I have a new trick I've been playing when I milk my cow, Glory Bee. I hook on the milking lines then I run back out of the barn to fill her water tubs. This little double-time game where I'm milking and running water at the same time probably saves me a whole five minutes.
Sometimes I'm just an embarrassment to myself.
Glory Bee taught me a lesson the other day by kicking off one of the lines while I was outside running water. The day's milk was ruined and I had to do a lot of extra cleanup. Glory Bee finished up her feed and sauntered back to the barnyard as usual. After all, it's not her problem if I'm a moron.
Cows have been teaching me lessons for going on four years now and I obviously haven't learned them all yet.
Cows have taught me to never blame anyone else for my problems. If my cow is mad, it's probably my fault. And the sooner I get that through my thick head, the better, because my cow isn't going to cooperate until I do. Cows come with quiet expectations they express with big, soft brown eyes and the occasional kick. They ask only for necessities and a kind hand. They demand patience, consistency, and an honorable work ethic.
A cow can be a joy or a burden, a blessing or a curse, depending on how you choose to view it. Some of the most peaceful, beautiful moments of my life have taken place at the udder of a cow, hand milking. The steady rhythm of the movements, one hand, then the other, working in fast tandem, the silent magic of my fingers playing down her teats, the music of those long squirts hitting the bucket, steam from the udder-warm milk in winter air, the sound of birdsong around me in the spring, morning sun beating on my back in the summer — those are the things I think about when I think about hand milking my cow.
I was at my cow's udder when I found out my son had had a car accident and totaled the car — with my daughter by his side. (They were both OK.) I remember the morning I knew my mother was going to die — and I picked up my bucket and went to milk my cow. I milked my cow when I was sad. I milked my cow when I was scared. I milked my cow when I was happy, and I milked my cow when I was exhausted.
It didn't really matter what else was going on in my life or the world, I milked my cow. Sometimes my cow tested me and other times she comforted me. Sometimes she irritated me, but most of the time she calmed me down. In any case, she was there, and that meant so was I. She taught me every day that the world didn't really revolve around me. It revolved around her.
At my other farm, I started out milking my old cow, Beulah Petunia, in the meadow bottom. I'd carry her heavy bucket of feed across the meadow, through the sometimes-swollen creek in my boots that were so worn, they had holes and my feet would get wet. I'd come back across the creek with my bucket of milk. My cow had already reminded me not to hurry, and I'd stop to watch the birds swoop low between the trees. My arms and back and legs were strong from milking and carrying buckets. I was poor, all right, but I was rich, too — and I knew it.
I taught a teenage girl how to milk the other day. She's a friend of my daughter's who is staying here with us while her family gets re-situated after a fire. I showed her how to milk by hand and then I showed her how to use the machine. I told her that I milked by hand for more than a year before I got a machine.
She asked, "Why did you wait so long?" I told her the machine was expensive, and I'd had to save money for it. And then I told her, "Everyone should milk a cow by hand for at least a year. You can learn a lot from a cow."
After Glory Bee kicked off the line while I was double-timing her with the water tubs, the next day I went down to the barn with a bucket. You know, ye olde milking bucket, the kind that has no milking lines and vacuum hoses attached. Because at least for a day, I needed to sit at my cow's udder and know life at her beat instead of my own, hear the thunk of goats moving around in their house across the barnyard instead of the pump of the vacuum. I'm out of practice and no speed milker, but cows are usually pretty generous with their time as long as you bring them enough feed. Glory Bee didn't really care what I was doing down there anyway — as always, a cow is quick to tell you that it's not about you, milk maid. It's about her.
Even as I try to let her teach me a lesson, my cow reminds me that she doesn't really care if I learn it or not.
And that's when she teaches me the greatest lesson of all.
This life is not about me, but it is always, every day, up to me.
Writer Suzanne McMinn lives in Roane County, where she writes every day in her blog, Chickens in the Road, at www.chickensintheroad.com.