Tag Archives: Pigs

Artifacts to Memories: This Pig

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I found her among the ads in the back of a gardening magazine: a cast iron piggy bank. She is different than most piggy banks, with their cartoon-like, gender-less countenance and big fat bellies designed for holding many coins. This is a realistic depiction of a pig, reminiscent of a character in an E.B.White story, with full udder pronouncing her gender and an expression that reminds me of Rodin’s “Thinker.” A noble pig.

I placed my order, with the intention of giving the bank to my father-in-law, Jack, for Christmas. When it arrived, I was so enchanted with it, I couldn’t bring myself to give it away! Jack got homemade slippers for Christmas, and the story of the pig, which made him laugh out loud and tease me with mock offense that I had kept his gift. The pig became a treasured object in my home: useful for coin collecting, heavy enough to act as a bookend, a reminder of the pigs we’d raised as children, and a beacon of hope for the small farm I hoped to someday have. It was also the first of what turned out to be quite a collection of pigs.

The next pig was a wooden cutout, varnished to shine, with an inch of twine for a tail. Then I found a pair of silly pink pig salt and pepper shakers, and a little china sow attached by short lengths of fine chain to three little piglets. I purchased a small David Bigelow intaglio print of a pig strapped into a pair of broad wings, prepared to step off the edge of a cliff. “Moment of Truth” is the title. My husband bought me a larger print by the same artist, titled “Escape from the Cycle,” that has hundreds of pigs rising up out of the grid of plowed fields and pig pens.

By that time, I was officially a “collector of pigs.” That led to gifts of swine in every form, from buttons to pot holders to throw pillows. When I spent my winters in a tiny apartment on the campus of Michigan State University, the pigs dominated the small kitchen. Three dimensional versions marched and wallowed along the top of my bookshelf. Pig towels hung from the oven door, and pig pot holders sat in a basket near the stove. It eventually became just too much pork.

When I graduated, and cleared out that apartment to move back to my home on Beaver Island, I wrapped all the little statues and packed them into a sturdy box, labelled “PIGS.” It sat in my attic here for several years as I contemplated where to display them. Life here tends more toward natural treasures. My windowsills are laden with ever-changing displays of pine cones, driftwood, shells, beach stones, and the occasional bird’s nest.  No place for pigs. Finally, I went through the box, gave several pigs away and donated others to our re-sale shop. The rest, I brought back out for use or display.

I kept the two intaglio prints; the small one always hangs above my desk. I kept a small green tin with a pig painted on the sliding lid. I kept three little squeaky rubber pigs, that my grandchildren used to play with; my big dog likes to carry them around now. I kept the jump rope with carved and painted wooden pig handles, though I doubt I’ll be starting a jump rope routine…ever.

Of course, I held onto my original cast iron piggy bank. It still has a dignified appearance; it is a good place for stray coins and continues to work well as a bookend. It makes me want to re-read the essays of E.B.White. It reminds me of hopes and dreams I’ve grown out of or abandoned. When I think about it, I am transported to a long-ago Christmas, in a much different life. I can still here Jack’s laugh, and picture his expression of mock horror as he asked, “You kept my present??” For all of that, I keep the pig.

 

 

Bringing the Farm to Hunt Road

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In the Garden, with Tomatoes Back row, left to right: Cindy, Ted, Brenda Front row, left to right: Sheila, Cheryl (hiding), Nita and Robin

My father grew up on a farm, here on Beaver Island. He knew first-hand about planting, growing and harvesting. He knew about animals.

We knew the stories. We heard about the bull that Dad could ride, about long days spent at the hot and itchy job of haying, about the tree that he’d sit under for shade when he’d take a break from plowing the field.

We knew that, as a teen and young adult, he’d worked on the ferry boat in the fall when they shipped the cattle across. His job was keeping the cows on their feet, no matter how rough the sea, because if they lay down, their stomachs would tangle and they’d die. That was accomplished by riding in the lower deck with the cows, and “jostling” them if they showed signs of leaning or falling.

