Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Old Red Barn

Thoughts of childhood days on the farm in rural, southern Ontario often come to mind. On a cold winter’s day, I would push open the wooden door of the old, red barn and bask in the coziness of its dim interior. Pungent smells greeted me. As I made my way down the aisle, I would stop every few stalls and greet my animal friends. The black and white Holstein cows stood, twenty-eight in number, along the corridor. Some were ornery creatures, some meek and mild. Much like humans, each had her own distinct personality and each had been given a name. I can’t recall all of their names. Grandpa bought and sold cows frequently. But there are a special few that remain as vivid in my mind today as they were forty years ago. My favorite was Betty, the best milk producer of the dairy herd. Like most cows, she had big brown eyes and long lashes. She had distinctive black markings on a white background - unusual markings in large splotches down her sides and rump. On her forehead, was a large black spot with a white star in the center. Whenever I entered the barn, Betty would give a low moo, as if saying hello. As I approached, she’d turn her head, watching my every move. I would step in beside her and scratch her forelock. She would close her eyes and rub against me; delighted someone was giving her attention.

Behind the cow stalls, old Oscar, the Holstein bull stood next to the window to the horse barn. Now Oscar could be an ornery and temperamental creature, but he had a soft spot for this wee girl. Often, I would go into the horse barn and let myself into Oscar’s stall. He would turn his head, blow through his nose and snort. He never moved. This was somewhat miraculous as when the men tried to move him he would snort, kick and shake his head angrily. I have seen him lift my uncle off his feet while trying to lead Oscar to the creek for water. Today, I look back on my foolishness and wonder why I wasn’t killed. Possibly Oscar understood that I was only a child. Or possibly there was a soft side to his nature not understood by adults.

The calf pen was always a delight to visit. I loved to pet the calves and take them their daily pail of milk after they were weaned. They would suck the milk through their noses and when finished, butt the pail urging it to produce more, just as they had their mothers while they were suckling. One day, a calf pulled the pail from my hands pushed her head into it and it became stuck, the bail clinging to her ears. I chuckle remembering the time I had retrieving that pail.

At the back of the barn was the pigpen. Usually there were three to four sows housed here. One of my favorite things was watching the mother pig suckling somewhere from eight to ten piglets. She’d lie on her side, eyes closed, while her babies squealed and fought over a teat.

The only thing I didn’t like about the barn was the silo. Each Fall, the corn was harvested, put through the corn chopper and blown into the forty-foot silo. This would provide ensilage for the cattle during the harsh Ontario winter. One cool November day, my uncle asked me to go up into the silo and throw down the ensilage. I agreed. When the task was completed, I stepped to the entrance to descend the ladder. As I looked out, the ground swirled. Fear slithered along my spine. I stood, paralyzed. There was no way I could get down. I waited, rather impatiently, until my uncle came to my rescue. I never entered that silo again and today I still have a fear of heights.

The haymow was one of my favorite places. When I was very young, the hay was cut, thrown onto a wagon with racks, taken to the barn and pitched into the upper level of the barn by hand. In later years, it was baled. I remember helping stack the bales in the mow. Even today, the fragrance of freshly mown hay carries me back over the years to the haymow of the old, red barn.

The straw stack behind the barn was a delight to us children. When playing hide-and-go-seek, we would wiggle into the prickly straw and cover ourselves. This was the best hiding place of all. When found, we would emerge, straw clinging to our clothes and hair. If Grandpa found us burrowing into the straw stack, we would get a sound scolding. This never stopped us from returning to our refuge time after time.

One memory that I look back on with fondness involved my favorite cow, Betty. It was a dark, rainy day. When I entered the barn, instead of the usual low, gentle moo, Betty was bawling ferociously. I approached slowly, wondering what on earth could be wrong. One glance told me that Betty was in trouble. She was in hard labor and her calf was arriving in a breach position. I burst through the door of the house and in short, panting gasps told my uncle what was happening. We hurried to the barn and with some hard work, shared by human and animal, a healthy young heifer was born. That was my first glimpse of the birthing process. What a thrill to watch a new life enter the world. The calf stood on shaky legs. Betty heaved to her feet and coaxed the calf to suckle. An awesome experience for a small girl of ten.

Recently, I took a drive to the rural community where I grew up. I stopped my car on the gravel road and sat, looking at that old, red barn. Yes, it’s still standing, though the red paint has faded and it is somewhat in disrepair. But for a few moments, the sounds and smells of that cozy structure whirled through my mind. I will never forget the good times I spent in that old, red barn.

Copyright © 1999 - 2008 Mary M. Alward