When I first got my milk cow, everyone I told chuckled, and usually asked the following question with slightly raised eyebrows: “Have you ever milked a cow before?”
That was back when I was new to ranch life. I grew up in suburban Detroit and then hopped between New York City, Philadelphia, Portland, Maine and Minneapolis for most of my 20s.
I went from the sounds of sirens and honking horns to the gossipy conversations of songbirds in the lilacs, and I immediately loved the seasonal ritual of chores as opposed to the hustle of city life. Turned out I was a country girl all along.
For the first year on the ranch, I was responsible for the daily duties associated with a small coop of hens and a little pasture of bum lambs. The symphony of soft clucks and the wild lamb leaps of joy as I approached were well worth the daily devotion required. But I wanted more — I wanted a milk cow.
Rita, a beautiful, tawny brown Jersey, arrived in February, and Ruthie, her calf, arrived in March. March of that year looked pretty similar to January — well, maybe a little colder, with a lot more snow.
This was before kids, and I was teaching school full time, so I’d venture out in my insulated brown coveralls, milk pail in hand, and milk Rita as the first rose-gray light broke over the eastern hills. Most mornings, the warm, soapy cloth I brought to clean her udders was frozen stiff by the time I reached the corral.
From the first, it was not without challenges. Rita and I were still getting used to each other, and after she kicked over a nearly full bucket, I kept my left hand on the pail at all times. That hand would grow very, very cold. But I liked it. It felt like magic to watch those thin lines of warm milk sizzle into the cold aluminum milk pail.
Rita was gentle, personable and easily convinced that we were best friends, especially if there was grain involved. In those first cold mornings, bundled so big I could barely bend, I would sing her love songs while I milked, and she would sigh long, steamy sighs of pleasure as she ate her breakfast.
As the years passed, some of the magic went out of milking. Adding two human babies to the mix certainly allowed me empathy for the plight of a dairy cow, but it also meant that getting out to milk twice a day was not a leisurely activity. It was time stolen from my other responsibilities as first thing in the morning and early evening were often the moments my children most needed snuggles and attention.
That was almost eight years ago. Rita is ancient for a dairy cow now, but after taking a year off, had a calf again last spring.
The first morning after Rita freshened, I set out the kids’ breakfasts and picked up the dented, old milk pail, and they barely glanced up as they tucked into their meals, waving goodbye to me, lips smiling, mouths full. They don’t need me in the same way they used to; they are getting older, and I am too.
But walking out into a wind that was warm and brimming with birdsong, watching the fresh milk full of frothy bubbles stream into the pail, lingering in the brightness of another day offering its newness, I was awake to it all, just as I was when I was younger and a little lighter in my steps. And I am more thankful than ever for this life and all its gifts.
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