Thursday, November 18, 2021

The Girl with the Vaseline Glass Eyes

The Good Rancher is usually very deliberate in purchasing for his operation. So when he bought a large new bag of milk replacer, I raised my eyebrows.

"You just finished weaning Silver and Dominion and Mighty Mouse and Dougie! What's this about?" 

"It's for the barn cats," he explained. And you never know when you might need milk replacer... "

So, knowing how the GR and God are in cahoots many times, it came as no real surprise to me when I got this message the following Tuesday:

"How you doing ? Hope well. I don't know if you are interested in this, but we have a calf that was born blind last week. It is sadly enough no good for us and I'd like to give it away. I am not sure if you can do anything with it, but if you want to give it a try you can."

Remember Mabel and her triplets, Wynken, Blynken and Nod? Remember the kind hearts of their first caregivers, Elize and Theo? 

Elize was the one who wrote me. In further chatting, she had been bottle feeding this week-old little mite for a week — despite the fact that they run an extremely busy dairy operation!  

But it was Elize with the tender heart who could not bear the thought of disposing of this sweet little calf without giving her a fighting chance. 

I had met this woman only once, but I love her. I saw her pragmatism and compassion woven together and also manifesting in her daughters.

I see them in an uphill battle with formidable odds in their sector of the Ag industry, but they don't give up.

Of course she would not give up on this baby! 

I told her how the GR had just finished weaning for the year, but that I would ask him.

(You already know what the answer would be, don't you?) 

So on the Wednesday evening, after all the work of the day was done, we drove the almost two hours to the dairy farm. We were greeted by Elize and her daughter Aimee, and together we went to see the baby calf. 

It turned out this baby had worked her way into Aimee's heart too.

I had not expected to see eyes like this little calf had. Aimee commented, "I bet if you put her under a black light, her eyes would glow!" 

Each pupil — if pupils there even were — was completely covered by an eerily glowing disc, almost like a cataract. 

They reminded me of Vaseline glass, otherworldly beautiful. 

Yet they couldn't see a thing.

This baby was going to have to depend on her ears and her nose and her intelligence if she had a hope of making it. 

I had planned on calling the calf "October" for the month in which she had been born. Now, after meeting Aimee and the calf, I asked her if she thought Liesl would be a good name.

Liesl. Because of The Sound of Music. 

Because of "I'll take care of you." 

Aimee thought it was a good name, and so it was settled. The GR loaded up Liesl into the calf warmer strapped into the truck box and off we set, back through the dark night but with a slight detour for a DQ dipped cone. 

We went straight to the shop. You know this shop by now. The GR got Ironside Contracting Inc. to renovate Ken Keibel's old shop; and when they were done we had an addition big enough to house two tractors attached to feeding equipment. 

We also had enough room, it seemed, to house a little calf named Angel, born in February, the first in a series of Shop Calves. 

The next winter there was Gabriel, born December 23 ... 

Then Jean and Grace and Brownie ... 

Then Blind Bartimaeus ... 

The GR has said on occasion, rolling his eyes, "Why don't we just take the tractors out so the calves will have more room?!"

The GR carried Liesl into the shop and set her down. I stood close to her and held her lightly while he quickly assembled pallets into a little pen, and got her situated. 

She was shaking and panting a little. I gave her her milk, which she gulped down; right then the shop heater clattered loudly to life, and Liesl started gasping and shuddering, throwing her head from side to side. 

One of the things I was taught in therapy was tapping to try to still my anxiety. I used it on my dog Musket after he was temporarily blinded as a result of a hit-and-run accident. It would always stop him from shaking. 

Prince Harry has been a vocal proponent of it. And if it works for Haz, surely it might work for Liesl, I thought. 

I whispered "Shhhh," over and over, and tapped slowly, rhythmically, on her right shoulder and her brisket. And in a few minutes she calmed down. 

The GR was watching all of this and then he said, "Call them and see if they have any calves for sale. This one needs a friend if she's going to make it." 

