by Randy Graham
I open my eyes and observe my mom’s smiling face. Her cool hand is on my cheek. “You and Stripeshirt have been resting your eyes.” I sit up. “I’m going to the house to make some supper. Do you want some eggs and some fried potatoes?” Eggs and fried potatoes for supper are standard and expected. I nod my head. “Do you want to come with me or stay here with Ronnette and Dad?”
“I’ll stay, Mom.”
“Okay. Maybe you can help Ronnette.” Mom swings open the door that goes into the milk room and walks out. I sit up on the bale of straw where I’ve been resting, give Stripeshirt, the gray tabby tom a shove and he reluctantly leaves the warmth of my lap. I’m wearing four-buckle overshoes and my dirty, outgrown blue parka. It’s the one I wear for farm chores. It is 1957, I’m five-years-old and I’m spending the late afternoon in the barn with my family. Spending late afternoon in the barn is standard and expected.
The milking barn is humid and warm on this cold November day, courtesy of all the large bovine bodies filling up the space. The odor of manure, disinfectant, hay, and the breath and belches of cows combine to give the barn its signature aroma. A small radio with a cracked brown plastic case perches on a wooden shelf nailed to the wall and tinnily broadcasts the local station. News hour coincides with milking hour so there is no music and much discussion of Eisenhower, Asian flu, and the Suez crisis. The words go past me and become part of the aural landscape, along with rattling milking stanchions, moos, and the constant soft chugga…chugga…chugga of the milking machines.
Dad lugs the last full milking machine into the milk room and dumps the frothy warm milk into a large funnel where it runs through a filter and into the refrigerated bulk tank. Then he opens the milking stanchions one by one, and the cows saunter outside where they gather around the hay bunk for some hay, cud-chewing and cow conversation.
My sister, Ronnette, has tied together lengths of twine discarded from hay and straw bales. She’s positioned herself under a nail in the wall where she’s attached three strands of the twine and is slowly braiding them. “I’m making a jump rope,” she explains needlessly. She’s made many jump ropes. This one, though, will be spectacular because she’s also braiding in colorful strips of plastic cut from a discarded beachball.
“Mom said I should help.” I declare hopefully.
“Sure. You can help. You need to pay really close attention to how I do this. Also, it’s really important that you don’t touch anything.” Ronnette is seven, is adept at things I can’t do and knows about things that I cannot begin to understand.
“Okay.” I say obediently.
While Ronnette makes the jump rope with my attentive, hands-off help, Dad sweeps down the cow stalls with a push broom, shovels the cow manure out of the gutters and into the manure spreader parked outside the barn door, then sprinkles white, sweet-smelling lime over the entire concrete floor of the milking barn. Next, he disassembles and washes the milking machines and dumps some milk into the rusty coffee cans outside the barn door for the eager swarm of barn cats.
Then the three of us walk to the house and feast on eggs and potatoes–courtesy of our chickens, our farm soil, and my parents’ labor. After supper, Mom washes the dishes and Ronnette and I get ourselves ready for bed. Finally, we both crawl under heaps of quilts in our dark and underheated bedrooms, and Mom sits in the hallway between our rooms and reads aloud from a thick book of Bible stories for children. Bedtime stories are both standard and expected.
My parents bought our farm in 1955. Dad had missed The War because of flat feet, and had continued living and helping out on his parents’ Southwestern Minnesota farm. In his mid-twenties he began renting his own place – just around the corner from his parents. His motivation to venture out and become a bachelor tenant farmer was a certain young woman, a school teacher at a country school just across the Iowa line. They met, they fell in love, and then they married. That rented farm became a home for two, and then three, and then four. After my sister and I came along, and after a lot of thought and conversation, Mom and Dad decided that it would be prudent to own the land they tilled.
