Lucky for Mom, she has so many kids to get all the work done. We had a regular chore rotation: Wash dishes, dry dishes, set and clear the table and sweep the floor, and do barn chores. We could trade with each other; Deanna always traded out of doing barn chores. She hated the barn. Bonita and I would rather be outside anyways.
Even in the freezing cold of winter. Still and all, I felt sorry for Baby Jesus in the manger. A mangers no place for a baby, that’s for darned sure.
For a long time, part of winter barn chores was cracking the ice on the water trough and filling the trough, so the cows got enough to drink. When it got super-cold, we watered them with a pail. I hated that job.
Dad got five gallon pails as full as we could carry and Bonita and I carried them over to the manger for the Belle and Lightfoot, and Ladybird, and Black Eyes, and Blackie, and Mavis, and all the other cows whose names I forgot ’cause I never got that attached to every single cow and calf.
Our barn had tinsy water bowls right beside each stanchion, so a cow could get a drink of water anytime she wanted. She just had to press down on the lever with her nose and voilà, just like the drinking fountains at school.
As long as I lived, I never once saw those things working. Dad said those contraptions were like asking a cow to drink from a straw.
“A cow’s gotta put her noses right down in the water and gulp the water down, not sip, sip, sip like this.” English: A drinking cow (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Dad scrunched up his eyes and made a sucking sound through kissy lips. I knew just what he meant, ’cause I never could get a good drink of water from a drinking fountain.
Anyways, I hated dragging those pails to the cows. For one thing, they could drink forever. For another thing, cows are way more impatient than most people believe; especially when they’re thirsty. I got the pail balanced up on outside manger ledge, ready to lift it down into the manger, really slow and gentle, so no spills. Belle stuck her strong head straight in and pulled the pail right out of my hands, dumping everything into the manger. That’s another thing most people don’t think about. Cattle are super-strong. Especially their heads. Maybe that’s why Mom was always calling me Bull-headed.
Oh man! Now I had to start all over. Slurping water out of a manger was way harder than sipping through a straw.
Sometimes Bonita could trick a cow. Especially if it was Ladybird or Black Eyes, who were more like pets than regular cows. Bonita climbed in the manger and scratched away up there under Black Eyes’s neck. Black Eyes rolled her eyes back in her head and stretched out her neck for more. She forgot all about being thirsty. I did the same thing for Lady Bird. That kind of treatment never worked on Belle, she butted at us, to show us who was boss. Same for Lightfoot. Besides, I never trusted Lightfoot one tinsy bit. She didn’t get that name because she danced.
Dad installed a fancy-dancy contraption on the water trough around the time I got into fifth grade. First, he got a float, sorta like the ones in the back of toilets. He hooked the hose to that and when the got high in the trough, voilà, the water shut off. We never even had to remember to turn the water off and on from inside the barn. That was the berries.
Next he got a gas-powered heater that kept the water from freezing. The wind had a habit of blowing the flame out in the heater. Dad showed me how to light it. I had to be super-careful. Just me got to light the flame.
Bonita was way too little, even though she was just a year and a half younger than me, and I’d been doing some things since I was six. Bonita was still way too little for a lot of chores.
I was the one in charge when Dad was working overtime for Ma Bell, fixing phones and selling extensions and coming home with funny stories about how other people lived and how they had so much money they never even blinked about getting a pink Princess phone for the bedroom. Who wants to hear the phone ringing in the middle of the night was what I wanted to know.
Anyways, I got all my eyelashes and eyebrows and my bangs singed clean off my face because I was too slow lighting the flame on the water warmer and a big whoosh of fire and smoke blew straight up in my eyes. I thought for sure I got blinded ’cause I couldn’t open my eyes and they stung like crazy.
Lucky for me, Dad was a home. He was in the barn, milking Belle, so he saved me. He forced me open my eyes by talking in his no-nonsense voice.
“No burns. Just a bunch of soot. You’re gonna be fine. Get in the house and wash your eyes out with some of that eyewash stuff in the blue bottle that Mom’s got.”
I WAS fine. Plus I had a great story to tell people when they looked at me funny or got brave enough to ask what happened to my face.
“Singed off in a gas explosion,” I said. You shoulda seen the eyes just about pop out of their heads.
I’ll say it again, a barn and a manger is no place for a baby. Don’t even get me started about giving birth in there. Even if kings are bringing special gifts and drummer boys are playing rum-ba-bum-bum and angels are singing Alleluia.
Still, I bet Jesus had a bunch of super stories to tell his friends when he got to school.
Manger scene in Inwood Hill Park on Payson Street for filming of Law & Order SVU (Photo credit: promaine)