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My nephew’s family just returned from a multi-week (amazing) trip to Europe. They (mom and four children 13-6 — dad joined them for the final week) hiked and toured in many countries. I was exhausted watching them via Instagram. As “payment” for parking their car in our side yard, instead of the airport, they brought us some Belgium chocolate, and an adorable little carved wooden Brown Swiss cow. It is about four inches long.
See, my nephew knew (correctly) that I would be absolutely delighted by this tiny gesture because he knows his aunts well. No matter what else we do in our lives, our identity will always be defined by our dairy farm upbringing.
We six daughters were the third generation of cow milkers in our extended family. Our parents and their parents had been dairy farmers, too. One of our grandfathers was instrumental in starting a Swiss cheese creamery co-op in our community in order to preserve and sell the milk produced, and not just be subsistence farmers. His parents had immigrated to America from Switzerland in the mid-1800s, so my grandfather was born here, along with his 12 siblings.
After WWII, our parents were married, and they, too, set up a dairy farm, selling the milk to the cheese factory. We girls (along with two brothers, born in the middle of six sisters) were the workers. We hauled hay all summer, and fed it back out to the cows all winter. We spent the two hours each morning, and each evening, milking the Guernseys, Jerseys, and Brown Swiss cows our dad had carefully accumulated. The world has a default concept of cows as the black and white Holsteins that are usually depicted, but our father was aiming for the high butterfat content that brought him a premium price from the creamery.
Yes, yes, you are wondering where I’m going with this memoir. I’ve been pondering my place in the universe as the last of the cow-milkers in our family tree. None of my sisters (nor I) married a farmer. By design. Our older/little brother was married by the time our father died — too early — at 61 from leukemia. (The younger/little brother chose college and is an attorney.) The first brother took over the farm, making payments to my mother for the property over the years, and she continued to own, and live in, her home until her death 10 years ago. Despite his valiant efforts, and expansion from three dozen to 150 cows, it became obvious that to be a successful dairy, one needed to either have 1,000 cows, or a special niche in the dairy industry. He had neither the money nor opportunity, so he sold the cows after 15 years, rented the hay fields to another farmer, and went to work selling machinery to the guys who had “gone big.” This was the end of nearly 100 years of milking in our family history.
I really appreciate having grown up in a world where hard work was the norm, and it was expected and assumed that you would do your part. My town friends would be planning swimming parties for the last day of school. My farm friends and I knew we’d be picking rock from the plowed fields so our dads could plant the grain. I didn’t need to “work out” because all summer I bench-pressed thousands of 75-pound hay bales as we collected them from the fields and stacked them near the barns. Then, all winter, we fed those bales to our cows. I lifted filled 10-gallon milk cans from the milk-house floor into the cooling trough each night, and carried heavy milkers from cow to cow in the barn twice a day. We’d wrap our curler-filled hair in a dish towel to keep the dirt off. I was an expert at gulping down breakfast, then applying mascara and eye-shadow at top-speed so I’d be ready to catch the bus for high school in the 30 minutes between turning out the last cows, and heading to town for my education. None of us would have purposefully shirked our work, because it had to be done, and our parents only had so many hours in their day, too. Also, animals cannot be mistreated or neglected when they are the source of the family income.
Once or twice after I married, I stayed for a few months at my parents’ home with my first two children, to help with the work. I did not have a paycheck-job at the time, and my dad’s illness had diminished his energy for a several years before my brother reached adulthood. So I was available to help out. I milked the cows, fed the animals, cleaned out the barns, etc. But I never intended to return to our mountain valley permanently as a farmer or rancher.
Despite my having left behind the hard work of the farm as soon as I could, it has always been my identity throughout my adult life. My sisters and I are proud of our heritage, and proud of the way we were tough and strong. But, none of our children have lived this way. And none of them probably will, either. We sisters are now the “elders of the tribe” and some of us have grandchildren about to graduate from high school. Those children know all about the Farm Girls. That’s why my nephew knew I’d appreciate the wooden cow.
But, now, as I approach the last portion of my mortality, I wonder what defines my children, and my nieces and nephews, the way our cow milker/hay hauler upbringing so influenced my sisters and me? Do they associate with the heritage of four generations of their ancestors? Do they see a field of bales, or a red barn, and have flashbacks to Grandma’s house? My children lived in four different cities, in three states, in completely different climate zones. How do they define themselves?
I wonder sometimes if by discontinuing this Dairy Heritage I deprived them of something that has powerfully sustained me as I spent my adult life as a willing nomad. I’ve never shied from a challenging task, because I learned early that I could do very hard, sometimes boring, jobs by just persisting. I see my children succeeding at their lives: being good, helpful, self-supporting people, and raising their children to be that way, too. So, perhaps it is possible to pass on the skills and standards I learned from my extended family, without having to shovel the cow manure or haul the bales.