They found an ideal place, just a few miles from the farm they were renting. 160 acres—a quarter section of fertile prairie earth; perfect for corn and oats and hay. It came with the requisite farmstead. A white frame house. A big red barn. And all the standard outbuildings—corn cribs, granaries, and a variety of sheds for animals and equipment.
Mom and Dad had a conversation with the local small-town banker. Soon, they were the owners of both the farm and a large mortgage. Dad owed more money than he imagined he ever would. When he told his dad how much money he had borrowed, Grandpa Mike got red in the face and told him he was a damned fool. But I think Dad felt bonafide. Now, halfway through his thirties, he had a wife, a family, and a piece of ground. He was a farmer. We were a farm family.
Over the next year, Dad painted the red barn white and remodeled it for dairy. And he gradually built a herd that topped out at twenty-some Guernseys and Holsteins. The pattern of our lives became established. Dad was a dairy farmer. We were a dairy farm family.
When you’re raising crops, you harvest each crop during one season, usually the fall. And that’s when you take that crop to market and get paid. Other times of the year, money can get a little thin as you’re waiting for your crops to come in. The upside of dairy farming is that you harvest your crop of good, honest cow milk, every day. Those steady checks coming in from the creamery can really even out the finances.
Here’s the downside of dairy farming. The cows take constant care of you with all that daily milk. But you have to take constant care of the cows. Every day you’ve got to make sure the cows are fed and healthy and the milking equipment is operational. And twice a day, once in the morning and once in the late afternoon, you’ve got to be there to milk the cows. Are you sick? Is there a family emergency? Do you need a vacation? Doesn’t matter. The cows are down there in the barn. Their udders are full. And they’re waiting for you. Night and day, seven days a week, you’re chained to the life you’ve chosen.
In the morning I am reluctant to leave the coziness of my quilt mountain and I crawl out only after Mom’s fourth call. The cold of the bedroom is unpleasant but rousing. I grab the clothes Mom has set out and hurry downstairs to get dressed in the warmth of the kitchen.
Ronnette is already there, getting dressed. And Dad is kicking off his boots on the porch—coming in the house for breakfast after having done the morning milking, solo. We have our breakfast and then Dad heads back outside to deal with all of the other farm chores.
In the late afternoon, we’re all back in the barn for the second milking. Mom grabs disinfected bits of machinery from the drying rack in the milk room and assembles them into two milking machines. Dad goes into the dusty, fragrant feed room with five-gallon buckets and fills them with ground whole-ear corn, protein supplement and minerals. Bucket by bucket, he carries feed into the milking barn and dumps a pile in front of each milking stanchion. Then he swings open the door and the cows amble in.
Each cow finds her assigned place and eagerly pokes her head through her stanchion to reach her dinner on the other side. Dad closes each stanchion down the line, and gives the occasional cow a pat on the neck. Then, Mom and Dad position large belts around the sturdy backs of the cows on the end, disinfect the cows’ teats, hang milking machines from the belts, attach the cups to the cows, and plug the vacuum hoses into the supply line. Milking is underway!
Ronnette and I know that our role during milking time is to stay out of the way and keep ourselves entertained. There are many options for entertainment. There’s the unfinished jump rope, for instance. But I opt to have a bit of one-on-one with my friend, Spencer. Each cow has a name and a disposition. Spencer, a gentle old Guernsey, is my favorite. She’s right on the end, next to the milk room door and also right by a stack of straw bales that Stripeshirt and I favor for lounging. I sit on the bales for a while and stroke Spencer’s brown and white girth, big as a wall, but soft and warm.
Then I go into the back of the barn by the calf pens. Ronnette is there, sitting in a large pile of hay next to a small pile of rangy barn cats—all heaped together for warmth. The barn cats, to Mom and Dad, are barn cats – useful for keeping down the rodent population and otherwise easy to ignore. Ronnette and I, on the other hand, personally know and have named each one. And because they are short-lived but constantly procreating, there is an ever-changing cast of characters.
“Pickle had babies. I just found them,” Ronnette announces proudly.
