It was the best of times, it was … well, nah. It was definitely the worst of times.
It doesn’t take us long in this life to figure out that there are days and weeks that contribute highly to both our income and inner peace; they may even feign productiveness.
And that there are other days and weeks that are simply thrust upon us – much like Iowa winters, taxes and mending day on the farm – and all we can do is meet those challenges head on and hope we can endure the storm.
Our boys had such a week during harvest. And in usual Schwaller style, they didn’t have an assortment of piddly things happen–that just wouldn’t be true to the name.
As the week began, one of our boys was moving grain trucks around in the field, and backed one into their farm pickup. Didn’t do great damage, but enough to show some prestigious war wounds. Now they have been initiated into that elite club of truck drivers.
They also had a couple of small fires to extinguish on their (new to them) combine, and even got their combine stuck in the mud a couple of times during that week. By that Tuesday night, it had already been a week not to be believed.
The call came from the sheriff’s office at 1:30 a.m. that Wednesday morning, asking if some cows that were out belonged to us.
The location was described, and I said they most likely were ours. (They belonged to our sons.) One had been hit by a truck.
So we were all out of the house in five minutes and headed over to the pasture, where the sheriff’s deputies were waiting for us with lights flashing in the quiet darkness of the night, keeping the cows off of the road.
We saw the cow that had been hit sitting up in the ditch, and worked most immediately on keeping the others off of the road and getting them into temporary shelter for the night.
Thank God for Iowa farm people who will answer their door at 2 a.m. without a gun or baseball bat – as our sons asked them for a place for their cows to stay for the night. It seemed almost “Mary-and-Joseph”-like.
Once their shelter was secured, we went back over to the injured cow and discovered that it was one of our boys’ most prized cows – a heifer they named Thelma. Thelma was no ordinary heifer; she had been born one of twin heifers a year and a half ago to a cow that they received as payment for some summer work.
Their young mother had died unexpectedly and left her two little calves behind, which the boys bottle fed from that time on. Twin boys feeding twin heifer bottle calves. They already had that special connection.
Aside from the reason they had to feed them, they enjoyed that time spent together, and quickly became friends.
One son choked back tears as he could see that she was seriously hurt and that she would most likely not recover.
Still, he rubbed her head and, I’m guessing, silently began his farewells to her at that moment, in the quietness of a dark and deserted country road; also mourning what could have been.
She could sit up somewhat, but it was obvious that she was not going to be able to stand. So the boys and their dad literally lifted Thelma up and placed her into the trailer so we could bring her home. They got her some water, tried to make her comfortable and stayed with her.
Around 5 a.m., one of our sons came to tell us that Thelma had died.
“What do you think we should do with her?” he asked, though he knew full well the answer that would come.
After some discussion between he and his dad, it was decided that if they could at least get the meat from her, they wouldn’t be left with nothing to show for all of the work they had put into her until then.
And so it was decided. The boys went to get the tractor and loader to hang her up and get her ready.
Farm kids know from a young age what livestock is grown for, and that all farm animals eventually end up on someone’s plate.
But when that animal is also a friend, it’s a mournful time no matter who you are, or how old you are.
I heard the tractor, and it broke my heart to know why they needed it. Yet I couldn’t even begin to imagine the pain the boys were enduring as they got ready to prepare one of their favorite cows, which had become more like a pet to them by way of companionship, for slaughter.
The deed was done, but not without tears and visible sorrow. All of this, and it was barely daybreak. When the time was right, a sample of meat was harvested from her so we could try it out to see if the meat would be edible, given the circumstances under which she had died.
My husband grilled the meat that evening and we all sat down together at the table. But this time was different than any other meal we’d shared together. This time we had known our main entree.
We all placed some meat on our plates, and sat there for a moment before one of the boys said, “I don’t know if I can eat my bottle calf.”
Following some silence and eyes that looked at our food somehow differently, their dad took a bite; slowly and gingerly, the rest of us picked up our silverware and did as well. It was a very quiet supper, filled with memories of a lost friend.
Four-legged friends are hard to lose, too. We’re just glad that week is over.
Schwaller is a Farm News correspondent from Milford. Reach her by e-mail at email@example.com.