Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Memories of Milking

In March's 'Book Report' I remarked how Anna Quindlen's writing in Miller's Valley reminded me of my own years growing up on the farm and how some passages were especially beautiful and evocative. This is one of those passages:

"You can tell time by a farm, a day's worth of time, a year's worth. There's a particular kind of quiet on a farm in the morning, which isn't really morning the way other people think of it. It's still dark with just the smallest idea of black sky getting lighter around the edges, and unless there's a moon the only light comes from the bare bulb hanging like its own moon from the center of the barn ceiling. It's a place where it's just as easy to feel lost as it is to feel contented. I felt lost most of the time now, but I never said so, even to myself: in that same way I knew it was odd for a grown woman not to leave her own home, I knew it was odd for a teenage girl to feel like there was a big rattly empty space between her stomach and her heart. But it made me wonder whether other people felt the same way without showing it.

It was always warmer in the barn than it was outside because of all the cows crowding together, breathing and snorting and farting, making a fug that hung in the place like cigarette smoke over the poker game my father used to have once a month. Cows at dawn are different than cows at dusk. A farm in winter feels different than a farm in summer. The whole year passed in front of me on the farm. The cornstalks with yellow edges that meant summer was over and the classroom getting ready to close around you. The pumpkins of October that squatted where the yellow flowers sprouted on the vines in August. The mornings when you could hear the cattle complaining like a bunch of old men with tobacco throats and you knew, you just knew that it was February and their water through was frozen solid and you were going to have to go out there with an old shovel and beat a hole into the ice until it fell apart like a broken window."

These are the cows I helped milk when I was the age of Quindlen's  Mimi Miller of Miller's Valley. How well I remember them and... The summer Mom and I did most of the chores while Dad and Ron were in the fields and I complained that milking was making my hands unattractive because my veins were standing out. How Mom could milk five or six cows in the same time I milked three. How the bare bulb and its string hanging down were black with fly specks.

Remember... Shooting streams of milk into the open mouths of waiting cats. Grabbing the milk bucket and moving just in time when the cow started to splash pee - or worse - or put her foot in the bucket. Crying over spilled milk when ole bossy did kick the bucket over just about the time I had it filled.

Remember... How at first the milk pinged on the bottom of the empty bucket then gradually whooshed as it filled the pail and how the rhythm of milking, the tranquility of the barn, the companionship of Mom being there only a cow or two or three away made it possible for me, unlike Mimi, to talk about feeling lost and the big rattly empty space between my stomach and my heart.


  1. I remember when I was 6 or 7 and we were at Grandmas. I was sleeping in the East room and one morning I heard the screen door open and close. I did not know what time it was and I peaked out the window. There was Grandma walking down the sidewalk and disappearing into the darkness. Curious, I crept down the stairs and out into the darkness following. I found her in the barn and she was getting the cows in to milk.
    She saw me..."What are you doing out here?"
    "Trying to see what you were doing."
    "You're going to get cold standing there."
    I had gone out in my underwear.
    "This is way to early for you-go back to the house and to bed. I'll finish up here and when you hear me in the kitchen, come downstairs and I will make breakfast for you."
    Damn, I miss her.

    1. What a nice memory, Preston. Thanks for sharing. I'm glad we all have our memories of our wonderful Mom/Grandma.