Coast to Coast

Just a Shoulder Pat


My husband, Bill, recovering from minor surgery, slept in the downstairs bedroom. Rather than bother him during the night, I slept on the sofa a few feet from the door to the bedroom so I could hear him in the night if he needed me. On the carpeting beside the sofa, Vanessa, my 5-year-old granddaughter visiting from Seattle, created a warm cave with quilts and a big pillow.

Snow lay deep outside our Iowa house, a reminder of five days of falling snow. One morning at around 6 I woke up in the quiet house and tried to go back to sleep. No way. I needed to use the bathroom and check to see if more snow had fallen during the night and also to feed the animals. Baron, my golden lab, was awake too.

I quietly slipped off the sofa, careful not to disturb Vanessa’s sleep. She’d watched the movie “ET” until after 11 the night before. I dressed quickly in warm sweatpants, my heavy Carhartt winter jacket, tall boots, farmer gloves and stocking cap.

The outside door opened easily. Each day I’d scooped the fallen snow that grew to block the doorway. However, a few feet outside the door the snow was deep enough to almost reach my knees. I set my feet into the deep footprints that marked the path to the barn. Baron, wild with glee, leaped through the snow, showering himself and me with white.

After unhooking the top door of the Dutch door at the barn I could see the animals gathering close in their enclosures, happy to see me, but happier because breakfast was coming to them. Inside the barn an 8-by-8-foot area was off limits to the animals. There I stored cat food in a large metal garbage can, buckets of grain for the other animals, and a reject white lawn chair to use when I needed a quiet place to read.

Sundance, the big male llama, stretched his neck over the wooden barricade and rubbed noses with me. The other llamas, Leah and Tinkerbelle, ignored me, but stayed close because they knew food was coming. The Jerusalem donkeys, Polly and Patrick, nuzzled my leg, pretending to nip me to get my attention, knowing that I would thoroughly pet them while admiring the cross on each of their backs, stretching from neck to tail and shoulder to shoulder.

When I opened the cat food container, the barn cats started to gather. Baron ignored them, considering them too foolish to befriend or attack, but cat food was his favorite treat. I’d built a 3-by-4-foot platform 5 feet off the ground, nailed round metal pie tins to the platform, and there the cats gathered, filling every inch of the platform until all I could see was a mass of fur.

Hay was stored in the middle of the barn, wooden railings keeping the animals from overeating. With the big knife in my hand, I stepped over the railing, lifted a 50-pound bale of hay, slung it near the edge of the haymow where the animals could reach it, cut the twine holding the bale together, and parted the hay layers to encourage the animals to enjoy their breakfast.

The barn was warmed by the breath of the animals and the insulating hay in the mow and straw on the floors, but still a cold breeze flowed through the open door leading to the horse tank where the animals drank. Even though an electric heater kept the water from freezing solid, still sometimes bits of ice floated alongside the four goldfish living in it. The fish ate the algae in the tank. They somehow hibernated during the coldest weather, and almost magically each spring grew a bit larger, but this morning they were all still swimming.

Back in the barn I realized that the fur mass of cats was missing from their platform. Instead, Sundance’s long neck stretched over the wire barricade behind the platform, his tongue efficiently gathering up the last of the dry cat food. I shooed the llama away and put up a higher wire barricade and more cat food, and watched the barn cats scramble for it.

It was time to match my boots with the tracks in the snow leading from the barn to the house. Once inside, I quietly closed the door and knelt to Vanessa’s level.  She was not crying, but the tears were backed up in her eyes. “What’s wrong? Is Grampa Bill OK?”

“He snored real loud and woke me up.” I told her I was sorry she’d been awakened. She shook her head, looked hard into my eyes, and tapped her hand on my shoulder. She accused me, “You didn’t wake me.”

With her hand on my cheek forcing me to look at her, she explained, “Grandma, if I’m asleep put your hand on my shoulder and pat it a few times, and then I’ll wake up and help you with the animals.” Hugging her warm little flannel-clad body, I promised to always share the morning chores when she was visiting me in Iowa.

Award-winning columnist Phyllis Henry lives in Gig Harbor.