My little body could barely see over the dash of that ancient truck as we rattled across the pasture that cold frosty morning, checking the cows in my grandpa’s herd. Trees stood like stark skeletons along the fence lines guarding against the frozen winds. The ground was covered with a heavy frost that pitter pattered curious mounds of fluffiness from one edge of the field to the next. Below the dusting of white lay grass still green from the summer growing season. It was early winter, and several of the fall calves were struggling with the recent span of bitter weather we’d been having. Grandpa headed the nose of the old Ford slowly into the midst of the herd. As I peered through the side window by breath fogged up the glass causing the cattle beyond to appear as ghostlike images. We were surrounded. The tires made crunching noises on the frozen grass as we carefully pulled ahead. Fearing he might hit one of those massive red and white Hereford bodies, my little hands grabbed the dusty dash bracing myself. To my amazement, the cows parted like clouds passing the peak of a mountain, steady and sure. Mommas with babies in tow, all bemoaning their plight as they slowly moved aside, watched us as we passed. Awestruck with their size, it perplexed me how they could be so easily persuaded to move without any force. Unbeknownst to me, they knew my grandpa and his vehicle well enough that just the sound of him rumbling down the gravel road to the gate would be enough to draw them closer seeking sweet feed or hay. Now, in their midst, surrounding my the heavy breaths seen with each puff, there was no fear on either side of our consciousness, their or ours.
The familiarity of each was comforting. Like old friends, we felt at ease with one another.
Inside the warm cab of the truck, the smell of leather, sweat, and accumulated oil-covered, diesel-laden rags made for a memory of its own. When the aroma of the cattle surrounded us, the two melded into one forming a panoramic odor unlike any other. The multitude of riches that embraced the senses were too wonderful to forget, the visual, aromatic, and audible.
Grandpa would point to this or that cow and tell me about them, as if quoting from a playbook of their lives and how he might have to do this or that to one of them, none of which made any sense to a four-year-old. All I could understand was that we were “Working the Cows,” as grandma would say, as she proudly shooed us out the back door of their farmhouse as she began to clean up from breakfast and then began preparing the day’s meals. “You men go work the cows, and I’ll have dinner ready for yuins when you get back.” She spoke “Wabash” as we said of folks in that area of southern Indiana. We would eventually return later in the day to rich, tasty smells of freshly baked bread and cakes, along with delectable foods that only now come back to my memory; blessings long passed.
When grandpa had planting or harvesting that would keep him in the fields for hours and days-on-end, grandma would find ways to entertain us. It wasn’t past her to dig up a few fishing worms, throw them into an old Folgers Coffee can, grab a cane pole and then tell me, “Son, let’s go fishing.” We’d walk together hand-in-hand down the lane in front of that old farmhouse to the big pond at the end of what seemed an endless trail. Together, we’d sit on that old wooden dock, bait the hooks, catch the fish, and then joyfully bring back the same coffee can full of bluegill.
One overly productive fishing expedition, Grandma, said we could eat the fish or feed them to the cats. Our coffee can was overflowing with our catch. I looked around at the plethora of cats. None of the feral beasts had ever allowed me to pet them nor to make friends with them. Now all of a sudden, they seemed so helpless. A voice inside me spoke, and immediately I felt the urge to provide for those poor old hungry barn cats, so we opted for feeding the needy instead of worrying about trying to filet the tiny fish. Before the fish hit the ground, the cats had emerged from their hiding spots, blanketing the catch of the day. Within a couple of minutes, the entire feast was devoured. Not one crumb or scale was left behind. My joy was in that moment, watching those cats savor the morsels we had brought home while having had the fun of catching them. Our work had a purpose, and each action was accounted for in the results that awaited.
Lesson after lesson of life played out before me on that farm.
Years later, on the other side of life’s fence, I can look back and see how God had prepared me for the journey. Each snapshot of those moments was special. They taught me everything from interactions with other beings to the frugality of existence. The sheer isolation made you appreciate anything that came to life either live or inanimate. From the round river rock pebbles that made the gravel road to the tall blades of grass in the pasture that grew like a forest in the summer, there was a world of exploration and fascination to keep a young boy entertained for days on end.
But the fondest of all were the times Grandma would read to my from her Bible, often in the evening after the meal was done. Those precious words and stories made me want to know more about this Son of Man called Jesus. I would beg for more, even as I was being tucked into bed for the night, as Grandma kissed me goodnight. There safe and sound in that warm feather bed, I’d drift off to sleep, like in the warmth of the cab of that truck with Grandpa, all cozy and warm. There was a feeling that God was wrapping his arms around me and that there was nothing at all in the world to fear.
Sleep came easily.
Thanks be to God.