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Away in a Manger (Home Sweet Home)

When I was little, one of my favorite Christmas carols was Away in a Manger. To my mind, I did not think there could be anything better than being born in a stable, unless of course it was being allowed to grow up and live in the barn. Not far from our house when I was young was a gas station that every year had a "live" creche, complete with a sheep or two, a donkey and a cow. They didn't go so far as having a live baby, but that wouldn't have interested me at any rate. It was the animals. I would gaze at them quietly chewing their hay, and try to imagine being the one in the manger with that soft sound of animals breathing and chewing all around me. Heaven on earth...

I've never stopped thinking that living in a barn is a grand idea. On drives through New England, I look with immense envy on those old farmhouses where the barn and house are conjoined. Once, I stayed with a woman in the Midwest who DID have a barn attached to her fancy home. I will go to my grave remembering these two things about that stay: 1. The tremendous joy of being able to go from kitchen with coffee cup in hand and just pad a short distance down a hall, open a door, and be there in the barn, roomy box stalls lining either side of the wide aisle. 2. The deep disappointment in knowing that only in my imagination were those stalls populated by horses who would eagerly greet us with nickers; she had turned this very nice barn into a kennel.

Over the years, an interesting assortment of animals not normally considered house pets have been in residence in the house for various reasons and for stays that ranged from a day or two to months. My old donkey friend, Freaky Deaky, is 26 this spring. Way back about 25 years ago, he lived in the basement of my farmhouse for nearly 6 months. It clearly made a difference to that dying donkey then as he's still with me now.

Professor Spot, our senior pig at the moment, lived in the bedroom for a while after surgery, as did his niece Daisy & nephew Nehi when brutal temps threatened their ability to survive as the smallest of their big litter - nights spent in the house spared them the struggle to just stay warm while during the day they did all their usual piglet things with Mom and siblings. Walt the turkey, Jose the rooster, Amelia the hen, Cooper the duck, Zuzu the calf, Sally Jo the goat, Andre the blue jay, Merlin the pigeon, and others have been part of the household over the years. Our dogs are quite accustomed to the arrival of guests of all variety.

Last night, mucking out the stall in the dog room, I realized I'd reached the outer edges of my personal heaven, though certainly not Main Street. The stall belongs to Storm, the calf we had for Christmas instead of a tree. He has grown strong and sturdy in the last few months. He's a commuter calf now, spending his days in the barn with another calf and other animals, returning in the evening to bed down in the pen we built for him in the room where muddy, wet or otherwise needing to be crated dogs are kept. It's become part of life's routine here. In the morning, there's the sound of hooves on the old pine floor as Storm follows John through the house and then down the front porch stairs, and then off to the barn. Evenings see his return, increasingly later and later as the temperatures have warmed up and daylight is flooding more hours every day.

While Storm sleeps in his pen each evening, there's another calf in the house now. Annelise is not quite 2 weeks old today, and like Storm, unable to nurse from her very good mother for a number of reasons. Unlike Storm, she did not miss her colostrum, and so her immune system is strong. Her legs are crooked (positioning in the uterus) but will straighten with time and exercise. Like Storm, she was born during very cold weather, and it was only a matter of minutes before we came to the realization that once again, we needed to set up the calf pen in the living room and spare her that struggle.

But Annelise has taken things a bit further than any other calf. Like Storm, she commutes daily to the barn, following John and Storm across the lawn and up the drive to continue her education as a cow, get exercise and learn about the world. She returns to spend the evening napping on soft blankets in her pen in the living room. But at night, once all the dogs have been put out for last call in the yard, Annelise is roused, and off we go to the bedroom where she spends the night in a pen beside my bed. I can only blame the furniture and my age for this.

If the sofas we have were anything resembling kind to aging bodies, I'd probably have done what we did with Storm, and sleep downstairs with Annelise. Social animals shouldn't be isolated, and we take that very seriously, even if it means altering our own sleep patterns and place. But given that my body is just recovering from weeks sleeping on the couch with Storm nearby when he was so sick, I knew I'd best plan something else. Annelise was light (maybe 60 pounds) and thus could be easily carried to another pen set up beside my bed.

The first night, John carried her up with no problem. She proved to be a thoughtful guest, waking me with soft noises when she got up and needed to pee, giving me plenty of time to swing out of bed, place the bucket and catch the contribution. Never mind that she needed to get up and do something about every 2.5-3 hours. Unbroken sleep is perhaps overrated. Perhaps. I believe I'll sleep plenty when I'm dead. I focused on her polite notices.

The second night, John wasn't available. I knew I could carry her myself, but not in one unbroken march. I gathered her up, went about 4 steps, and put her down to rest myself. To my surprise, she stood for a moment, then oriented herself uphill, and cool as a cucumber, started climbing the stairs. I just followed behind, providing a safety net, though I think my mouth was hanging open so far she could have tumbled into my gaping maw if she lost her balance. And that was that --- every night, she climbs the stairs without hesitation, marches through the dogs at the bedroom door, turns left, heads for her pen, curls up, and settles in for the night.

Yes, she still moos to let me know she's up and needing something. It's a mixed blessing. Being woken repeatedly during the night is tiring. But dear Lord, when I wake up to find a bright eyed calf staring at me, waiting for my eyes to meet hers, her beloved little face within arm's reach of my own face, I know I'm close to my idea of Heaven.

Away in the Manger is meant to be a song about humble beginnings. Guess I always misunderstood it. I thought it was a celebration of life as I think it's meant to be: surrounded by animals.

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"Away in the Manger" by Suzanne Clothier

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