It’s been a long week full of work. But it’s Friday, and I’m going to take my coffee and my book and go sit out back in my porch swing and read before we start this day. I only have a few minutes, really, but it’s a crisp early spring morning and it feels so nice after this long winter. Texas springs do not last long. I should take advantage while I can.
I grab my book, my reading glasses and my spring-borne renewed sense of hope and head out to the back. As I sit down, I can hear, floating on the spring-warmed air, faint sounds of the band’s drumline coming from the high school. I sit two miles from the school as the crow flies, but the breeze gently carries that sound to me all the way out here across several pastures into my back yard. A big purple butterfly floats by and my eyes follow it until I gaze out over the pasture behind my house that they’ve begun to divide to create a subdivision. We will be a proper city, soon.
I crack my book and begin to read the CS Lewis book, “Screwtape Letters.” It’s entertaining and heartbreaking, but I’m not sure I’m up to it on this beautiful day. As I sit and open to the bookmark, the spring breeze delivers another distinctly spring sign, the undeniable smell of cow manure. Did the neighbor lay mulch? No sooner than the smell hit my nose, I began to hear a determined mama cow in the background. She wasn’t happy about something and she was letting the world know.
As I looked up from my book to think about where that pungent smell was coming from and if I could spot the bemoaning creature, a memory hit so hard that I think it actually threw my head back in rebound. There I was, maybe seven? Eight? And I was standing in the barn right outside the big stall with my dad tossing hay over the fence. In the stall was a huge bovine, grey with horns and a hump. In my 7-maybe-8-year-old brain, these cues told me this was a bull and was completely befuddled. My dad was explaining to me that he had put the cow in the stall because it was going to have a baby. He said it was important to keep a close eye on it because this mama cow had lost her baby the year before.
But Daddy, I asked, how can that boy cow have a baby? Boys don’t have babies. It was my dad’s turn to look confused. He paused a moment to look down at me before throwing another forkful of fresh hay over into the stall. I could see behind him my favorite horse, a big, golden Palomino mare, was in the paddock. He had promised we could go riding later after he got all his work done. I was there mainly to make sure he wasn’t slacking so we could get to the riding part of the day. Even little girls know to start nagging early if you want something to go your way!
The pungent odor from the old hay and manure my dad had just scraped out of the stall around the mama cow’s feet now hit my face full on as the offensive scent caught a ride on the early morning breeze, which wooshed down the alleyway where the hay loft unleashed its bounty down from the top level of the old red barn that we’d later call the Jason barn since it looked like the red barn in the old “Friday the 13th” movies that were popular when I was a teenager.
My dad said, “What makes you think this is a boy cow?”
I said, “Because it has a big ole hump and horns on top.”
Dad, the strongest man I knew, continued on with his work as he chuckled at me a bit.
He said, “That’s not how you tell if it’s a boy cow or a girl cow. This cow, he said, is a Brahman cow. She has horns and a hump because this kind of cow is just made that way.”
Then he proceeded, unceremoniously, to bend over and point to show me the parts that would tell me if it were a girl cow or a boy cow.
Back in my back yard swing, I chuckle to myself, as I remember the innocence that was lost that day as my dad, crusty and matter-of-fact, explained the birds and the bees without my mom ever even knowing about it. How, in his animal husbandry way, he just spilled it out about what parts go where and how to look at all the parts and figure out if it was a girl or a boy. I was fascinated by what he said. It never even occurred to me to be embarrassed. I sipped my coffee and allowed myself to sink back into the past again, to a time before cable television for us country folk, before there was even political correctness surrounding gender and sexual preference. There was simply the truths of the nature we saw all around us.
Dad said, “Here, come here, baby.”
We stepped out the back side of the barn. I again glimpsed Lady, the mare I could not wait to hop on and ride later, and knew this would delay our fun, but this had gotten a little interesting and I wanted to understand what my dad was trying to tell me. He spotted Rocky beside the barn. I knew Rocky was a bull, a boy cow, because Daddy had always looked at me hard in the eyes and said, “You keep away from that bull, now, Young Lady.” Rocky was not to be trifled with. He did not like the horses, especially Lady. Lady was the only one that could make Rocky do what Daddy wanted him to do.
Daddy bent over and he said, See there? That’s how you can tell he’s a boy, as he gestured to the obvious undercarriage on the big grey and black, muscular beast grazing in his own pasture. I squatted down to take a closer look and I saw the place my dad was gesturing to. Rocky had horns and a hump like the mama cow in the stall, but she did not have this part that my dad was pointing out.
“That’s how you can tell.” He added, “those kinds of cows are called Brahman. All of them have humps and most of them have horns.” But Rocky had the extra parts that Daddy said helps to make baby calves.
