thompson

Underneath the Heat Lamp

Meg Thompson

First I was seven and waiting, my mother’s voice still in my ear. “Talk,” she said. “Just keep talking.” My pet duck cradled in my arms, twine looped around his neck that connected to my hand, I listened for the junior fair board member to call my name, direct me to sit across a card table from the volunteer judge.
            My first interview. I told the judge everything. They gave me a flat, green ribbon for being a Pre 4-H Participant, which is what they gave everyone.
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When I called my best friend to tell her I was pregnant, she answered the phone by saying, “You’re pregnant, aren’t you.” When I told my other best friend, she said, “So am I.” When I told two friends in California over Skype, they stared wordlessly at the screen for so long I repeated myself. Eventually one jammed his elbow in the other’s ribs. “Say something,” he said. When I told my older sister, Carrie, she yelled, “Light it up!” When I told my mother she said, “Oh, well that’s good!” But then she continued. “Was it a surprise?”
            An hour later I got a text message from my dad that read, simply, Thank you.
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My husband, Todd, held the bottle of generic mouthwash in his hand. “What about gargling?” he asked. “Does that sound bother you?”
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“It came through the women,” she said, her voice low, and not because she was hiding something. It was something else, something I couldn’t at once detect, and then, I remembered: pride. That was how my mother sounded when she was proud.
            She said it again. It came through the women.
            I loved how each word slid into the next, natural as water into a drain. Our farm had begun with a woman, and six generations later, she, along with my father, was carrying it.
            My siblings and I do not know, do not talk about, what will happen to the farm. One day our father asked about our plan, his voice so casual it was like he wanted to know what we were having for dinner.
            I stared at him. “I have no idea,” I said.
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Todd is also the middle child. It is part of the reason we can talk to each other so well.
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We held our wedding reception on Todd’s family’s property in southeastern Ohio. As a boy in his house on a hill, he thought he could see the ocean from their back patio. During the party, my dad walked along the fence line, his right hand outstretched, waiting to brush against something. Todd’s aunts huddled around Kathy, my mother-in-law, worried about the old man wandering the fields. “What is he doing?” they asked in whispers.
            “He just wants to look around,” Kathy said, shooing them away. “He’s a farmer.”
            Initially, my mom was nervous about meeting Todd’s parents since Andy, Todd’s dad, is a lawyer. I tried to explain that they were just like us. Their couch is also covered in dog hair and food rots in their fridge just as quickly as it does in ours, but I couldn’t ease her fear.
            What it took to convince her, though, was Kathy hushing Todd’s aunts, nothing more. He’s a farmer. My mom knew, then, it would be okay. They would be nice to me. She nodded in approval. Later, she told Kathy how glad she was that I had found Todd. “I think he understands the land,” she said.
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During the harsh winter months of lambing season, it was normal to wake up to the sound of a lamb, braying for its mother, a bottle of milk. When they are that small, their wool is not soft, but rather stiff, like cheap carpet. I always thought their legs seemed too long for their small, skeletal frames. Somehow our mother could tell, even when they were a week old, if they would grow up to impress her.
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When I run my hand over my swelling stomach, Kathy tells me to enjoy it. “It’s the only time in your life you’re allowed to get fat,” she says.
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We took sheep to the county fair in the summer, a routine unquestioned. We also took hogs, and often a stray rabbit, duck, or turkey was thrown into the mix, but the emphasis was always sheep because this was our mother’s territory. If she knew or cared how the Internet worked, she could write the most precise and profoundly lyric Wikipedia entry on sheep you would ever care to read.
            “I’m proud of what I’ve done,” she told me. “They’re my thing.”
            She made us practice walking our sheep in a circle while she stood in the middle, pretending to be the judge. We did this on summer evenings in our front yard, the sun low, the day cooling off. You are supposed to keep your hands around the sheep’s neck and your eyes on the judge as you parade around her. When the judge holds up her hands, you stop and square up your sheep’s feet. The most important part of a sheep is the loin, which the judge feels for by placing her thumbs along the spine.
