Friday, January 20, 2012

Breakfast on the house

One of them sings loudly. One doesn’t like to talk at all. One wants only water. One deliberately initiates a scuffle even though there’s plenty for everyone.

It’s a typical winter weekday morning: one on which between the hours of 6:30 and 8:30 a.m., I’ll feed four different meals to three different species in three different locations. In all, it’s 15 mouths to feed; or, put another way, 56 legs all making their way over to see what I’ve got to offer them for their morning repast.

Not all at once, of course. My 13-year-old eats first, fresh out of the shower and cheerful even though first light has yet to dawn. He takes one look at the thermometer, which hovers around the 10-degree mark, and begins to sing loudly: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” a song he learned from watching the movie “Elf” twenty or thirty times last summer, when it was most definitely not cold outside. Today it is, though, and as I listen to him do his best cabaret act while buttering an English muffin, I wonder where the stereotype of sullen teenagers slow to waken on a winter morning comes from. I may be wishing he’d go back to bed, but he’s clearly ready to face the day.

As he assembles his backpack for school, I make a quick stop in the laundry room to toss a scoop of kibble into the dog’s empty dish. I notice her water bowl is empty too and would prefer not to think how long that has been the case for; it continues to be a mystery of domestic life that in four years, I have never once known anyone in my family except for me to fill the dog’s water bowl, and yet at least twice a year I go out of town for two days or more, leaving the rest of the family behind, and when I return the dog is always still alive. Somehow it gets done by someone else if I’m not around, but most definitely not when I am. Another truism of motherhood.

After feeding the dog, I head upstairs to wake my very drowsy 9-year-old, who does not like to be roused one bit. The only thing that cheers her up in the morning is a somewhat maddening game of her own invention in which she answers my question about what she’d like for breakfast by forming letters with her fingers and expecting me to guess what breakfast food the initials represent. On a good day she flashes me an easy one: “O” for oatmeal; “B” for bagel. Other days it’s not so easy, and I waste six or seven minutes trying to figure out that “L” stands for “lightly buttered toast” or “M” represents “medium-sized bowl of Special K.” She always seems disappointed when she has to provide verbal clues for me; I’m just glad to be one step closer to getting everyone fed and out the door.

A cacophony of mooing greets me an hour later as I drive down the lane to the barnyard, where 12 cows divided into three groups based on weaning, breeding, and general compatibility are waiting to be fed. The adult cows point their faces skyward and let loose with their loudest moos; the calves stand in front of the gate and then skittishly leap to the side as I reach out to pat them.

The cows eat in their usual inexplicable pattern: although I throw five hay bales down from the hay loft for one sub-herd of seven animals, all seven of them cluster around the same single bale, shouldering each other out of the way while four other bales sit nearby, unnoticed. Two more bales go over one fence to a group of three cows; and the last group of two gets just one bale to share.

And then I’m done: everyone whose breakfast I’m responsible for has eaten. I still need to go running and then write some articles, but it all seems easy and relaxed after everyone has been fed. The kids are off at school; the dog is waiting to go running with me; the cows are chewing away, as they’ll do for the next several hours before they make their way through all the bales.

I’ve often said the reason I like feeding the cows is that it’s so easy and yet so satisfying. It requires so little judgment or analysis, just strength. And yet the results are so tangible: I’m faced with a herd of content, well-fed animals whose noisy clamor has ended. I suppose that's true of the other creatures as well. The rest of my day might be more challenging: writing compelling text, offering intelligent conversation, solving various problems. True, it sometimes seems like feeding hungry beings is my primary role in life, but at the same time, feeding is easy. And for now, feeding is done.

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