I was awake even before Mama. I made myself one egg for breakfast, washed the few dishes I made, then headed out for the fields. Someone had to keep this farm going. Joseph can’t do it alone, Mama isn’t a spring chicken anymore and the rest of them are too young to do most of the farm chores. The sun wasn’t up yet, but I knew there was a lot to be done and it would take much longer without Papa. I wasn’t exactly sure where to begin because I was usually sleeping when Papa and Joseph would get up and start their day, so I decided to start with feeding and milking the few cows we had and then I would gather the chicken eggs for Mama. I had never seen anyone doing these things so I assumed it was one of the first things to do.
I walked into the barn and looked around. Do I feed hay to the cows or do I give them animal feed? I saw the pitchfork in the hay but that could have been from Mama last night or even because it is used basically everyday. I looked around for the bags of animal feed to see if one was open. If one was open, I would use that this morning until I could ask Joseph. Over in the far right corner there was a bag and I walked over to it. It was open, so I reached in and grabbed the scoop that was laying just inside on the top of the feed. I wasn’t sure how much to give either, so I filled the bucket I found next to the bag and carried it over to the trough that the cows eat out of and dumped it in. It didn’t look like enough for six cows so I went back and filled the bucket one more time. After I emptied the second bucket, I put it back next to the bag of feed where I found it.
What next? Milking I assumed. After looking for about ten minutes, I found a stool to sit on and a pail next to it. This must be it I thought to myself and picked both up to carry to the first cow to milk, but where were the cows? I put the stool and the pail back down and walked outside. All the cows were still in the field and didn’t even know I was there or that I put food out for them. I picked up a stick and headed toward the cows.
“C’mon ladies, time to eat” , I called. Not one lifted its head to acknowledge my presence. I repeated myself, a little louder this time, still no response. I walked over to them and tried to coax them in but that didn’t work. Next I tried pushing them. This only aggravated them and made them walk away from me, unfortunately not towards the barn. Then I remembered the stick in my hand.
“Let’s go” , I said to the largest one and tapped her backside with the stick. She swayed her tail at the stick like it was only a fly that landed on her and stayed standing in the same spot.
“I’m not going to say it again, move it!”, I said louder and this time I brought the stick down hard on her backside because my patience had run out. She moved this time, so I decided to keep doing this until she was in the barn. One by one I got the cows into the barn this way and I wondered if it had been this difficult for Papa.
Once all the cows were inside the barn and eating, I grabbed the stool and pail again to begin milking them. Papa had showed me how once but I was only about four years old and hoped I could remember how. I sat down next to the first one and put the bucket underneath the utters. I fidgeted for a few seconds trying to figure out exactly how I was supposed to do this.
I began rubbing my hands together to warm them up because I can’t imagine me wanted to be touched there with cold fingers, then in a gentle pinching motion, I grabbed one of the teats at the top and pulled down. To my surprise it worked and the milk came out in a short burst and it made a soft tink sound on the tin pail when it hit. After doing this for about fifteen minutes my hands started cramping and my arms got tired.
Surely I was almost done I though to myself but when I looked in the pail there wasn’t even two inches of milk in the bottom and I still had five more cows to milk. Did the milk stop coming when they were done or am I supposed to stop after so much? I sat back to rest my hands for a minute and decided to try a little more to see if the milk stopped.
Another ten minutes passed and the milk was still coming so I decided to stop and move on to the next cow. After I was done all six cows my arms felt like rubber. I wasn’t sure I could even carry the pail into the house for Mama without spilling it but I was determined to help Joseph. I know I can’t replace Papa’s skill and strength but Joseph can’t do it alone, Mama is too old and the others are too young. It was up to me.
When I finally made it to the door of our little house, I put the pail down for a second to rest and Joseph opened the door. He was trying to be quiet and probably wouldn’t have known I was there had he not surprised me and made me gasp.
“Bridey, what are you doing?” he asked half scolding, half concerned.
“Bringing in the milk”, I said as casually as I could and picked up the milk pail again and went inside trying not to make much noise.