As I finish my coffee sitting in my backyard, engrossed in the memory that had been stirred by the manure and fresh hay smells swirling around me, I began to think about my own daughter, Katie. She’s 12. We’re going to have to have more of “the talk” soon. Mom would have been shocked about my dad pointing to parts on an animal to begin the birds and bees talk, which, incidentally, contained no birds or bees, only cows. I wonder if I could send Katie off with her Papaw and let him do the heavy lifting. He loved being out and working on the land and with the animals, so he was constantly teaching big life lessons accidentally just by talking about the animals around him.
I glanced over at my neighbor’s yard. We haven’t yet gotten our privacy fence up so I can see through their chain link fence into their backyard. The little girls who live there are playing on their swing set. They are still too small to go to school. Big sister is running in circles with their big lanky Rottweiler Daphne following behind her. I know that the dog’s name is Daphne because one time she jumped the fence and charged up to us as we were playing a game of HORSE at the basketball goal we had on the side of the house. Her owner, the mother of the girls, kept yelling, “Daphne, get back here,” before coming to retrieve the dog herself. Lucky for us, Daphne wasn’t really sure what to do when she charged strangers. She was always bouncing and running around the big yard. Her instincts seemed to be to protect her house, but the puppy still in her pulled her toward making friends with us, strangers to her. The result was, she just froze there, half looking like she would pounce on us and lick our faces and half looking like she’d pounce on us and eat our faces. Her owner got there before we found out which of those two competing motivations would win in Daphne.
I watch the girls for a moment. The older one is running hard with Daphne on her heels, bounding and jumping in delight at the attention from the little girl. Baby sister is sitting on top of the swing set slide. She had been sliding down and running around to go back up and do it again when her sister and the dog caught her attention, causing her to stop completely sitting on the landing of the slide and cackling at the show she was witnessing. Daphne pulled up and crouched down low in her front paws with her tail up in the air, like the yoga pose down dog. Then the little girl came zooming by her and Daphne leapt out of her yoga position and is running hard along with the girl for a full lap around the yard. Then she stops again by the swing set slide and resumes her yoga practice, waiting for big sister to emerge again around the side of the swing set to do it all over again.
I wondered for a moment what my own baby sister was up to today. She was now a PhD working at a college in Tennessee. I may be the big sister, but she ran circles around me academically. PhD. She’s crazy if she thinks I’m going to call her “doctor,” I laughed. I remember being her teacher! I turned my head again toward the empty pasture behind my house and let the memory pull me back to 1979 where my dad had just told me the difference between boy and girl cows in his matter-of-fact style with no thought to how I would keep this memory for the rest of my life. Dad had no need for a bunch of ceremony, especially surrounding something so practical as simply pointing out an animal’s anatomy.
I had gone from fascinated to bored back to excited again because Dad said he had finished everything and he would go get the saddles out so I could go horseback riding. I loved to ride. I wish I could just put the saddle on the horse and go riding every day, but I always had to wait for my dad to get home from work and get his work done around the ranch where he served as foreman. The owner of the ranch was a rich man from Dallas who Daddy said likes to play rancher on the weekends. We barely saw the man. For us, the ranch was a Godsend, a way of life. Dad worked on the ranch and we lived in the mobile home that sat on the property. My dad enjoyed that work. My mom hated living in the country where there were no concrete driveways – when she got mad she’d say, “You moved me out here to this God-forsaken place where I have to wade in the mud to get to my car. I want to go back to civilization where there’s concrete driveways and no cow standing in the middle of the road!” I loved it on the ranch. I could spend all day following my dad around and playing with all the animals, but my favorite animals were the horses. I couldn’t get enough of riding them fast in the pasture. Dad would say, “You can’t run ‘em like that, Cindy!” I didn’t know I was being cruel. I just thought they were enjoying it as much as I was.
Dad finally got Lady saddled and a horse for himself, Buster, that he said was barn sour. Every time Buster got pointed back toward the barn, even if he was in the back part of the pasture, he wanted to take off and race back to the barn where he knew he would find his oats. I secretly loved riding Buster and another horse the rich rancher owned named Prince, a Tennessee Walker who had to have a tie from his bridle to his chest to keep his head down because he was so lively he would rear back on his hind legs like Silver did with the Lone Ranger. But Daddy liked me to ride Lady because she was safer.
Oh, my, my adult self suddenly realized. I love difficult horses, difficult dogs, and difficult people!
“Daphne is so silly!” the little sister cackled as the lanky pooch had dove into the turf nose and shoulder first and began rubbing her back on the interesting smell she found in the grass. I snapped back to the present and sucked in another big gulp of the pungent manure smell. It filled my nose and flooded my mind with years and years’ worth of memories growing up in the countryside of East Texas. As I turned to the house, I saw my Dad waddling side to side on his bad knees, coming through the gate so he could play with our dog, Bella, and ask about his granddaughter. I smiled at him with the full flood of memories swimming in my brain and thought how he’d die before he told his precious granddaughter about sex in the same way he taught me. He asked, “Wow, do you smell that?”