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A Labor of Love

CHERYL GERBER PHOTOGRAPH

The boys and I have been reading Little House on the Prairie. They don’t seem to notice any similarities between themselves and the pioneering Ingalls children, but me and that Mrs. Ingalls? We could talk. We could definitely talk.

Take the chapter where Pa builds the Ingalls’ cabin in the wilds of Indian Country. When the walls grow too tall for him to stack the logs any higher by himself, Pa enlists Ma’s help. He has no choice –– she’s the only other able-bodied adult for miles around. Everything’s going smoothly until, suddenly, a log comes crashing down. The illustration shows Ma sprawled on the ground in her long skirts with a huge log lying across her leg. In the next scene, she’s soaking her grotesquely swollen ankle in a washtub.

I’ve never homesteaded the vast Midwestern plains or tangled with a tree trunk, but I can certainly relate to Ma’s predicament as a woman stuck doing a man’s job. Just as on the rugged prairie, a family farm has too much work and not enough hands to do it all. It’s only a matter of time before a farm wife is called upon to do things any reasonable woman would know are too dangerous, too hard or just too disgusting for girls.

In my day, I have fixed fences, herded cows, shingled roofs, built greenhouses, shoveled manure and harvested watermelons. I’ve carried 60-pound calves through shin-deep mud and transplanted hundreds of watermelon seedlings into the fields by hand. Sometimes I even amaze myself.

 I have met a few farm wives who who were wily enough to avoid this hard labor –– and a few farmers whose egos would never allow their wives to help.

Apparently, however, I am not that clever, and my husband is extremely secure in his masculinity. Harvey is not only quite comfortable having my help –– he encourages it. I mean, he actually brags about how tough I am now compared to the prissy city slicker he married. The fact that I’m nearly 6-foot-1 just makes it all the luckier for him if you ask me. I am convinced that Harvey’s first thought upon meeting me wasn’t, “Check out that long, cool drink of water.” It was: “Hey! Look at that big, strong farmhand.”

I wonder how he would have fared with a daintier spouse. I’ve had plenty of time to ponder such hypotheticals, you see, during the many boring hours I’ve spent operating tractors. I’ve plowed. I’ve mowed. I’ve raked. I’ve clutched and shifted until I was stiff and staggering. I’ve fiddled with hydraulic hoses, pumped diesel, tightened lug nuts and sprayed anhydrous ammonia over fields until every sensory receptacle on my face was burning. I’ve spent the day with my bro John Deere too many times to count, though a few experiences do stand out –– like that sweltering August afternoon I raked hay in a neighbor’s unbelievably rough field. The ride was so jarring and I was so slippery with sweat (“perspiration” sounds nicer, but that would be a lie), I literally had to hang onto the steering wheel for dear life to avoid sliding off of the vinyl tractor seat with every bounce.
It sure is fun to blame it all on Harvey, but the truth is I volunteered to be his apprentice from the very start. Before leaving my cushy magazine job in Atlanta to marry a Washington Parish farmer, I’d never done anything more grueling than an aerobics class or any grittier than cleaning a toilet. Driving tractors and delivering calves were like extreme sports to a girl raised in the city. I was digging this new action-figure me: I am Farm Woman! Hear my tractor roar!

Then, shortly after our wedding, Harvey and I bought 36 very pregnant dairy cows. They arrived on an 18-wheeler on a gray winter’s day. Within days, three dozen very large, dumb beasts began going into labor all over the place. We baby-sat them around the clock for several weeks. I vividly recall wading through creeks at 1 a.m. on rainy winter nights and chasing mother cows through such bottomless, sucking mud I stepped right out of my boots and toppled into the ooze. Once we got the cow cornered –– stop here if you have a weak stomach –– Harvey would reach into the birth canal and loop a heavy chain around the calf’s front feet.  (Without getting too explicit, let’s just say this was when I discovered that sterile gloves come in whole-arm sizes.) Then we’d grab the end of the chain, plant our feet and make like we were playing tug-of-war with the Saints’ entire offensive line. Because it bothered me seeing babies fall out of their mothers onto the hard ground, I would try to catch them at the moment of birth: all 50 to 80 pounds of bloody, slimy critter. I tell you, that can do quite a number on a girl’s ensemble.

Then, just to see if my gag reflex was as strong as my back –– and to amuse himself –– Harvey would offer to prepare me an “afterbirth sandwich.” I’ll never forget the night when my true love asked me to hold up a mother cow’s tail and shine a flashlight while he extracted rotting placenta out of the cow’s nether cavities. I suspect he didn’t need my help so much as he just enjoyed sharing this very special Hallmark moment with me.

Running a bovine maternity ward could be exhausting and gross, but that was just boot camp. Throughout the 12 years of dairy farming that followed, Farm Woman had ample occasion to demonstrate just how tough she really was. I remember floundering around in icy mud puddles, huffing and puffing and struggling and straining to get sick cows in an upright position. I got splattered in the face with cow manure so many times I hardly noticed it anymore. One time –– true story –– I rounded up and milked 120 cows by myself. At 4 o’clock in the morning. In a cold drizzling rain. While running a fever. Harvey did enjoy his night off, but he’s been paying for it ever since. I still whip out that story every time I’m trying to win an argument about who’s had it the worst.

Now that we only grow hay, being a farm wife is much easier. I no longer report for work at 3 a.m. or mud-wrestle with livestock. But I do haul a lot of hay. Hauling hay is better than milking cows, but with bales weighing 50 pounds and up, it will definitely separate the real women from the wimps.

A couple of months ago I glanced out of the window where we had parked a trailer full of hay for sale by the road. I saw a little old man struggling to lift one of the bulky bales. The instant he picked it up, he started swaying dangerously and his spindly legs began folding beneath him. By the time I got there, he was crumpled on the ground, pinned under the hay.  I picked up the hay. Then I picked up the little old man, who was OK. His idea was to transport the hay in the trunk of his small car –– which was crammed with junk. So I moved the junk. Then, with great difficulty, I crammed  two bales of hay into the trunk. Finally, I secured the gaping trunk lid, which required me to get down on all fours and grope around under the bumper for a place to fasten the rope.

As the poor dear drove away, I wondered if anyone would be there to help him unload when he got home. It’s sad to think about, but not every man is fortunate enough to have a big, strong farm woman hanging around the cabin.

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