This story is dedicated to the memory of
William R. "Bill" Anderson
By Terri P.
MY FIRST VISIT to the farm in Corinth, Maine was in November of 1995. I was invited there by the owner, Bill, the man who would become my second husband. It was a cold but clear, sunny day. As I pulled into the "dooryard" as they say in rural Maine I was greeted by three barking dogs; two white dogs and one elderly black and white border collie. Bill came out and got them under control, and then he invited me into the old farmhouse which was patched up in numerous places, but was rustic and charming.
I was given a tour of the 165 year-old, 90-acre farm, including the big red barn, the open pastures, the two retired Belgian draft horses Nelly and her son Easter the woods, and "Bear Brook," which ran through the back of the property. I was impressed. I learned that the place had a long history as a working farm but was now "retired," like the horses.
I moved in with Bill a few months later and we were married the following year. I lived eight years on the farm and I became a different person there. During that time I lost my husband and I made a home and family with what was left to me. One year after we were married, Bill died of an aortic dissection at the age of 43. In the days and weeks after his death, I wondered how I would live there alone and how I would take care of the farm. In the months and years that followed, I saw how the farm took care of me.
In the 21 months that I lived there with Bill, I became closely acquainted with the farm and all the animals. The two white dogs were Ted and Brandi. Brandi, two years old when I met her, still acted like a puppy, and Ted was more serious and sometimes a peacemaker with the cats when they were fighting. The old black and white border collie, Lyla,, lived on the farm all her life. She died one winter day, a few months before I moved in. Ted died of leukemia not long after, and we got another dog, Bear, to be Brandi's companion. Before I met Bill, I lived with Chloe and Tristan, my two cats. They moved with me to the farm. Bill had a tabby cat named Taffy. She took an instant liking to me and an instant dislike to Tristan. The feeling was mutual. Ted broke up a few of their fights by standing between them and giving them both a stern look.When Bear came to live on the farm, she was a year old. Bear was as black as Brandi was white. I often watched them from the kitchen window as they ran and played in the fields.They loved to chase each other and anything they encountered, including birds and other small creatures.
Bill liked to stay in his workshop and tinker with things. While he worked on something, I often explored the farm and surrounding woods with the dogs. In the spring and summer, they looked forward to walks down to the brook where they swam. In the fall, we walked among the fallen leaves and admired the blazing colors of the foliage. When the dogs and I entered the pasture we were greeted by Nelly and Easter, the retired Belgian draft horses. I usually had a few apples from our small orchard and they expected a snack.
A few months before Bill died, Nelly who was almost 30 years old had a close brush with death. On a cold January day, on the heels of the infamous Ice Storm of '98, I was alone on the farm with the animals. Bill was working. The ice-coated paddock looked like a skating rink. In the afternoon, I saw the horses from the window. Easter was standing, but Nelly was sitting on the ice. When I looked again, about a half an hour later, she was still sitting. I had an uneasy suspicion that she was sitting because she couldn't get up. I called Bill at work and told him I was worried about Nelly and he told me to call again in another half hour if she was still on the ice. Then a few minutes later, he called back and told me he was leaving work. When he got home he tried to get her up, but she couldn't get any purchase on the ice. He spread some ashes from the wood stove around her, to help her get some traction. That didn't work. Her old legs were too weak to rise up on the glass-like surface of the paddock. Bill was really worried, so he called some friends to come and help. They pulled and tugged and offered encouragement to the old mare but nothing was working. She was cold and shivering. Easter was whinnying loudly, worried about his mother. Bill called some more neighbors, including one who had a tow-truck. Nelly finally got up with the help of the winch and was able to get purchase on an old door. She spent the night in the barn with a blanket thrown over her back and some warm oats in her belly. She survived by the goodness of friends who left their TV sets on Super Bowl Sunday to help out a neighbor's old, beloved horse.
I loved to watch the horses from a distance, as they grazed in the fields. Sometimes, on misty mornings, they looked like shadowy ghost horses from years gone by, back to haunt the farm. I had them taken away the day after Bill died, to a neighbor's farm, because I knew I wouldn't be able to care for them the way he did. Easter often escaped the boundaries of the fences and Nelly followed him. One evening I came home and Easter was loose. I called Bill at work and he told me to get a bucket of oats and lure him back to the paddock. Now, prior to living on the farm, my experience with large animals and farm-life was nil, and Easter seemed to know that. He walked over to the bucket in my hand, put his snout in, and had me backed up against a tree in no time. I dropped the bucket and called a neighbor. When Rod came over to put the horse back in the paddock I was embarrassed. Rod said you had to realize that a horse who weighed over a ton was going to do anything he wanted to unless you showed him who was boss. I figured Easter was the boss, not me. Nevertheless, I was sad to see Bill's friend take them away to his farm after Bill died, but I knew they would be taken good care of.
The year before Bill died, a comet streaked across the sky over Maine. It was named Hale Bopp. The horses and dogs didn't pay it much mind, as far as I could tell. But Bill and I were impressed, so we had a party and invited some friends over to view the comet from our fields. Bill had a telescope and we watched the fiery snowball through that as well as with our naked eyes.