            “Look at her loin, Megan,” my mother would say, moving her hands down the sheep’s back while I kept my knee braced against its throat. “See how long and lean it is?”
            I could never see what she did.
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Todd has a cough. Coughing is a common trigger for misophonia, but it didn’t used to bother me. Now, for some reason, it wrecks me. Sometimes it is so bad I start to cry. I cry out of helplessness, guilt, anger, and now fear. Todd holds me, tells me it isn’t my fault.
            “You won’t be afraid of our baby,” he says. “You’ll be a good mom.”
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Farming is cool now, along with hanging laundry on a clothesline and shopping at thrift stores. On Facebook, Todd’s ex-girlfriend lists her profession as farmer. A young woman with pierced nipples who used to toss fruit scraps out her dorm room window, I picture her involved with the unromantic side of farming, like riding on a tractor for six consecutive hours or shoveling dead cats out of a field so they don’t get rolled up with the bales of hay.
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I asked my younger sister Amy why she thought people don’t like to admit when they are wrong.
            She shrugged. “I don’t know, but I’m never wrong.”
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All of us are more like our dad, who used to sing in a barbershop quartet. He was also captain of his high school football team and voted Best All-Around Guy, but we mainly got his musical abilities. He is quiet, and when he speaks it is purposeful. Everyone listens.
            “Go,” our mom would say when we were kids, pushing us out the door. “Run around and do stuff.”
            No one baffled her more than Carrie, who had a subscription to The New Yorker when she was sixteen. “That girl,” she would mutter. “Always with her nose in a book.” I wish, usually when I’m at job interviews, that I were more like my mother, that I could still talk, just keep talking, without scrutinizing every other word I chose, without my face turning red when I started talking about myself.
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“Todd has a new girlfriend,” Rachel, my youngest sister, told me over the phone.
            I was sitting in my office in Missouri, staring at a picture of me and Todd at a hummingbird festival we went to last week. We’d been dating for two months.
            “Really,” I said.
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Our mother was prone to walking into the kitchen, stroking an animal stunned with fear that she wanted to show off. “This is Henrietta,” she might say, referring to the chicken clutched in her arms. “Look at her, John,” she would say, beaming, almost smug, to her husband, leaning against the counter, sipping coffee.
            “Look how shiny her feathers are.”
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Even though I grew up with it all around me, I never got used to seeing farm animals mate. It looked like a death was taking place, a female dragged away, smashed beneath his lumbering form. My parents spoke casually about it, standing at the kitchen window, watching the hogs mount each other.
            “Has she been bred yet?” our mother would ask, pointing. “I don’t think she’s bred.”
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They say miscommunication is the root of most problems. In our family, it is not miscommunication so much as no communication. I see this the most in Amy, who stops talking when confronted or exposed. She powers down, a robot in sleep mode, and there is nothing anyone can do. When I asked her why she does that, she said, “Well, isn’t that better?”
            She means better than having an explosive fight, but this is a logical fallacy: a false dilemma. She’s assuming there are only two options: silence or an explosion. In our family, we veer heavily toward the former.
            “I think I’m the most like dad,” she said. “I’m the most patient.”
            As children, we all idolized our father. When he walked in a room, everyone looked at him. We still do. “Everything’s better when you’re here,” our mother would say.
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Which is worse: to have misophonia or be married to someone who has it, to be that person whose normal, bodily sounds agonize your spouse. On our good days, I tell Todd he should join a support group that meets weekly to eat chips, breathe with their mouths barely open, and cough. On bad days, I tell him I’m leaving to go on a walk, hit up the grocery store, anything, just to get out of the house.
            “I can’t help it,” he’ll say. “I have to cough.” He shuts the door to his office and I stand in the kitchen, crying silently to myself.
            At the store, I buy his favorites: a Milky Way and a box of Girl Scout cookies, Samoas. While I’m away, Todd tries to kill the source. He kneels in front of the toilet with his finger in his throat to make himself vomit. He gargles with salt water. He coughs and coughs and coughs.
