The Reach of Beauty: A Catholic Boyhood in Wisconsin
We were as close to God as we were to our animals or as close to our animals as we were to God. It’s difficult to know if He or they were ascendant. I was born on a dairy farm in southern Wisconsin in 1933 where I lived with my parents, two older brothers, two older sisters, twenty-five cows, a series of “love-driven” Holstein bulls always appropriately named “The Duke” by my father after the Duke of Windsor, sixty nameless chickens, a team of horses pegged poetically as Jack and Jill, one three-legged dog injured in a mowing accident, and three semi-feral male cats who, when food scraps were put out after supper, answered to the names of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin. It was a life of religious labor.continue at Commonweal
Prayers were said before every meal, beginning with breakfast: “Bless us O Lord and these thy gifts...”; and the rosary led by my father was recited every evening with all of us on our knees in the living room in the fifteen minutes prior to going to bed: “Hail Mary full of grace...” In the long hours between, my mother and sisters planted and weeded the garden, fed and collected eggs from the chickens, canned vegetables and preserved fruit in summer, and cleaned, sewed, and cooked year-round. But my father, my brothers, and I began and ended each day before breakfast and after supper milking cows—heads resting against the warm flank of this mysterious relationship between man and animal, between a supposedly spiritual creature destined for immortality and a lowly creature who could not pray.
Between morning and evening milking, the workday for my father, my brothers, and me changed with the seasons. In summer we planted and cultivated and harvested while the dreary winter months of December, January, February, and March required daily scouring of barns, sheds, and coops. This Augean task consumed the better half of a fourteen-hour day because the animals were confined indoors by the bitter winter weather. Manure was piled high behind the silo in the cow yard in those frozen months because the fields were too deep with snow for horses to plunge through and the cold was so intense that frozen manure might shatter the iron mechanism of the spreader. Thus we were required to dress four month’s accumulation of animal waste on our mostly flat, black loamy fields in late March or early April as the snow melted and before spring planting began.