The next morning Liesl started to take tentative steps around her new home. Don and Ivy came over to check her out and gave me some pointers, along with the loan of a halter.

My heart was full when she even managed a little skip! 

Over the next few days she calmed down and started to relax in her  new freedom. The GR made a bigger, more open pen with gates at both ends. She always gravitated toward the white door at the end of the shop. If it looked like she was about to hit her head anywhere I would call out, "Oh, oh, oh!" and she would stop immediately. 

And then Gretyl and Marta (the younger sisters of Liesl, natch) came home on Sunday evening. The Right Hand and the GifT were over at the shop when we arrived back. "I have a surprise!" the GR called out to the RH. "Actually, two surprises. Can you give me a hand?!" 

The next day Liesl was stressed and I was distressed as these two much stronger little heifers galloped around her, adding to her disoriented confusion. 

Two days in she was more calm. Now the three calves nuzzle each other when they are resting and squabble for rights to the first bottle at each feeding. Liesl had been left out, bewildered, as the two younger ones ripped from one end of the shop to the other... but this morning I do believe she is starting to hold her own! 

Liesl has other troubles besides her eyes, I fear. One of her front legs is a bit off kilter. Her stomach is not strong. She is the smallest of the three, and she was born over a week earlier. 

But she's still with us! She loves her bottle and reaches her neck toward me, telling me it's time for a scratch along her jawline. She comes toward the sound of my voice. 

And every now and then, I think she sees a shadow — something — out of her left eye. 

Her beautiful eyes. 

Maybe it's going to be okay.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

To the Place I Belong - A Thanksgiving Song

It started with a picture.

We were out for dinner to celebrate the Good Rancher's birthday, and also for one last hurrah before calving started and all that entails.

On the wall in the restaurant just above our heads was a picture of a horse, with his rider holding an apple behind his back. 

"That sums up what I want to see in a ranch hand," the GR mused. "Someone who loves their animals and who treats them — horses, cows, dogs, cats — with affection and respect."

We had gone through a series of hands since the GR's son had made his move to the Yukon, but none really fit the bill.

One had to leave because of a family situation.

One returned to the rigs.

One returned to his wife!

One was a butterfly, flitting from job to job.

One left to have a baby.

One had a driver's abstract that made him uninsurable.

One moved in and then never quite started working.

One started working but never quite moved in.

One even threatened the GR's life; the RCMP got involved.

Each time the GR got more and more discouraged. "I never want to hire anyone again!" he finally exclaimed after interviewing someone who had been the manager of his family's ranch before parting ways with the family, and who wanted the same position, accommodations and paycheque he had made while stating that he needed to work half as many hours as he had been working at home.

The GR had not spent a night away from this place in over three years. He had missed weddings and funerals, holiday celebrations, cattle sales.

He had pretty much missed Covid! Apart from the times he helped me deliver treats in the neighbourhood, he worked and went to church. (Even there, he was invariably late, poor guy ...)

And when the last hand — a Fine Hand, who had seemed fairly promising — suddenly quit with no notice for a Finer Opportunity and left us in a Fine Mess, the GR found himself stuck with me as his sidekick.

Oh. My. Word.

Things took twice as long in the field, and nothing was done in the house. McDonalds and Joyce at the Byemoor Bar fed us 60 per cent of the time. Tempers and blood pressures rose.

Friends and neighbours gave us a hand, often without even being asked — Don and Ivy, Bud, Brian, Jenelle and Cliff, Kiersten, Luke, BethAnne, Caite, Jean, Ben, Maureen and Jim, Kody, Stephen, Rhonda, Deanna, Kyle, Winnie and Eldon, Shalene, Kevin, Marv and Dianne, Walter, Marilyn, Hudson - and their help seemed to come right when we needed a little boost to keep us going another day. Hank and Mabel were always there with a listening ear and a caring heart. 

But when evening fell, we fell — asleep at the supper table, more often than not!

I was so grateful we had had that dinner at the Ranch House on April 7th. I ordered him a print of the picture for his birthday and got it framed for him for Father's day, something new crowning our "new" piano.