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I could not have been less competitive as a child. Once, after the hog show, I threw my flat, green ribbon in the trash can outside the ring. My mom grabbed my arm, the only time I ever felt her anger in physical form.
            “Dig that ribbon out,” she hissed.
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I am giving them their first grandchild, but I know they didn’t expect to wait this long.
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None of us except Aaron, the lone son, who was actually a skilled showman, lived up to our mother’s expectations in the show ring. Us girls could not have looked more awkward in that sawdust ring with our wrinkled, white shirts. We were too self-aware, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. I could never get over the postmodern feel of the event. I knew there were people who made their sheep run on treadmills, prepping their muscles for the judge’s touch. Those in lower socioeconomic classes chained their sheep to the back of a tractor to make them walk around a field. Over in the steer barn, parents injected syringes full of vegetable oil underneath the flesh to give the appearance of soft, pillowy flanks. Some people spent thousands of dollars on their livestock, and when they sold them at the auction for thousands more, they were actually just being bought by family friends. It was all a show, a show at once false and very real.
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“I should have thrown the ball around with you more,” my dad said. “When you were young.”
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Todd and I met at a writing conference in Morgantown, West Virginia. I was finishing my degree at the university and Todd was attending the fiction workshops. The first time he looked at me, I knew he was in love with me. I had an ungodly level of confidence because I stopped letting males choose me. When I went to the bar, I stared out at my field of mates, imagined biting the back of one of their necks. In the morning, I stuffed my underwear in my pocket and left. The idea of not so much a relationship, but a relationship ending, was too much for me. I told myself I would never endure that again, and I didn’t. Once was enough.
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“None of you are long and lean,” our mother said. “You’re not like me.”
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A text message from my dad asked if I wanted any of my 4-H trophies. I knew that Rachel, on a mission to purge our childhood home of memories, had her eye on the closet brimming with our old ribbons, plaques, and trophies.
            No, thanks, I texted him back. My memories will suffice.
            A week later, my mom called to say she kept the first trophy I ever won.
            “It was about as tall as you at the time,” she said.
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To be fair, Henrietta did have very shiny feathers. They were red and black, and they glowed in the morning sun as we watched our mother pet her.
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Todd told me he loved me before we started dating. “I love you,” he would say, then continue, “I’m sorry.” It didn’t make me feel awkward, though. I knew that he loved me. I could tell by the way he put his hands on me, how it felt hard and soft at the same time. Him vocalizing it was no different, just another form.
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Sleepovers were the worst. If I could not find another room to sleep in alone, I stayed awake all night. I tried to distract myself by imagining my life, years in the future. In my mind I walked on hardwood floors through a beautiful house, clean and spare. The closets held trim rows of wool coats. The bathrooms had stone tile and a white orchid on the counter. If that didn’t work, I tried to pretend the snoring was music. Eventually, I stared at the ceiling, tears cresting my eyes.
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“If they ask you if you want to do a kick chart, say no,” my best friend tells me. “You worry too much.”
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It was normal to see kids crying before they sold their livestock at the county fair auction. I usually pinned these 4-Hers for ones who didn’t actually live on a farm, but instead bought and raised a single animal that they kept in a Home Depot–purchased, prefab shed in their backyard. I’ve been known to cry when I watch reality shows, educational documentaries, the NFL Draft, and most game shows, but I never got emotionally invested in my 4-H projects. I just stood in line, one hand cupped under my sheep’s jaw to keep her pressed against my hip. A reporter tried to interview me once, asking me if I was sad about selling my sheep.
            “No,” I said. “Not really.”
            “But didn’t you take care of her, feed her, all summer?” he pressed.
            “Yes,” I said. “I did.”
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I stood alone in the copy room, shuffling papers. “You’re the middle child, aren’t you?” It was our office assistant, Kyla, leaning in the doorway.
            “How can you tell?”
