One day in the early spring, our cow, Belle, gave birth to a perfect little heifer. She was mine. It was my job to train her, feed her, and clean her. In August, I would show the world just what a capable 10-year-old I was. This was no ordinary calf, she was a registered Holstein. She needed a name that would befit her lineage.
I named my first calf Tiny. That was a good name for a calf, but not so good for a grown cow, besides there was only one Tiny, and this new little wobbly-legged calf was not her. This new calf looked a lot like Belle: mostly black with just the perfect amount of white marking across her back, up her feet and legs and under her belly. Belle never even saw my calf’s father. That’s because Dr. Friese came over with his little frozen vial, and that’s how Belle got pregnant. It didn’t take any love or marriage for cows, ’cause cows didn’t have souls. They were still God’s creatures, that’s for sure, but they never ate apples from that tree in the Garden of Eden, so no rules, and no sins. ‘Course there weren’t any cows in heaven either, so that was the down side of all that freedom.
Dad was really good at picking out names; he picked out all the girls names at my house, except for Mom’s of course. Any Dodo bird would know that. Dad even helped me name my doll, Jonesy-Belle, so for sure he would be a good help with this new calf of mine, the only one, besides Belle who was a genuine, registered Holstein. Me and Dad put our heads together for days, trying to come up with names. Dad helped Bonita name her calf Black Eyes; that was easy, she was mostly white with a few giant black blotches, and big black circles around her eyes. Besides that, Dad called Bonita his black-eyed Susan, so Bonita loved calling her calf, Black Eyes. Bonita was too little for 4-H and Black Eyes was just a regular old Holstein calf, not a registered Holstein, like mine.
One evening, while Dad was milking Belle, he said, “I got an idea, let’s name her after someone in the Vice-President’s family.” He rested his head against Belle’s belly, and turned just enough to look at me.
“What?” I said; that seemed like a lame-brained idea to me. Dad stood up, and picked up the stool and half-full pail of milk. That wasn’t all Belle had to give, but now it was time for her baby to get her fill, so I let my little one go to her Mama. Belle threw her head back in the stanchion and nuzzled her daughter to make sure she was okay, and still smelling just right. I knew she smell as sweet as could be, ’cause I already had my nose right down in her neck right before I let her go to Belle.
“Yeah, his daughters’ names are, Lynda Bird, and Lucie Bird, and his wife’s name is Lady Bird. Those seem like fine names for a heifer.”
Dad kept his head low, like he didn’t care at all, hitched up his leg before he headed over to the cat dish with some nice warm milk for them. The milk was still blue-milk, so we couldn’t drink any yet. The cats loved it.
“That’s it. Ladybird. Her name is Ladybird.” I knew as soon as I heard it, that was the right name for such a fine calf.
Belle swished her head back again and sprayed some of her spit all over my arm. She loved spraying spit up against her back to get the flies off. It wasn’t her fault I was in the way of that. Still and all I never appreciated that habit of hers, it was pretty yucky, kinda like when men spit just to impress each other, only Belle had a good reason; she had to get the flies off her back. Dad spit sometimes, but only when other men were around; that’s when he said bad words, too. Not exactly curse words that can send you straight to hell if you die before confession or an honest act of contrition. Those other bad words that get a kids mouth washed out with soap, and probably land you in purgatory on the simmer plate for a while.
Mom took me to the grain elevator to pick out a curry comb and brush and a halter, so I could keep Ladybird groomed and teach her to walk proper. Ladybird was a wonderful companion. She started to look forward to seeing me out in the barn; I could tell, ’cause she reached her neck right out to me, and sucked on my fingers, even after she learned to drink from a pail. She loved her neck scratched. I loved to lay down next to her in her pen, and curl right where she curved her back legs around her front ones. She smelled so good and clean, like any baby.
Just like with a human baby, sometimes there was dirty work to do, like cleaning out the manure and putting fresh straw in for Ladybird to lay down on. For certain, that’s what made her smell so good. That and keeping her brushed and giving her baths. There was a bit more to it than most people guessed: I cleaned her hooves with a scrub brush, and painted her hoofs with clear fingernail polish to make them shine, and I braided her tail, then brushed it out all fluffy and full. If she got any yellow on her white parts from laying down in a dirty spot, I dusted the yellow with baby powder, so she was white as snow in those parts again.
Cows are pretty smart, but not as organized as pigs; pigs set up their own bathroom and bedroom and eating room. Cows are more like the nomads I learned about in school, just wandering around, eating what’s good, and moving on; unless, of course, they’re trained. Cows are easy to train; pigs, not on your life, they like to think for themselves.
Every day I walked Ladybird with the halter. When I got to the 4-H show there was two ways she would be judged: Constitution and Showmanship. Constitution is the way she was made, that was easy for Ladybird, ’cause she had the best parents possible. Besides, there was nothing I could do about that part. Showmanship was up to her and me; I had to train Ladybird for that
part. She had to behave herself in the show-ring, and when it was time to stop, she had to stand just right: front feet together, inside back leg stretched out behind the outside back leg; that’s so the judge could see her udder properly.
Ladybird didn’t have an udder for two years, ’cause she was just a baby, but she knew how to stand just perfect. I had to wear all white pants and white, long-sleeved shirt for the show. Keeping all those white clothes clean was way harder for me than keeping Ladybird clean. I was a regular dirt magnet, for some reason.
Deanna, always looked neat as neat can be, like she just stepped out of a picture in a magazine. I never could figure out how she did that. Sometimes she looked pretty when she got out of bed in the morning. Not me.
Later, when I got older, I learned to judge dairy cows. It is truly like a beauty contest. Points are given for the markings, the cleanliness, the shape and size of the udder, the length of the legs, how properly the cow stands, and even how the veins run across the udder. Practically the only difference between the Miss America contest and dairy cow judging is nobody asks a cow any of those crazy questions that have no correct answer. Of course, cows have lots of time to ruminate, so perhaps if they could talk, they would provide us with the answer to world peace.