This “summer” story starts in the winter. In order for one to truly appreciate summer, a wintry time must come first.
Each January afternoon the school bus dropped us off at home, and with great determination, my sister and I would resolve to get right out to the milking barn. The sooner we got to it, the sooner we could be finished. But it was so hard to leave the house…. Our mom always had something baking, like cookies or cinnamon rolls. We’d bring in our chilly chore clothes from the porch off the kitchen, and warm them up by the coal stove.
Then, I pulled on layer after layer–thermals, denim, knits–topping it with the one piece coverall. I was just trying to ward off the outdoor chill visible in the ice crystals creeping up the inside of the kitchen window. Two or three socks were on each foot I shoved into the knee-high rubber boots, and I tied a dishtowel around my hair. I stepped out the door with the house-milk bucket swinging from my arm, while my hands hid in my pockets.
The first breath of that tingling air shocked my lungs, and my nose and cheeks stung from the biting cold. The sun was hovering over the west hills, but its pale light was useless as a source of warmth. The atmosphere was thin and brittle, and the snow squeaked dryly with each step. I walked quickly to the barn, leaving the bucket in the milk house, and opened the gate that led to the cowshed.
Even the cows were reluctant to come out on a night like this. I had to prod, coax, and even threaten them with the dog to roust them from their cozy quarters where their collective warmth and moist breath gave a foggy boost to the temperature by many degrees over that outside.
The first dozen cows trudged into the milking barn, leaving the other twenty huddled together in the front waiting their turns. If the vacuum lines weren’t blocked by ice, the milking went smoothly. During the few minutes it took each cow’s milk to be extracted into the machine’s bucket, I slid my freezing hands in the warm place between her leg and udder until my fingers tingled, signifying the return of blood flow. The outside temperature registered negative 25 degrees, and I appreciated the living hand-warmers.
At last, the two hours of work came to an end. I turned the last cow out to return to her warm bed, washed out the milkers, hefted the cans filled with warm milk into the cooling trough of water so the cream could rise for morning’s collection. I turned out the lights, crossing the barnyard by the glow of the millions of stars shining over the brittle landscape. Just seeing the glow from the house lights began to warm me, knowing that I’d be inside in a minute, comfortable for another ten hours, at least.
So, how did I stand this torture twice a day for the whole winter? Because I knew that spring would come, and so would June. June in my beautiful mountain valley was worth the entire seven months of winter. By June it was summer!
At evening milking time in June, I was almost grateful for the excuse to be outside. In June, our house–a refuge in the winter–was a barrier to the sensory pleasures of the outdoors. Dressed only in cut-off jeans, a light cotton blouse, and barefoot in my rubber boots, I cheerfully whistled up the dog to accompany me up the field to call in the herd of cows.
I broke off a sprig of lilacs as I went through the yard gate, burying my face in the sweet, purple trumpets clustered along the twig. I could see the cows had wandered halfway to mountains. They were scattered across the deep green landscape, grazing in clover up to their ankles. Meadowlarks, perched on the fence posts, whistled their distinctive melody, as a mother killdeer ran along in front of us, doing the broken wing diversion, to keep us from her babies nesting in the tall grass by the irrigation ditch.
The sun was low enough in the sky to be comfortable, but the evening chill had not begun. The heat of the day shimmered up from the grass, and combined with the slight dust from the herd’s hooves, as they trailed leisurely down the dirt road to the barnyard, sending a soft cloud shimmering aloft. Through this cloud a flock of tiny white and yellow butterflies swirled, disturbed from their resting place as the cows walked past.
In the barn, with the top half of the divided door open, the sunbeams stretched through the hay dust from the loft, and striped the cows as they stood, sleek and clean from living outdoors, away from the close quarters of the sheds. Their sun-warmed hides felt soft against my bare arms as I crouched down to attach the milkers. Waiting for the milk to pump out, I gazed out the open door, watching lambs caper in the adjoining pasture. The cats, bulging from the day’s mouse hunt, twined around my ankles purring for warm milk in their dish.
Since no one but cows could hear, I usually sang Rogers and Hammerstein songs. Sometimes, I brought out my mother’s radio and tuned into rock and roll before the sun went down, and the station went off the air.
Even when the clean-up was finished, and the milk-house floor was swept dry, I lingered outdoors. I’d go for a ride on my horse, or play softball with my sister, or hang around on the lawn watching my mother work in her flower beds. The sun slipped down behind the mountains, but twilight lasted for another hour. It was the best time of day to swing or pull tiny carrots from the garden for a snack. As it got darker, we’d scare ourselves with a game of “No Bears Are Out Tonight.” Only the total darkness finally forced us inside.
June is a month to spend outside in western Wyoming. January is a month live in Southern California.