Growing up, I spent a lot of time on a farm with my Grandpa and Grandma – two wonderfully sweet people. Grandpa was always outside: taking care of animals, hunting moles, working in the pastures and the garden in the springtime, where he grew green beans, potatoes, rhubarb and lettuce, as well as fodder beets to feed to the cattle in winter. Grandma took care of the household, the flower garden and the cooking.
She prepared all of the warm meals in the kitchen in the building behind the house. It had petroleum stoves and two gas burners. In the morning she would put the green beans on the petroleum stove and by dinner time they had been cooked to mush. They used to keep the cows in the same building in the winter until I was seven years old, so whenever I would go visit Grandma in the kitchen, I had to watch out for Grandpa’s eight cows. Later they built a separate barn for the cattle, with stalls lined up neatly in a row like in the old building and a drinking trough to the left of every cow.
Modern barns with concrete slots in the floor to drain manure and urine didn’t exist back then. So when the cows were inside, Grandpa had to clean out the stalls every morning and evening. When the cattle left the back house in the spring, it was time for the big spring cleaning. The cattle stalls were scrubbed and whitewashed and we laid planks around the stalls. The newly clean rear house served as our dining room in the summer, but in the winter we would eat in the living room next to the warm gas heater.
I was often present when one of the cows started calving. As a little girl, I was only allowed to watch, as pulling the calf out during a difficult birth is hard work. Once the calf was born, I was allowed to help bottle-feed it. The calves were kept in the same stall with their mothers, but they weren’t allowed to drink from their mothers. There wasn’t enough room for that, and it would also tame the calves faster so that they would be easier to milk in the future. I always felt a bit sorry for them when they had to start drinking milk from a bucket just a few days after being born.
Grandpa would also take me along when he did other work on the farm. In the summer, when he would harvest the hay with the tractor, I would walk out in front in order to chase away young hares. As the noisy tractor approached, they would often stay completely still from the shock. I would shoo them off or carry them to the drainage ditch, where there was always a narrow strip of unmowed grass. Or I would walk around the farmyard with a Barnevelder hen cradled in my arms. The big chickens were free to roam the farmyard and could become very tame. Grandpa had filed off the pointy tips of their beaks, so they couldn’t hurt me when I fed them by hand. Another fun pastime was to ride around on the backs of one of the three pigs. They had their own shed with a pool of mud and a nearby meadow.
If my Grandpa was still alive today, he would be considered an organic hobby farmer, because where else can you see pigs walking free in a meadow? He even made room for the nest of mice that lived in the corner of the hayloft. He didn’t mind when I fed them bread or chicken feed, but he did store the chicken feed in an iron barrel with a wooden lid, out of reach of the rodents. Back then, I was constantly in contact with animals. I must have bottle-fed and cared for countless piglets, calves, lost hares, birds that had fallen from their nests and wild ducks.
When I went to bed, I had to take all of my stuffed animals with me: sixteen in all, including a crocodile that was almost a meter long. It took me ten minutes to put them to bed properly, with barely enough room left over in the middle for me to sleep. Then I would call on Grandma or Grandpa to come tuck me in. With my animals around me, I was safe from the old farm’s monsters that made strange noises all night, the creatures that scampered through the attic and the shadows that fell across my bedroom window.
I woke up with animals on my mind and I went to sleep with animals on my mind. Even when Grandpa and I would take a trip, it would usually involve animals. We would always go to ’s-Hertogenbosch whenever there was a livestock market. Those were great experiences for me as a little girl. Grandpa never bought any cattle; he just enjoyed talking to the other farmers and admiring the livestock.
The livestock market in ‘s-Hertogenbosch is long gone now. The main building is now part of the Brabanthallen – the same Brabanthallen where I first exhibited my cow paintings at the Art and Antiques Fair in 2009. More than a quarter century since the last time that I had visited it with my Grandpa, I was back in the Brabanthallen admiring cattle, but now they were my cattle. I am certain that Grandpa would have been very proud of me.