            “Your clothes. They’re like your way of speaking.”
            I was wearing a vintage ’70s dress from Goodwill. I had a closet full of them. Paisley, houndstooth, zebra print.
            Kyla, a junior psych major, figured me out long before I did. She left to answer the phone.
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Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and think What have I done?
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I had my first pregnancy scare when I was twenty-three. A master’s student in creative writing, I felt even younger than I looked. I thought my boyfriend was brilliant, the next Faulkner, and knew we would get married after we graduated. When my period was a day late, I didn’t experience any anxiety. I bought a generic pregnancy kit with the naïve joy that only a poet working part-time at Panera could have. Ben, however, turned pale and sat down in his kitchen chair to run his hands through his hair.
            “Well,” he said. “I guess we’ll get married.”
            I did not hear the fear rocking his voice. All I heard was a proposal. This was the girl I had become. Somehow, I had grown into a girl, not a woman.
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When you don’t tell anyone anything, you can’t get mad for no one telling you anything. Rachel figured out I was dating Todd when she saw how close we were sitting on her porch.
            My brain must be in my throat, where words have to pass through it before I talk. I must think about how they will sound, spoken, to other people. I imagine the looks on their faces. I think about people I know that talk all the time, how pathetic they often seem to me.
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It must have been hard for her, I knew, to do everything. To be a farmer, to work part-time at the pizza place in town, to raise five children who were always grasping for her.
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When we first married, we found ourselves fighting about nothing, like how slowly I walked. I always ended up crying, and Todd would say through clenched teeth that he wasn’t angry. This just made me cry more, because I knew he was angry. The harder I cried, the more frustrated Todd became. It didn’t take much to make me cry either. I was so used to being the center of his praise that when I detected the smallest tremor in his voice, I teared up.
            It didn’t help that I could never voice what was wrong with me.
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I had two ducks as a child. When one of them died, I drew an image of a duck on construction paper and taped it to the side of a barn, eye-level for the widow.
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I love the nothingness of silence, the space I can find for myself inside of it.
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Gina, a student in my Comp II class, arrives twenty minutes early to her conference. I don’t mind because I like talking to her. “I look at pregnant women like you and I want another baby,” she says as she sits down. “I already have my own, though.” She waves her hand, dismissing the thought, but I know she’s not done yet. Gina is a bus driver and her route goes by my apartment. When she waves, she doesn’t take her eyes off the road. She is serious.
            “I’ve never had a natural birth,” she whispers, lowering both hands in front of her crotch. My eyes can’t help but to follow her hands. She makes a pushing movement with them. “Neither have my sisters, but we were all abused as children. I have two sons and four grandchildren. They’re my babies.”
            Teachers of writing often end up in this space, listening to personal stories from students who need someone to listen to them. Even though I’ve taught for eight years, I’m still amazed by their frankness, how their stories pour out like they don’t belong to them. They share details so intimate, with me, their composition instructor, I feel at once blessed and awkward. Mostly, though, I am jealous.
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Flossing. That sound, the pick and thrum of it. Add that to the list.
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My favorite gestation period amongst livestock is that of hogs: three months, three weeks, three days. I envy that precision, the knowledge of when, exactly, something will become known.
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She always left for her shift at Lu’s Pizza around 4:30. On those nights, during lambing season, I was in charge of bottle-feeding. Sometimes there was only one to feed, sometimes half a dozen. You developed ways, maybe by crouching low, stacking two bottles between your knees, two more in your hands, and then smashing the others tightly between your arms and legs, to feed them all at once. You turned yourself into an udder and hoped it was enough.
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We were hard on our brother.
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I was the smallest, the runt of the litter. When I took my mom car shopping with me, she fretted aloud about my size. “She’s just so short,” she said to the salesman. “She can’t see out the windows right.” Once she suggested to Todd that I might need special furniture for our apartment.
