A Grandmother's Glass of Milk
The Coming of Age of a Queens Schoolteacher
Up until the time I was in the fifth grade I believed just about everything in my school's history books--about Plymouth Rock, the Fountain of Youth, and Montezuma's gold. One reason was that there were things in my private life that seemed to support what I read. For instance, one book said that wave of immigrants came to our shore because of terrible oppression and poverty In the Old Country.
Well, that's exactly what my grandmother said. Even though she was usually rather taciturn, the one story he told again and again was about Cossack battering at her door and her trying to hide some bread under the mattress. I thought at the time that Cossack was another word for louse or rat-fink, and I couldn't connect the violence and the value of bread. But I got the idea: The Old Country was a rotten place--period.
That's the way things stood until I was 11. And, strangely, it was a glass of milk that made me first question my simple-minded view of the world and, years after, helped make me the kind of teacher I turned out to be.
It was always Thursday afternoon that I swung down the street with my grandmother's milk pail in my hand. She was still locked into the ways of the Old Country and never could get used to store-bought milk. Of all our family, she alone held out, and it was only for her that I made this trip to what must have been the last dairy in Brooklyn.
Like my grandmother, it, too, was a survivor of the old days, a remnant of another way of life. It clung to its square of land on Metropolitan Avenue, squeezed on both sides by junk yards full of rusting Fords and twisted plumbing.
It was not exactly my idea of a farm, though there were chickens scratching in the square of dust before the barn where about 20 cows sulked in their tails. But there was no serenity, no pastoral enchantment. The many trucks lumbered by on the cobbled street and the air was heavy with fumes and rang with the din of auto wrecks being dismantled. And I could see no contentment in the stolid faces of the cows. There was no pasture for them to graze in so they were forever locked in the barn. The dung accumulated in troughs that ran along two walls, and each afternoon, a laborer, armed with a long, flat wooden shovel, pushed it out the back into a big pit.
I also missed the white-aproned milk maids that I had seen in picture books. Instead, Polish Mike, a gaunt, stooped, unshaven relic of a man, did all the milking twice a day. He shuffled along in knee-high boots, into which he stuffed his pants. His jacket billowed out over the broad belt around his waist. No American dressed like that. In addition, he had a perennial cough and running nose, and, whenever he had filled two pails with milk, he struggled across the yard and wheezed up the steps of the stone "cooling house."
I usually intercepted him on one of his trips. I sat on the broad top step of the cooling house and, before he went inside, he filled my grandmother's pail. I had a dim idea that something else should have been done to the milk to make it fit for people to drink, but my grandmother wanted it that way, and Mike didn't seem to think there was anything wrong. But I knew it wasn't the way we did things here.
When I got home, my grandmother filled her three milk jars and put them in the ice box--a week's supply. She always asked me to have a glass with her, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. I knew where it came from. But what puzzled me was that she knew it too, and it didn't bother her. It was just one of those mysteries that are forever confronting children, and I never did understand foreigners and their ways.
At any rate, those milk jars in the ice box always aroused in me a sense of the absolute wrongness of rejecting those neat white bottles that were delivered at our door every morning. But I remember a day when my grandmother and I sat together at her kitchen table. She had a glass of her milk before her. I don't remember what we had talked about, but we had lapsed into silence.
All at once she roused herself and drank from her glass. A dreamy, distant look came into her face. "America is wonderful," she said incongruously, "but the old country . . . "
The broad smile on her round Russian peasant face surprised me. She had never referred to a single happy moment In that Czar-haunted land--only Cossacks and the hidden bread.
It was then that I began to guess what the subtle difference in the taste of a glass of milk could mean. For the first time, it occurred to me that my grandmother might have been wonderfully happy the day before the Cossacks came, and it was they alone who were rotten and not necessarily the country. It was a big idea for a child.
I can't for certain claim cause and effect, but not long afterward I began to wonder: If I were a Pilgrim in a wooden boat, rowing toward the shore--would I really head toward a rock?
I had become a skeptic.
Over the years, particularly when I've stood in front of a class, the memory of my grandmother's glass of milk has never been far away. Many time, it has reminded me that there's usually another side to a story and stopped me short of making a grand generalization. And it has often got me to encourage students to look behind their own ideas.
I never did taste the milk in those jars, but it has managed to work its way into my system nonetheless and, in its own way, to nourish me as a teacher.
Vol. 01, Issue 00, Page 21