Emma Ten Kley watches her mother’s panicked
exit out the back door just long enough to initiate an escape
up the stairs to her hideaway in the attic. This is the place
to which she always retreats when the family cows, unhappy at
the weaning of their calves or eager for sweeter grass, break
loose. Unfenced farm animals engender in Emma a terror more severe
than any nightmare. She can’t explain her reaction, but
they threaten such powerful unpredictability that her lungs feel
ready to burst.
It’s odd perhaps
that, although Emma is growing up in a farm, she knows very little
about its life. It isn’t that each year’s crop of
calves, chicks, and piglets is kept hidden from her, or even that
she is not expected to help her mother tend the large vegetable
garden. It’s just that the mystery of life is kept a secret.
Life on the farm appears in one form and disappears to appear
again as food on the Ten Kley table.
That’s why spring
and summer are such frightening times to Emma. All that life overwhelms,
and farm demands are so much harder to manage. Her parents, especially
her mother, work like harried jugglers about to drop their twirling
plates. Emma is expected to carry on without getting into anybody’s
way. Even her afternoon story time gets abbreviated, with time
allotted for only a chapter from Catherine Voss’s Children’s
Bible Story Book. Emma longs for the winter time leisure when
the Bobbsey twins and Black Beauty also have their turns and her
mother even volunteers to ‘read the pictures.’ Emma
loves the way her mother’s make-up stories connect Emma’s
own life with the imaginary world in which she feels so much at
Breathless, Emma plops
among the old trunks and cartons full of forgotten oddities. The
attic is truly a storeroom of comfort. Here are objects whose
lives have all been used up. Here is history that can be relived
but is powerless to reshape the present. Nothing changes its place
unless Emma decides it should. Today her father’s World
War II souvenirs provide the solace she needs until the kitchen
sends up the familiar clatter of her mother’s return.
‘Up in that old
attic again,’ Emma’s mother correctly guesses when
the five-year-old reappears in the kitchen.
‘For the life of me, I can’t figure out what you find
so fascinating about that dusty old place. You know, you’re
old enough to come give me a hand with those blessed cows.’
‘Did they get
into the garden?’ worries Emma.
‘No, thank goodness.
But I got a nasty nettle sting by heading them off through the
tall grass. I swear it’s that old Guernsey Bess that gets
the rest of them all riled up. I must ask your dad to separate
her from the rest of her herd. Refuse her new grass for a few
days and see if she doesn’t behave herself better.’
That resolve, however,
soon gives ways to other chores. The beans need picking, the boysenberries
are ready for the freezer, and the cucumbers are the right size
for making sweet pickles. Old Bess stays on the new grass, but
for several days, Emma has no need to retreat into the attic.
Emma’s older sisters
are at it again, flinging orders and insults around with the potato
peels and frying hamburgers. As teenagers, they not only hold
down summer jobs, but are also expected to get milking. This added
responsibility to their eight-hour shifts contributes little to
the serenity of the household.
‘Get the phone,’
‘I’ve got to turn the meat.’
‘You get it. I’m
still making the salad, and, besides, you’re closer,’
comes back Ruth.
‘I got it last
time. It’s your turn.’
‘Since when do
we take turns answering the phone. For gosh sakes, Syl, don’t
be such a simp. Just lift up the receiver.’
Most evenings, Emma’s
role as the baby sister helps her avoid getting caught in the
middle of these fights. She doesn’t even need the attic.
She can escape outside to her swing suspended from the Gravenstein-apple
tree or her playhouse in the grove at the end of the driveway
or to the barn to discuss her day with Mr. Ten Kley. Any of these
places nurtures the rich feasts which sustain Emma’s imaginary
world. Much to her delight, Emma’s father never expects
a factual account of her day, and he has a great memory for all
the names of the characters who live within her imagination: her
husband, Jimmy Hogarty; her best friend, Sarah Jane; and the horrid
neighbours, Mr. and Mrs. Pigglestump.
Tonight, however, the
phone call prompts Sylvia to send Emma to the barn with a message
for Mr. Ten Kley. The foreman at the Farmer’s Mutual Telephone
Company is calling their father back to work. Some kid has shot
a beebe through the cable serving a doctor’s line.
Emma dawdles a bit on
the path from the house to the barn. She dreads the consequences
of this message. Since this is also the night Mrs. Ten Kley attends
Marys and Marthas, a ladies-aid meeting at church, Sylvia and
Ruth will be left in charge of the house. When both parents are
gone, the quarrelling never stops.
Emma helps her dad lace
up his climbers while he reminds Sylvia and Ruth about what he
needs to be done.
‘Don’t forget to shut the door to the chicken coop.