And then, on his lowest day, a phone call.

He didn't know what to think; when he shared the conversation with me, neither did I.

The GR's son had phoned. They wanted to come back to Alberta.

They wanted to come to the ranch.

They had been here last year during calving season, which happened to coincide with job losses due to the start of the pandemic, so it was a win-win — on a temporary basis.

But before that, before they moved away, things had been, well, a bit tense.

It is no easy thing to lose a spouse, to lose a mother.

When two grieving men are left to work things out, to figure out a new normal, to bridge the years-long habits of pain and distance and misunderstanding suddenly exposed in the wake of the departure of their beloved, it is a balancing act requiring more dexterity than a tightrope walker possesses. 

Then when a widower takes a new spouse, it does not replace the prior one. And no one can ever replace a mother.

So it was that there came a parting of the ways: the younger left to explore his options and the elder was left to carry on. Both took stock, separately. Both came to different conclusions.

I wrote my farewell letter to the younger here. My heart ached for each of them. For both of them.

And then, in 2018, the younger took a spouse himself. She seemed like the antithesis of the ranch. 

But she had ambition and determination. She was hard working and creative. And she had a smile like no other.

Like one other.

All these strong traits could be found in his mother, from all reports. The day we witnessed their wedding and I saw him looking at his new bride I thought of the old Bible story of Abraham's son Isaac. His mother had passed away when he was still quite young and he grieved her desperately. Back in those days, marriages were often arranged, and so it was for Isaac. 

But when Isaac saw Rebekah and they were married, this is what it says, in Genesis chapter 24 and verse 67:

Then Isaac brought her into his mother's tent; and he took Rebekah and she became his wife, and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother's death.

(from the album of 
Carly Tateson) 

And then they went north. True North. Communication was sparse as they carved out a new life for themselves. They blossomed and grew, two already gorgeous people truly coming into their own.

We missed them but rejoiced for them.

(from the album of 
Carly Tateson) 

Until the phone call. "What do you think?" the GR asked.

"Well, let's see if they really do show," I suggested. "They still have a couple of months to change their minds ..."

In the next weeks I often found myself gazing at a picture I have always kept on my piano. It captures three riders: the GR and his mother, Alice, and his tiny son, obviously sitting on his own mother's horse. I have no doubt it was she who took the picture.

It is one of my favourites. Dear God, please undertake. Please let this work, if it is Your will, I prayed several times a day. Please prepare each of our hearts ... 

On August 31 their vehicles pulled in, and on September 1 he reported for work.

On September 2 evening, the four of us sat down together at our kitchen table to chat.

They seemed different somehow, settled, happy. Together.

They seemed to have grown up.

And maybe we had too? Because it was pretty easy, that first visit. There was laughter. Questions asked and answered. Each person had a seat at the table, had a voice in the conversation. 

Finally the GR asked The Question. "How long?"

The son looked the father straight in the eyes. "I want to keep this place going. We're here. We have no Plan B. We're here."

My heart just leapt. I thought of my dad, who once was on an ordination committee that had just finished interviewing the candidate, David, on his suitability to be a pastor. Everyone seemed to have run out of questions.

Then Dad spoke up. "I have just one more question. If we deny you ordination, what will you do with your life?"

There was silence. Then David responded, passionately, "I have no Plan B! I HAVE to preach!"

"That was the answer I wanted to hear," replied Dad. And David was ordained.

That evening, I had the answer I wanted to hear.

Sometimes a person has a calling too insistent for a Plan B.

And every day since then the two men have answered the dawn, going their separate ways while feeding the herd and then coming together to move cattle, sort, wean, vaccinate, talk.

"There's so much I don't know," he had said to his Dad that first evening. "So much I need to learn from you."

And so they discuss and plan and grow together, grow the operation and the relationship.

The ranch's brand is TTT, an enduring tribute to father, mother and son. After one left this world, and after one left the ranch, it seemed like the remaining T, left to carry the triple load, would collapse under the weight of it. I did my best; but I will never be able to ride out and work cattle with anything except a quad or a side-by-side and a pack of semi-unruly dogs. I am the furthest thing from athletic — I can fill a gap, and I can coax baby cows up the chute; but I would never be a match against feisty heifers, arrogant bulls, knowing cows, hollering yearlings.