“Your lucky Mama isn’t awake yet Bridey,” he said from behind me in a loud whisper, “ she would have a fit had you not been there when she woke up.”
“ I’m coming back out Joseph.”
“ For what? I’m surprised you even got the cows in the barn and milked.”
“ I might not do it everyday like you, but I am not only useful in the kitchen.”
“ I know that, but I don’t want you getting hurt and messing up that pretty face”
I spun around on him almost spilling some of the milk, “ With Papa gone now, you need help. You can’t do it all by yourself you stubborn boy and I won’t let you try. Don’t try to argue with me or sweet-talk me into not helping.”
“All right, all right”, he said holding up his hands to surrender.
I turned back towards the door and went inside. I couldn’t bear to let him see the tears swelling in my eyes, threatening to let loose. It would only give him reason to make me stay in the house and I just couldn’t leave him to do all the farm work alone. Mama at least had three other girls to help and Thomas too if she asked him nicely.
Joseph spent the rest of the day showing me what was to be done on a daily basis, when to do it and how. It wasn’t as hard as I had expected it to be but at the end of the day I was so exhausted I nearly passed out at the dinner table. Mama, of course, voiced her disapproval on me doing farm work but I paid no mind to her. If Joseph didn’t have anyone to help, he wouldn’t have gotten even half of the days farm duties done.
I picked up on the ways of a farmer quickly. Joseph said it seems as though I was meant to be a farmer just like Papa had been. That compliment kept me going on even the toughest days, like a few days later when it seemed everyone in the county came to pay their respects for Papa. Joseph and Mama said I should be in the house at least until Papa was buried but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It would be like soaking in my sorrows and that was something I couldn’t bear to do. Instead I worked harder. To help ease Mama’s worries of people talking, I dressed in some of Papa’s clothes, tied my hair up and wore a hat so that if anyone looked around and saw me they might think I was just another boy, maybe a cousin from another county.
The day finally came to bury Papa. For the first time in almost a week, my hair was done nicely and not a speck of dirt anywhere. The night before, Mr. O’Brian came to take Papa for the funeral, so all we had to do this morning was make sure we arrived on time. When we got there the place was still empty but Mr. O’Brian had advised us to come early to make sure all the final details were in order. Joseph pulled me aside right before we entered with Mr. O’Brian into the church.
“You don’t have to be strong for me either”, he said reaching out and squeezing my hand. He saw the look of confusion on my face and explained, “The night Papa died and we came to town to buy his coffin, you told me I didn’t have to be strong for you, and you held me while I cried,” he paused trying to keep himself under control, “well, you don’t need to be strong for me either, or any of the others. You’re the only one who hasn’t grieved right yet.”
“Mama is trying to be strong for all of us, ” I pointed out.
“Your not the only one who hears her crying at night Bridey,” he replied.
My mouth dropped open and he smiled and led me by the hand into the church. As soon as we stepped through the double doors into the entrance hall, I noticed the most pungent aroma of flowers. It was as though someone had taken every flower off an entire mountain and put it into the tiny church. My gaze went directly to where Papa lay in his coffin in the chapel and a lump immediately formed in my throat. How was I going to make it through this?
The service was exceptionally nice, and it seemed everyone in Ireland came to pay their respects. Thomas and Taryn both broke down crying during the part of the service where everyone went one by one to view Papa. I had been in front of them and Mama so since I had already said my goodbye to Papa, I took them outside and tried to comfort and calm them.
“Bridey, why did Papa die and leave us?”, Taryn managed between sobs, “Didn’t he want to stay with us anymore?”
“Yeah Bridey,” Thomas chimed in before I could answer, “ why’d he want to go away?”
I put a hand on both heads of my brother and sister and pulled them close to my chest and said in the quietest, most soothing voice I could muster, “Papa didn’t want to leave us. God wanted him to be one of his angels and help Him do his work. Papa won’t ever have pain again and he can still see us even if we can’t see him. He is watching over us from Heaven and even though we can’t see him, I want you to know that he is always with us.”
“How can we know that he is always there and doesn’t leave for good?” Thomas asked.
“As long as you always remember he loved you and never forget him in your heart, then you know he is always with you.”
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