When I was a little girl, I had a calf named Tiny. She was a little Holstein heifer; she was not Belle’s calf, Dad bought her; she was such a runt, I have a sneaking suspicion that Tiny came cheap. I loved Tiny. I loved Tiny as much any kid loved their dog, as much as Bonita loved Nikki, our German Shepherd.
The grass was still frosty in the morning when Dad showed me how to teach Tiny how to drink from a bucket. First I mixed up a powder milk formula for her; Belle had her own calf, plus we needed some of her milk for the house, so Tiny drank formula. I used warm water so Tiny would think she was drinking from her mother, then I wet my fingers with the formula and put them in front of Tiny’s nose. She gave a little sniff, licked my fingers, then slurped all my fingers into her mouth and started sucking them like there was no tomorrow. It almost the same way as when I put the vacuum cleaner hose up to my cheek and I thought my whole face was a goner, only really wet.
I gotta admit, it was atinsy bit scary and at the same time it made my skin have those happy tingles like when somebody remembered my birthday with no reminder at all. Slowly I lowered my hand into the bucket as Tiny kept on sucking. Then I pulled my fingers out. Up came Tiny’s head all puzzled-looking thinking, where did my teats go? So we started all over again. Eventually, Tiny didn’t need my fingers at all, but I still let her suck on them, ’cause by then it just felt like her way of saying she loved me, too.
Dad lifted Tiny up and moved her around, just like she was one of his own kids. I lifted Tiny too, but it was hard for me to walk with her, ’cause her legs dangled down almost to the floor, probably because I was a whole lot shorter than Dad.
“If you lift Tiny everyday, you’ll be able to lift a full-grown cow when she’s grown,” Dad told me. “But you gotta lift her every day.” Dad’s eyes got damp looking and twinkling like they did when he was telling a story about a telephone extension he sold when he was fixing someone’s line in the city. Those stories always ended in laughter, but not so this day, he was all solemn looking in the face, like he was in church, except for his eyes didn’t look so dazzley in church.
I would be about the strongest girl in school, even stronger than Jeannie. She was super strong, ’cause she had four brothers and no sister. She was tough as any boy. I never saw Jeannie cry and she could hit a baseball harder than any boy in my school. I had mostly sisters, I wasn’t all that tough, I cried easy, but I was stronger than most of the kids in my grade. I knew because I could beat them at arm wrestling and pull-ups. That’s because of the bales of hay and buckets of silage I lifted doing chores with Dad.
Twice a day and sometimes more, I went out to the barn to feed Tiny and lifted her up as far as I could, burying my nose in her soft hair that smelled like fresh straw and damp skin all at once. If she was lying down, I snuggled right up beside her and told her all about my day, with a soft voice, so only she and I could hear. There’s something about the way any baby smells, a kitten, a puppy, piglet, Tiny or my baby sister, Julie, maybe it’s all the milk babies drink. The smell just opens up my heart and makes me want to breathe in deeper.
I liked being in the barn anyway, especially when Dad was there. The cats gathered in back of Belle while Dad milked, and sometimes Dad squirted milk in the cats’ mouths. If he missed his mark, the cat got all offended looking, as if Dad did something on purpose to disgrace her. He always gave the cats a little shallow bowl full of milk. As soon as he finished milking he gave a little “Haruph” and hoisted himself off the stool and limped his first step, like he’d been sitting there for days and he was all stiff. The cats all stood six inches back from the bowl, waiting all polite-like for the milk to be poured.
Once our old sow, Red Rose’s eight piglets got out of the pen and came a tripping over each other running like it’d been a month since they last ate, and didn’t already just nurse from Red Rose. They slobbered and grunted in that cat dish, spilling milk and putting their front feet right in the dish. The cats sat back on their hind quarters and put their noses in the air at each other. I could just hear them thinking, Well! I never. All smug and prissy. If a cat could turn up their little finger, our cats would’ve.
I did pretty well, lifting Tiny, all though the summer. Then we went on vacation camping. We were gone a week, and Dad said he wanted to stay another week.
I started crying, “I gotta get back to Tiny.” So we went home and didn’t stay an extra week.
Mom said it had nothing to do with me, and I just let her think that, ’cause she and Deanna and Bonita, and Vickie, and the Little Kids, if they were big enough to think at all, would be mad at me if they thought we could have stayed an extra week if it weren’t for my blubbering.
When I got home, first I hugged the carpet in the frunch-room and rolled around on it for a bit. I was so happy to get home.
I had to see Tiny. There she was happy to see me, looking like she hadn’t changed a bit. I scratched her neck and she pointed her nose right up toward the sky in delight; she sucked at my fingers just like always. But I was unable to lift her. I pulled and tugged, but no luck. Just like Dad said, I had to lift her everyday, if I wanted to be able to lift a full-grown cow.
I have grandchildren now, I gave up on lifting calves. When my first grandson was still a toddler, I told him that if I lifted him everyday, when he got to be a full-grown man, I could carry him down the aisle on his wedding day. By eleven I could still lift him, but his feet were starting to brush the ground because he’s almost as tall as me. He’s sixteen now and has a pretty busy schedule, so I don’t see him as often as I used to. That’s probably the reason I can’t lift him up anymore.