The Cow Lady’s Gift



Yesterday I shelled our dry beans. I cracked the brown, crinkling pods and dropped the large, purple speckled dry beans into a basin. As I did one after another, my thoughts turned to the cow lady.

We told her we were in the process of moving but that she could keep her two Jersey calves in our barn temporarily. Only the black and white Belted Galloways were left in our pasture and they would be leaving soon. The sheep, and horse and our own little family of Jersey cows had all been sold. We’d already signed papers and knew we were leaving the farm ourselves. It was an aching time of packing and waiting and living in an ending.

Our own two Jersey cows were named Daisy and Buttercup. They were half sisters and the farmer was willing to give us a good deal if we took them both during a January cold spell. We brought them home and fussed and worried and I sewed them fleecy jackets. When that week the temperature hit nearly twenty below, my husband talked about sleeping in the barn with a space heater. Bottles three times a day had us out in the cold. We trudged out through the sharp dawn, later, the sun high and reflecting on crusty snow and still again in the evening to notice each gradual change in the moon’s shape. I remember cabin fever didn’t hit that year like it usually did in February.

Daisy was mine because she was sweet and Buttercup was my daughter’s because she was frisky. Spring brought halter training and romps through the pastures. It must have been the bottles of milk when they were young that helped, but while the beef cows were usually pretty content to keep to themselves, the Jerseys would follow in our tracks as we did chores. To my daughter, Buttercup was a confidant and playmate. For a few precious years the fawn colored girls were part of our family and our future plans.

This was a golden age of our brief stint as farmers and then things changed suddenly. A day came when someone drove in the barnyard and loaded Daisy, Buttercup and their calves onto a trailer. They looked through the bars and money exchanged hands and somehow they weren’t ours any longer. Even though a little girl cried herself to sleep night after night, they were gone.

It was a few months after that when a neighbor called saying that a friend was coming to town and needed a place to keep two Jersey calves. Two little heifers just under a year old. I wanted to say no, and yet, we didn’t have a good reason. It wouldn’t be easy to find a place to board them in our little town and we had the space. So, in a few days, two calves showed up in Daisy and Buttercup’s pole barn again.

I really don’t remember the lady’s name. The kids all called her the cow lady and that’s how I remember her. She’d come twice a day to do chores and sometimes my daughter would join her and walk the calves with her up and down the road. It was bittersweet to see a sight so familiar and yet know that this was a chapter of our lives that had ended. We were just experiencing a long, drawn out goodbye while we waited for everything to be settled and to leave the farm for good.

It was the cow lady that gave my daughter the bean seeds. In February, for her tenth birthday, the cow lady gave her a little box and inside were five large seeds and a note with planting instructions.

By Spring, the cow lady had moved on and so had we. We turned the soil in our little garden patch in the woods and my daughter found a stout pole and planted her seeds around it. Unfortunately, the chickens (who besides the dog were the only animals that made the move from the farm), managed to break into the garden and scratch in the soil until only two bean seeds remained. These two weren’t even left by the pole but managed to grow along the garden fence where they had been flung by the chickens.

By August, the vines had wrapped themselves high and the plants were in blossom. They were a deep orange-red against the green in the garden and bees and hummingbirds were drawn steadily to their blossoms. In the fall, the long pods had browned and dried and my daughter excitedly picked and shelled them and found that she had a jar full of beans identical to the ones she had planted in the spring. From those two, misplaced, dropped in the earth, purple seeds a bounty of a harvest had grown. Each new season, we find at harvest time that they have multiplied again and this year we had a row planted all along one side of the garden, growing tall and winding around the fence and sunflowers.

So, yesterday I stood shelling bean after bean.

We’ll use some for soup but I’ll be sure to set some aside for planting in the Spring. These beans, falling out of the dried and brown pods, are just resting. What seems dead and dry and lifeless, is holding all the potential for tall green vines and the brightest flowers in the garden.

While I stood shelling those beans, I had other thoughts. With my hands busy my mind could wander to situations that needed sorting and loved ones that needed prayer. I turned over the words of a friend dealing with heartbreak and brokenness.  I thought of so many who are dealing with painful, dark days. Days of prayers that don’t get answered in ways that make sense to our hearts and minds. Days when the first thoughts of the day are painful and it’s hard to get to sleep at night.

But as these thoughts and names passed through my mind, my hands held the cow lady’s gift; the gift of remembering grief and death and leaving and the gift of seeing hope and new life and revealed purpose. The gift of seeing with renewed thankfulness the joy of today and the blessing and goodness that came from hard changes. The gift of my daughter’s happiness. The gift of remembering seasons and that spring always follows winter and that what is sown in the ground doesn’t stay there.