When we visited the island, we saw the familiar places. We knew the horse barn, and the barn for the cows, with the lean-to attached where the sheep were kept. We saw the chicken coop, and the fenced path for leading the cattle to and from pasture. We knew the pig house, the granary and the wood shed.

I don’t think Dad intended to farm when he moved off the farm, to Lapeer, Michigan. He went to work with my grandfather, his father-in-law, and learned the electrical business from him.

It all started with a tiny plot at the back of our yard that Dad worked up, to show us how things grow. Nothing is so exciting to children as watching things spring from the ground where a seed was planted; nothing tastes as good as fresh-picked tomatoes, or raw peas from the pod. Dad loved our excitement and enthusiasm. Every year, the plot grew larger.

My grandparents home was on one side of our house; a widow named Magabelle owned the property on the other side. The land was bare, except for a small storage shed in the middle of it. Though ten years older, Magabelle was a good friend of my grandmother. She and my grandfather, however, were mortal enemies. Because of that, Magabelle had planted thorn bushes all along the border between her property and theirs. That part of the property became ours.  As children, we ran around bare-footed all summer long, and were constantly picking thorns out of the bottom of our feet.

After Grandpa died, Dad approached Magabelle about using her property for a large garden. She agreed. That’s when we started planting a quarter-acre every year.

Dad was not good about collecting money for electrical work, but he was pretty slick when it came to striking a bargain. One year, a truckload of manure was accepted as payment. Lumber, a piece of equipment or a load of wood chips might show up without warning. Dad used some spare lumber to build a small chicken coop. More to build a pig pen, shelter and feeding trough.

Eventually, Mom realized that we were going to starve to death if we were dependent on Dad collecting payment for services. She convinced him to take a job at the shop. Once Dad started working as an electrician at Chevrolet Manufacturing Company, farming became more than a hobby. Then it was life…life beyond work.

Dad worked second shift, and wasn’t home until midnight. Still, in the springtime, he was up every morning early and out on the tractor to get the garden ready. When it was harvest time, his lunch box was always full of samples for his co-workers: the hottest hot peppers, the freshest tomatoes, or the longest cucumbers. When company came to visit, Dad would walk them through the garden. Long distance competitions raged from Russell Green on Beaver Island to Peter “Doney” in Marlette to my Dad in Lapeer over whose corn was the highest, whose pumpkins the largest.

For us children, things were not as much fun. The garden was no longer something we did with Dad, it was something we had to answer for. Weeding and watering were our jobs: weeding in the morning, before the sun was too high; watering in the evenings, to soak in overnight. Mom didn’t dare let us slack off, or she’d be called on to explain why the weeds were overtaking the garden or the vines were dried out.

We couldn’t get attached to the animals. We’d get fifty sweet, fluffy chicks every spring, cull the roosters for fryers after a few weeks, keep the hens for eggs until late winter, then they were butchered, too. We’d get cute little pigs every spring, too, feed them corn that we’d gleaned from the fields, scraps from the table and excess from the garden. They would  go in the freezer, too, before the year was out.

Work on the “farm” was play for Dad; for us it was just work. By the time we were grown, most of us never wanted to set foot in a garden again.

And yet…the garden calls to me. In my adult life, I’ve never gone long without a garden. Maybe that’s how it was with Dad, too.

Dad

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I like this photo of my Dad.

He always hated having his picture taken, so this seems less an invasion of his privacy than most.

The picture was taken here on Beaver Island.

Dad is on the left, heading into the old woodshed. His friend, Peter “Doney” Gallagher is next, and then his sister, Katherine, who is my Aunt Katie.

They were  on a mission, as usual. Maybe pulling out nets for fishing, gathering tools for a repair job, getting a few logs for the wood stove or bringing out the lawn mower. Dad always had a project. A vacation was always a working vacation. Socializing with friends and family was not sitting around commiserating; it was working on something together.

That’s the way Dad raised his family, too.

Mom was great – with incentives, deadlines and guilt – at inducing us to get to work.

