By Dan Chouinard
Dan Chouinard is a Twin Cities pianist, accordionist and writer.
Before my family moved to the farm, the word "chores" meant something different. It meant a Saturday morning household task. It meant: You kids put away that Monopoly game. It meant: Yes, you can practice your piano, but not until you've done your chores. Nice try, now hop to it. My chore was the vacuuming of the stairs and hallways. It was the weekly bane of my existence.
Then we made the big move, from Richfield to a farm near Lindstrom, Minn. It was an old dairy farm on a little lake, built a hundred years earlier by Swedes who obviously knew what they were doing. There was a big open yard with outbuildings all around it: a chicken coop, a pig pen, a milk house and corn cribs. The silo stood at the midpoint of this panorama and behind it, like a majestic backdrop, was the barn.
Stepping into the barn was like stepping into a soaring cathedral of wood. It was built with massive tamarack beams, some so big you could barely get your arms around them. It was dark and smelled of old silage. There was a hay loft on top and a low-ceilinged milking area down below, with rows of rusty old milking stanchions laced with cobwebs.
I was 14 when we moved, it was May and I was ready for love. So I fell head over heels for that farm and the dream it awakened in me: the dream that one day I, too, would be a dairy farmer and that I would restore this place to its former dairy-farm glory and we would never go hungry again.
Things happened fast those first weeks on the farm. We rented out some of our fields to a farm family down the road, and in no time at all their boys were speeding up our driveway on a big tractor to cut hay, and I couldn't believe my luck: Just like that I was going to learn to bale hay. They were always happy to see me coming.
We also rented out the barn and pastures to a local auctioneer guy. He owned a bunch of livestock and needed a place to put them while he went through his divorce. I guess he wanted out, but so did his animals. Our fences were in such bad shape that Mom and Dad had made fence repair part of his rental agreement, only we found out pretty early on that this task would be more of an ongoing thing for him. Frequently that year we'd all be out in the fields, rounding up wayward cattle, clapping, yelling, gesticulating wildly and trying to look and sound like we knew what we were doing.
There was another part of our rental agreement with Mr. Auctioneer Guy. I offered, and he agreed, that I would do chores for him and get paid for it. I learned that out in the country the word chores did not mean vacuuming the stairs, no sirree. Although I still had to do that. Here, it meant feeding and watering and taking care of livestock twice a day, every day, without fail. I seized the opportunity and negotiated a generous compensation package for myself of a dollar a day. I was ready for some real responsibility and some real money. I liked knowing that I was going to be useful. I liked having a reason to get up with the sun and go out to the barn and be alone with the animals and my work and my dreams and my preoccupations.
Chores got a little more challenging as winter cold and darkness settled in. We didn't have electricity to the barn that first winter, and I don't remember how we kept the livestock watering tanks from freezing, but I do remember Mr. Auctioneer Guy coming up to the house one time after checking on his animals. He knocked on the back door and asked to talk to one of our parents. Seems he'd found my stash of candles and matches out in the barn. I suppose I should I have known that candles in the barn were a bad idea, but how did the Swedish pioneers do it? A flashlight would have done the job, but it didn't cast that warm flickering glow that my fantasies required.
Christmas Day that year, our neighbor across the road called to say that our cows were out and wandering around in his fields. We were all ready to head out the door to a big Christmas dinner with the extended family down in the Cities. Instead, we yanked on our snow boots and snowmobile suits and went tromping through the drifts chasing down the scattered pieces of our little manger set and coaxing them back into the stable. As soon as the job was finished we piled into the station wagon, all eight of us, and headed for the Cities, and soon we were sitting around eating ham and playing air hockey with our cousins and pretending to watch football with everyone else.
That winter was an exceptionally cold and snowy one, the kind we used to be able to count on having once in a while. Blizzards came through and left snowdrifts along the driveway that got to looking like office buildings once we were plowed out. It got down into the 20s and 30s below zero and stayed there for days at a stretch. We heard more than once about the old farmers who'd run a string between their house and the barn to hang onto so they wouldn't get lost in a blizzard.
All that seems like ancient history now. Thirty-six years ago: I guess it is ancient history. We haven't had a winter like that in years, it seems. I haven't shared my living space with either children or livestock for a good many years now. My partner and I have a tidy little bungalow in St. Paul. We do have a vegetable garden and a compost pile and mice in the house every once in a while, so life is good. My bicycle commuting habit is a sort of placeholder for baling hay and chopping wood.
But I think back often on that first winter on the farm, before my driver's license, before the fast life of school activities and school friends and rock 'n' roll. It was a winter of gifts: of brothers and sisters and animals and chores and outdoor work and stars and belonging and love. All these years later, I've still got my hand on that string that'll get me safely back to the house.