Those roosters are just about ready for the frying pan. Make the
lunches for tomorrow, and if I’m too late, check the calves
to see if they’ve settled in for the night.’
Emma already feels the next clash coming in the bickering glances
her sisters are exchanging.
Mr. Ten Kley lifts Emma’s chin up to look directly into
her worried eyes, ‘tonight, you’re the supervisor.
You see that your sisters do their jobs, okay?’ Then, with
a wink and quick kiss on Emma’s forehead, he heads to the
back door with one more request for Sylvia and Ruth: ‘Leave
something warming for me in the oven, please, girls. Who knows
how late I’ll be.’
Emma, adjusting to her
unexpected authority, trots behind him to the army-green ’52
Chevy outfitted for a linesman, proud of the shine her dad keeps
on the company pick-up and of his newly bestowed trust in her.
With a farewell of ‘Thanks for your help, kid,’ he
throws gravel as he winds up the long driveway and out of Emma’s
sight. Mrs. Ten Kley soon follows after in the family Ford.
Knowing the dishes will
keep her sisters busy for a while, Emma delays her supervision,
deciding to visit her playhouse. The ‘playhouse’ is
a nursling log that lies in the midst of some small alder and
oak trees between the driveway and a small hayfield, some distance
from the house. The glory of the space is that it can become any
place Emma wants or needs it to be. Tonight the grove is at its
summertime best with a hint of an early August breeze to filter
out the heat of the day – a perfect setting for a ladies-aid
meeting of her own. Emma sings hymns, recites the Lord’s
Prayer, and organizes the hostesses for the next meeting before
guessing that the dishes must be done and her sisters available
for other tasks. But to make sure, Emma takes her trike the long
way around the driveway, the section generally only used by the
milkman and deeply rutted from the truck’s large tires.
But the time in the playhouse has left Emma calm, and she enjoys
the challenge of manoeuvring her trike around all the potholes.
She is almost to the dairy when she spots Old Bess’s calf
running circles between her and the house. Forgetting for the
moment that she’s in charge, Emma screams, ‘Sylvie,
Ruuuth, come quick! A calf is out. Come quick!’
But Emma’s command
is no competition for KPUG’s hit parade her sisters have
left blaring in the kitchen. Giving in to her usual terror, Emma
dismounts her trike, running the opposite direction from the calf
around the garage and into the front door of the house. Now nothing
blocks the way to the attic until her father’s charge brings
her involuntary muscles to a halt. She has to make something happen.
The request carries the appropriate authority, and both sisters
run to the kitchen, Ruth down the stairs from her bedroom and
Sylvia from the bathroom, a large white towel surrounding her
just-washed hair. She speaks first.
‘What in the world is the matter, Emma?’
By this time Emma is
out of breath and words. All she can do is point out the back
door and gasp, ‘…calf…Bessie’s calf.’
In spite of her wet head, Sylvia heads to the porch first and
- momentarily - takes control.
‘Ruth, get out here quick. A calf is out. Oh brother, he’s
running straight for the garden.’
‘You do it,’
comes back Ruth.
‘Bruce said he’d call about 8.30. I can’t miss
‘Ruth. I just
washed my hair. You’ve got to do it.’
Ruth is shouting now.
‘Just because you’re the oldest, you think you can
boss everybody around. I won’t miss out on a change for
a date this Friday night because of a stupid old calf. If you’re
so worried about the garden, you go catch the calf.’
and bad memory about who is in control are lost on Emma. Being
denied access to the attic by her father’s order, Emma’s
terror mounts. She is certain that the garden will be ruined and
they’ll all starve in the winter. Or worse yet, the calf
will do some deed so terrible they’ll all be destroyed before
winter comes, before her parents come home that night even. Or
worse yet, she will disappoint her father with her inability to
Sylvia says, kneeling in front of her little sister, ‘I
guess it’s all up to us.’
She stands again, taking Emma’s hand, pulling them both
toward the back door and the runaway calf.
Emma discovers some
courage in her partnership with Sylvia, but the two of them are
no match for the frisky calf. They manage to divert him from the
garden, but are unable to direct him back to the calf pen in the
barn. The situation worsens again when he spots his mother grazing
at the far end of the hayfield. Running back past the garden,
he leaps the electric fence, leaving Emma and Sylvia with a bigger
problem to solve.
really tired, Syl.’ Emma’s voice pleads for a way
‘I know Emmiekins,
but hang in there. You know Dad would want us to get the calf
back to the barn.’
Emma nods, feeling once
more the uneasy responsibility assigned to her and wishing she
could escape to the comfort of the attic.
