I had an unusual upbringing. Amidst the daily chores of farm life, we sang madrigals.
Watering the goats and horses was a much despised task. The buckets alone weighed as much as one of my legs if severed above the hip. The thin metal handles would press narrow channels into the half frozen flesh of my hands. After one trip from the spigot to the stalls, the ends of my fingers would be white and numb. It was important to hold the buckets out to the side slightly to avoid slopping water all over my jeans. By the time I finished, my arms would be shivery with exertion.
Ingersoll was our solitary male goat. We had dozens of mamas and babies but only one male. He was disgusting. Goat culture encourages the male to piss on his own head to better his chances of wooing a female. A sort of recycling of body fluids. It must be an acquired taste as I can’t imagine the darling babies thinking of that as they jump around like nature’s pogo sticks. No matter, he was an ornery sort. For all the female attention, he was perennially discontent. It was a two man job to fill his water. The bucket generally could be hooked on the side of his enclosure when full. But during the day, he would practice butting and the emptied bucket would end up somewhere in his large pen. So the trick was for one person to entice and distract him with goodies at the far end of his stall while the other one sneaked in the fence gate, grabbed the water bucket and made a quick exit. If the enticer failed at their mission, the one sneaking might be soundly butted on some part of their body, leaving deep bruises, or worse be slimed by the hairy urine soaked head of our fine specimen of goat he-man-ness. The one and only time I broke a bone was in a panicked attempt to escape Ingersoll’s attentions. I turned my ankle on a rock that stuck above the dirt and broke a tiny bone in my foot. I remember that same night I went to see the movie, Papillon, sitting in the front row with my foot propped up on a crutch.
On some Sunday afternoons, our large extended family would welcome other friends to sit around a long dining table made of cherry by my father. At both ends stood ancient chairs, passed down from my grandparents. Each ornately carved with vivid village scenes. An assortment of straight backed chairs filled the long sides of the table, comfortably seating fourteen although the table had room for twenty plates in a pinch.
Settling in with earmarked song books and a pitch pipe, it was as much fun as anything we did at the farm. Madrigals are medieval songs sung a capella (voices only) in four and five part harmony. We often got to giggling and then laughing hysterically around the table over ridiculous lyrics like:
“Now is the month of Maying, when merry lads are playing” or “Smiling meadows seem to say, ‘Come, ye wantons, here to play!’ ”
I learned to blend my voice with others until it sounded like one. When it was good, the hair on my neck stood up and good bumps swept across my skin. Everyone in my family sang. We sang a French grace at holidays and sometimes for fun. I remember riding in the car someplace with my dad and sister Liza. Probably the whole family was there, but I remember them specifically, maybe because they are no longer alive to sing with me now. We would sing a couple rounds of the grace, and then on a cue, all move up a half step, to continue singing a couple rounds before modulating up again to the next key. We would keep going until we could no longer reach the notes. I miss that kind of singing.