The other day I saw cows waiting at a pasture gate…
The air is so heavy as we go ‘clomp, clomp, clomp’ down to the interval to fetch the cows.
Careful not to trip on loose rocks, in a haphazard way, I carry my young body down the washed out dirt road behind the milk barn and down to the interval field.
The road winds down around the old gravel pit. It is so humid that barely a bird is chirping in the overgrown sumac and scrub maples lining our way.
Down, down, down we go, our party of 4 across the railroad track to be bluntly greeted by the old aluminum gate, hung crooked on its post.
Pulling the gate towards me I am able to undo the chain…I can still hear the chain clatter against it as it falls, that hollow, deep tin sound…tink-tink.
A few of the old boss cows are already waiting for us and we have to push them back to open the gate all the way. The others hear us coming as they get up, stretch, and start coming our way in their methodical plod, heads down or swinging, tails swishing at the flies that land on their backs.
We holler out, “Come on girls…!”
Looking out over the interval, way down by the Rum Maple, I see the river wrapped around the back side of the big, open field. The farm brook runs through it, cutting the field into a section, bubbling over rocks and under the farm bridge that sometimes washed out in the heavy spring rain.
Earlier that day we had been in that brook, walking along the edge as the slow moving water made its way to the riverbank, which sat high over that bend in the Merrimack.
We passed the day fooling on the golf carts, driving crazy all over until the batteries ran out. Then we had played at the stream bank in the shade of the big trees that lapped at its edge, watching the water bugs skate over the back waters that were stuck behind old fallen logs.
Now we tended to the late afternoon chore of getting the cows up from the pasture…
“Where is Francis?” asks my sister.
Our pace will only be set by her…the old Guernsey matriarch. A majestic show stopper back in her day, she still stood tall at the withers, biggest barreled cow in the herd, with a big gentle face…she really was beautiful. With all her creaks I followed her up the dirt road and back to the milking barn, she always brought up the rear.
Up in the milk house, the old bulk tank was waiting to be washed, its big square cover kept open by the hook that hung from the white washed milk house ceiling.
We filled a little water in the bottom, to make the granular sanitizer that I had sprinkled inside turn to soap, and from the top, I started scrubbing at the milk stone, with the long handled white scrub brush. Touching every bit of stainless steel, I knew that it would sparkle as soon as I put the hose to it to rinse. Letting every last drip of water run out, I made sure to remember to put the plug back in at the bottom. We didn’t want the milk to run out and down the drain.
Duffy was just pulling in, her little maroon Toyota hatchback chased by the dust plumes trailing behind her. The brim of her navy blue hat riding so low on her head she could barely see out from under it.
As she pulled up and backed in we knew her mission: to get bottles washed and milk bottled as soon as it started to accumulate in the tank. This was her rhythm, set forth all those years ago when she took up residence in the old white farmhouse…back when the cows were milked below in the attached old New England style white barn…
For years, the locals came to the milk house, located above that old stanchion barn, stopping to leave their milk money with her. They usually got more than milk: they got an earful on local politics and the injustices of the world, a story or 2 on the history of something or other, all while she sat and smoked her cigarette, stroking the poodle in her lap. I can still smell the smoke from the old wood fired cook stove that sat in her kitchen.
With her long skirt and salt and pepper hair tied up in a bun she got out of the car, pursed her lips and motioned for us to unload the old fashioned wired crates filled with the dirty, empty glass milk bottles. With a wave of her hand the 4 of us knew to scatter and get out of her way.
Quickly we climbed the ladder that scaled the outside wall of the milking parlor to go push the grain down. Climbing over the water trough that was at the base of the ladder we scurried up and into the dusty and hot overhead space. Occasionally we would catch a mouse scurrying away into the darkness of the barn attic. We crawled into each bin, pushing the grain down into the shafts that dropped into each of the 4 milking stanchions of the antiquated side opening parlor. The pellets collected between my foot and the walls of my boots–how do they manage to sneak in everywhere?
And then the pump turned on…
And for another hot afternoon, the scene played out.
Duffy filled her old bottling machine with the sweet creamy milk.
Us kids managed the holding area pushing up cows into the parlor and pushing down the grain in the bins.
But perhaps our most important job of all was keeping the biggest kid in the barn company...the farmer. What a great life…what a great memory… what great characters…
And all this came back because I saw cows waiting at a pasture gate, before milking…