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Continued from Neighbors

Mom was fussy about food. She wanted only “fresh, farm eggs—preferably brown,” and was convinced that homogenized or pasteurized milk lacked vital nutrients. She loved the thick rich cream that formed on top of fresh milk. We established a ritual of driving ten miles west of town to the Talbot dairy ranch every Sunday to pick up a dozen still-warm eggs and two gallons of fresh-out-of-the-udder milk.

Besides the dairy operation, the Talbots ran beef cattle, sheep, and had a pig or two who roamed freely along with the chickens, turkeys, and even a pair of peacocks. Tragedy always accompanies lambing season and so it was that Joan’s first 4-H project was a pair of bum lambs from the Talbots. The ewe had died birthing her twins; the Talbots were out of surrogate ewes to pair the orphans with so they came home with us in a cardboard box that smelled of barnyard, tinged with blood and lanolin.

That first night, the lambs were painfully tiny, their pink noses and hyper-sensitive pale blue eyes made them look tender and vulnerable. Even their bleats were faint. We set them up in the linoleum-floored kitchen where it was warm, and we could easily block them into the one room. Ebony, Joan’s little black dog, who was secretly expecting a litter of puppies, sniffed at the lambs with interest but no animosity.

For the first few weeks, our lives were consumed with learning the ins and outs of bottle-feeding bum lambs. Leah Talbot answered panicky phone calls with an endless supply of advice. One of the first disasters occurred when one lambs grew strong enough to jerk the rubber nipple off the glass rim of the pop bottle that served as an udder, sending Joan and her baby in opposite directions and spewing formula across the floor. It was a constant adjustment process as the babies grew stronger and more curious. Soon they were crashing through barriers and bleating through the living room and when we put them outside for sunshine and fresh grass, they assaulted mom’s hollyhocks—despite the wire borders that marked the boundary between lawn and half-wild flower beds.

“With all that grass, why do they have to pick on my flowers?” mom complained. “If I’m hosting vegetarians, I shouldn’t have to be worrying about mowing that damned lawn.” Neighborhood kids—and parents—lined up on the other side of our fence, staring in bewilderment at this misplaced spectacle of barnyard in the middle of a nice, clean residential area. Joan derided the city kids who asked the stupidest questions about the lambs: why we had them? where were their mother and father? what did they eat? would we be able to ride them when they grew bigger…?

I was appalled by the docking procedure, but it was necessary if Joan were to show her charges at the State Fair in August. Wyoming sheep men have no patience for dirty sheep bottoms and tails getting in the way of ewe’s troublesome deliveries. Heavy rubber bands are applied to the lambs’ tails. With circulation to the unwanted appendage hampered, the tail eventually drops off like a loose baby tooth. I dreaded walking through the house or yard and finding a disembodied tail.

We had barely weaned the lambs from the comfort of the kitchen when Ebony delivered her little surprise. Four squirming pups showed up in the dirty clothes basket one morning. Yes, we were learning all about life . . . and death. One of the pups died shortly after we moved the litter from the clothes basket to the obligatory nursery box in the kitchen.