            Even though I wasn’t that much shorter than them, my sisters mocked me ruthlessly. Rachel poked my breasts, asked about my training bra. I was the smallest in every way, so I didn’t mind because the subtext suggested I was the thinnest, a fact that brought more comfort than it should. I would never be long, and probably not lean, a word that summons track athletes, but I could be petite, cute, the pygmy goat of my family.
            The first time Todd saw me naked, he said he couldn’t believe it, that I had a body. I was prone to wearing men’s corduroy pants, flannel, overstuffed vests. When I laid on my stomach, he touched all the scars, indented on my back, brief and pink, where I’d had moles removed. Next to my spine, a new scar was forming, the stitches from the incision not to be removed for another week. I did not realize how long I had hidden myself from a judge’s hands.
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Our mother never had ultrasounds when she was pregnant because they didn’t have insurance. Legend has it that with each girl who arrived, my dad said, there’s another wedding to pay for. Little did he know, they would raise four feminists who would marry, or not, in the least traditional of ways.
            “That must have been exciting,” I said to her. “Not knowing the gender until the end.”
            “No, I knew,” she said, like I was the weird one. “I dreamed you.”
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I resisted Todd for years, even though I was in love with him. My friends and family get annoyed with my silence, the way I don’t tell them anything, but what they don’t know is that I often fail to tell myself what’s happening.
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Gina doesn’t want another baby so much as she wants to start over. She wants to be young again, a baby herself.
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Todd hovered over me, sipping his beer, as I ate Triscuits by the handful.
            “I see how it is,” he said. “You’re allowed to eat those, but I’m not.”
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I was born February 1st. The height of lambing season.
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Amy offered to throw me a gender-reveal party, but it never happened.
            Again I wept in my kitchen, the hormones of my pregnancy making me even more emotional than I already am. I felt scared and helpless, the idea of giving birth in the Bible Belt at my three-floor Catholic hospital, distanced from everyone I knew, suddenly too real. My students tell me they see the End Times approaching, but they aren’t scared. They’re excited, they say, because they know what will happen.
            Will I raise my child here?
            Amy did end up mailing me a package, but it was filled with supplies to make my favorite Asian noodle soups, not pink or blue cupcakes. I love pho and pad thai, but I was looking forward to a small bit of celebration, since I knew I wouldn’t have a baby shower, not here.
            “What’s that have to do with gender?” my mom asked over the phone.
            “Nothing.”
            “Best to just forget and not talk about it.”
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When I told my sisters that the misophonia website has letters you can print off and give to people, Carrie interrupted. “Why?” she asked. “So people can read about how weird you are?”
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I know how I sound.
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Todd and I sit in a too-bright room with one other couple waiting for the maternity class to start. In a town this small, I am not surprised no one else is here. Todd leaves to go to the bathroom, something he does when he is nervous or bored. After a few minutes, I hear him coughing in the hallway and walk out to check on him. He points to a sign on the bulletin board saying all classes are cancelled due to room unavailability.
            We stare down the hall, the rows of empty rooms.
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In high school I won a writing contest by answering the prompt What does FFA mean to you? At the state convention, I walked across the stage, shook someone’s hand, and received a plaque.
            “My face was on the Jumbotron,” I told my mother, who arrived, late.
            “I would have given anything to see that,” she said. “Anything.”
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We were hard on him for a lot reasons, but mainly just because we could. The first born, the only son, stacked against his four sisters, what chance did he have. Our voices tried to drown him, but our parents still heard him. I remember him yelling at me for losing the remote control or forgetting to tape RoboCop, but I have to remember the other things, the better things. He never needed the bathroom. He never asked for anything.
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I found one of my lambs dead, crushed beneath a plank of wood in a back corner of the barn.
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“Will you breast feed or bottle feed?” the nurse asks.
            “Breast.”
            “You can change your mind,” she says. “It’s okay.”
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To make the lamb’s milk, you mixed one cup of powder with one cup of warm water. You had to stir it quickly with a fork to get the clumps out, and then pour it into an old Pepsi bottle. In our kitchen cupboard, we still have a stack of the red cups that came inside the bags of powdered milk. We drink out of them.
