The Yellow Cow

by Sandra Szalinski

A framed poster of Franz Marc’s 1911 painting “Gelbe Kuh (Yellow Cow)” hangs on my living room wall. It never ceases to delight me and it’s a source of inspiration. I saw the original painting a decade or so ago as I made my way through a museum filled with some of the world’s best art. I remember turning the corner into a room and seeing this huge canvas with the brilliant yellow cow, not as typically portrayed quietly grazing in a field or laying contentedly under a tree, but leaping, her body outstretched, hind legs in the air, neck extended upward with her face pointed up into a bright sky. Her graceful neck, long eyelashes, and saucy expression exuding pure joy. My heart raced as I felt a rush of excitement and an amused smile spread on my face. I looked around the room, hopeful that I would see a similar glimmer of recognition on someone else’s face, but there probably wasn’t another person in that room who had ever seen a happy, leaping cow.

Few people would call a cow beautiful, yet Marc captured grace, beauty, femininity, and deep emotion in his cow. For me, his work sparked memories of cows, my hardworking parents, the joys of living on a farm, and the hopefulness of spring.

I grew up on a small family farm in northwestern Pennsylvania in the 1950s. Spring comes slowly in the snow-belt south of Lake Erie and is delivered in little packets that surprise and delight. When playing in the snow in late January or early February, long before the visual signs of spring arrived, I would hear the song of the black-capped chickadee. It’s clear and distinct, fee-bee, fee-bee, a hopeful mating call and harbinger of change. As the sun moved northward and the daylight lengthened, the snow would melt near a sunny corner of the house and around the bases of shrubs. In those damp brown spots, as if by magic, the crocuses would suddenly appear as little dabs of purple, yellow, white, and green. As the snow melted, I anticipated the robins’ return, winging their way north. If I were the first to see one, I would cheerfully chant to the rest of the family. “The robins are back; the robins are here! It’s spring!”

Soon thereafter, on a day when the sun shone brightly and the islands of slumping snow drifts had mostly melted away, my brother and I would stand by the barn door to watch as Dad let the cows out of the barn. As soon as their feet hit the soil, the cows would run, jump, leap, and kick up their hooves. After they had been cooped up for much of the winter, you could see how happy they were to stretch their legs and feel the sunshine. We laughed at the sight of the cows arching their bony backs and hips, kicking out their legs, and jumping, and we felt elated, too. 

On the farm, I had intimate connections with cows, other animals, plants, and nature in general. I learned about the cycles of life–birth, growth, death–about anticipation and expectation through planting, tending, harvesting, preserving; about stewardship and conservation.

Ours was a small farm on which my parents raised enough vegetables, fruits, meat, and dairy to mostly feed our family. Dad kept two cows, a small, honey-colored Jersey cow for its rich creamy milk and a white-faced Hereford, which was bred for meat. A calf was born on our farm nearly every year, and my brother and I were fortunate to observe newborn calves shortly after their births. We watched expectantly as the calf struggled to get up and cheered when it finally stood on wobbly legs. The mother dutifully licked the baby clean, and we laughed as the calf looked for sustenance and tried suckling on the mother’s neck, then her leg, trying to find the warm fluid it sought. We cheered again when the calf found a teat and bucked its head into its mother’s swollen udder. The calf swished its tail as it happily drank its mother’s milk. Calves are cute as can be with sparkling eyes and a lively look. They like to kick up their heels, buck, and play. In a manner of speaking, my brother and I played with them, petting them, and scratching their heads. 

Farming is endless work. Milk cows have to be milked twice a day. I recall our cow, Nosey, aptly named for her inquisitiveness. One could set a watch by her appearance by the barn door at milking time. Otherwise she was grazing in the pasture or lying beneath a tree chewing her cud. Dad milked early in the morning before he left for work and at the end of the day after supper. Occasionally, on a Saturday morning, he would lay in bed a little longer, but he could never sleep in, because Nosey would be outside mooing for him. When Dad opened the barn door, Nosey walked right in, put her head in the stanchion and started munching on the grain which Dad always put in the trough. He would give her a pat, wash her udder, squat down on his three-legged steel stool and place a pail tightly between his knees. Taking a teat in each hand, Dad would rhythmically pull and squeeze. The warm milk flowed into the pail creating a bubbly white foam on the top. Nosey stood contentedly munching hay after finishing the grain.

Dad made milking look easy, but I know from experience that it isn’t. A cow doesn’t stand perfectly still while being milked. She might swish her tail at an irritating fly on her back and inadvertently swat the person doing the milking. Similarly, she might raise a hind leg to scratch an itch on her belly and end up kicking over the milk pail. Or she might simply move a little in order to grab some hard to reach hay in her trough. A cow can also hold up her milk, which she might do if an inexperienced person tries to milk her. Cows, like humans, are creatures of habit.

After milking, Dad poured a little milk in a bowl for the barn cats and took the pail into the house where my mother strained it, to remove any dirt that may have fallen into the pail, and put it in half-gallon Mason jars. Jersey cow milk is rich in butterfat and as the milk sat in the refrigerator the thick, pale yellow cream rose to the top. Mom would often skim off the cream to make butter and let the remaining milk curdle to make cottage cheese. The butter churn was a large glass jar, the lid of which was fitted with a paddle attached to a drive wheel that was turned by a crank handle. It functioned much like a hand-held eggbeater. She would enlist my brother and I to take turns churning the butter, a tiring process that took a half-hour or more, and got harder as the liquid turned solid. When it was done, Mom would spoon out the butter, squeeze it to remove any remaining liquid, and pat it into a bowl.

The butter made in the spring had a unique look and taste, bright yellow in color and flavor infused from the fresh spring grass. What a treat it was to get off the school bus in the afternoon and be greeted with the aroma of freshly baked bread in our kitchen. I would pester Mom to cut me a slice of the bread while it was still warm. I would slather on the butter, watch it melt into the crannies of the bread and then enjoy the taste of the mingled flavors of the creamy butter and nutty grains.I live in a suburb of Philadelphia now.

On a recent day in February, as I stood in my backyard pouring seeds into a bird feeder, I caught the song of a black-capped chickadee, faint though it was amongst the din of traffic and the rumble of a commuter train. I smiled knowing that he was present, and my spirits felt brighter. Back inside, I glanced at the yellow cow and thought, in a few weeks I’ll drive out to farm country with my young grandsons. Along with the signs of spring, I hope we’ll see some happy cows grazing in a pasture.

art credit: Franz Marc, Die gelbe Kuh (The Yellow Cow), public domain