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Cows and Cookies

By Joy Swartley Sawatzky

It wasn’t my screams that brought my mother running on that otherwise typical morning on our dairy farm. It was when my screams stopped abruptly that she began to worry about what my brothers might be up to. At two years of age, I was more of a liability than a welcome companion to my two older brothers, eight and nine years older than I.

As my mother approached the milk house she heard me crying while my brothers talked urgently yet quietly to me. She found me sitting naked in a washtub with my brothers hosing me down, trying to get the cow manure that pretty well covered me washed off. Were they trying to be kind to me after an unfortunate mishap, or were they trying to save themselves from the necessary discipline that my mother might need to exercise? It was clear that somehow they were at the root cause of the incident.

They had thought it would be great fun to give me a ride on one of the milk cows as it came into the barn for the daily milking. This was before the days of the computerized milking parlors and fancy dairy management systems. This was a simple cement floor barn with basic stalls and a gutter running the length of the stalls to collect the droppings. My short two year old legs just couldn’t hang on as the cow took that little hop over the gutter on her way to the stall and her daily ritual of being milked.

Back row from left to right - Vernon Lee Swartley, Steven Swartley. Front Row - Debbie Swartley (Stauffer) and Joy Swartley (Sawatzky).

Rumor had it that my sister, who was four years older than I was, actually enjoyed being perched on top of her favorite cow, riding to and from the barn. But I wasn’t like my older sister. I did not like cows, not one bit. They gave me nightmares and seemed like giants ready to run me down, despite my father’s reassurances that the cows were more afraid of me than I was of them. I wasn’t convinced, but I doubt that my brothers knew anything about my misgivings. They just thought it would be fun to give me a ride that morning. At least I am willing to give them the benefit of a doubt.

Growing up with older brothers can be dicey at times. There is this combination of dread, fear and admiration all rolled into one relationship. The dread had to do with what they might do to you next to tease or torment you. The fear was that they might actually do something and you might feel some pain, and yet there was out right awe and respect at the freedom, strength and playfulness that they possessed. Who wouldn’t look up to a big brother? They were both so tall, so handsome and so smart!

Neither of them claimed responsibility for telling me that the intriguing coffee scoop that turned up in our kitchen was a teaspoon in measurement, so when my chocolate chip cookies took an interesting turn with a scoop (really a tablespoon) of salt, baking soda, baking powder and vanilla – they ended up eating every last one of them. They also must have had stomachs of steel.

I don’t remember any consequences for scaring me out of my wits by telling me that there was an owl that lived in the barn. One of them told me (no names mentioned) that the owl was just waiting for me to come out at night and take out my eyes when I left the maze of tunnels we built among the hay bales on the top floor of the barn. It did keep me inside the house and out of their hair after dark most of the time, except for the time when I tried to follow them to the meadow where they were having a hot dog roast by the creek.

Imagine my surprise when I tried to sneak after them and grabbed the wire fence to lift it up so I could crawl under. The electric current in it surprised me more than harmed me I suppose, but you wouldn’t have known that by my howls that pierced the quiet country night.

As we all grew older the attention from them became snaps from a wet dish towel on the behind as I walked by, or a punch in the arm – just a ‘love tap’, they’d say. They became more interested in girlfriends and cars and soon went away to college. I was only in fourth grade when the oldest left. Then I grew up and moved away, though not before they coined a phrase that became the family motto for what seemed too long when anything went wrong, “Joy did it!” They claimed they were saying it lovingly of course.

I had the chance to get to know them again when I moved back to my home area after being gone to other parts of the country and world for 23 years. Their children were grown and married by then and I had two sons of my own. I had to shift from being the little sister, to becoming a peer. They graciously received me home, and the teasing took on new forms like mystery faxes at my place of work. By now I figured out how to get them back and we had some fun times playing practical jokes on each other. I felt like old times, but on more equal footing.

The years of my being gone and the gap of years between our ages all faded away as we worked together to support my father and mother through my dad’s health difficulties. When my oldest brother became ill and died of cancer it seemed like I was just getting to know him as an adult and it was way too soon to say good-bye. I was honored to be asked by the family to officiate at both my brother’s funeral and at my father’s funeral.

The teasing and ‘tormenting’ from times long ago gave way to a deep and abiding love and respect for each other. I have no doubt that if I am ever in need, my living ‘big brother’ would do anything within his power to help me, and I would do the same for him. I found myself seeking him out for a face to face conversation when it was time to share about an unexpected health situation, something I never would have done years ago. It’s a feeling of a family gone right, no small thing I am learning. My brother and sisters and sister-in-laws and mother have formed a web of support and care for me and for each other that defies all of our differences and geographic distances, and has redefined relationships from the past.


Remembering Your Story

What was it like growing up with siblings in your family? What words would you use to describe your siblings? Did that relationship change as you grew older and had a family and life away from your primary family? Did you ever spend time on a farm growing up? What are some of your memories of that time?

Explore the story while doing a hands-on project

Copyright September 7, 2004 by Joy Swartley Sawatzky. All Rights Reserved.

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