The smells of silage, ground corn, milk replacer and cows were comforting when extraordinary events threw me off balance. The safe harbor it offered could be ruined by a stuck drinking cup, frozen pipe, or a pneumonia outbreak among the calves.
The barn’s environment and crowded calf pens was ideal for pneumonia. It wasn’t common knowledge at the time but moving calves to outside hutches was better than syringe treatments.
The veterinarian — a tall, soft-spoken man with the patience of Job — was called when calf losses mounted. He was, to my way of thinking, a classic example of bad things happening to good people.
His son and daughter were both lost in their youth, leaving him and his wife alone at home on property outside of town. They tapped maple trees and made syrup that rivaled Vermont’s best.
Mother respected the man — perhaps because she and Dad suffered a similar loss. Their daughter and my eldest sister died in her late teens from rheumatic fever, which wrecked her heart.
Modern medicine knows that the fever may in part be inherited and strikes when childhood strep throat and scarlet fever is untreated. The illness can inflame the heart and cause life-long joint pain.
I never knew Adelaide, whose name stems from the High German language, but I understood her to be a pretty girl who rebelled against the restrictions placed on her for health reasons. She had a boyfriend, but near the end the doctor recommended that she not leave the house because it might overstress her weakened heart.
She was a butterfly that wasn’t allowed to flap its wings.
A formal portrait of Adelaide hung on the living room wall beside Mother’s favorite chair located near a window that allowed winter’s sun to warm the living room. Mother knitted there, read Reader Digests, did the Rosary, and napped when daily chores had worn her out.
I missed Adelaide, although I never knew her.
She might well have married a farmer and had a passel of children or became a successful businesswoman who lived in a big house in town. The only certainty, Mother said, was that she and I would see her one day among heaven’s saints.
Her mantra, accepted by her youngest son, was that God never gave anyone a cross that was too heavy to carry. That belief was strongly tested by circumstance, none worse than when in late life Mother suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, which is among the cruelest of illnesses.
At its worst she didn’t recognize her son and her home yet recalled putting food on the table during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression years. It was a near miracle, when at death’s door, we were able to share “I love you.’’ I can’t recall ever telling her that before, but I have said it several times since — most often in the night’s quiet or when the sky is filled with stars.
I again questioned weighty matters when daughter Rachel was diagnosed with autism. As most parents do, if it was possible her challenge ought to be shifted on my shoulders. It took a long time before understanding came that Rachel is a great gift.
She seldom ends a conversation without saying “I love you.’’
Oh, there are times when Rachel wishes she was "normal." However, it is nearly impossible to determine what normal is.
The conviction remains that all things will turn out just fine.
There are times — especially in the night’s darkness — when I walk back inside the barn and hear the cows awaken in their stations and smell the silage. Adelaide’s photograph hangs from the wall and a boy who has reached old age is left to ponder what might have been while content with what is.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.