After I cast the last of the brown pods into the compost, I took the basin of seeds in my arms and carried it into the house. Before I reached for a jar, I counted out five, large, purple speckled seeds. With a prayer, I placed them in an envelope for a friend.

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

A Prayer of Surrender

Three years ago my mind was full of plans for our farm and our beloved animals.  Eagerly awaiting calves from our sweet Jersey cows, I had dreams of fresh milk, butter and cheese.  I had big plans for increasing our herd of Belted Galloway beef cows and with the garden, chickens, fruit trees, honey bees and extras like the sheep and horse, we felt close to being self-sufficient.  I loved our two hundred year old farmhouse with all its stories on the edge of the village.  We were settled, full of dreams and putting down what we thought were deep roots. Carrying my newborn sixth child in my arms, I was surrounded by life springing up in our home, barn and fields.

Then, one early morning in June, I found myself in a dewy pasture touching a dead calf and looking into the heartbroken eyes of my daughter and the questioning brown eyes of her cow, Buttercup. This was the first event in a summer that I can only look back on as ‘the breaking’.  Every single day something horrible happened.  Friends and neighbors couldn’t believe our string of ‘bad luck’. Our vet said she had never seen anything like it. During our daily phone conversations my sister stopped saying, “I hope you have a better day tomorrow’ because it never was. There were calls to the vet, calls to the doctor, calls to poison control, trips to the emergency room. And there was so much more.  Suffice it to say that so much of what I thought was solid started to sink under me.   And every night I would sink into bed and sob.  Every day it felt like something was taken away.  Under pressure I would loosen my fist just a little and something I loved would be pulled from me. I would protectively close my hand over what remained thinking I had reached the limit only to have my fingers pried open again by another painful circumstance. It felt like I was breaking.

As Oswald Chambers described, “A saint’s life is in the hands of God like a bow and arrow in the hands of an archer. God is aiming at something the saint cannot see, but our Lord continues to stretch and strain, and every once in a while the saint says, “I can’t take any more.” Yet God pays no attention; He goes on stretching until His purpose is in sight, and then He lets the arrow fly.”

All the while my heart was crying out that I couldn’t take anymore, a compassionate God was weighing out my distress against the purposes He had in sight. He was moving us and He was relentlessness.  Day by day and week by week, my grip loosened and I began to learn the prayer of surrender. I sat alone in the ER in the middle of the night and prayed a prayer of surrender. My feet pounded as I tried to outrun the pain of being cut out of a loved one’s life and I prayed a prayer of surrender. I placed ads to sell animals that were supposed to be our beginning and grow old and be buried at the edge of the field we had planted, and I prayed a prayer of surrender. I answered countless ‘whys’ spoken by little broken hearts while my own heart was torn, and I prayed a prayer of surrender. With each box I packed, there was a sighing prayer of surrender.

Eventually the arrow flew.

Another summer came and the old life had passed away. I felt like I had been weaned of anything unessential and what remained was where my focus should be. I was still a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend.

Also remaining was the prayer of surrender. So far it had been a giving in, an acceptance of what was. It was the same prayer as in laboring when I bury my face in my husband’s shirt and cry and breathe and surrender. It was a reaction to pain.

But driving home one night, alone in my car, I found a prayer of surrender that springs not from pain, but from worship. The summer following ‘the breaking’, I went to a weekly Bible study at a friend’s house. We were going chapter by chapter through the book of John. This gave me just what my soul needed. After the stretching and straining I needed to look into the face of Jesus. To follow his steps toward his own prayer of surrender, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” I saw his heart broken for me and my heart was drawn into deeper trust. I saw his compassion and his power and I was filled with longing. On that dark stretch of dirt road, watching my headlights bump through the night, I asked him to fill me more. I wanted more of him and if it meant less of me then I wanted to fade so that his light would burn brighter.  My prayer of worshipful surrender was an asking to die to self and to be filled with his life.

It was one of those moments, like in the field with the dead calf, which I can look back on as a point of turning.  It was a moment that led to more moments that led to changes. There is still a need for daily surrender, for moment by moment surrender. For not just a surrender to circumstances, but a full, look into His face and worship, surrender.  Not a resignation to fate but eyes fixed on Jesus, ‘the image of the invisible God.’ To behold that God, in all His glory, is gentle and humble. Not a hopeful spiritual exercise but a reply to a known voice saying, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-30)