Cheated in the End by a Very Long Joke

I wrote a paper for a college writing class, which was titled, “Hide! Hide! The Cows’ Outside!” I got an ‘A’ on it and the professor attached an entire typewritten sheet praising my work and giving me suggestions for making it better. The one thing he said was that he felt cheated in the end as though he had just read a very long joke. It was a long joke, but also a true story.

So, this is what happened…

We lived in an area in northern Minnesota called Frog Alley. In the mornings, Cousin John would let the cows out to pasture. They would meander the worn path along the river and up to the little field next to our house. When my mother saw them, she would say in an alarmed voice, “Hide! Hide! The Cows’ Outside!”

Now why would you hide because the cows are outside? Every God-fearing and cow-fearing country kid knew that those cud-chewing bovines were the most docile of creatures. The only exception was the bull, which for unknown reasons, John left in with the rest of the herd at certain times of the year. Why, these animals were so tame, we used to ride them. Our skinny butts bouncing against a bony swaybacked milking cow. Now, that was heaven!

Still, every day my mother would say the same thing, and every day I would ask her again why we needed to hide, and every day she would laugh. Either mom was joking with me or she was nuts. Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference.

I began to watch the cows to see if there was anything suspicious or irrational flitting behind their big brown eyes. Then one time, when I was six, my brother, my two sisters and I headed up the hill to climb the lone pine tree in the little field next to our house. Halfway up, I noticed that there was one cow that seemed bigger and stood a little apart from the rest of the herd. It looked belligerent. I turned and headed full tilt back down the hill, yelling, “It’s the Bull!” This created a stampede amongst my siblings. Greg, who was a year older than I and who could run faster, ran right over the top of me, causing us both to tumble to the ground. Patty and Paula, our two eldest sisters, couldn’t avoid the pile up so they wound up on top of the heap. As one of us tried to get up, someone else was falling down on top.

It was a pretty messy game of leapfrog, but we finally scrambled to safety on the other side of the fence. We caught our breath, shook off the grass and the specter of the steam from the bull’s nostrils and the gore of its horns, and turned around to see just how close we had come to death. That bull never even attempted to chase us and was still standing, disinterestedly in the same place she had been when first I had seen her. I also noticed that she had udders.

Six years after this incident, two things occurred. First, the one room schoolhouse that I had attended was closing. Mrs. Gustafson would no longer teach the local children, as we were all going to be bussed into town for the rest of our years of education. Second, my father sold our house and built a larger one to accommodate our growing family. Before we moved, I stood in the little field in the spring grass and said goodbye to the cows, the pine tree and to the only home I had known.

It was then that I understood what mom had been saying all those years about the cows. “Yes, It’s true,” I thought, “Hide is the cows’ outside.” In spite of it being funny, I felt cheated. I had spent so long trying to figure it out and in the end, it turned out to be a very long joke.

Well, that was the gist of the paper I wrote in my college class, and I can see how the professor felt. But the real story continues….

Once we moved to the new house, the innocence of life in Frog Alley began to fade. It was the combination of being away from our community, a growing family, and the cost of having a larger house that put an immense strain on everyone. I don’t remember the next six years as being good ones.

In the spring of the year that I graduated from high school, we moved back to Frog Alley for three months. My grandfather died and left the property to my father. Dad didn’t want to permanently move onto grandpa’s property with old debt, so he sold the new house and took the family to Oregon and for one year, he worked for his brother.

Before we left for Oregon, I stood again in the little field in the spring grass. It seemed to me that time stood still to allow me to breathe it all in and remember. I was becoming an adult and had no idea what that meant. I did not realize that I was not only saying goodbye to those old cows, but also to my youth and to this land. I was not happy with my goodbye and thought the last six years were like that cow joke – it took too long for the punch line and it wasn’t that funny.

In the ten years that I lived in Oregon, I grew up quickly and learned to adapt. Yet there was always that part of me that could never reconcile to my new surroundings. The memories of my childhood stood out in poignant contrast to the busy chaotic life I found myself in as an adult. I guarded every memory of every songbird, of every time we made maple syrup and of every time I ran through hay stubble and poked the bottoms of my bare feet. In this adult world, when I spoke of these times, I was met with uncomprehending stares.

I felt cheated again. What was real? Was it when I was young and lived in an environment where you became keenly aware of every turning leaf and how slight temperature changes altered the mood of the lakes? What about the pure joy of country cows, or my mother’s singing, or her brilliant sense of humor? Was all this the big joke, or was living in the city and being away from every one and every thing that I had known and loved the joke?

Eventually, I came back to Minnesota, got married, adopted a child and then got divorced. I went to college in my forties, and raised my daughter as a single mom. I had to believe that what I was doing was best for both of us. Yet sometimes in the midst of the struggle, I wondered why I didn’t have a better picture of my future. I seemed to live the majority of my life in the middle of a muddle.

My dad once told us a story about his cousin, Lois, who was playing hide and seek with her brothers. She ran behind a tree and peeked her head around the trunk. Next thing she knew a large quantity of wet cow manure landed smack on her face and into her open, laughing mouth.

Now isn’t that typical? You are going about doing your life, you have a good moment, and suddenly you are smacked in the face with a fresh pile of dung. Once again, which was real and which was the joke? The laughter? or the dung?

When my own daughter graduated from high school, it was another spring day, where time once again was suspended. She would begin her adult life and I would begin mine – again. It was my turn to tell her the cow joke and her turn to not get it. I didn’t make her wait so long before I explained it to her.

One thing I knew for sure was that the quality of our relationship was never a joke. I loved being her mother, yet in a sense, we grew up together. I instilled in both of us an urgency to follow our heart’s passion, so we could become our best selves. I also had a chance to relive and reclaim my own youthful perspective. The abundance of solid and beautiful memories from my childhood and of our mother-daughter moments needed to be cherished; as I watched my own mother’s memories fade with the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Once again I was reminded of the old long-winded joke about the cows and how it seemed to mirror life. I thought about something that my mother had told us just after my grandfather passed away. She said she and my Aunt Corrine had visited him in the hospital a few days before he died. Mom said his face glowed with joy as he cheered them up. He told them that, when he looked back over his life, he could see a clearly defined path. He also said that, although he had never been aware of it before, he could see what the purpose of his life had been.

It has been many years since I lived in Frog Alley. My mother and father are gone, along with many of the folks from their generation. The cows are gone too. Recently my siblings and I built a little cabin just down the road from my grandfather’s old place and near the little yellow house where we grew up. The little field, with the lone pine tree, is still there and I have once again walked in the spring grass.

I wonder about my grandfather, who never really seemed to give much thought to such philosophic or spiritual issues, but in the end he was able to grasp the profound meaning of his life. I also wonder about my mother’s life, her young child’s hopes and fancies, who she loved and who she became, and to the end when it all vanished. I guess it is more than a wondering, it is an anguished question of why.

I cannot bear to think that at the end of my life, I will find that all my struggles and hopes were for nothing. I will not let myself believe that all of this life was just a long, and not so funny, joke. I am determined to find my unique path, to passionately pursue my true calling and to encourage others to do the same.

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