My eyes widen with excitement. “Where are they?” She leads me to a nest at the base of the haymow ladder where Pickle is contently nursing three babies.
“Their eyes are open already.” Ronnette notes.
“They are so cute!” I exclaim. I pick up the small fluffy silver tabby. “We should name this one Toody, because she looks just like Toody that died last year.”
Ronnette nods her head. “And we should name the black one Panther because he looks just like both Panthers that we used to have.”
“What should we name the gray guy?”
“How about ‘Gray Guy?’”
I nod at the logic. Then, feeling cold, I return to the warmth of the dairy barn. The milking routine proceeds. Mom and Dad carry full milking machines to the milk room, dump the milk, and go back to fasten the machine to the next cow. I mosey to the far end of the milking barn then back again. Then, I notice the incomplete jump rope hanging on the wall. After making sure that Ronnette won’t witness my transgression, I toy with her project. Braiding jump ropes, I decide, is tedious. So, I circle the milking barn one more time. Stripeshirt is giving me meaningful and expectant looks from his perch on our straw bale. I settle onto the bale and pull him onto my lap. But, before the tomcat has a chance to get comfortable, I push him aside, stand up, and announce to my mom, “I’m gonna take a walk and visit the neighbors.”
“Okay,” she smiles. “Let me tie up your parka hood before you go so your ears don’t get cold.” I walk out of the barn. We live on a farm, and the neighbors, of course, are far, far away. Mom knows that. She also knows that I’m bored, that I’ll head to the house, and that I’ll be on my own only briefly, since milking is almost done. What she doesn’t know is that I know that I’m really planning a walk to visit the neighbors.
I walk into the quiet near-darkness of the farmyard. Teke and Gerry live on the next farm to the north. Teke is a tall, gangly extrovert. He’s always making a big deal, for comic effect, of his and Mom’s shared Bohemian roots in our community of almost entirely third-generation German-Americans. “Here we are, just you and me, surrounded by Germans—the only Bohunks for miles around!” Mom, shy, introverted and embarrassed, always smiles nervously. Then Teke always laughs boisterously and moves on to some sort of antics for us kids. What five-year-old wouldn’t adore Teke? Gerry, while less animated, is nice, and is generous with homemade cookies. What great neighbors! I’ll visit Teke and Gerry!
Plan made, I walk through the farmyard and into the trees that separate the farmyard from the fields. The grove of boxelders and green ash are now leafless skeletons in the winter dusk. Once I’ve traversed the grove, I can barely discern the shape of Teke’s barn a quarter-mile away across the darkening snowy corn stubble. But I follow the beacon of his yard light. The snow is only a couple of inches deep and walking is not difficult. The first obstacle is at the far-side of the cornfield. The barbed wire fence. As a farm kid, I don’t see a barbed wire fence as a huge obstacle, but Teke’s assemblage of gigantic Angus feeder cattle on the other side gives me great pause. I hesitate. There are other neighbors. Like Jimmy and LeeAnn. LeeAnn is eight. She catches frogs from their pond in the summer and keeps them in an old metal stock tank behind their barn. Jimmy is a practically-grown-up ten and is wise in all important things, like appropriate names for baby kittens. “This one looks like he’s wearing a striped shirt, so his name should be “Stripeshirt.” I’ll visit Jimmy and LeeAnn!
I head southeast across the empty field. After a quarter mile, I reach the dark gravel road. Then it becomes easy. I follow the road for a mile and turn to walk the quarter mile up the lane to Jimmy and LeeAnn’s house. I knock on the door. Jimmy lets me into their porch. Jimmy’s mom is talking on the phone in the kitchen and says, “I’ve got to hang up now. I’ve got to make an emergency call.” I wonder what the emergency is.
