So, you want to be a milk maid, eh?” Elmer, the eldest in the 80-and-over club, says to me from his window seat at the Kozy Diner, Hobart’s hot spot for dollar coffee and bacon cooked to your taste. “They have those suction things nowadays that fit right around the teat and does the work for you, ya know,” he continues, doing an air demonstration of such a contraption.
“Samantha would never want to use a suction machine, Elmer,” the also-young-at-heart Ronald says from the other end of the lacquered table, waving off new technology, and picking up stray, spent packets of Sweet’N Low. “Our Samantha is traditional and likes old things and old ways… right, Lamb?” he says looking right at me, and giving a glorious smile.
“You’re correct, Ronald. I’m going to hand milk my cow twice a day and make delicious cheese. Plus, I can’t afford such a contraption, my dears.” A steady shaking of heads, done so out of amusement, makes its way around the table. I get this response with nearly every adventure I undertake on the farm I live on, named fondly Early Bird Acres, and I welcome the jeering and always comical response seasoned with sugar and salt.
“Pick one with good teats, Sam. It’s all about the teats,” is spoken with conviction more loudly than needed by Hew, our hearing-impaired paternal patron, and giver of plainly stated opinions. With these words, I can hear laughs coming all the way from the kitchen. Hew then volunteered to accompany me on a cow hunting adventure and, as I understood then, to assume the role of teat expert. “I can tell if they’re good with a glance, Sam.” More laughter peppered the tables and booths, and rolled over Hew’s back like spring rain.
* * *
Two days later, I find myself in a truck with my 80-and-over club, on our way to pick out a milk cow for my farm and kitchen needs. Between the four of them, they can give me an answer to nearly every question. They may not always know the right answer to my question, but they will give the answer nonetheless. I am a young, single, female farmer taking on the task of combining my love for sweet soil and light lay of land. I conspire my world and ways, while surrounded in a braid of monoculture farming and single-minded lives lived. In many minds, I would be written off as soon as I said I was trying to achieve quality over quantity. But I digress and shall speak no further in this story about a world in which I walk. Today, I give you the story of a girl, her milk cow, and the old men who have baptized her as quirky, but one of their own all the same.
I am a young, single, female farmer taking on the task of combining my love for sweet soil and light lay of land.
* * *
We have decided it would be best to ride in Ronald’s truck, because it has four doors and none of the men are equipped to crawl into the backseat of my two-door ancient Ford. I try to insist to Ronald that there is no immediate need to hitch up the two-cow trailer for our first trip, because that might make us look needy and the price might be jacked up. “I have a good feeling about this Brown Swiss, Sammie. The picture we have of her at least looks good,” Ronald says while I double-check that the ball is properly set and latched to the trailer. As soon as I push myself up from the ground, each old man briefly glances at the hitch and runs his hands over the connection as if only their blessings will allow it to stay attached.
The weather is turned on a good portion of our 20-minute trip to Blair, just to the south of Quartz Mountains. My old man club achieves this weather marathon by scanning the radio stations until they find the weather broadcast, and then when none is to be found, turning off the radio all together and talking about each quarter of land in the county and broadcasting their own knowledge about rainfall the previous day, and how the wheat is coming along. Little did we know on that glorious spring day, with dew still on the ground, that Oklahoma would be faced with a detrimental drought that would bring the agricultural community to its knees.
Elmer serves as navigator with simple hand motions and grunts of confirmation. His wife was from this area long ago, and he knows the particular family we are off to visit. We pull into the farm with the metal cows broadly displayed on their welcome sign and the men begin to discuss the method of construction it might have taken for the cow bodies to be tooled. Hew, from the seat next to me, loudly says, “They used fire,” then leans back into his seat where he chews on a ghost of cud.
A rosy-cheeked, middle-aged man greets our truck at the end of the drive. With excitement, I scan the barn yard for any sign of grazing Brown Swiss or tethered young cow to a milking stanchion. Each old man, at his own pace, draws himself from the truck. They each in turn off er a hand for shaking and a toothpick-accented, “Hello,” and “Did you get rain yesterday?” to the rosy-cheeked and round farmer. He walks up to me and in a fatherly way takes my shoulder and confirms his suspected knowledge. “You must be this removed-from-time farmer’s wife I hear about. Samantha, right?”
The most common mistake that is made about me, or often just a stereotype I have adopted by simply living and smiling, is that I am hitched—a Mrs. of a man with fanciful ideas of growing good food and hand-milking cows. This illusion of a husband is given to me because a normal idea of living has been etched in these farmers’ minds. It has gone as far as women asking me about my two children and tall husband Fred. I laugh, correct their ideas, and they leave a bit mystified, still trying to write out a story for me.
“She would never say yes to me, Bert,” says Elmer from our circle of denim. I respond with a laugh to convey no hard feelings, and correct this round farmer named Bert.
“I’m not married, sir. I’m just trying to start a small CSA over off the Ozark Trail. My extended family and this old man club really like cheese.”
“Cream,” Hew sings from our circle, with of course too much volume.
“Well, I apologize, Samantha, for my presumptions. I guess I thought you were one of those hippy moms who want to give their kids whole milk from the cow. That’s who we sold our last heifer. A couple from near the city [Oklahoma City] that wanted all natural stuff ,” he says while shuffling his feet and then turning on his heel towards the small wooden barn to the east. I can hear the soft mooing of the mother to her fawn-colored calf that is following a cat through the thicket of spring grass. The calf spots us and runs towards the safety of his unseen mother just beyond the pine partition.