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They were rare, but there were times when we won. Usually it was because we entered classes no one else cared about, like those for whiteface market lambs. In agriculture, whitefaces are bred for wool, not meat, but there was still a competition to be had, so we took whitefaces every year. Once, just once, Amy made it to the final round for showmanship. This was unheard of, as Amy worked with her lamb the least of all of us. Rachel and I usually ended up walking it, feeding it, and washing it. The judge must have mistaken Amy’s apathy for cold, hard determination. All of us watched her, stunned. Our mother was so proud.
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My students write papers about going to the beach and counting the people like they are a head of cattle. In this way, I understand them. I know why they don’t like to talk. I know why they don’t come to my office hours, even though I tell them it’s okay. They are farmers. They want to be left alone so they can work.
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When all of us are able to migrate home for a week at Christmas, we usually do just fine being around each other again. We go for sushi, watch independent movies, drink cocktails in our kitchen while we play Scrabble. Every once in awhile though, something triggers one of us. When Carrie told us her oven was broken, our mother asked her why she didn’t fix it.
            “You’re one to talk about broken appliances,” Carrie said.
            “You have a more stable income than I do.”
            It was obvious to everyone, except our mother, what was happening. If she did know that Carrie’s frustration was rising, she didn’t care. She didn’t stop.
            “What color are your appliances?” she asked.
            “Slate,” Carrie whispered, and left. When she emerged from her room a day later, she asked if we wanted to go sledding. An odd request from her, no one knew how to handle it. As a group, we gravitated toward activities that were more indoorsy, as Jim Gaffigan would say. Within Carrie’s voice, I heard a tinge of embarrassment. She wanted to move on, bury what happened yesterday, so she refocused our attention on asking us to do something we hadn’t done as a family in more than twenty years.
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When I told my mom I was having a girl, not a boy, she said, “Oh. Okay.”
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One of the stories on a recent episode of This American Life is about a schizophrenic woman who opened an artisanal toast shop in San Francisco. Part of her illness caused her to hate the sound of herself chewing.
            “It endeared me to her,” I told Todd.
            “I don’t think you should identify with a woman who has a mental illness,” he said.
            But I do.
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When I was old enough, she got me a job with her at the pizza shop. Our boss, Scott, was also our neighbor, so he knew we lived on a farm.
            “Bet you wish you would have had four more sons instead of daughters, hey Dottie?” he said one night when we were all gathered around the prep table, crimping crusts and salting the dough.
            I didn’t say anything.
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There are sounds I love, like loose gravel sliding down a hillside, scissors cutting construction paper, shoes being tied, Todd trimming his beard, a needle setting down on a record, coffee percolating.
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Rachel deleted Amy on Facebook to see how long it would take her to notice. She wanted to prove a point that Amy avoids her, us, preferring to hang out with her more self-possessed friends, capable of making obscure pop culture references, instead of her family of country bumpkins. When Amy did notice, after a few months, it was only because I had started a thread with the two of them and she realized she couldn’t see Rachel’s responses.
            I knew that it hurt her, that she felt unfairly victimized, but I don’t think either one realized how strangely distraught it made me. Now, even though they claim to have tried, neither one is able to re-friend the other. I cannot look at this as trivial. In my mind, it is too symbolic of our family’s deep-rooted commitment to silence. Social media had been a gift to us, a way for all of us to talk to one another because we just had to type it, not say it. And now it was fractured.
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Five months pregnant, I cannot picture myself as a mother. Mothering. I love small things, anything in the form of a baby, or a child, but when I imagine one in my arms, I don’t feel wonderment. Instead, it’s more like surprise, bewilderment. What do I do now?
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Rachel said that after we all moved out, she would sleep in a different bed every night.
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I asked our mother why she didn’t have epidurals with any of us.
            “They used to be afraid it would cross the placenta,” she said.
            “That’s stupid,” Carrie said.