But he's back! 

And often she joins them, the golden girl on a golden horse. 

I think of her as the "GifT" (Girl Inhabiting the Final T) to this place at this time, the person who has all the makings of being able to pick up and carry forward the third T in the brand.

One day the two of us had a short electronic exchange:

My heart was full. 

On days that she is occupied at her own job, I try to get out to help as best I can. 

I watch the two of them, these two men whom I love more than all the cattle on all those hills, and I see how they work the field, work a herd, without any words needed. 

They both know this land and they know their herd, generational cows who also know the rancher and the hand and know the routine. It is a dance of synchronicity that brings tears to my eyes.

And when the cattle work is done, they ride home together, the father with the son close by on his right hand. They chat quietly together about what went well, what could be improved on, what is up next for the afternoon and the week.

They laugh together. They lead their horses in and out of the barn together. They ride out together and no one returns alone, one of the mantras of TTT. 

And I have seen both of them sneak a little treat into an equine mouth when they think no one is looking ...

They discuss feed and cattle rotation; they train horses (the son, a farrier by trade, is taking the lead on this part of the operation right now); they check water and herd health; they direct / put up with my Six Pack, who gambol around in attempts at being helpful while moving cattle; they feed the bottle calves; and the younger has taken over the care and feeding of old Ripper, the horse the GR and Debbie got the same year their son was born 29 years ago.

He has his Class 1, and so the two of them haul feed bales together after all the chores are done. They strategise about next year, about the future.

They truly are the man in the picture.

There is a saying that a load shared is a load halved. I am here to tell you that this is TRUE! The hours are still long; but the GR and I often eat supper together and sometimes he even makes it to bed before he falls asleep these days. We just celebrated the wedding of one of my nephews. The GR was able to leave the ranch, for the first time since I have known him, with not a worry in his mind. "No — I know he can handle everything," was his response when I asked him if he had any apprehension.

This year we invited them to come for Thanksgiving dinner on Monday evening, and they accepted. The GifT brought roasted vegetables, dressing and homemade buns. She helped me in the kitchen and with the washing up. It felt so easy. So right.

As I was laying the table in preparation for dinner, I thought back through the difficulties of the past couple of years; and I contrasted those troubled times with comments the GR has been making fairly often over the past month and a half:

"It was another great day ... Everything just seems so right ... He knows how things work around here ... That girl is gold. She is always in the right place at the right time ... I feel good. Things just feel right these days ... I hope I never have to hire anyone again ... 

"We can finally start thinking about the future, and it feels so right with him here."

And as I set the place cards on top of the napkins, the napkins that his son had given me for my second Christmas out here, I got it.

I know what his name is.

Thinking back to the list of hands that started this piece and finishing up with the GR's prayers of thanksgiving for the gift of his son, of his new reliance on him, there can be only one name.

The Right Hand. 

In every sense of the words.

Welcome Home.

Friday, July 02, 2021

O Canada

 O Canada! 

Our home and native land!

True patriot love in all of us command.

With glowing hearts we see thee rise,

The True North strong and free!

From far and wide,
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

God keep our land glorious and free!

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

Canada! Where pines and maples grow,

Great prairies spread and lordly rivers flow,

How dear to us thy broad domains, 

From East to Western sea!

Thou land of hope for all who toil!

Thou True North, strong and free!


O Canada! Beneath thy shining skies

May stalwart sons and gentle maidens rise,

To keep thee steadfast through the years

From East to Western sea,

Our own beloved native land,

Our True North, strong and free!


Ruler Supreme, Who hearest humble prayer,

Hold our dominion within Thy loving care.
(Justin Tang / The Canadian Press) 

Help us to find, O God, in Thee
A lasting, rich reward,

As waiting for the Better Day,

We ever stand on guard

God keep our land glorious and free!

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.