Our blue Chevy pulls up a bit later and I can see Mom and Dad’s relieved faces through the windshield. After they’d finished the milking, they’d found the house empty. Then they found my tracks in the snow. They’d followed them to Teke’s fence then to the road. There were no tracks on the plowed road, so they’d circled back to the house. Sick with worry, they started up the Chevy and searched for me along the dark country roads. After some fruitless searching, they’d decided to check back home. Had I found my way home while they were searching? They’d walked into the still-empty house in time to hear the ringing phone.
“I told you I was going to take a walk and visit the neighbors.” I would later explain over and over, exasperated at Mom and Dad’s obtuseness. My winter sojourn became one of the stories that my parents, like all parents, compile like snapshots, in a mental album that defines that child, that childhood, and their parenthood.
Dad would trot the story out often at social occasions. And with each telling the story would become a bit more dramatic. Dad always knew that, to get to the real truth of a story, you sometimes have to dispense with mere facts. He would refer to this adventure as “The Time Randy Ran Away” or “The Time Randy Got Lost.” Dad’s version painted a picture of a small child slogging through the snow in the dark. But I knew that I’d just gotten up and taken a walk. I had not run away. And I was never lost. Home was right over there.
I had my tenth birthday in 1962. That was the year my parents announced to Ronnette and I at breakfast one morning that they were selling the dairy herd. The never-ending repetition of milking times had taken its toll. They were ready to break free. But the announcement confounded and confused me. Milking time simply was. Like sunsets or birthdays. It bracketed our days. How would we define our days if they weren’t pinned down at the ends?
One day, the trucks arrived for the cows. Ronnette and I took the day off school. We spent the afternoon at the auction barn where our cows were driven into the sales ring one by one, sold to strangers, and cast permanently out of our lives. The lesson I learned that day was that those things we hold onto in our lives, the most permanent, the most embedded, the most mundane, are all ephemeral. Life shuffles its feet; things change.
Over the next year, little by little, Dad sold the dairy equipment. The dairy barn sat empty. Our dairy operation was state of the art when Dad bought his first cows. But, by the time he left the business, dairy farms were growing larger and becoming more mechanized. Likewise, a 160-acre farm, by the mid-1960’s, was considered small. Shortly after the cows went, Dad took a sales job. Mom renewed her teaching certificate, and after some summer courses at the local college, became the school librarian.
In 1968, Ronnette graduated from high school and left the farm for nursing school. A couple of years later, I left for college. Mom and Dad retired from the farm in 1981 and moved to town. They rented to a young farmer down the road who farmed the land and sublet the house. In 1982, while I was living in Saudi Arabia, I got the news of the barn fire. It was so spectacular that it made all the local newspapers. Fire departments from three nearby towns were on the scene, but our barn burned to the ground.
Dad passed in 2009, Mom in 2017. In the years leading up to their deaths, farms continued to merge and grow. The distance between farm neighbors continued to expand. The small towns kept shrinking, while more and more abandoned farmsteads dotted the landscape. Eventually, the farmer who rented our land was unable to find a renter to sublet the house. I faced the prospect that the house of my childhood would be vacant and a magnet for vagrants, vandals and cookers of meth. I phoned the demolition guy. Ultimately, knowing that it is prudent to till the land you own, Ronnette and I sold the farm to the farmer who had been farming it. Life shuffles its feet; things change.
These days, it seems, I mostly go back to the small town where I grew up to attend funerals. Today, after a funeral, I drive up the lane to my childhood home. The lane ends in a picked-over cornfield. The house, the barn, most of the trees, and all the other buildings are gone. I get out and walk into the field, across snow-covered corn stubble. The barn stood here. I look around at the bare ground, disoriented. I shut my eyes. The barn stood here. Stripeshirt’s faint rumbling purr tickles my ears. The breeze carries the subtle aroma of cow manure with just a hint of disinfectant. And there’s a tinny radio playing softly over the quiet chugga…chugga…chugga of the milking machines.
Life shuffles its feet; things change. But I am not lost. Home is right over there.
photo credit: Roger Starnes, Sr.