It was four months ago that Calvie was abandoned on our barn doorstep, so to speak. According to my cattleman father-in-law, Calvie was a twin, forsaken by his mother who (busy with her first calf) seemed oblivious to having birthed a second.
Such inauspicious beginnings are typical of "bottle calves," the unfortunate plucky survivors born unexpectedly to feedlot heifers, or orphaned during the birthing, or (as in Calvie's case) neglected by distracted, inexperienced mothers.
Grandpa offered the little black Angus free to neighborhood farmers who contend with oddling calves more regularly than he does. But he got no takers, given the fiscal fact that bottle calves usually suck up more in time and milk-replacer than they'll ever recoup at market.
Calvie was therefore conferred upon my kids (and by association, upon me). Because 10-year-old Eloise happened to be in the yard when Grandpa drove up, she won the honor of retrieving Calvie from the field, which included a forbidden ride in the back of the pickup with a blanketed one-day-old calf sucking on her fingers all the way home.
And so it happened that Eloise became surrogate mama, claiming first cow-rights over her siblings, and christening the babe Calvie. (Though I once heard her say its name was Duff, and I can't seem to call it anything other than "Pups," my generic name for any four-legged creature that falls under my indiscriminate eye.)
Twice-a-day bottle feedings have since calibrated our summer, a morning-evening ticktock. "Time to feed the calf," I call, with increasing volume, until Eloise at last puts down her book, bounds off the trampoline, or stops bickering with a brother.
As middle child, she ekes a compromise out of even the smallest chore: "I'll get the bottle," she tells me, "if you'll mix the milk."
We have adapted a sawed-off ketchup bottle to use as a funnel. Still, mixing never fails to leave a fair shake of the pale powder across the dark-green kitchen counter. And despite my summer-long scolding against adding mess to mess, Eloise always signs her "E" with a finger in the milk dust.
At the barn, she calls to Calvie, who moos, and veritably prances - a cloppity four-footed tap dance - at the sound of her voice.
One day, when a town friend joined us for the chore, Eloise bestowed the bottle-holding privilege on her ponytailed guest. But Calvie's loyalty was unswayed: He danced directly past the bottle to nuzzle first his Eloise.
Calvie can suck his two-quart dinner in a matter of minutes, after which my daughter lingers, girl and cow treating each other to a suck of her fingers. "He likes to suck my toes!" she reported gleefully one day.
But Calvie, like any youngster, has his trying moments. Instinctively, without ever having nursed from an actual udder, he head-butts his bottle to stimulate more milk flow. Eloise and I (quick learners) have absorbed bottle-butts to the ribs, the belly, the chin.
Furthermore, Calvie's ever-prancing feet come down hard on toes and wallop the shins of those who wander haplessly in the realm of his backside.
One morning, having endured a rather tough go, Eloise stomped from the barn with the bottle still half full. "If he's going to act like that, he's not going to get his breakfast," she declared, voicing a sentiment familiar to any mother who has suffered one-too-many splatterings of strained plums or adolescent back talk.
But after a few minutes of grumbling (unable to sustain her threat any longer than most mothers), Eloise returned to finish feeding Calvie his milk.
Each day now, we reach deeper into Calvie's third 50-pound bag of milk-replacer. He's begun to eat creep- feed, drinks well from his stock tank, and enjoys fresh grass in his fenced pasture.
Our bottle-feeding days are winding down, along with summer. Eloise will begin fifth grade soon, about the same time Calvie is weaned.
One evening, my daughter shared a bit of motherly wisdom gleaned from this calf-tending interlude: "He's calmer when I sing to him."
"What do you sing?" I asked.
"Swing Low," she said.
I find myself humming it, too.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society