Pig Tales

The year that she turned six, my youngest daughter put a pig on her birthday list. The pig was part of a list that also included sparkly gel pens, a new purple backpack for first grade, and a pink leotard for her just-enrolled dance class. But the pig was at the top.  Since Lina was so young, I figured that she could not be serious.  After all this practical little girl with long braids and steady eyes—the kid who never begged for anything--surely didn’t really want a pig. I tried to talk her into a Barbie instead.  It would be so much easier, I pointed out, since we wouldn’t have to feed it. No deal.  Lina looked at me with earnest eyes and explained that any girl could have a Barbie—but that she wanted a pig.  We had a farm so we needed a pig, she reasoned, and a pig would be “way, way better than a Barbie.”

I thought for a while and then decided that she was right.

My only interaction with pigs up until then involved the huge meat pigs that my family occasionally raised when I was a kid.  I was afraid of those pigs.  I would shrink back from the fence when they came raging down the hill at feeding time, snorting and grunting, and acting as though they might like to eat me.  My father always took care of them and warned me not to try to pet them.  I couldn’t imagine having such creatures on my own farm, but I was willing to give it a try.  After all, a kid who wanted a pig instead of a Barbie for her birthday surely deserved one.

So in due time and after some online research, we did indeed get a pig—not a big, scary pig like the ones from my childhood but something different:  a cute little pot-bellied pig named Lucy who quickly made herself at home on the farm and in our hearts.  Lucy became an integral part of our daily routines. She fearlessly licked the ankles of the horses and chased the little chickens back to their mother hens. She loved pizza, cheese puffs, and corn on the cob.  Lucy quickly outgrew the harness we tried –to no avail-- to walk her with and ran around uncurbed with the dogs instead, tilling up my flower garden with her sharp snout. Our first grader learned that, like many things in life, piggy would do what piggy would do and that there was only so much that you could do about it.  Lucy attended Lina's tea parties and was often a part of our family’s croquet-on-the-lawn picnics as she pushed the brightly colored balls around with her snout when we weren’t paying attention. When my oldest daughter went to her senior prom, Lucy attended her prom dinner and was a part of the photo shoot afterwards.  And when my middle daughter had her drama ensemble over for a sleepover, Lucy became the star of the show.   Over the years Lucy greeted countless guests at the farm entertaining them with her funny personality and her very vocal expressions on anything and everything related to food.

The years passed. Our older girls grew up, went to college, and got jobs in other cities and even other countries. Lina got through first grade, then second.   Before long she was in middle school and then, it seemed, in a blink of an eye she was in high school. She traded her long braids for a dancer’s bun and lined her big eyes with false lashes for dance recitals.  She was busy with dance every day after school so she didn’t get to spend as much time with Lucy as before, but Lucy nevertheless always greeted Lina and her friends enthusiastically when they stopped by to scratch her ears or to give her the leftover pizza from the slumber party the night before.  And Lucy watched as Lina drove down the dusty driveway with her newly-minted driver’s license on her way to her first job.

 It’s hard for me to believe it, but over twelve years has passed since Lina put a pig on her birthday list! Lucy has become a very old pig.  She spends much of her time snoring in her bed in what must be her own version of piggy retirement.  She no longer rushes out to greet our farm guests. Sometimes we have to help her up in the mornings. Although she still loves having her ears scratched, she did not feel up to attending Lina’s prom party so Lina and her friends had to make do with David, our friendly white rooster, instead.  Lucy preferred to stay in the barn instead of taking part in the photo session on the lawn, but she did enjoy some of the leftover Pasta Alfredo when dinner was over.  We made sure of it.

I had expected that our pig journey would eventually come to an end after Lina went away to college and after Lucy—along with Lina’s childhood years—passed away into memory. But as Lina was getting ready for college, a neighbor mentioned that he had an extra little pig from an unexpected litter that needed a home. To my surprise, Lina immediately decided that we needed to provide that home. I had assumed that she was too grown-up for another little pig. Plus she was leaving for college in a few weeks—who would care for the piggy?  Who would invite it to tea parties, croquet, and pizza night? Who would snuggle with it, talk to it, and make sure that it stayed at home on the farm?  Having a young, boisterous pig was a lot of responsibility: Lucy had taught us that much already.  Pigs root up your yard, eat your tomatoes, and throw loud squealy piggy tantrums when they don't get their way. Besides, Walton and I were already mentally preparing to be empty nesters instead of pig sitters. And we already had lots and lots to take care of on the farm.

 But Lina was as adamant about it as she had been twelve years earlier when she put a pig on her birthday list. It could be a late graduation present, she pointed out.  She would come home on the weekends to see it sometimes.  I could text her pictures and videos of it while she was in college.  I could even bring the piglet to visit her on Family Weekend. She spoke with the same earnestness that she did when she was six. She had the same steady eyes.

Of course we got the pig.

And just like that, our college-aged daughter became -–at least for a little while--a little girl again. After some thought, she named the pig Josephine.  She invited her friends over to visit Josephine.  She had piggy parties.  Her friends came in shifts, driving SUVs that already sported the decals of the colleges they planned to attend.  They all sat on the floor and coaxed Josephine to eat.  They let her walk on their backs with her little high-heeled hooves. They wrapped her in a blanket when it got the least bit chilly. She chased the balls when they played croquet. They let her sit on the couch with them while they watched Netflix and talked about what life would be like for them when they went off to college.

And Lina did go off to college—not with some sparkly gel pens but instead with a new gray North Face backpack, a laptop, and an IPhone. Josephine kept her company as Lina packed up and then made her rounds to the barn to say goodbye to Lucy and the other animals. I half expected to find Josephine stowed away in some satchel or box as we moved Lina into her dorm!  After waving good-bye, Walton and I left our last daughter at college and drove home to a farm that suddenly seemed quiet and empty. In reality, the farm was hardly empty. The barn and pastures were all full of animals that needed our love and care.  We had friends and neighbors just down the road who felt like family to us.  There was no logical reason to feel lonely. But that evening, it felt as though we had suffered some kind of loss although it would have been hard for either of us to put it into words what it was.

The quiet did not last long. Josephine greeted us at the door with ear-splitting squeals of delight at our presence and the prospect of popcorn and peanuts. She had been busy in our absence, shredding the toilet paper rolls in the bathroom and carrying all of our nice bath towels into her bed and making a terry-cloth cave out of them. She had gnawed the end of my computer cord into a little frayed broom of wire.  The cactus plant was strewn in prickly remnants all over the floor.  Nevertheless, Walton and I grinned at each other as he took her out for a walk, and I cleaned up the mess.  Eventually, she quieted down and went to sleep. Like Lucy, she snores in her sleep.

Walton and I have taken quite a shine to her. She has learned to snuggle with him during the PBS News Hour on TV. She follows me around during my daily chores, oinking companionably and squealing with joy when I give her treats. Even though I haven't taken Josephine on a college tour (yet!), I text Lina pictures of her almost daily. The dogs have learned to share their beds with her. Recently, Josephine spent the eclipse lying with us in the front yard as we watched the sun move in and out of the clouds and finally fade into a tiny little sliver of light. We were entranced.

Let me be clear:  there is nothing that can compare to the joy and comfort of having all of your daughters safe and at home under one roof; nor is there a way to go back in time and relive their childhood years, however much you would like to. Time moves on, as we all must. But there is something about the joyful, unmitigated exuberance of a little pig that lifts your heart when you are feeling kind of lonely and wondering where all the years went.

The pig ended up being a late graduation present for all of us.   Not a Barbie, but way, way better.

By Betty Miller Conway