A Lamb, a Dog and a Haircut by Irene Pylypec
My definition of paradise is a childhood spent on a farm on the vast Canadian prairie of Saskatchewan. Our small, quarter section of land was my playground. Here I was free to roam, to explore, to lie on my back while looking at the everchanging cumulus clouds forming animals, castles and whatever else my imagination imagined. And, of course, dream of…well, whatever it is young girls dream.
It was a mixed farm. Because much of the land had not been cleared for growing crops, and what was cleared was rather rocky, my parents chose to raise a true menagerie of animals instead. There were cows. There were pigs. There were chickens. There were horses, sheep, ducks, geese, dogs and cats.
The farm was also self-sustaining. Besides being one of the family’s main sources of income, honey collected from our bees provided us with a year-round supply. Wool, shorn from the sheep, was not only another major source of income, but also gave us comfy comforters and sweaters knitted by my mom. Goose down and chicken feathers were used to stuff quilts and pillows. On the flip side, our horses were primarily work horses (yes, we were poor) but we also rode them for fun.
As far as food sustenance goes, a huge vegetable garden (fertilized with manure) and some of the animals satisfied our nutritional needs. A fresh-water spring nearby provided us with refreshing cool, potable water in summer. In winter, we melted snow. And we had a continual supply of milk, cream, home-churned butter, cottage cheese and eggs.
To my recollection, the main consumer products we ever purchased were baking ingredients and clothing. And the clothing was mostly limited to new school clothes because both my mother and I sewed.
To me, it was an idyllic existence. Springtime was especially exciting because it meant the birth of baby animals. I loved to cuddle baby chicks and ducks and to feel their down tickling my skin. I loved to watch baby calves trying to get their footing on wobbly legs. And I loved to watch the lambs frolicking about in their races and games of tag.
They say sheep are silly. Unfortunately, some also don’t appear to possess a maternal instinct. It seemed that every spring at least one mother would abandon its young. But that just meant my parents would bring the baby lamb inside the house to warm up behind the wood stove. And we got to bottle-feed it! As it grew, it became our pet and followed us wherever we went. Now you know the backstory to Mary Had a Little Lamb…
Our other pets were cats and dogs. We had two pet dogs named Blacky and Brownie. Hey, don’t blame me for the lame names. One of my brothers named them. He’s the sibling with no imagination.
Blacky was a mutt, or as we called him a Heinz 57, named after the sauce. He was beautiful, what with his long, mostly black fur, white throat and paws. Heinz 57 or not, he had an innate herding sense. All our farm animals knew they were “barn” animals; they slept in the barn and lived in the barnyard. Except the chickens. They thought the entire property belonged to them – not just the chicken coop. Blacky knew different. Whenever the chickens got too close to the house and the flower beds, he immediately rounded them up and chased them back into the barnyard. The chickens probably wondered how THE DOG got special privileges of remaining near the house, because they would consistently challenge his authority. Silly chickens. They got chased away every time.
But let’s talk about those woolly mammals otherwise known as sheep. Sheep are pretty useless without a shepherd and on our farm, tending these balls of wool on four legs was one of my chores. To be honest, it didn’t feel like a chore to me at all. To me, it was an awesome opportunity to stick my nose in a book to instantaneously and effortlessly be transported into another world.
The sheep, meanwhile, saw my distraction as an opportunity to escape into the alfalfa patch or into the neighbour’s wheat field. Not good. Unlike the more intelligent animals such as cows, sheep don’t know when to stop grazing at the forbidden alfalfa patch. As a result, they can become bloated and even die if they aren’t stopped in time. Besides being gluttonous creatures, sheep can also be very obstinate. The minute I would chase one sheep out of the alfalfa patch, a second would take its place. Then, when I chased the second one out, the first came back. It was an impossible task. That is, until Blacky stepped into the picture.
One day, I decided to take Blacky with me when shepherding. It didn’t take me long to find a pleasant spot to plunk myself down in the grassy meadow and commence to read. I looked up just in time to see a cloud of dust in the distance. It was the entire flock of sheep making a mad dash towards the neighbour’s field. But then, I spied a black streak encircling them, stopping them in their tracks. Blacky to the rescue! I watched in awe as he contained every single one of the woolly bunch within a tight circle. This had never happened before. No one ever taught our mutt to herd sheep. He just knew what to do!
After my able assistant and I directed all the sheep back into their pen in the barnyard, I couldn’t wait to tell my parents what had transpired earlier that day.
My mother acknowledged the feat but seemed to have something else on her mind.
“How would you like to cut dad’s hair?” she asks.
“Uh, well… but I don’t know how!”
“We’ll teach you. It’s not that difficult.”
My mother momentarily disappeared into the house and returned with a chair, towel, fine-tooth comb and scissors. Mom sat down in the chair and wrapped the towel around her neck. Dad lovingly combed out a strand of mom’s long hair. Then he demonstrated how to trim while simultaneously moving the comb. It looked complicated.
“That looks hard,” I say.
“Blacky, *thweet* come here, boy!” my dad whistles.
Blacky dutifully trots over to us, tail wagging. Poor, trusting soul.
“You can practise on Blacky!”
I lovingly comb out a section of Blacky’s beautiful, long fur and start trimming, all the while getting encouraging tips from both my parents. My mother seemed satisfied with my efforts. Or maybe she just didn’t want me to completely ruin Blacky’s coat.
“OK, dad! You’re next!” she announces.
My dad takes his place in the chair, and I, encouraged by my haircutting lesson, begin trimming his hair. It’s going swimmingly and I’m growing more and more confident by the minute. But then the comb catches on a knot in dad’s hair. The comb just stays there. And I’ve just created a big bald patch at the back of dad’s head.
Sensing that something is wrong, my dad asks, “What happened? Did you cut too much?”
“Oh no,” my mom chimes in. “It looks great!” Sometimes, parents can be such convincing liars.
“It’ll grow back,” she whispers to me out of the corner of her mouth.
Well, the bald spot on dad’s head and the one on Blacky’s back did eventually grow back. And you probably think that after receiving this training, I left home to begin a professional career as a hairstylist. It was not to be. But I was given license to be the family barber from that day forward. And my parents’ resourcefulness has been an inspiration to me to this very day.