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A warm heat immediately replaced the chill, moist January air as I stepped into the cattle barn. The Annual Stock Show and Exposition used to be an annual event for me, but I had been away from home for 25 years. It was good coming home. I breathed deep the sweet aroma of digested alfalfa that permeated the barn. It brought back memories of youth growing up on the ranch and the early mornings spent milking Grandpa's dairy herd. I had chosen this day specifically because the dairy cattle were on exhibition.
The barn was brightly lit, a contrast to the overcast skies outside. People were concerned with the care of their animals preparing them for the show. I could see people shampooing, currying and blow drying their animals. Cows which they had raised for the last year or two from calves, feeding them, combing them, tending to their every need. Training them for this big day. Even though this was a 4-H event every where you looked families were working together. The sound of nervous laughter wafted throughout the barn.
I hadn't traveled more than about 50 feet down the first aisle when I spotted another memory two aisles over. Her name is unimportant to anyone except me but it has remained branded into my memory for the last 25 years. She was my first love, my first fiancÚ. Her physical appearance hadn't changed; she still looked like the 16-year-old I fell in love with. She was petite with shoulder length dark-blonde hair, teased on top to give her an appearance of being taller and flipped under. Her hair was still styled ala the '60 and held in place with enormous amounts of hair spray. Even from this distance with aging eyes I could see the sparkle of her green eyes. As she smiled I noticed the crooked front tooth and the cleft in her chin and my heart leapt.
I have no idea how long I stood there until someone bumped into me and brought me back to consciousness. I had been standing in the middle of the aisle blocking the walkway, probably with my mouth agape. I looked around and saw a bale of hay against the wall. I moved to it and sat down, trying to compose myself, all the time admiring this vision of loveliness. Trying to blend into the wall unnoticed and to remain unobserved. A flood of memories washed over me. I was transported back in time to a pleasanter, gentler time. Days spent dreaming of what was to be dreams that didn't come true . How long I sat there admiring her and remember I don't know but I became aware of another presence, a man standing beside her.
He appeared to be about six-foot tall, slender with thinning dark hair and glasses. He reminded me of a college professor, dressed up for western days. He didn't look like a dairy farmer. He wore simple Lee jeans and a plain plaid western shirt. He was wearing boots but they were shined and gleaming, not what you normally see a farmer wearing.
I watched her look up at him and it was evident from that look, which I could still remember from so many years ago, that she was looking into the eyes of the one she loved. I was too far away to hear her laughter but as he spoke I saw the corners of her eyes crinkle and her body bounce with laughter. I saw that smile that I had seen many times in my dreams over the last 25 years. I saw the corners of her melon colored lips turn upward. The barn seemed to get even brighter with the glow emanating from her.
She turned her attention back to the jersey cow she was standing beside. She seemed to be talking to it while stroking it gently. The big brown eyes of the cow never flickered. Then I saw a young man stand up on the other side of the cow. He was tall, like his father, with dark hair, but one look at his face and you knew he was her son. I realized that she had been talking to him not the cow. I remembered her soft voice, the slow deliberate way in which she spoke and watched as her lips formed words. Her son looked at her as she spoke absorbing every word. It was evident he respected and loved her. She had done a fine job with him.
They were finished grooming the cow and they moved to the hay bales surrounding the stall. They sat and talked, I suppose waiting on the judging. At no time did I see any expression on her face except happiness. She got up and walked to a cooler and got out sandwiches for her men. The cow moved sideways blocking her return. She swung those slim hips toward the cow and the cow moved out of her way. I smiled remembering the easy way she had with people and knew that she had the same effect on animals. She was in charge, everyone knew it, but she never flaunted it, she would merely make a gesture or a movement and you would know what she desired. She used her control sparingly but you knew she had it. She was the honey; she had no need for the stick.
The men finished eating and soon she was shoving them out of the stall. I wondered if I should go over and say hello. While I was debating with myself, I saw her turn and start talking to other ladies in the area. I had forgotten there was anyone else present in the barn. I looked about and the barn was full of people milling up and down the aisles between the stalls looking at the livestock, evaluating it against preconceived standards. Many not understanding what they were actually looking for. I looked back to her stall and didn't see her. I stood up on the bale and looked over the herd of people congregating in the barn. I was almost in a panic when I spotted her; she was on her knees four stalls away helping a little girl tie her shoe. When she finished the little girl hugged her neck and skipped off. As I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw her head into the ladies restroom. I walked over to her stall; the brand was there Diamond B. I looked closely at the smallish jersey. She was perfectly proportioned little heifer. I figured she should show well. The stall area was neatly arranged and it appeared that this was not a first time showing for the family. The grooming tools had their own case. Special boxes with the farm brand on them were placed around the stall. There was several blue ribbons proudly displayed on a plaque with the farm brand and the name "Justin" burned into the wood. I moved back to my hay bale to once again become a fly on the wall and to contemplate what I should do next.
She returned to the stall and made herself comfortable on a hay bale. I saw her reach into a box and pull out a book and begin reading. Previously, I knew she hadn't been much of a reader. It was interesting to watch her read. Her eyes narrowed a bit, it wouldn't be long before she was using reading glasses. Her brow furrowed, she was really concentrating on the book. I would have liked to see the title but I couldn't take a chance on being seen. The way she was turning pages she read reasonably fast. The book was a hardbound edition. I thought back and remembered reading poetry to her on the banks of the Trinity River on Sunday afternoons and wondered if she remembered. She would look up every once in a while either to acknowledge someone stopping by to say hello or just to look around at the now teeming mass of humanity moving through the barn. Suddenly she looked up and around; I did the same but I couldn't see what she was looking at. She pushed the book back in the box; stood and brushed the hay from her rear. Then I saw what she had seen her men were returning. She moved toward them, hugging her son and planting a kiss on her husband's cheek at the same time. I knew then what I had to do. You can go home again, but it will never be the same; I walked away.