Like 'Lassie,' only she's a cow

When my son was 9 or 10, I thought he was old enough to call a cow his own - though I didn't quite like the sound of that. We milked a couple dozen bovines on our little commercial dairy at its peak. All were a part of Tim's daily life, but none was yet his personal property, in part because the concept of living, breathing animals as property is alien to me. I don't even think of trees as one person's or another's. The cows have always been simply "the cows." We were all in the milk business together, and who could say who owned whom? At times I felt enslaved to those twice-a-day bulging udders.

Suddenly, though, with money from egg sales jingling in his pockets, Tim became interested in the business end of things. As the cows were, after all, our main source of income, I told him that his next birthday present would be the big Holstein I'd been calling Bernadette. No, he wouldn't get a cut of that milk check, but he might raise and sell a calf or two down the road. What I really hoped is that he'd begin to think about the animal in a special way that had nothing to do with money. When he promptly renamed her Beulah, I suspected I'd had the right idea.

I shamelessly kept that emotional wheel in motion. Instead of reading to Tim at night, I'd often invent "Tim and Beulah" adventures - chapter after chapter of imagined perils and escapes involving boy and bovine. Sometimes Tim would be Beulah's savior, breaking down doors to rescue her from a fire; other nights she'd pull him from the quicksand or spirit him away from the ring of hungry wild dogs. They both saved the farm from pending disaster more than once. Oh, he knew they were ripping tall tales, and he probably thought at times that a stallion or collie might make a more perfect partner for his own stalwart character. But his grin at the start of a new episode of Tim and Beulah wasn't put on purely for my sake. He loved the series. And he maintained a lively interest in the real cow and her calves over the years, even if he never did warm up to the idea of dairying himself.

Last year, high school diploma in hand, Tim began life in his own apartment, and employment at a local service station. Beulah, and several other elder members of our dwindling herd, retired with us when the milk truck picked up the final load a few years ago. We could have sold them then, but they keep the pastures trim and the farm, well, alive. We never meant to increase the size of our little remnant herd, but our neighbor's bull had other ideas last fall, and leapt the fence to pursue them. Beulah, among others, became large with calf once again.

As Beulah's time neared, my son called to say his girlfriend's uncle was looking for a cow to raise a calf on his place - and age wasn't a factor. Having lost his job when the station closed, Tim was desperate for income. I didn't like the idea, but Beulah was, after all, his cow. I grilled him about the prospective new owner and home, and he assured me she was going to a good place - not, heaven forbid, the auction block. And so the sale was made and Tim's finances revived. When the big black and white Holstein rumbled off in a livestock trailer one April morning, it suddenly struck me that this was the end of an era ... though many years had passed since I'd told the last Tim and Beulah tale.

But it isn't really. Beulah has simply started a new chapter of her own story. Tim and his girl, Ashley, came by with pictures of the cow looking regal in the dappled sun of a well-built paddock. She'll have that calf any day now, and a new lease on life. And Tim, free to invent the next chapter of his personal narrative, has just applied for admission to the local technical college.

I like to think that someday when he tucks his own child into bed, he'll reach for a book and stop ... and the improbable, death-defying duo, Tim and Beulah, will take to the fields again.

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