Barns, Life and Magic Memories
Article first appeared in Chronicle of the Horse February 5th, 1988
In Moddersville, where I grew up, visitors rarely began their visits at the house. They headed straight for the barn. Shooing chickens out of the way and trying not to boot any cats, they’d step into the semi-darkness of the barn aisle and holler, “Anybody home?”
This set about a chain reaction. Half-visible pigeons lifted themselves from the highest rafters and then re-settled in the same spot, barn cats streaked across the mow, and barn animals launched into a raucous welcome before the called-upon party had a chance to break in.
The barns of my childhood were tall and airy. I can remember early on being awestruck by the heights of the cathedral-like ceiling above our mow. I would lie in the prickly hay smelling the sweetness of the alfalfa and sensing the height of the rafters above me. The pigeons cooed while light wafted through the cracks between barn boards, filtering dust and crisscrossing the hay with light and shadow.
THE LOFT SERVED AS MY FIRST PLAYHOUSE. My older brother and sister and I built forts in the hay, and they showed me how to stuff hay in the cracks between bales to make the tunnels as dark as the inside of the grain bin at night. Below us, the horses chewed and snorted gently and stomped their feet. If I held my breath and laid my ear against the floor, I could even hear their stomachs growl.
At 7 I dared to do anything—almost—that my brother, 13, dared to do. I could slide down the hay chute into the horses’ manger, jump out of the hay loft, and balance on the solid oak beams that crisscrossed high above the barn floor.
My friends had barns of their own, each barn different and pervaded by its own aura of mystery. Perhaps the partial darkness and sense of small scurrying feet had something to do with the excitement I felt opening those creaking sliding doors. MaryBeth’s Grandma Spitzbergen had the most wonderful barn I knew. It was actually two barns connected at right angles, with seemingly endless rooms and mows and heights to explore. Mary Beth, my sister and I played in it by the hour. Our favorite game involved making up impromptu skits while balancing on one of the huge beams. The skits invariably ended with a plunge—either planned or not—into a pile of hay.
Barns provided entertainment from the outside too. You could bounce balls against them or throw balls onto the roof and catch them when they bump-bump-bumped their way back down again. My brother could throw a baseball all the way over, so sometimes I stood positioned among the manure piles on the opposite side glove-in-hand. I usually missed.
PERHAPS PART OF THE FUN WAS GETTING SCARED. At night, fear came without effort, but during the day we had to be inventive. With relish we’d huddle in a hay fort, whispered voices raising and lowering dramatically in the telling of ghost stories. Then, each separating to the still air of some small, dark nook between hay bales, we’d play hide-and-go-seek. We’d wait. And wait.
Whoever was IT would seem to be lost, or gone, or swallowed by the darkness, and one after the other we’d crawl out of hiding to decide we were dead-alone in the huge, eerie, drafty barn, pinned by the shadows, terrified of the dark spaces behind the haybales. One after the other we’d make heroic flights of escape down rickety old wall-ladders, sending pigeons flapping up against the ceiling and mice scurrying under walls. We’d break out into the bright colors of the barnyard, suddenly glad of the sun’s warmth.
IF LIFE CENTERED AROUND THE BARN, SO DID DEATH. I remember the first dead kitten I found, its mouth open and full of maggots. Kittens were constantly born in our hay mow, and I hunted for their nests to cuddle them and try to make them safe. But they were never safe—a truth that the mama cats knew. Constantly the mothers moved their babies to new, safer hiding places; always some or all of them disappeared who-knows-where.
When I was 8, my Aunt Janie, who lived a mile away, pulled a hay bale from the stack in the loft, only to lose her balance and fall against the hinged hay-mow door. It opened, dropping both her and the bale to the cement below.
Uncle Marv would shake his head and say he was close enough to catch her. If only he had been quicker, he could have run forward and caught her. But in that split-second eternity it took Aunt Janie to fall, nightmare slow-motion hung on Uncle Marv like lead, and Aunt Janie broke her neck. At the funeral I saw him kiss her lips, and I dared to touch her waxy arm. It was cold.
BIRTH WENT ON IN THAT BARN at a tremendous rate. By age 10 I had seen litters of squiggling kittens and puppies born, and found foals still wet from birthing, the mares with the afterbirth still hanging under their tails. I spent hours in the stalls with the newborns. The foals were so small I could nearly hold them in my arms. I would bury my face into their fuzzy necks, and then squirt the sweet, nut-flavored milk of their dams into my mouth.
IN BARNS I ALSO LEARNED TO LOVE WORK. Hay season—a constant race against time and bad weather—started in June, and even the smallest family member helped. I can remember the excitement I felt when the old red Massey-Ferguson pulled the season’s first load of hay from the north forty to our barn aisle. Then, wearing long sleeves shirts and gloves even in 90-degree weather, we all helped as bale after bale of fresh green hay was thrown from the wagon onto a long noisy elevator and then stacked like bricks into the loft.
I worked with my sister in the loft under the top of the elevator where the bales fell. We grabbed each bale out of the way of the next, trying to keep ahead of the steady barrage of hay and chaff tumbling down at us. When we fell hopelessly behind and the pile of unstacked bales grew head-high, we’d shout out of the loft to Dad. Then the elevator would jolt to a stop and he’d climb up the sides of it as though it were a ladder. Dad wore gloves but no shirt, his body shiny brown and flecked with hay chaff. When he had tossed the hay effortlessly onto the stack, he’d disappear back down the elevator and the clanging noises would start again.
AT THE END OF THE DAY we’d lie in the hay or, still sweating and catching our breath, sit on beams while a soft breeze filtered hay dust out of the air. “About 800 bales today,” Dad would say. Or 500 or 1,000, however many there had been. “You did good work.” Then we’d sit there among the rays of light and shadow, feeling warm and tired and happy with our good work.
That barn of my childhood is long gone—lost to a load of ice on Christmas morning in 1973. The roof caved in and the whole thing had to be torn down. Now the only reminders of it are the occasional shingles that work their way out of the garden. A new pole barn stands out back, sleek and modern, and, though the pigeons never moved in, the visits in Moddersville are still as likely as not to begin there.