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Life Lesson


At ten-years-old, I spend afterschool hours and weekends roaming our small family farm and nearby fields in southern Pennsylvania. It is the late-1940s. I climb up the big maple to sit in the tree house my father built. My roost overlooks the barnyard. The chickens don’t seem a friendly group, flapping their wings and squawking loudly if the territory of one is invaded by another. They pick on each other, gang up on a member of the brood for no apparent reason and peck it until it bleeds. To stop the bullying, I shriek threats: “Stop it! Or I’ll come down and chase you!” Which I am not allowed to do with these egg-laying hens. No trespassing in their enclosure. The sound of my screams interrupts the terrorizing, at least momentarily.

The sow usually waddles out of her doorway into her yard to root in the hay and roll in the dust. When she doesn’t, I sing out “Hellooo” over and over. Sometimes I rouse her and sometimes I don’t. Not until I read Charlotte’s Web years later to my son do I meet Fern, created by E.B. White in 1948, a farm girl just a tad younger than me.

Though I never name the sow the way Fern christens her pig ‘Wilbur’, I worry about her sad eyes, always watery and droopy. I envision pig friends visiting to cheer her up. As if in answer to my hope, a male pig is brought to stay with her for several days that February. Three months later she delivers a dozen piglets. I am overjoyed. She seems happy and peaceful, lying comfortably on her side, snoozing, and snorting with her brood for company. I visit the tree house both before and after school, to enjoy the muddle of piglets nursing contentedly on their mother’s swollen nipples.

Unlike Fern with Wilbur, I cannot save the sow from execution. After her plump six-month old piglets are sold, my father hires a professional butcher to slaughter her. The gunshot wakes me early in the morning. I race downstairs to the kitchen. My mother’s look tells me what happened. I fall into her arms and cry. What could be crueler than to slay the sow in an early morning ambush in what has been her family home?

After school that day, I walk by the stream across the road from our house. The path winds through clusters of trees down to a waterfall. I sit on a boulder as near as I can get to the roar of the cascading water. The sound surrounds me, making it easier to contemplate the way things are. We pretend that the health of our creatures is for their own good and then end their lives at peak condition for our own consumption. To share my memory of the sow is one way for her life story to live on.

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