Lambs in the basement: a winter flashback

A hot cup of coffee. Crispy, almost burnt toast. An uncomfortable sense that I’m already behind in my day.The only thing missing in this flashback to my childhood is the sound of bleating lambs coming from the basement, awaiting their breakfast. I half expect my mother to turn the corner into the room, berating me for still lingering at the table instead of mixing up their vanilla-smelling milk concoction, made from powered Real Imitation Milk.

The number of orphan lambs in the basement usually varied anywhere from 1 to 10, depending on how harsh the elements were outside and how many ewes had succumbed to the cold or indifference. I would rise from the table, head down the steps into the dank cellar, and immediately be bombarded by pushing and tangled heads and legs, butting against me in their hunger. I stumbled through them to find the feeder from the Agway feed store, which consisted of a metal pail with holes all around the top edge for feeding nipples to jut through, the other end of which had a plastic tube that would go into the bottom of the pail. The force of their sucking would bring the glumpy mixture up through the tube and nipple and into their eager mouths.

Grabbing the feeder, I’d head back up the steps, running to beat the lambs, who by this time had gotten quite adept at climbing them. I’d quickly slam the door behind me to keep them from coming into the kitchen, half jamming their noses in the crack of the door. I had long ago given up the idea of doing that gently, as they were far too aggressive for that. I could hear them scrambling against each other behind the door and in the darkness, knowing that I would return at some point.

In the kitchen I would fill the feeder with hot water at the kitchen sink, looking out at the winter scene through the picture window my father had installed when we moved in – the one major house renovation that he had done other than rewire the house from top to bottom. Somehow that early project had gotten finished, unlike so many others, like half-painted rooms and not quite completed bookshelves. The life outside had taken over the life inside, and the quality of the walls of a bedroom took a backseat to the priority of keeping lambs alive. The lumps of snow waved on the branches of the lilac bush just outside the window, as they jostled in the breeze. I didn’t relish going outside after this chore was done. I wasn’t yet warm and wouldn’t be again until I could get back into bed that night, as the inside of our house was consistently 50 degrees or less.

The feeder finally full of hot water, I’d heave it out of the sink onto the floor, splashing some water, but not caring. The linoleum floor was already crisscrossed with dirt – lamb poop and bits of hay and last night’s dinner crumbs. I’d then put the powered milk by the scoopful into the feeder, inhaling its sweet aroma and wondering what it tasted like. It would float momentarily on the top before beginning to dissolve and dropping to the bottom where the water turned a murky white. While I’m sure there was a ratio that was recommended on the side of the box, I mostly estimated, having done it enough times that I knew what the correct hue was. I’d dig with a wooden spoon to the bottom to stir it up, watching the swirls of hot water vapor come into the air before me. I was careful not to touch it because while the immediate warmth was comforting, the ensuing chill from being wet was not.

Then, all mixed and ready, nipples in place, I’d heave it up by the handle and prepare to reenter the basement. A pull of the door and a flick of the light (careful not to put my finger in the uncovered switch) and down I’d go. The lambs, who had retreated to the Lambs at feederbottom in my time away, would race up to meet me halfway, and I’d have to hold the bucket over their heads at an awkward angle, taking care not to step on them, or worse, trip and spill the entire mixture down the steps. I didn’t get far from the steps before placing it down on the cracked concrete floor. It was instant pandemonium as the lambs forced their way to the front to grab one of the rubbery long black nipples. Their instinctive butt of the head to get the milk flowing would knock the pot around, creating small waves that came precariously close to the edge. I stood over them, watching them gobble it down eagerly, causing the level of the liquid to slowly recede. Their little hooves stepped over my feet and pressed sharply into my toes through my socks. Tails wagged and occasionally, if the flow was not strong enough, a larger lamb would push another one aside to grab at their nipple, causing the group to shift. I could see their bellies visibly swell with the liquid, but they didn’t stop until nothing remained in the bucket but unmixed gobs of powdered milk and they began sucking in air.

This was my cue to grab the handle and pull it upwards away from their unrelenting mouths, sometimes dragging them up with the bucket as they were unwilling to release it. Their bellies full, they were much calmer now, milling about on the basement floor. I could see one lamb stoop to pee, causing me to grab a few sheets of the New York Times newspaper that we kept handy for this purpose. I threw it down under the stooping lamb but didn’t pick it up afterwards, keen to get back to my half-drunk cup of coffee upstairs. Little islands of newspaper were strewn about the cellar, which would eventually be picked up and shoved unceremoniously into the wood stove upstairs, still slightly damp with cold lamb pee.

I placed the feeder up out of their reach on the top of the dryer, not bothering to rinse it out. Our theory was that the bacteria that might grow there was closer to the natural state of a mother ewe’s udder. In any case, I’d be doing this all over again in just two hours, and could clean it then. None of the lambs followed me up the stairs now, as they were satiated for the moment. The chill of the concrete floor had seeped through my socks so in returning to the kitchen I went to stand by the Franklin stove, absorbing as much of the heat as I could. I opened the door to add a lump of coal to the fire to get it going a bit faster. It was a mostly futile gesture, as the house was large and did not have insulation.

I knew my mother and sisters were already at the barn, pulling down the hay bales and filling the troughs with hay, looking for any lambs that might have been born in the night, some of whom may even end up joining the group of lambs we already had in the basement. I drew out this moment of comfort, sipping the last of the coffee before pulling on my winter boots and coat onto my 11-year old body to go out to join them. To this day I resist and resent the cold of winter, its seemingly unrelenting persistence a constant source of discomfort for me. Here in my office I place the electric radiator near me to ward off the shudders of the cold, the only animal in sight my cat, curled up happily beside it, well fed.

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