Thursday, September 26, 2002

You see, it all started with the cows. We were living in town then, and my father-in-law went and bought about twenty Hereford cows from North Carolina and an Angus bull to match. Cattle prices were up and it seemed like a good idea at the time. They arrived on the place and promptly scattered. There were cows sneaking over on to the neighbor's place. There were cows in my in-law's yard. There was one cow who jumped the cattle guard and headed full speed south to Browntown, right smack down the middle of the blacktop, traffic be damned. We made quite a few retrieval trips out from the townhouse to the farm until they settled down and started to feel at home.

Soon after, cattle prices went down, but the cows stayed, producing black and white calves each year. When my father-in-law got sick one winter, Susan began going out to help him feed. In winter when the grass dies off, you load last summer's grass in the form of hay on the farm truck. Soon enough, the cows learn the routine and follow in line when the truck comes in to the pasture, waiting for the square bales to be cut open and tossed down. This happens every day. If sleet is blowing sideways, you do it. If it is so cold your hands go numb as you cut the baling twine, you still do it. If it is soaking rain, barely above freezing you do it, and hope that some day you will feel warm again. Susan did all this. She fed cows in knee deep snow. She fed cows in mud. She fed on days when she was sick herself. She would say that she hated those cows. Each time she went out to help with some chore, be it worming, castrations, or birthing, she would come back claiming that cows were absolutely the dumbest, most aggravating excuse for an animal God had ever placed on the planet.

Somehow, in the midst of it all, her ties to the home place began growing stronger. We were out there every weekend, helping with farm chores until it began to seem like second nature. She and her father started talking about rebuilding the purebred sheep flock. The next thing I knew, the girl who wanted to hit the ground running after college had us building a house on the same place she had planned on seeing in the rearview mirror. Somehow she had found a love and a satisfaction here that went deeper than her adolescent dreams. (She still keeps pictures of tropical beaches and palm trees though.)

After we moved out here, a typical winter morning would see Susan in the truck, and when the kids were too young for school, at least one child in her lap, trying to help steer, as grandad threw hay off the back. After the kids were in school, Charlie the house dog, would go out with her, looking out the window as the cows (giants from his perspective) clustered around the truck. Feeding cows became as big a part of his day as breakfast, which is saying a lot from a dog's point of view.

Over the years, the size of the herd dwindled, until it was down to nine cows and a bull. The ladies we had left, though old, were all good keepers, used to us, used to the place. As Susan said, they were cows an old man and a woman could work. She would still say that sheep were much better than cows; that while she couldn't bring herself to eat one of her ewes, there wasn't a cow on the place that she wouldn't see sizzling on a plate. These last few years though, she said it mostly out of habit. Something about caring for an animal on a daily basis changes you. She would complain about cows in general, but speak with humor and affection about the surviving ladies on the place. She even started liking the bull, P.T., who was something of a character himself.

My father-in-law is fighting his way back from a new round of health problems and has not been able to pitch in much lately. The sheep flock has grown to a full time job on its own. We built a new barn a few years ago and moved most of the flock over closer to our house. He has been talking for a while about whether to keep the cows or let them go. On Tuesday, he had a neighbor who runs the local livestock sale come and get them. Susan was in school teaching, and never had a chance to say goodbye. She wept last night, disconsolate. Because, you see, it all started with the cows.