‘So, what bright
ideas for catching a silly little calf are hiding behind those
bangs of yours, Emmie?’ Sylvia brushes a few stray hairs
from Emma’s face.
Emma looks out toward
the field, seeing the calf trying to take hold of Bess’s
‘Maybe he’s thirsty.’
it. The sucking bucket. That’s what we need. What a brilliant
idea!’ Sylvia is already running towards the barn. A bewildered
Emma tries to keep up with her.
‘Emmie, if you
bring the bucket over to me, I’ll pour some milk into it
straight from tonight’s milking.’
Slowly, Emma understands
what the plan is and gathers excitement in the control it gives
back to her.
‘I can hold the bucket for the calf, Sylvie. I know how
to. Sometimes Dad lets me help feed the calves.’
Sylvia accepts the suggestion, ‘but let’s carry it
between us up to the field, okay?’
As the two make their
way across the pasture, the other cows move aside with disinterest.
Except for old Bess. The look she gives them suggests they’ve
been too long in coming for her bothersome calf. The calf, on
the other hand, recognizes the bucket as an old friend.
Emma holds out the nippled
side of the bucket toward the calf, who grabs it readily. Sylvia
quickly positions herself at the rear, giving directions to Emma
and urging the calf forward. The precess takes time and their
movements are far from graceful. Some of the milk spills, and
Emma’s small hands ache from keeping hold of the bucket,
but eventually, all three of them get back to the calf shed. Emma
gladly fetches a rope, but is more than willing to let Sylvia
tie up the calf on her own. The escapade has left the calf too
tired to resist.
‘We did it, Emmiekins,’
Sylvia breathes out.
‘Congratulations. You’re a great little supervisor.’
She holds out her hand again.
‘C’mon. I’ll help you into you pj’s, and
you can sleep with me tonight.’
The invitation pleases
Emma, and she will accept, but not until she has given one last
order for the night:
‘After we have hot chocolate, Sylvie, with oodles of marshmallows
The two race each other
to the house and giggle their way past Ruth, now talking on the
phone, into the kitchen.
The rest of August offers
less excitement. As life on the farm wanes into the aftermath
of harvest, Emma relaxes. Things are becoming more predictable
again. When Mr. Ten Kley invites his youngest daughter to accompany
him to check the hayfields one last time, she readily accepts.
She doesn’t even
think about the bull, the only animal left in these fields. In
the farthest corner of the high field, he seems very intent on
his grassy meal. Emma even drops her father’s hand, comfortable
just in his presence and in the connection she has for him. Her
heart feels as big as the field and as expensive. There is no
fear in this wide open space. Emma’s father breaks the silence.
you’ll soon be off to kindergarten. What do you think of
going to make me a new dress for the first day.’
The nonsequitor doesn’t
‘Oh, she is, is she? That’s nice.’
They walk on, Emma’s
hand now back in his.
‘Kiddo, will you do something for your old dad? Like school.
Like school a lot and get smart. That’s what your daddy
Then a tenseness, abrupt and quivery, stops his advice. His arm
rises in instinctive protection across Emma’s chest.
‘Emma, get behind me.’
The tone more than the words moves Emma. She understands immediately
that obedience, not questions, is the only acceptable response.
‘Back up, slowly,’ he says carefully.
Emma moves only her
legs. Her upper body remains rigid, arms straight at her sides,
head focusing on the narrow of her father’s back. Her father
‘That’s a girl. Keep moving. I’ll tell you when
we get to the electric fence. Then duck down and roll under, keeping
your head down until you’re well under.’
Emma knows that they
are heading towards the spot where the strawberry patch borders
the hayfield. The wire there is fairly low. She will have to lie
down nearly to get under.
her father, no less urgently.
‘Here’s the fence. Crawl under.’
Emma squats first, dropping
face forward to her knees, which gives her the view her father’s
back has been blocking. The bull is bearing towards them, head
down and forelegs pawing the ground. Emm’s lungs tell her
that the old terror has again seized control of her actions. Falling
flat to the grass, Emma rises up again, neglecting, however, to
roll over in a complete turn. Her head lifts directly against
a wire. The jolt pierces her tender scalp, throwing Emma’s
shocked body into the strawberry vines. Her father hurdles the
fence and scoops her in his arms.
Back in the kitchen,
Emma breaks from his embrace and races to the attic. Once inside,
she shoves boxes, suitcases - anything of bulk that her five-year-old
strength can manage - against the attic door. Finally, she collapses,
bracing her feet against a steamer trunk and her back against
the makeshift fortress. It takes her father almost an hour to
coax her down to supper.
Taken from ‘Viewpoints’
(1995), pages 49-55.