As I have crafted my “Tales from the Hayloft,” the theme for my blog this summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about cows. I love cows. I grew up with them on a farm in northern Illinois. Until I was sixteen, we milked a small herd of Holsteins, then Dad sold the milkers, and we fattened cattle and hogs. The latter was much less demanding of my father’s time. He no longer had to get up early to milk nor was he tied to milking twice each day. There was only once in all those years that my dad was too sick to milk. He was ill on other occasions, but he got out of bed to milk anyway.
I spent a lot of my childhood years out in the barn with him. He played the old radio tuned to either opera or country music while he milked. He claimed the cows liked it. They never complained at his choice of music and they gave a lot of milk, so I guess they did like it. I never helped him with the cows, but I followed him around while he cleaned utters, placed the suction cups on teats, poured the warm milk into a pail and hauled it back to the cooler. My job came after he finished. I washed the utensils, the big milkers and pails, hoses and teat cups by hand in big stainless sinks in our basement.
Our cows were a part of my daily life. Only when I became a teen when school activities took me away from the barn did I miss a day smelling the manure, sweat, and hot, creamy milk in our dairy barn.
There are few pictures of me as a young child because my parents couldn’t afford a camera, but the one I treasure is of me with a Guernsey calf. I was told she was my calf thought I don’t know if that is really so as I have few memories of her specifically but I know I named her “Essie” after myself (I couldn’t pronounce the Ls in my name). As an adult cow, she was the only of her kind in our Holstein herd. Dad said it was so we could have a little cream with our milk.
The calf I followed through her calf childhood into adulthood was a Holstein, and I didn’t keep an eye on her because I was fond of her. My grandmother had given me a pair of red knitted gloves for Christmas when I was about eight. I loved those gloves. In the winter, the calves came into the barn for the night and were held in a small pen near the milking stanchions. I often fed them hay through the bars of the pen. One of the calves took the hay and the mitten off my hand, chomped down on both and swallowed. I remember her distinctively and until she grew to give milk as an adult. She had one eye with black eyelashes, the other with white. She was forever the cow I despised.
I got pink eye (conjunctivitis) from the cows one fall and was out of school that year (fourth or fifth grade) for weeks. I kept reinfecting myself and, because it is so contagious, each infection meant I had to stay home for several days. Mom and Dad could do little to keep me away from those cows, so it was months before it cleared up.
Holsteins are big, really big, very big when you’re a five year old told to round up Mary, one of our most cantankerous cows. She wandered away from the others and never wanted to come in from the field. I reluctantly pursued her toward the stand of oaks and she turned and rushed me. Dad told me to turn and face her. To me that was like facing a freight train bearing down on me.
I ran. Dad didn’t always do so well with these huge beasts either. Until we went to artificial insemination, we kept a Holstein bull. They are always in a vile mood. The bull was housed in a pen with a fence that was over eight feet tall and made of study rails. Yet he never failed to get out somehow. When he chased my grandfather up the windmill, Dad laughed. But he did the same thing several months later to my dad and somehow he didn’t find that as funny.
Farm life and the cows we raised and milked there are a part of my childhood. In some ways they are my childhood, as much a part of who I am now as my DNA. I carry that life around in my soul, and I write all my stories from it as I believe do many other writers of cozies. It’s no surprise that I feel so comfortable positioning my protagonists in the country. It’s not in detailed descriptions of rural Florida or of the Butternut Valley in Upstate New York that I fashion the atmosphere and setting of the book. From my country roots emerge the people and their relationship to their land. Storms, drought, floods, wild animals, herds of cattle, cowboys and horses, snakes and gators are the stuff of their lives and their adventures. It’s country. They are my adventures. After all, I’m a country gal, and I write country. So, yippee for cows!