Neighbors sustained us, body and soul

Ladyfingers! The years melted away with the delicate confection I immediately popped into my mouth.

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Charlie and I have benefited amply from the neighborly custom of swapping over the years. We might, for instance, deliver a load of manure over the ridge to Herschel's garden one fine day, and Evelyn would leave a raspberry pie in our kitchen on another - even finer - day. Or, we'd bring a dozen brown eggs to Gillian, and she'd present us with a fully prepared meal, usually, and not coincidentally at the end of a summer's afternoon we'd spent in some hayfield - a trade to our almost embarrassing advantage.

In fact, during the years we labored so hard on our small-scale commercial dairy, food was often bestowed on us anonymously, and for no obvious or immediate reason. Then again, many neighbors have openly appreciated the presence of our little working farm on the fringes of their fast-developing community. Somehow they felt a need to sustain it, which they did by helping to sustain us. Where else could their children curry a draft horse, hand-milk a cow, feed a goat crackers, or collect eggs still warm from the hen's body? One neighbor told us how it gave her a lift when she drove by to see the barn lights aglow - and through the windows, our cows standing peaceably in their stanchions letting down their milk.

And so they'd bring us snacks, desserts, breads, soups, even casseroles often simply left in the kitchen while we were milking, haying, or feeding our animals. We stopped wondering about who or why and ate.

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Once we retired from milking, our workload eased and time flowered. The occasional meal donations tapered off, though our neighbors continue to stop by to see the animals (retired like us) and to visit us in our relative leisure. Some still bring a treat now and then. Most recently, Blanca presented us with sweet bread and a package of ladyfingers.

Ladyfingers! The years melted away with the delicate confection I immediately popped into my mouth. I was 8 or 10 again, with a small plate of store-bought ladyfingers on my lap and not a cloud in my sky. A child again, feeling oh-so-grand to be nibbling the light, powdery morsels that Mom occasionally substituted for the hefty oatmeal or molasses cookies we normally chowed down. The homemade fare tasted fine, but ladyfingers embodied a fragile elegance that piqued my imagination before it dissolved into sweetness. Surely this was the food of royalty, and as I ate, I qualified.

Alas, I found that ladyfingers no longer transported my mind or my mature tastebuds as they once had. After downing a few for old times' sake, I passed them to Charlie, who also fondly remembered them from his childhood grocers. No, he agreed, they just weren't the same anymore. The confections probably hadn't changed, but we had.

I carried a few outside as a treat for our pet deer, an animal we'd inadvertently injured as a fawn, slowly rehabilitated, and adopted as a part of the farm and family. His normal diet is grain, fresh grass, gathered leaves, seasonal fruits, bread crusts, and whatever fresh vegetable parings and ends we generate from the kitchen. And now and then something decadent. I offered the little buck a ladyfinger through the woven wire fence of his big wooded paddock. He approached, his delicate nose aquiver with ready interest. The first cookie vanished, then another and another. His huge dark eyes radiated a newly awakened bliss.

I described all this to my mom, who wrote in reply:

"I had forgotten how much you loved ladyfingers. Wish I could bring the same look on your face now as I did then - when a sweet solved all your problems." Then, "How is your tax case coming?"

Before I think about that, I need another ladyfinger.

They won't take the edge off an appetite whetted by a day baling hay or an evening milking a couple of dozen cows. Leave that to the casseroles and breads of the '90s. Ladyfingers fuel little more than nostalgia, and judging from the package's fine print they are not long on nutrition.

Just ask our deer - or any group of 10-year-olds - if they care.

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