When I was young, wearing shoes in summer was a luxury reserved for Sunday Mass. No shoes? No problem! Except when my father needed help sorting calves in the stables. “It’s good fertilizer,” he’d say. “It’ll make you grow.”

Now that I’m retired, I’ve reverted to going shoeless much of the time. Not only that, my house is part of a barn.

Dad would be proud.

My ancestors hail from Low Germany where house-and-barn structures were common. My great-grandfather’s baptismal certificate records his place of birth as a sheep barn. So, my affinity for outbuildings might be DNA-related. All I know is that I’m most at home when forking hay.

Recently, I learned that a friend’s family resided with farm animals inside a box car after settling in Texas in the early 1900’s. The structure is still standing and I asked my friend if he would show it to me. We drove to a remote corner of the county where the wooden car sits hunched in a low draw, surrounded by tall weeds and livestock pens. My friend has no idea how it was transported the long distance from the nearest railhead.

Stepping inside, I duck beneath rotted beams and stand in shafts of late afternoon light. Through gaps in the siding, an endless prairie reaches to the horizon. A busted table leans into a corner. Did the family once gather there to read the Bible? For a moment, I feel like a child inside a life-size Nativity scene.

An over-hang shades the south wall. Did the mother cook outdoors? Did the children huddle with the cows for warmth in the winter? Did the father curse the droughts and whip the mules?

I turn and notice my friend gazing at cattle on a far ridge. Propped against a doorpost and framed in light, his silhouette bears a history of struggle and hope. On his shoulders rests the same dust that once goldened the sweat of his father, mother and forebears.

Few folks know the feel of grit and dirt on their skin today. Yet, close-to-earth means close-to-God and the spirit inside this falling-down barn makes my soul want to fall to its knees.

10 / 27 / 2021
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