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I am not bothered by sounds that come from machines or animals, only humans, but this is how misophonia works. There is no logic behind it. Our cats, never soundless, run throughout our apartment. One of them makes little chirping sounds when she jumps from the counter and lands on the stained concrete floor. When she eats, she purrs, almost hums to herself. At night, I listen to them call out to one another. If these sounds were coming from people, I would be tearing my hair out by the roots.
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As the middle child, I wasn’t supposed to be the first one to get pregnant. Someone was supposed to go before me so I could ask her what to do.
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Sometimes ewes, especially first-time mothers, will refuse their own lamb. They won’t let it eat, and our own mother has to intervene.
            “Why do you think that happens?” I asked her.
            “I don’t know.”
            No one really knows. She speculates that it happens with ewes who are too small, their own bodies telling them not to feed another.
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She doesn’t know what color Carrie’s appliances are because she has never been to her house in Charleston, South Carolina, where Carrie has lived for fifteen years.
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Todd can tell who I am talking to on the phone by the tone of my voice. I can do the same with him. I only need to hear the way he says hello.
            I call it our Middle Child Voice.
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One of my favorite memories comes from walking through the barn at night after all the sows have farrowed, each one asleep in her crate, the only light coming from the heat lamps trained on their piglets. Today farrowing crates are controversial or outright banned due to the cramped space the sow is forced to live in, but back then urban environmentalism was still in its infancy, and I didn’t care. I loved the sows, their gigantic bodies, and all their babies, sweet and pink, their ringlets of tails.
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I send a picture of myself to Rachel so she can show our parents, neither of which have smartphones, and probably never will. At the twenty-four-week mark, my stomach is a perfect ball, my breasts cantaloupes. Rachel texts me back with their commentary.
            Dad: Bulkin’ up
            Mom: Her ceilings look low.
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She bemoans our lack of athleticism, meaty thighs, and inability to compete, but in reality I think she likes being the thinnest. “I could never be fat,” she says, shuddering.
            “The anorexia doesn’t seem to bother you,” our dad says, staring at her. There is a reason we nicknamed her Bones.
            She laughs, withering away before our eyes. In her mind, she is a triathlete, her hair still as long as it was in high school. At sixty-four she has yet to even start going gray.
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When Todd’s family argues, it is a tsunami of screaming. Todd and his brother, Dan, have fought, physically, viscously, multiple times. Once, Dan threw an iron at him. They are competitive, all of them, eager to win and be heard. In high school they were the type that played sports and threw parties in their basement. He learned to be aggressive, even as a kid, and to be proud of his opinions. He is the middle child I wish I could be, as he mediates arguments without being timid, the way I am.
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This has been one of her worst lambing seasons. In addition to the rejected lambs, the winter has been brutal. While I sit on my porch in sunny Oklahoma, she speaks in hushed tones about the storms that are coming for her. She sounds like a character on Game of Thrones, and I know, as well as she does, that she is getting too old for this. The Weather Channel spouts phrases I’ve never heard before: Polar Vortex, snow rollers.
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What’s more cruel than farrowing crates is nature herself. Typically a sow has twelve teats, but she can give birth to a litter larger than that. A piglet, usually the runt, always has to wait to feed.
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The barn finally fell down, folded in on itself after a snowstorm. My dad had parked his new truck inside of it during the storm to protect it. I tell my students this story when we discuss irony.
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I remember that trophy, my first. I kept it on my bookshelf, at the top.
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There was always a story in the mudroom. When the chicks were dumped into a kiddy pool filled with sawdust, I squatted at the edge, wanting to touch them, but aware that I shouldn’t, even though I was young. They were never going to see their mother again. It didn’t matter, but still, I kept my hands tucked away so I wouldn’t pet them. The heat lamp was their mother, and so is my own mother. I could be their mother, for all they know.
            Underneath the heat lamp, their world was forgiving.

Meg Thompson lives and writes in Cleveland, Ohio. Her and her husband have a daughter, Mae, who is a total badass.

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