Dad had a way of making work fun.

Often, with him, it was so well disguised, we didn’t even recognize it as a job!

In the Spring, we’d ride with him to the pig farm. Usually we stopped at the Eagles tavern on the way, for a bit of fortification. That was a small Coca Cola for each of us children, and a beer for Dad. At the farm, we got a little tour. We’d follow along as the grown-ups talked business, pointing and laughing and head-shaking at the travails of farm life. Our own pigs were chosen: usually two, newly weaned, mostly pink with course, pale hair. We could touch them through the fence.

“Okay, let’s load ’em up, kids! Get ready!”

We’d jump into the back of the station wagon, secure our places, determine our finger-holds and safety’s, and wait.

Soon Dad and the farmer would come. They carried loosely secured, wild and wriggling burlap bags, each one containing a frightened, squealing and extremely strong pig.

They loaded the bags into the back with us, shook hands and parted. Dad took the driver’s seat. The pigs were our job, now, for the long ride home. The goal was to keep them contained, to sooth them if possible, to make sure they stayed in the back of the car and not to let them get hurt.

We kept them surrounded. We giggled and scolded. We told one another what to do and how to do it, only to be foiled by the unpredictable antics of our small bundles. We squealed, too, and yelled out in disgust, and laughed out loud.

Dad, perfectly calm, kept his twinkling eyes on the road ahead.

By the time we got home, we were covered in sweat and pig excrement, exhausted and filthy.

“Well, you did a fine job,” Dad told us as he relieved most of us of our duties, “How’d you get so dirty?”

With that, he’d send his daughters in to tell Mom we were back, and to get cleaned up. My brother, Ted, would help him get the pigs into their pen.

Summertime, if Dad had a Sunday off work, he’d take us out on the pontoon boat.

Lake Nepessing was just across the road and down the hill from our house. It was generously filled with seaweed that Dad liked for mulching his pumpkins, winter squash and tomato plants. He had welded together a giant gathering fork that hung down into the water from the front of the boat. As we trolled, the fork gathered the weeds. When it was full, we hoisted it up by chains attached to either side, and emptied it onto the deck. Down into the water again, and on for more. When the boat was listing dangerously in the water from the weight of our harvest, it was time to call it a day.

Back to the dock; secure the boat. We’d unload seaweed with a rake, a pitchfork and even by our bare armloads onto the dock, and from there into bags and boxes and burlap sacks that we then hauled up the steep hill and across the road and into the garden…

This, we called “Going boating with Dad.”

In the Fall of the year, Dad was in his glory. Every day there was something to harvest. Mom’s eyes would hold a look of fear, knowing that whenever he left the house, he’d come back with several bushel of fruits or vegetables that needed to be processed for winter storage.

This was the time of year to start storing food for the pigs, too, to carry them through until butchering time. For that, Dad made arrangements with farmers to go through their cornfields after the mechanical picking machines. We’d gather the corn that had been left behind.

Our day started with a lecture about riding in the back of the pick-up truck, who’s in charge, which big kid will take care of which little one, and who is responsible for making sure nobody gets lost or falls out of the truck. We all piled in, then, and headed out. We sat on our gathering sacks, to soften the bumps. Dad would drive right onto the field, unload his “workers” and direct us up and down the rows. We’d empty our bags into the bed of the truck. When an area was cleared, we’ve move to a different section, and continue. When the truck was full, we were done for the day. The ride home was on top of a full load of corn. We kept tight hold of our charges and shivered in the open air. The productive trip and safe ride home was rewarded with a stop at the Hotel Bar, just a quarter mile from home. Glasses of pop and dimes for the juke box finished another day working hard with Dad.

Dad had a way of making every season of the year important, every job associated with it, crucial.

Every child participating in that work was a necessary and valuable contributor.

The old woodshed is gone now. It was replaced with a modern pole barn several years ago. Dad passed away in 1998. Peter “Doney” has been gone a few years, too. Aunt Katie turned eighty-five years old on her birthday last week.

In my memories, they live on as they always did.