruptions, so many commitments, so many important meetings and visits, and so many responsibilities.

“I thought you might cancel”

my mother said when we gathered that night.

My children sat around the table as their great-grandmother coached them on how to use chopsticks. After she wrote out the Chinese words for “Happy New Year” phonetically (“gung hai phat choy”), I asked her to teach us to count in Cantonese. She counted briskly three times and then moved on.

We ate recipes new and old, homemade, from the frozen aisle, and taken-out from Hughson Asian Kitchen. The imperfections did not matter.

Chinese Almond Cookies

At the heart of it was the thing mattered.

A new year full of hope.

An old year capped with gratitude.

In the center of it all

family.

Family

Gung hay fat choy 

wishing you great happiness and prosperity

Happy New Year!

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Have Yourself a Festive Little Holiday.

Festivity doesn’t come to us. Festivity is Made.

I thought we would host my family on December 10.

I thought we would get out of hosting and escape to my parents’ for an easy Christmas dinner December 25.

I thought we would host my husband’s family on December 27.

I thought my husband would be working a lot around this holiday.

Instead, we got COVID-19.

“But you’re missing Christmas!” my friend said to me.

“Oh, I don’t know.” I responded, “We’re missing mass, but that happened in 2020 anyway. I’ve been in a hospital room all the way up until December 23. I’m home, all my children are with me, we have everything we need, even an organ or two or three and an organist. Our symptoms are mild. There are worse things we could face.

“The gifts are wrapped, the house decorated and quarantine is over next Wednesday, which, because we follow that Catholic tradition of the octave of Christmas and the 12 Days of Christmas, Wednesday is still just as much Christmas.

“My son had a slight fever on Saturday but it stayed below 100 and broke Sunday morning. Because of his condition, we would be in the hospital right now if it had gone up just one degree.

“And we just found out my freelancing husband will be given full pay by one of his primary contracts as a gesture of love and care towards our family.

“So, I’m grateful for what I’ve got.”

How will we approach this strange turn of events?

We asked for help. It was hard to ask, but we needed to do it. We are too rural and haven’t enough resources to do grocery or meal delivery. Friends and family filled in the gap. We have more food than we can handle and there is a feeling of comfort in that.

This morning my husband and I planned our Christmas Eve dinner, our Christmas morning breakfast, and our Christmas day dinner, all of which were subject to change now that he will be home for all of it. Every holiday of great importance has been a dance around his work schedule, and this year we are just home.

The children anticipated parties galore. They anticipated their play space, a vacant barn used mostly for storing tables, to be transformed into an event space filled with aunts, uncles, cousins, Christmas lights and trees. My eldest child grappled with the loss of the opportunity to sing in the choir on Christmas Day.

We are Catholic and nothing can replace being in person at mass on Christmas Day. But things being what they are, we have to make alternative plans.

So what did we do?

I happen to have a few church pews in that barn. I purchased them thinking they could work for event seating (they do not). The children call it their mission church.

Wednesday morning before Christmas, we strung unused white string mini-lights around the rafters of the barn. We hung finger-woven garland along those rafters. My parents provided an artificial Christmas tree. I brought in extra decor I thought too risky in a house with a two-year-old. We moved a $4 brass chandelier to the center of the barn above a long row of tables and draped it with battery-powered colored lights and a silvery olive leaf garland.

This isn’t Instagram Perfect

Christmas in the storage barn

The walls are grey with aged wood. You can see the marks of water that seeped through during the storm.

The dirt turned to mud where a metal roof panel blew off in the last rain.

The cement is uneven and slopes down to the sides.

In the corner, there stands stacks and stacks of styrofoam sheeting from medical shipments and old shop lights removed when we remodeled my husband’s music studio.

It’s cold without insulation, heat or glass in the windows. There is no other lighting.

Our puppy ran away.

We hear the lambs bleating in the barn next to us. The fevers and fatigue come and go.

But we are together. We are ridiculous enough to set up a 1200 sqft place for no one at all.

Except it isn’t for no one.

It’s for us.

Festivity is made. It doesn’t come to us. It doesn’t require luxury or met expectations. It requires a bit of adventurousness. It requires a bit of silliness. It requires a childlike-enough spirit to see the world with wonder and make the choice to delight in it.

I do not know what Christmas Day will feel like. I do know that on Christmas Eve when the sun goes down, we’re going to shiver ourselves over to “the mission” with candles lit and welcome the Christ child into our hearts.

Break the Routine

The wind blows fiercely outside my window. I hear the shouts of children as they raise their voices above the gusts to communicate how each should play with their new puppy. Times are changing. There is hope in the air.

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

Impressed with their progress and hard work this semester, I elected to give my children a full week of Fall break, culminating in a cabin visit. For eight weeks, I have raved about the beauty of routine, how it helped us all to fall in line with what must be done and do it well.

“Routine is beauty,” the founder of a missionary organization, the National Evangelization Team, explained to a new crop of missionaries. He spoke about prayer, and I agreed wholeheartedly. Now in a way that is totally different I feel the impact of those words.

There were challenges to homeschooling last year. Personality clashes, frustrations, the sense that I, the educator, gave up my freedom to command, “keep working” every two minutes to a particularly stubborn student. A solid routine changed that.

Routine creates boundaries like fences around the blocks of time in our day. As human beings, we do not so much itemize information in our minds. Rather we chunk it together in bits that our short-term memory can deal with. I learned this in college, “seven items, plus-or-minus two,” is all our short-term memory can hold. Five to nine items, that’s all. If I look at my day, I can easily conceive of seven blocks of time, plus-or-minus two, and organize my day accordingly.

Then there are the studies that show children playing in a fenced playground will venture farther, closer to the edges of the playground, than those who played in an unfenced area. When we know our boundaries, we know how far we can go safely. Boundaries can actually make us feel freer.

And so in routine, I know what I need to do in this block of time. I do not need to worry about what happens outside this block of time. The present is what matters and I can relax knowing that all those other things on my mind, the six, plus-or-minus two, will be got to. I do not need to worry about them.

So it goes with my children. They know chores begin at 7 a.m. They know school begins at 8 a.m. The aforementioned stubborn student knows math will end after 45 minutes and whatever he does not do, he will do it when all other subjects have been completed. If he works rather than sits (daydreaming, drawing imaginary battle scenes) he will have time to play. If he does work, if he sits daydreaming and drawing those scenes, he knows the school day will go on indefinitely until he changes his mind. He has more freedom within the routine than he had outside of it. He is in control of his choices and that is what he needed to be successful.

It takes discipline to stick to a routine and the effort to get the other players on board can be stressful. This is why breaks become all the more important. Scheduled recess, an hour for lunch, and vacations from school when all the routine goes by the wayside, when breakfast is late, movies are watched and a sense of freedom and festivity reign. These times balance the work and discipline needed to keep a routine in place for a large group of people with a wide range of personalities and preferences. These breaks make the energy required to do all that possible.

The breaks and holidays punctuate the routine of life. I am the type to be tempted to skip these breaks, power through and get the work done sooner. That method works fine temporarily, but burnout ensues and that mode of nonstop work becomes untenable. We burn out. We give up. The work we did begins to fall apart.

A routine, not just a schedule, but a sustainable, intentional plan that accounts for the needs of those involved, makes the difference. It might require some brainstorming, conversations, sitting and musing, imagining the different scenarios, but when it all comes together, breaks included, it is beautiful.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.