How do you learn? By doing -- in the out-of-doors, among animals, with the guidance of a firm and loving elder.
All I really need to know I learned feeding cows with my grandpa, Alvin Lee.
My grandfather had about ten head of cattle and several chickens. He farmed purely out of enjoyment. He sold eggs as well as sweet milk, buttermilk and butter. Growing up next door, my brother Jesse and I were very involved from a young age in activities at Grandpa’s farm. As small children, we were thrilled to scatter the corn for chickens, gather the eggs and open the gate to the pasture so Grandpa could pull his long-wheel-base Chevy inside. We learned so much from my grandpa in the time that he was with us. He left a huge void in our family when he died from cancer in 1992. I was 15 years old.
In the happy years before, our days hinged on that special time every afternoon that we spent with our grandpa. During that time, I discovered many life lessons that made me what I am today.
First off, always be on time. My grandpa did not care when Sesame Street was over. If I wanted to go with him to feed cows, I had to be at his house at 3:30 p.m., sharp. My mother used to joke with him that his cows didn’t wear wristwatches. He would always counter that the cows knew when it was time to be fed and that’s when he was going to feed. If I was late, I got left, plain and simple. I shed plenty of tears, sitting at the house on the back porch waiting for him to come back. I realized at a young age that I couldn’t blame anyone but myself for being left behind. I learned to be where I needed to be, when I needed to be there, if not earlier.
Grandpa taught us the value of hard work. I remember getting paid 10 cents a week to help feed cows. I collected those shiny dimes with pride and saved them to buy a bottle of soap bubbles or maybe even a jump rope. I also remember, greedy little me, asking Grandpa for a five-cent raise, telling him I needed 15 cents. He gave it to me, too. It was the easiest raise I ever got.
An important lesson I mastered early on was to watch out for the bull. Though they changed every couple of years, their attitudes didn’t. Usually, the bull was overbearing and would throw his weight around if not treated with respect. In life, we come across “bulls” that we must handle with care. They are not always bigger than us, but we must still respect the power that they carry with their “weight.”
Another lesson I took to heart was that we should be patient with the little calves and old cows. Every year, when the new calves were born, we had to take special care that the babies made it out of the pen each evening with their mother into the pasture. Let me tell you, this was no simple task. First of all, we often had to contend with a very protective mother who didn’t understand that we just wanted to help. We had to drive the little one, who didn’t see the danger in running through a barbed wire fence, down the fence row and through the gate to where she belonged. This had to be done with care because if you rushed the calf, she would turn straight into the fence and get cut.
We also had to contend with old cows. Many afternoons, on the road to the feed trough, an old cow would get right in front of the truck. No amount of horn blowing could convince her to move. Sometimes, she would turn around and stop, as if to ask, “Do you mind?” These cows taught us to respect their age and give them their space. In life, we must appreciate individuals of all ages. Each plays an important role in society and should be respected for such.
Grandpa taught us to expect the unexpected from things put under pressure. Whether it was a cornered yearling ready to tear down the catch pen or a strand of new barbed wire, stretched taunt with a come-a-long, we knew to respect the fact that without care, someone could really get hurt with either. In tense situations, things often react differently than they normally would. Expect the unexpected.
The way I see it, these lessons, taught through simple daily tasks, made a greater impression on me than any story or fable from a textbook. Although my grandfather did not live to see us reach adulthood, I think he would have been proud to see how we retained the lessons he taught us, under the guise of an afternoon of fun at his farm. As my daughter grows, I look forward to the day when she’s old enough to go with my dad, her Grandpa Lee, to the same cow pasture, take care of some of the same old cows and discover some of the important lessons that made me who I am.