Tuesday, March 15, 2011

There is something about early spring...

...that makes me crave calves. And no, I am not talking about veal. My craving is to touch their coat, to feel their coarse tongue suck my phantom-udder-thumb, to see their nose crinkle as they nurse ("sup" my mom always called it), and to hear them holler and run circles of excitement when they see me, milk bucket in hand -- plastic teat a-comin'!

Daily now, I drive by pastures filled with cows and calves. I smile. I remember...

I remember mothering calves.

Every farmer in a four county radius knew that the Block Girls were easy targets, were gullible, and could not say 'no' to beautiful big brown eyes (the calf's eyes, never the farmer's). We were city softies; and every year in the early spring, our farmhouse phone would ring..."Yep. Got this calf whose mother died. Froze to death...and the calf isn't taking to the bottle. She's going to die would be my bet -- just like her mom. But, do you want to have a go?"

Did we want to have a go?

The farmer always knew the answer before he asked the question -- Block Girls always wanted to have a go at it.

We rescued many of Mills County Iowa's orphan calves, rushing them home in our ambulance (white Ford Taurus station wagon), and we only lost one calf in all those years. I had named her Mabel, and she fit perfectly with me inside my great-grandfather's flannel lined sleeping bag he had used for the same purpose (sleeping in cold barns during calving season on his Minnesota Farm).

Mabel slept through the night in my arms on a bed of straw and as close to the hanging heat lamp as I could get us. I was sweating. But I knew she was cold. She nuzzled me and a few times I was able to get some drops of goat milk down her throat, donated from the does of our Saanen herd. I could hear their soft night-noises in the adjacent lean-to, nuzzling and nursing and bleating lullabies their kids...there is no sound more soothing...

All night I kept one hand on her, an assurance of breath...

...broken by daylight.

The ground was too frozen to bury her. But, I remember my dad work-ready in his business suit, pounding the hard winter ground with a pick-ax. The ground would warm, and by evening he would be able to finish the grave, he said. But, he didn't want us to have to look at the white calf's small stiff body. I tried to strongly stand by Papa's side as he dug, and by Mable's body as she lay dead. I tried to pretend it was ok if I looked out my bedroom window that day and saw her. "The ground is too frozen, Papa." But, he knew his girls...he saw the tears rivering my face over this animal I knew for less than 24 hours. He kept on digging -- felling dirt to the frost line, there was just enough depth to hold her from house eyes.

Papa laid the shovel against a nearby birch, and I laid a blanket over Mabel...she still looked cold.

Now, every spring, I get this insatiable hunger to hold a calf -- and when I look out into the fields, I hope that there are still gullible girls willing to try to save the orphans, willing to wake up, warm a bottle of goat milk, and go out to cold barns 4 times a night for feedings, and willing to cuddle those calves up into a warm flannel sleeping bag.

I hope that there are still little girls willing to have a go at it...


  1. Very nice. I love the broader scope your writing is taking. You have so many stories to tell...but you do not always have to be consumed by food (Oooo...passing on a great pun opportunity here!) Your life is so much richer than just the dinner you prepare yourself. Although, it looks like you have been eating like a queen! So, nice work...IPOY Agent Starling!

  2. I looked out the window on our trip out west a few weeks ago and had these very memories floating about my head. Those were indeed the years full of wonderment and growth for us all.


  3. when you moved to IA we missed so much of your life only seeing you occasionally. It is fun reading about formative years.

  4. I have those memories too.... why do the dang animals always die when the ground is frozen?

  5. Jay - Thanks! "Your life is so much richer than just the dinner you prepare yourself." -- I like this very much. And, I think that you should never pass the opportunity for a pun!

    Papa - Why? = Irony.

  6. Moved to tears once again. Got to stop reading you in public! Lovely story.

  7. How beautiful that Mabel was able to snuggle into your love until she could be with her mom again. All little girls who nurse weakened creatures know that there is certainly a heaven for them.

    There are still little girls like that. Instead of calves, my daughter always manages to end up with disabled dogs.

  8. Wow, I had to keep myself from crying on this one. I am a sucker for all things furry, finned, scaled, and feathered. I wasn't raised on a farm but I love to see all the new babies in the spring. Renewal at it's finest!