Of Cows and Men
Putting inheritance money to good use.
My beloved grandfather died two years ago at the age of 99, naming my sister and I (the children of his late daughter) among his heirs. Granddaddy was a retired government employee who managed to build up a sizeable nest egg through careful money management.
Though unreservedly generous with others, this Great Depression survivor was not one to spend recklessly on himself. When he died in 2011, for example, he was still using the same harvest gold iced-tea glasses I remembered from my grandparents’ kitchen in the 1970s. Keeping up with the latest fashions was not one of his priorities. Bequeathing money to his children was. One of his sons theorized that Granddaddy willed himself to live so long in part to accrue more interest for his children to inherit.
My windfall wasn’t “quit your job” kind of cash, but it was much more than one might ever expect to inherit from a retired civil servant who had lived on a fixed income for 34 years. Knowing the decades of work, self-sacrifice and lonely widowhood Granddaddy endured while patiently accumulating this gift, I was determined to use it wisely. I envisioned putting it toward our children’s college, our retirement or paying off debts. You know – sensible choices like Granddaddy, himself, would have made.
That is why I heard my own voice rising shrilly one day after my husband casually mentioned that he had dipped into my inheritance to buy a couple of cows.
“You did what?” I all but shrieked.
Let me explain. The money was not the issue. Like any married couple, Harvey and I have had our share of spats – over child-raising, family, social schedules, housework or that certain tone of voice or facial expression that never fails to push the other one’s buttons. Yet, I’m happy to say, we never clash over money. We don’t play “my money” and “your money.” It is all “our money.” In practically every financial decision, we either agree or allow the other the freedom to spend as they see fit.
But this wasn’t just any old money. It was special money. Special money that Harvey had – in my opinion – just squandered on some of the most aggravating creatures ever to roam the face of the earth.
Or, as I put it to Harvey, “My Granddaddy worked his whole life for that money, and I do not intend to spend it on some damned cow.”
As the wife of a third-generation ex-dairy farmer, I consider myself something of an authority on damned cows. Until 2003, when we bailed out of the dying dairy industry, we owned about 200 Holstein cows of all ages. Understand, I don’t hate cows. I don’t dislike cows. I will even admit to being rather fond of a few cows in my day. But I can honestly say that our dairy farming years left me with zero desire to have large, dumb, smelly, expensive, fly-attracting, trouble-making animals hanging around just for the heck of it.
Sure, cow ownership had its rewards. When everything went smoothly, the births of newborns were happy occasions. Pastures of peacefully grazing livestock enhanced the scenery and lent a feeling of companionship we later missed. And although we didn’t make pets of our cows – they came and went too often for getting attached – a few stubbornly affectionate ones made pets of themselves. I remember calves that followed us around like puppies, and a milk cow who would sidle up and nuzzle our backs.
Mainly what I remember about cows, however, is the relentless headache of keeping them alive and milked. Just keeping them on all four feet was a challenge. Cows, especially when sick or injured, have a tendency to get “down” – prostrate on their sides and unable to get up. If they stay down too long, they die. I wish I knew how many times I found myself rolling around in the slop trying to wrestle a 1,200-pound behemoth into an upright position. Typically, they managed to land in an icy mud puddle on a freezing night or under a barbwire fence or in some other ridiculous fix.
Adding to all this enjoyment, the patient was often trying to kick the life out of you while you were trying to save hers. Cow kicks range from the merely painful to the fatal. I will never forget one of our top milk producers – #29 – who seemed to have it in for me, in particular. I still think that evil thing needed an exorcism.
Then there were the middle-of-the-night phone calls from the sheriffs department telling us cows were out on the highway. There is nothing quite like a rodeo at 3 o’clock in the morning. Or truck drivers who sue you because they hit one of your cows on the road and dent their bumper.
There was no end of ways to lose money. Every animal that died was hundreds or thousands of dollars down the drain, and they always seemed to be worth more when you bought them than when you sold them. Many times we had to choose between sending one to the auction – where it was usually destined to become a Quarter Pounder with cheese – or continuing to feed a worthless cow. (That may sound cold, but not so much when your feed bill is $100,000 a year.) Cow prices stunk so bad when we quit, a joke went around that a farmer had tied two calves in the back of his truck and parked it in town with a sign saying, “Free to a Good Home.” When he returned, someone had left three more calves in the truck.
This is why I was not exactly high-fiving Harvey when he announced that he was bringing cows back into our life – via my inheritance, no less. I was even more agog when he explained that he planned to turn enough profit on his little herd to pay our property taxes. Hadn’t he learned anything in all those years of dairy farming? I railed. If cows were such money-makers, I groused, then why did we get out of the dairy business?
Harvey continued to insist that he could make money off this deal. I continued to differ. We went back and forth like this for a while before I finally got him to admit what I suspected all along: He bought cows because he wanted some.
He had me dead to rights.
Harvey, you see, is a lot like my grandfather. He never hesitates to share what he has with others, but he is practically a miser with himself. He is so reluctant to treat himself to any purchase that isn’t absolutely necessary that I usually have to finagle him into it or buy it myself. Should he outlive me the way my grandfather outlived my grandmother, I fully anticipate he will go to his final rest sipping from the same cloudy, outdated drinking glasses we had 40 years earlier.
The funny thing is, Granddaddy once tried farming for a few years when his children were young. Even when he was in his 90s, he still spoke wistfully about those days. I think he gave it up because he never really made a go of it financially and maybe because his wife and daughter weren’t that crazy about farm life, either. I tend to think of his farming years as one of the very few times in his life he did something for himself instead of putting everybody else’s wants and needs ahead of his own.
When I think about it that way, I have to admit that I was wrong for getting upset with my husband. And that Granddaddy would probably be glad that Harvey bought himself those damned cows.