As often happens on a sheep farm, one year there was a lamb whose mother refused to claim it. This particular ewe had triplets; while the latter two offspring were making their way into the world, the firstborn lamb drifted away, becoming mixed in with the other mothers-to-be.
A ewe knows her own lamb only by smell and voice; these were both lost in the shuffle and she refused to claim the lamb.
The orphan lay behind the wood stove all one day, chilled and hungry, a bag of bones stretched over with kinky skin.
My father decided it must be bottle-fed; by the next morning it could “keep its feet” and was taken back to the barn where it tried in vain to latch onto a mother. This was a pitiful sight; the lamb was butted aside none too gently time and again.
I pleaded for the lamb. Since I was a girl-child, just on 7 years old, my mother had most of the say in my upbringing—perhaps also the subject had been discussed in the warm, lamplit kitchen after I was fast asleep upstairs.
“Will you care for it by yourself even when the weather’s bad?” my mother asked. “In sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live,” I answered in all seriousness, quoting from a wedding scene on the Stella Dallas radio show.
My mother gave me a chiding glance, but allowed as how I could have the lamb as a pet. “If it works out,” she added darkly. A farm in the ’30s was no place for foolish whimsies or permissiveness.
I named him Sonny. He was easily taught to drink cow’s milk from a vinegar bottle with a rubber nipple attached. For a few days the lamb was kept in a large wooden box in the woodshed, because he required a night feeding.
My mother gave me an old bell alarm clock; in the chill midnight hour I would creep downstairs in my Indian kimono. While the bottle heated in a pan of water on the stillglowing wood stove, I fetched the lamb.
Sitting in the kitchen rocker, I held him in my arms as he greedily drank standing up. Then, singing a lullaby, I would rock him for a while as he struggled for freedom. Within a week, Sonny was installed in an unused horse stall. He would run to me quickly when I brought his bottle several times a day. Often I sat beside his burgeoning wooly warmth, stroking his hairy face, sharing a bit of my after-school bread and molasses or offering him a handful of cornmeal brought from the pantry.
A sheep makes most of its growth during the first year of life; Sonny was getting bigger fast. By the time the wild cowslips glowed like pirate’s plunder in the bogs and hollows, my lamb was three hands high.
I let him wander about the place. To my delight, like Mary’s little lamb, he followed me everywhere.
In the odds and ends of my father’s workshop I found an old leather collar for Sonny, sprucing it up with a bow of blue ribbon.
Taken off the bottle, he thrived on new grass, clover, and rations of grain.
He fed by the stream, kicked up his heels on the hillsides. At sight of me, he would call out in his tender voice, running to my side.
As soon as the crops were above ground, Sonny became a problem. No longer could he wander at will—the succulent shoots of corn and beans, even my mother’s perennials, were too temptingly accessible.
He didn’t take to tethering, pulling on the restricting rope until he choked. Each day I took him for walks on a leash, but he was big and strong, hard to handle. Often he would butt my leg, only half playfully and far too hard for comfort.
Reluctantly, I turned him in with the flock, where he spent his days; each night he followed me to the barn where he slept in his own pen.
At eventide, after locking the other sheep in their cote for the night, I would sit on the hill as Sonny munched nearby, watching the pink-and-purple summer sunset fade in the west.
It was a fall sunset when he died.
One morning when I rolled back the barn door, Sonny struggled to rise, fell back. I knew how much my father cared when he sent for the horse doctor, a grave decision.
The doctor called it bloat; he suspected a piece of hay rope had been ingested.
Racing home from school that afternoon, I sat with Sonny through the long afternoon and evening hours until the end.
“Why?” I asked my mother. She couldn’t explain, but stood by me, listened to my sorrow, drew me close by word and look.
I wrote my first poem—forgivably maudlin—three sorrowfully composed stanzas, ending with:
“A dear little lamb was Sonny,
Loving, kind, and true;
I hope that he is happy,
Up there in the blue.”
It was then I learned there is a risk in loving; when you give your heart to a living creature, there can be no happy ending.
But I would do it all over again.
Little lamb, dance once more on the spring hillside, spin yourself in joy. Let your warm soft sheep-lips nudge my hand for the solitary bread crust, the browned apple core.
I had almost forgotten the whippoorwill. Without warning, from the depths of a mild May night, came this ugly bird’s piercingly beautiful call; announcing its presence with a song I had harkened to for a myriad of golden, youthful summers—and not heard since.
The whippoorwill, a summer resident, is a heavy-built, long winged bird, larger than a robin, with a gaping, large mouth. Its name is taken from its call—a loud three-syllable whistle, ending in a rising inflection, “whip-poor-will,” repeated over and over again.
The whippoorwill sleeps through the daylight hours, coming out at night, flying low, pursuing and catching enormous numbers of winged insects with graceful twists and turns, eating on the wing.
Between forays, it alights, pouring forth its whip-poor-will song in the late evening and the blackness of early morning hours.
The whippoorwill shuns the seashore, preferring rocky, solitary woodlands where the female lays two eggs directly on the forest floor.
Never have I laid eyes on this elusive bird; it is, in fact, seldom observed. “You don’t want to see it,”
warned Old Bess, the medicine woman, shaking her head, muttering dire predictions about this bird that moved so silently through the dark. “He lands on your roof, tree, or door stone, look for sickness or death.”
