A young woman recently asked if I spent a lot of my childhood playing hopscotch with the neighborhood kids. I told her I had grown up on a dairy farm, and really don’t remember ever playing hopscotch in my life.
“Really? A dairy farm? I bet that was fun,” she said, smiling brightly.
Fun? Well…I could tell that her 30-year-old, city-girl mind was conjuring up something that my childhood definitely was not, but where in the world would you start trying to describe it?
Life on a dairy
It was fun at times, but it was a whole lot of work, every single day.
While she was learning hopscotch, I was learning how to hand milk a cow in to a strip cup. While she learned double dutch, I treated my first mastitis case by myself after putting that strip cup to work.
A few years ago, a co-worker asked how much I earned by milking the cows so early before school, and how did my parents ever drag us out of bed at 4:30 every morning?
When I told her we never got paid, not even an allowance, she nearly fell over.
I told her we were expected to set our own alarm clock and be at the barn on time, and again after school. Every day. No excuses, no cajoling, no deals made by complaining.
At the time, my co-worker was paying her 16-year-old daughter $10 just to take a trash bag from her bedroom to the curb, twice a week. “If I don’t pay her, she says she won’t go to school.”
Well, shoot. I never thought of that.
I remember an older couple, my dad’s aunt and uncle, who often came to visit on Sundays. They had never had children and considered my Dad a son.
We were expected to be polite, conversing with kindness no matter how painfully boring, letting our great-aunt pinch our cheeks and tell us how much we had grown.
Years later, the one thing that stayed with me is how stunned this couple was that the kids in our family put boots and coveralls on when it was time to go do the evening milking, “without even being told!”
One thing I do know, in retrospect, is that we were helping build a successful farm. We pitched in both inside the milking parlor and all around those farms in between milking times. There was always fence to be checked, rocks to be picked, cleaning and scrubbing and painting to be done.
My very first job — bucket feeding the youngest calves, giving them fresh straw to sleep on and fresh water to drink, then checking the temperature gauge on the milk tank before leaving the barn every single day — began around age 6 or 7.
The milk inspector, who would show up in random farm checks, once commented he’d never seen a cleaner milking parlor.
My sister and I had spent the prior weekend scrubbing the back wall, wiping down the pipelines and sprucing up the block wall with a bit of paint.
When the inspector wrote up a good report, we were all puffed up with pride as though that meant money in the bank. Dad was proud of us, and his appreciation for our hard work was somehow always enough.
We learned from the work, and we grew responsible and strong.
Though I once detested it, I learned to enjoy the monthly milk testing, just to see if we had pushed production up, even a little bit. I grew to understand what pride in a job meant before most of my peers ever had one.
Driving across the countryside, I see farms that obviously once were dairy farms, the milk house and the pastures now empty. I think of the kids who aren’t building the bones of character, at least not in the milking parlor or the hay mows.
They are given opportunities to participate in all types of wonderful scholastic, athletic and social activities that we were not, and I find myself hoping they realize how lucky they are.
Where would we start, in telling them this? What words could describe what once was, and is no more? It would be like trying to describe the color blue to the blind, wouldn’t it? I find myself biting my tongue, not even attempting to paint that old picture.
The best I can do is smile and say, “Ahhhh, enjoy it. Go out there and play every possible game, join in every opportunity, every chance you get. It goes by so fast.”
I think I’ll go drink a glass of milk and learn how to play hopscotch. I’ve got some catching up to do.
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