by Mary Burris
The year was 1985 and I was a 20-something spoiled American girl trying to find herself. When my family encounters a young member struggling to assume the mantle of adulthood, they generally arrange a transatlantic trip for an extended stay to sort the odd one out. My cousin Elisabeth had done an extended stint with the New York City clan ten years prior and now here I was on the family farm in Ireland. A farm for Godsakes!
I spent the first few weeks of my residence being waited on and making sure my manicure stayed fresh -- never mind that there was a legion of work to be done just to keep the farm running on a day to day basis. I’d never really had to do much around the house and wasn’t particularly adept at seeing what needed doing, or inclined to do it if I did.
I was finishing lunch late one October afternoon, lulled into a carbohydrate torpor by the daily repast of potatoes, when my cousin Jack casually mentioned that he was planning a trip to the US to spend Thanksgiving with my family. “That’s nice.” I said, “Who’s going to take care of the farm?” “You are.” “Huh?”
For the next two weeks I trudged after him, trying to learn a lifetime’s farming in a fortnight before he was off to Pennsylvania for turkey and pumpkin pie, and I was doubtless headed for epic failure of the kind legends are made.
The morning of Jack’s departure dawned unusually bright for Ireland shining a mocking light on my sense of impending doom. I emerged to find he’d already gone and with him any chance of a reprieve.
Parcels of property in Ireland are very rarely adjacent to one another, so keeping track of the livestock is a full-time occupation. Twice a day my job was to make sure the several cows being kept in those non adjacent, miles apart, fields had not fallen into drainage ditches or liberated themselves from their grassy digs. Two miles southeast and then five miles northwest on Irish “roads” to make sure no one had taken an illicit stroll.
Then there were the cows to be milked. They spent days in the field across from the house and barn and merely had to walk out the gate, cross the road, and mosey into the yard and barn. They’d done it every day for weeks, months, years!
What, you ask, did they do when I opened the gate? First, they stubbornly refused to move, and when they did, they calmly walked past the barn entrance and headed east into the sunrise, flipping me the bovine equivalent of the bird.
After a brief attempt at keeping panic at bay, I took off down the road after them, arms flailing. But not before I caught sight of my elderly aunt watching the events unfold, dressing gown cinched at her waist, the usual cigarette at the corner of her mouth. Her eyes rolled so far back in her head I thought they might spin all the way around. I don’t think she had a lot of time for my ilk, and she had generally (and somewhat correctly) concluded that I was useless.
Eventually I got the hang of these chores with the help of a fellow expat who’d married a local girl twenty years previous and taken up residence. I made a tentative peace with the bovines and established a rhythm that, while not elegant, was at least not conspicuous – I’d already provided the village with enough entertainment.
Late one morning as I was hosing out a stainless steel milk can in the shed, I heard the sound of car doors slamming. Not unusual in and of itself, but they just kept slamming, Thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk -- thunk. It sounded like an army had descended on the village presumably to launch an offensive on Murphy’s Pub for the ploughman’s lunch.
I straightened to see what the commotion was about and was nearly blinded by the flash of cameras! At first I was baffled, and then it dawned on me -- they thought I was an Irish farm girl in her native environment. For a split second I wondered if I should open my mouth and yell “Go Steelers!” Quel dilemma. But then I thought what the hell, and I gave them a wave as I poured milky water from the can with a distinctly Irish flourish.
I suspect to this day that in a dusty photo album somewhere in Wisconsin, there’s a photo of me labeled Irish Girl at Work.
published 6 August 2014