There are other, more pleasant whippoorwill legends, such as the belief that no frost ever appears after this bird has been heard calling in the spring.
As a little girl, my father had a special aura in my eyes; he had seen a whippoorwill, happening on it by accident while walking in the deep woods.
Stretched lengthwise on a stout tree limb—as is its unusual habit—where it resembled an excrescence of the branch, the sleeping bird roused suddenly, disappearing in what my father described as “an eerie manner,” a silent moth-like flight.
There is no mistaking its distinctively mottled brown and gray markings, that conform so closely with the leaves and lichens, he said, or the bank of white across the breast. “And it had whiskers,” he would declare with chilling awe, each time he told the story.
My mother, too, was partial to the whippoorwill, investing this night prowler with occult powers and uncanny insight. “By day it hides far from the haunts of men,” she would say, “but at night it sings at lighted windows.”
Alone in the lamp lit kitchen, rocking a fretful child in the night-time hours so the rest of the family could sleep in peace, she would hear the whippoorwill’s nostalgic call far down the timbered valley. Coming ever nearer, drawn she was sure by the one square of light in the fragrant darkness, this bird of the woods would whistle its doleful call at the very edge of the dooryard, repeated hundreds of times in quick succession, until the light was extinguished. “As I laid you back in your crib,” said my mother, “I would hear it again, far off in the darkness, perhaps at another lighted window, where some lonely soul struggled through the pre-dawn hours when the life spirit is at its lowest ebb.”
Raised on stories such as these, how could I not love the whippoorwill, romantic bird of the evening?
Each day, after sundown as the gloaming deepened and the shades of night began to fall, this doleful watchman of the night, “mourned unseen and ceaseless sang.”
As I lay secure in my small white iron bed, I pictured the bird, comforting to me, silent and deadly to its prey, flying low and swiftly, snapping up insects in its bristled, gaping maw.
What the whippoorwill sings seems to well in the ear of the listener. “Go-to-sleep, go-to-sleep,” my mother said it sang; my sister thought its song was “pray-for-me, pray-for-me.”
Nights will be silent again when in the fall the whippoorwill migrates southward. I pictured this intrepid bird pouring out its song in the lush, tropical thickets of Costa Rica until I read that it does not call on its wintering grounds.
The whippoorwill saves its resonant concerts, its nocturnal solace, for its home place—the well-grown greenwoods, the verdant farmlands of the Northeast.
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Today, it is considered normal behavior for a girl to play what were formerly all-boy’s games and team sports, to have boys for playfellows, and compete with them on all levels. These girls are simply “jocks.”
Years ago, it was accepted that “boys will be boys,” and girls were expected to act like “little ladies.” A girl of boyish behavior was labeled—she was a “tomboy.” But being a tomboy meant that you were still just a mere girl. There was no notion of conforming to or being equal in a man’s world. It was just a way of acting that came naturally.
The tomboy might be eyed askance by a few, but she was also furtively admired for her prowess. She could put many a boy to the blush.
Fathers, especially, were proud to use the term. There were plenty of maidenly lasses, but his girl was a trump card.
A mother might be a mite rueful about it, but back then there were no sexist overtones or fears for the future. Tomboys “straightened out” eventually; they became young ladies a little later, that was all.
Labeled as a tomboy myself, I had all the characteristics—thin and underweight, coltish and overactive, preferring rough-and-tumble boys games, opting for handicraft rather than needlework.
There were several tomboys in our small village. We played with cap guns, trucks, and balls as often as with dolls and jump ropes. Our hair bows fell off, ankle socks were torn, knees bruised, and arms scratched. We had no patience with exquisite curls, afternoon strolls, or Elsie Dinsmore.
We preferred playsuits to dresses, tools to tea sets, and climbing trees to cooking—we were tomboys. My father treated me offhandedly like the boy he had always hoped for, giving me tasks too difficult for my physique, teasing me unmercifully, and allowing me to run free.
Summer was the tomboy’s heyday. Sunday school ended in early June, and once the two-week Bible school was out of the way, there was no reason to get gussied up the whole long glorious summer. But the mothers of these hoydens never gave up.
Each August, with the disciplined structure of another school year coming up, my mother tried to shape me into “a little lady.”
One late summer she made for me a ruffled apron just my size. We were to have daily cooking lessons, beginning with the making of delicate lace cookies. But at the first opportunity I was off to the barn—the hired man had promised to let me ride the hay rake.
Many a dog-day afternoon I sat in the elm-shaded parlor, stitching laboriously on a much-rumpled sampler, watching the mantel clock tick away the hateful minutes until I could join the boys at the fishing hole.
Another year I was put in charge of picking bouquets, ironing the napkins, and setting the table in proper style. My friends received similar civilizing tutelage.
Some of this rubbed off on us. It took tomboys longer to grow up, but eventually our feminine traits emerged. A little later than some, each in our own time, we let our boyish haircuts grow out, sampled some Lady Esther face cream, and even took an interest in the Junior Miss section of the Sears Roebuck catalog.
You only hear the word “tomboy” these days when one of us in the older generation reminiscences about her childhood. And not one of these wives and mothers that evolved from a tomboy would trade the golden memories of that old-time traditional role she played in the spring tide of life.