I Always Wanted a Cow Named That

Tum-A-Lum Black Eagle Kelly, 1977. The photographer came to the farm that day to take pictures of our champions, but Kelly and I snuck in.

Tum-A-Lum Black Eagle Kelly, 1977. The photographer came to the farm that day to take pictures of our champions, but Kelly and I snuck in.

Recently, The Westerly Sun ran a story about my new book. Because Westerly is my hometown, no one was surprised when the article included a reminiscence about my cow Darcy. (Here’s the link, in case you’re interested: http://www.thewesterlysun.com/entertainment/entertainmentnews/6153131-129/writer-carla-panciera-to-speak-at-bank-square-books.html) It wasn’t Darcy’s only ink. Darcy was a red carpet kind of cow. She was so unmistakably grand, that once, in a 2400 square foot barn filled with 200 shit splattered animals, a stranger pointed to her lying in a stall and said, “Who is that?” Her sister, Marlene, struck me more as the Marilyn Monroe type. But Darcy was definitely a bovine Garbo.

However, Darcy was never my favorite. In fact, her perfection daunted me, an 85 pound kid with acne, thick glasses, and a mop of pot-scrubber hair. And Darcy wasn’t really mine at all. She belonged to my dad. I inherited her, but it felt a little bit like cheating. My cow, my very own imperfectly lumbering, lazy, bull-headed ox of a cow was Kelly.

Kelly’s mother was also a champion, a junior one which means her glory days occurred before she had any calves. When I was five, my father let me lead Shelly around the ring at the Rhode Island Black and White Show. Shelly won a trophy that I brought to show and tell. “I don’t own her,” I said, bitter, despite my classmates’ envy. I said the same thing every time my father mentioned Shelly’s haul.

“Oh, all right,” he finally said. “First heifer she has is yours.”

Tum-A-Lum Model Shelly, 1968, with my sister Patty at the halter, me with the trophy, and Pam Hawksley, RI Dairy Princess (and my future 4-H leader).

Tum-A-Lum Model Shelly, 1968, with my sister Patty at the halter, me with the trophy, and Pam Hawksley, RI Dairy Princess (and my future 4-H leader).

 Kelly was a mostly black baby with a fat white triangle in the middle of her forehead. We had several litters of puppies and kittens every year. For Easter, I routinely received ducklings and rabbits. But the first time I saw Kelly I thought: My god, was there ever anything more beautiful than this?

Kelly was never her mother’s daughter. No blue ribbons swung from her halter. If they had, they would have swayed in time with her cud chewing (Darcy would never chew her cud in public). Kelly had to be tugged around the ring. She lay down every time a judge approached. Flies loved her because she had little interest in swishing her tail to shoo them off.

Whenever we worked with show cows or had to approach the bull pen or were forced to place ourselves between an escape route and a charging 1500 pound animal, my father had one piece of advice: Just show ‘em who’s boss. Fearless, incapable of imagining the scenarios in which trampling might occur, he maintained his philosophy. But I was never Kelly’s boss. When she was hungry (she was always hungry) or she’d had enough of sun and snapping cameras, she shoved me out of her way and headed back to the show barn, judge be damned.

She grew into a boxcar of a cow. Big boned, continuously pregnant, and starved. She ate so much, in fact, she had no energy left over to milk. “Laziest goddamned cow I’ve ever seen,” my father would say, as I stood in the manger feeding her corn cobs from the palm of my hand. And, okay, it did become harder to distinguish her hip bones, but she was a presence, her coat a glossy, midnight black. If Darcy was Garbo, Kelly was Liz Taylor much later in life.

Kelly spewed heifer calves every thirteen months. First Kitty who needed two operations for a misplaced stomach, but who would wrap her head around you when you leaned against her shoulder. Kandi could unlatch the milkhouse door with her muzzle (For some reason, this trick never amused my father as much as it amused me). Kathi came when I called her (she was usually in the corn field trampling stalks). Deer-boned Krissy mostly stayed out of trouble. Every time I lifted the leg of Kelly’s newborn to check the sex, my father groaned. “Going to have a goddamned herd of her,” he’d say, and Kelly would butt him until he filled her manger.

When I came home from college one semester break, my father greeted me before I headed outside. “Just so you know, honey, your cow isn’t doing so well.” By then, I had enough cows for a herd of my own, but I knew who he was talking about. Kelly’s last calf had been a bull. Her recovery had been slow. She was more than ten years old and so thin, that when I finally gathered up enough courage to go look for her, I mistook her for another animal, one that always milked the meat off her bones.

“You get too attached,” my mother always told me. But how to resist a face like Kelly’s? Or those hoofs as big around as dessert plates, that giant head lifted towards me whenever I entered the barn? How to ignore how still she stood while I pressed her belly feeling her calf move, rubbing the tell-tale knob of its knee? How not to love her absolute and total insistence on attention as if she wasn’t a member of a stinking herd? Kelly taught me, a painfully shy kid, a great deal about how to be the boss of whatever world you’re in, how to hold your head up and barge right in.

Her mother, Shelly, had died the day after a difficult delivery of her third calf. I had stayed up late to watch my father pull the stillborn calf out and dose Shelly with IV fluids afterwards. She was alive when we left her, but the next day when I returned from school, my father sat me on his lap: “Got some bad news, honey,” he said. It was my first lesson about the heartbreak that is also farm life.

Many years later, I watched Kelly walk towards the freestall barn, hipbones finally prominent, her triangle still blazing white in all her incredible blackness. “I don’t want her to suffer,” I told my father, but later, I never asked if she had. I left shortly after and eventually returned to a herd full of animals who ignored me when I offered them a corn cob from the palm of my hand.

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