Eli Conrad Williams was my grandfather. Eli was a tall, thin and quiet man. Originally from Missouri, he moved west to Colby, Kansas with his family where, at the age of 30, he married Mary Maris, who was 19. His family called him Conrad, but his mother’s nickname for him was Connie. Eventually, Conrad and Mary moved to the Hi Plains region of Southwestern Kansas and Southeastern Colorado and raised two children, a girl and a boy. I could begin a family history about them, but that’s not the point. The point is to tell the stories I heard about him from my dad.
Eli Conrad had a heart condition that plagued him while his kids were growing up. I remember Dad telling how, in the middle of the night, Grandma would awaken him and his sister, Phyllis, and tell them to get up and pray, because, “Daddy is having a bad spell.” So they would get up and begin to ask God to keep their daddy alive. Something must have worked, because Eli Conrad lived until he was 86.
As with many folks in that country, life was hard and money short. They never owned their own place, but rented farms in the country. Dad told of how, early in the morning while his dad was milking the cow, he would get a little tin cup and go out to the barn. In the story, or at least my version of it, the morning would have a fall chill and Grandma would bundle him up like a round ball of thread. He would waddle across the yard with one hand extended, holding a little gray, tin measuring cup. (We used to have the cup) Openning the barn door, he breathed deep the slight rush of fragrant, warm air. Closing the door quickly and latching it, he stood by the door for a moment and savored the rich mix of odors. Hay, manure from the cows and horses, leather from the horses’ work harnesses, and just a hint of motor oil. No better smell in the world than a working barn. Suddenly, the “sploosh, sploosh” sound of Conrad’s first chore of the morning, breaks through to his sleepy mind. Following the sound, Dad waddles to the stall where Conrad is seated on a little three legged stool, feet firmly planted on the packed dirt floor, knees sticking up, head leaning against the side of the animal, and hands rapidly squeezing and releasing the udders while streams of milk shoot rapidly into a metal bucket partially filled with frothy white liquid. Hearing the hay rustle, Conrad turns his head for a moment, and immediately smiles at the sight of his ball-of-yarn son.
“Good morning,” Conrad offers.
“mmmmph,” my father replies.
A slight chuckle and a nod of the head invites my dad to laboriously kneel down, place his tin cup over the bucket and listen to the first streams of milk hit the bottom of his cup with a “tink, tink” sound. Every sense is alive as dad waits in anticipation for his cup to be filled and his first taste. He hears the slight thump of the cow’s muzzle against the side of the manger as she contentedly feeds on the morning ration of grain. The tinkle of milk in the cup is joined by a slight jangle of the chains on the kickers located on the back legs of the cow as she shifts her weight from one leg to the other, the kickers added to keep her from knocking over the bucket of milk. Steam rises off his little cup, and dad is just missed by a swishing tail. He turns his whole body slightly so he can look towards the cow’s head with a raised eyebrow and slight scowl.
Finally, the cup is filled and Dad takes a sip so it won’t spill while he tries to stand up. The sip leaves him with a frothy white mustache, the sight of which brings another soft chuckle from Conrad’s smiling lips. As Dad stands, the side-to-side slosh of the warm milk escapes the top of the cup and soaks into gloved hands. “Watch it…it’s spilling a little…” Conrad gently chides. After he is on his feet again, Dad does what any kid would do, he sucks the edge of his gloves to get all the warm nectar lost in the fabric. And then he stands there, the steam warming his face, and drinks warm milk…. straight from the original faucet….. not pasteruized….. not homogenized…. just the raw, good stuff… cream and all.
Just remembering the story invites me into the barn. I am there. I breathe deep… I LOVE the smell of a barn. I see it happen. I see the love of a father for his little boy. I’m reminded that even in difficult times, there are moments of transcendent beauty…. moments in which we want to linger and soak up the richness. Love infiltrates such moments completely, so much so that it makes the heart ache and the smile glow. Those moments are our lifeline which is secured to the hope of a tomorrow captured by the heart of a loving God.
Uh… if you’ll excuse me…. I think they will be getting the eggs next….