The most common mistake that is made about me, or often just a stereotype I have adopted by simply living and smiling, is that I am hitched—a Mrs. of a man with fanciful ideas of growing good food and hand-milking cows.
Once we make the turn around the wooden wall, and traipse through the high hay, I am face-to-wetnose with a cow they call Mary and her bull that is still without a name. As if magnets, my old man club place their collective hands along her back and run palms across her curves, and Ronald removes stray bits of straw from her caramel fur. I turn my back to the calm cow to discover Hew digging through the hay for something, while the fawn bull plays just to the side, thinking it is all a geriatric-themed obstacle course he is preparing to run through. I step over to the small bull, who began trying to nurse my arm. Hew soon stands and produces a milking stool, then places it in front of the cow’s udder. “Sit,” he yells with a smile while rubbing a clarifying circle upon its cedar surface. I sit down and begin to review the checklist I had been taught by my well-informed book, The Family Cow by Dirk van Loon, and warm my palms by rubbing them together. As I make each observation, I call them aloud to the men all looking and waiting for my judgment.
“All four quarters look good. She seems a bit off on that back right teat. I am assuming that is the nipple the calf favors?” I ask Bert, who nods in confirmation. “You got any other cows, Miss Lamb?” asks Bert, while retrieving a metal milking pail from a hook on the wall.
“This would be my first cow. I want a very calm and caring milk cow for Early Bird Acres,” I softly say while rubbing my braided head against her side, and then giving her a quick peck on her forehead, where she looks at me with very feminine cow eyes. “I do enjoy her temperament.”
“Well, give her a try then,” Bert says, placing the milk pail in my palms. He had already put a warm cotton washcloth inside of its depth so I could clean off her teats. I do, and then place the bucket on the ground. I run my hands along her side and sing her a few lines of Gillian Welch. I sing to my animals to calm them down while I walk through the barn yard in the morning. This seems to do the trick, and her breathing reaches a slow and soft rhythm. Within a few moments of milking, she begins to let down her udder. This means she lets down her milk into her teats, which makes milking a lot easier. Very quickly, though, she lifts her hoof and places it directly in the pail. “Cows do that from time to time,” says Bert. “She just needs to get to know you.”
Soon thereafter, I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s the teat expert Hew and he motions at the chair. I stand and let him slowly sit. He inspects all four quarters and then runs his hands along the back of her legs. He takes pause at the back right leg and continues to run his palms over that particular area as if keeping rhythm with her breathing. With a little assistance from Ronald and me, we stand Hew back on his feet and, without a moment of repose, he walks over to where Mary the cow was tethered to the barn and undoes the knot. He takes in hand her halter and leads her into the barn yard.
He walks her in consecutive circles until Elmer realizes what Hew is up to. “Sammie,” he says, “this is a fine-looking cow, but that back leg has been hurt recently. I know you, and knowing you I know you have already fallen in love with her. But if this is going to be your only milk cow for a bit, and you want her to last, I do not know if you should take a chance with that leg. It might get worse.”
Elmer knows me well. I had already fallen for the cow, and in my mind named the young bull calf and imagined him following me around as I did morning chores. I look at Bert with question in my eye and point at her. “The leg doesn’t look too good. What happened?”
“She’s always had that gait. It doesn’t seem to bother her too often. She’ s still a fine cow,” he says while tapping out a tune on the side of his barn, and roaming his front overall pockets for a toothpick. But not my cow, I think to myself, and know I’m not going home with the lovely Mary today, and that fawn calf will not be helping me with morning chores.
We say our goodbyes and tell Bert we’ll think about it. Once we all make it successfully back into the truck, and drive slowly by the metal cows made so with fire, I look at each of my old men in turn. My own grandfather, Harold, had passed two years prior to my moving out to the farm, and would have wholeheartedly thanked each of these men for stepping in where he could not. Harold is a mainstay of inspiration for me when it comes to the farm. I love the way he looked at the land, and I hope to achieve the self-sufficiency and unspeakable joy that he grew upon the same acres. I nudge Hew with my elbow and say, “Well, Hew, I guess it is not all about the teats, huh?” He shakes his head and shrugs.
“You’ll find your cow, Sam,” says Ronald from the front cab. “We’ll help you.” I smile and picked back up on a conversation about the back 40 behind Elmer’s place, and how in my mind it needs to be sewn with a good cover crop. They, as always, smile back and shake their heads in amusement. “Peas,” Hew says too loudly, and then turns his head to the window as early spring drove by.
* * *
Two weeks later, with help from my Dad, I did find the perfect cow for me. Her name is Ohio. She is a Jersey and came with a black bull calf I named Sweet Basil that lovingly does follow me around the farm during morning chores. The old man club was a bit disappointed that I found a cow without their help, but felt a little better once they met her in my corral. I displayed her love for giving cow kisses, and Hew made sure to proclaim very loudly that she had good teats. They all followed me back up to the house, and Ronald found wonderful fascination and farm charm in the frolicking cow that was on our heels. In celebration of my new cow, I made them ice cream from her delicious Jersey milk, and laughed as I realized that old men cannot eat ice cream without leaving it all over their faces.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 2. Jan. 15, 2013.