The farm had an old barn that was built with hand-hewn posts and beams. In the past it was home to horses, pigs, chickens, and other farm animals. During my years on the farm, Easter and Nelly lived there as well as numerous birds, and other small creatures but the queen of the barn was the old barn-cat, Little Friend. She was all gray and very nimble and outlived many other barn-cats. Little Friend sometimes caught me by surprise, meowing loudly, or streaking past me on the ground or through the air from loft to loft, when I entered her domain. At first I was wary, but I soon learned that her name was very fitting, as she was friendly and liked attention. She died during the icy winter of '98, after a fall from the heights of the barn crippled her back legs.
I became well-acquainted with death and hardship during my years on the farm. But as the years passed, I discovered resources within me that I never knew were there. I got comfortable with getting lost in the woods, as I knew Brandi and Bear would lead me home. I lived in a big city in the west for many years, and I never thought of myself as a person who enjoyed long walks in the woods or getting dirty with dogs. On the farm, I often felt like someone out of story in the book, Women Who Run with Wolves.
In the months and years after Bill died, digging in the dirt became my therapy. Many a Saturday or Sunday I spent all day in the garden until there was no more daylight to work by. My back was stiff and my face and body were streaked with dirt, but my reward was the gardens I made and seeing my flowers come back to life every spring and summer.
Very late on the night of June 21st, 1998, the barking dogs woke me from sleep. I thought it was Bill coming home from a weekend trip. Sleepily, I made my way downstairs to greet him. Someone was knocking on the door. It was one of Bill's friends. She came in, asked me to sit down, and told me Bill died on his way home.
My decision to stay on the farm was easy. I only knew Bill for two and a half years and I wasn't ready to leave our life together, although it would be a life without his physical presence. I didn't know how I would survive alone on a 90-acre farm, but I would find a way. I remember my sister saying, at Bill's funeral, that she was impressed by the changes in me since my life on the farm. She saw a new strength that I didn't realize I had.
In the weeks that followed, I went back to work. My friends stayed close by after my family returned to the west coast. They brushed-hogged the fields, they helped me winterize and they taught me how to use the generator. I survived the first winter alone, and in the following years I employed a friend's husband as handyman around the house and farm. He made numerous repairs to the house, barn and shed, brush-hogged the fields, and did many other odd jobs.
During my years as a young widow on the farm, the dogs and cats and I became even better friends. The cats curled up with me on the couch in the evening while I read or watched TV and they snuggled up to me at night. The dogs slept on the bed with me, too. The animals loved the new wood stove my dad bought for me after Bill died as much as I did. It was a constant chore in the winter to keep the fire going and to haul wood in from the woodshed, but my handyman friend kept the wood well stocked.
The dogs and I explored the farm and the surrounding woods in all seasons. While I made a trail with my snowshoes or skis, Brandi and Bear ploughed through the snow with their bodies. Deep in the woods, looking up at the snow-covered branches and the blue sky, I was reminded of the lines by Robert Frost: "Whose woods these are, I think I know, his house is in the village though he will not mind me standing here, to watch his woods fill up with snow." I recall thinking, in awe, these are my woods. I felt safe, surrounded by my acres of land, protected in a way that I could only feel on the farm.
The cats went through some changes, too. Being indoor cats, they didn't experience the farm in the same way that the dogs and I did. My cats, Chloe and Tristan, only lived in apartments before we moved to the farmhouse. Now, they had vast spaces to explore and mice to hunt. I walked in on many mouse-hunting vigils, with cats posted in various parts of the house, watching a certain piece of furniture, waiting for the doomed mouse to come out of its hiding place. Many times I had to dispose of dead mice; something I never would have done before living on the farm.
Other dead things made their appearance a cat found frozen in the vegetable garden after the spring thaw and another dead cat found in the chicken yard. One day the old oak tree fell during a spring storm. The farm was a microcosm of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. New life always returned in the form of green grass in the fields, new saplings, fresh apples in the orchard, daffodils in April, and lilies in June. It felt like a part of me died when I became a widow in June of '98, but I gradually had a rebirth of a kind, as I became a different, stronger person.
The farm was my healer. There are things you don't experience living in a city or a town, like counting over sixty deer in the fields, through binoculars, or hearing coyotes howling in the middle of the night. Brandi howled back to them while Bear whimpered. One day in May I flew my kite as high as it would go until I ran out of string. I also remember returning to the house in winter with numb lips and a cold face and being warmed by the wood stove, after trudging outdoors with the dogs. This was life on a farm.
The only time a ghost ever appeared was when some friends were sleeping over. One guest woke up at night and saw "a lady dressed in old-fashioned clothes" standing at the foot of her bed.
After he died, I spread Bill's ashes near his workshop, in the fields, in the woods, and the last few in Bear Brook.
In the years to come, I thank him, in spirit, for the farm. It was a place of joy and sorrow, where I experienced changes that could not have happened anywhere else. I met my third husband and eventually sold the farm. The dogs and cats and I moved to another home and made a new family with my husband, his pets, and his children. But I still have dreams about the farm. I dream I'm living there again and the horses have gotten loose, or I'm in the barn, or working in the garden. The farm is forever a part of me and I'm a part of it. For years to come, I will dream of walking in my fields and woods with Brandi and Bear.