It was not our idea. We never would have had the gumption to ask our family and friends to give up a weekend to do hard physical labor for us, for nothing but the satisfaction.
No, the barn raising – Barn Raising, I’ll call it, because anything that’s worth giving up a weekend for must also deserve capitals – was my uncle’s idea. At Passover, it came up in conversation that I was considering buying a used shipping container to plop in our yard and turn into a chicken coop. I’d have kept it hush hush, knowing what kind of reaction the idea would elicit, but I’d already written a column about it.
Don’t do that, my uncle said, and I nodded and went into tune-out mode. But then he said: Why don’t you buy one of those kits, and we can all come over for a Barn Raising?
That’s not a bad idea, said I. I was actually quite touched at the suggestion – these are city folk who live more than an hour from me and have busy lives full of travel and sports and cocktails with umbrellas in them. Still, it probably would have ended there had not my aunts overheard the conversation and taken up the reins. We call these aunts the A Team. They are unstoppable.
In short order they had nailed down the one family friend who could bring this all together. We needed Kenny to sign on before we could do anything else; without his carpentry skills, none of us is capable of constructing a right angle. (Husband Joe is getting close, to within a few degrees.) That Kenny lived in the Adirondacks and spent the endless winters in warm places was not a significant setback for the A Team. They figured out when he’d be in transit back home and got him to agree to a pit stop in Chester, NY.
The A Team set up a conference call to nail down the details, and sent out an e-vite to everyone they could think of. A few RSVP’d yes. Not a lot, but this thing was on. Oh God.
Don’t get me wrong, we needed to raise a barn. Our 250 chicks were fast outgrowing the garage. But still, we’re not Amish. This wasn’t a favor that was a normal part of life, which would assuredly be repaid down the road. This was us digging ourselves deep into favor-debt. Normal people would just have bought a ready-made barn, or hired a contractor. What if people had a bad time, or got frustrated, or injured?
We needed reinforcements. Many hands make light work, and too few hands make for miserable people with strained backs. I added friends to the e-vite who wouldn’t possibly come. Two said maybe, and then, the morning of, drove up from Brooklyn with the dog in the back of their beat-up sedan. A cousin home from a semester abroad, whom we had no idea was even in town, pulled up with his dad, full of stories of getting mugged in France and defending himself with pepper spray. Not counting me and Joe, 11 people came over the course of the weekend.
It turned out the barn builders didn’t want a huge crew of unskilled laborers, so they cherry-picked a couple of the best-looking workers, and the rest of us hoi polloi dug the ditch into which the garden fence would be sunk. I was a member of the ditch-digging crew. We smashed away at the rocky soil with pickaxes and crowbars, sank fence posts, and laid chicken wire that will hopefully deter those rascal groundhogs from breaking into our garden. Every now and then one or all of us would get called over to assist the barn builders, maybe to help lift a wall into place. When one cousin came back from a stint over at the barn site, he said, “I’m back from vacation.”
It was true, the ditch digging crew might as well have been a chain gang. There was my white-haired aunt, with angry bruises on her bicep from the crowbar. My ultimate Frisbee teammate. My Brooklyn teacher friends, one of them using her knitting skills to weave the fence-ends together. My investment banker cousin. Kenny’s daughter, all the way up from Baltimore, and his new girlfriend, who was meeting us all for the first time, babysitting toddler Kai, taking pictures, and picking up trash.
What I had feared did come to pass: the work was backbreaking, it was hotter than hell, and there was too much to do in a single weekend. But we did a lot. We put up four walls of the barn, and brought all hands on deck to lay the two lead-heavy beams that will support the roof. The next weekend, Joe and his brother were able to enclose one room of the barn, which is now the chicks’ new residence. The rest of the roof we can do ourselves, bit by bit. Thanks to the ditch diggers’ grunt work, half our garden is now enclosed, and the first seedlings are in the ground.
And we kvetched and laughed a lot, no one had a heart attack, and on Saturday night we drank and argued about where to eat, and my cousin danced with my daughter in the middle of the restaurant. We gave out some jars of our maple syrup as people drove off, and homemade ketchup will be a nice gesture if the tomatoes cooperate, but there’s not really any such thing as digging your way out of favor-debt, I’ve realized. Once you’re in this deep, there’s just everyone digging together.