The Cows Come Home
A former farm kid milks her experiences for all they're worth.
I know a lot about cows. I am a farmer’s daughter, raised on a hundred acres of corn and cow pasture, full of facts about the ruminants’ four stomachs, the average length of a cow’s gestation, the way to back a manure spreader into the garage. I can bathe bodies, clip heads, scrub hooves on show day. I can predict a calf’s arrival within 24 hours of its birth, inject vitamins subcutaneously and antibiotics intramuscularly. Dehorn, deworm, delouse.
But Dad sold the cows one afternoon, loaded them onto three trucks and shuffled back into the house the way he had at the end of every day for 70 years. Later, he sold the farm, overgrown with bullbrier and wild roses, and bought a house in a “real” neighborhood. I went off to the city—where else do deposed farm girls head?—and ended up teaching high school English, wondering what I could ever do with all I’d learned from my days farming. It took until midway through my 10th year teaching, but finally my first life, my first love, came in handy.
Once I’d finished handing back quizzes that day, we would get back to sonnets. The boys in my senior literature class were trading tales of conquest from the latest all-you-can-eat restaurant a few towns over.
“My record’s 16 ribs,” Andrew said. He was all ribs himself, a hollow tube of a young man whose only job on the basketball court was to stick his big hands up whenever he saw a ball take flight.
Jackie, whom I had nicknamed Carnivore, jumped in: “Me and Grizzo were loving the roast beast. Stacked it like pancakes and didn’t bother with a knife. And I like it bloody.”
“Turn to page 116,” I said. “Let’s see if I can guess how many trips you made to the salad bar.”
“Are we grossing you out, Ms. P?” Carnivore asked. “You know I can’t help myself. I can’t understand how you resist a fat piece of steak every once in a while.” My vegetarianism had far more appeal to them than my passion for Keats or my generous offers of extra credit.
“Who wants to read the first poem?” I asked.
“You grew up on a farm, for god’s sake,” Andrew continued, flipping his book open to the section on World War II-era poets.
I had told them this much about me, and they responded no differently from the rest of the people in my life. I was a freak, someone who’d not only visited another planet but who’d taken up residence there. In my skirt and makeup, my low, practical heels as clean as the day I bought them, my nails clipped and immaculate, it was hard even for me to envision the cow woman I’d evolved from.
“You drink milk, don’t you?” Andrew asked.
“If you volunteer to read the octave, I’ll answer that.”
Carnivore scanned his book, then leaned back in his chair to ask someone what an octave was. “I’ll go,” he said.
“I drink milk.”
He bent his head into the text, squinted, lifted the book up, set it down, sat forward, pulled at his cuffs, and cleared his throat. But then Andrew, who’d been checking the page number in his neighbor’s book and comparing it with his own before thumbing through a few centuries, interrupted. “Well, I think it’s pretty hypocritical,” he said. “I mean, they had to kill the cow to get the milk, anyway.”
I snapped the book shut and slammed it onto the table in front of me. “Stop!” I said.
One or two brave kids said, “You don’t kill a cow to get milk.” It was a statement, but their voices rose at the end of it and they didn’t speak loudly. Others offered relieved chuckles. There were some yeahs and that’s rights.
In graduate school, we were primed to look for the teachable moments. Breaking news about the war in the Persian Gulf, for example, the reading of the O.J. Simpson verdict, drunken-driving fatalities. When kids need to know something critical, my professors told us, let it happen.
“Put your books away,” I said. All eyes followed me as the students slid books to the corners of their desks or folded their hands on top of them. We hadn’t stopped work for anything that year.
“Today,” I said, “we will learn how to milk a cow.”
Earlier in the year, it hadn’t bothered me when they didn’t understand Chaucer’s reference to a gelding. When I explained the feudal system, I didn’t expect them to know that lords got rich from the sweat of peasant farmers, although no one seemed bothered by the fact. But Andrew, who no doubt drank as much milk in a 24-hour period as a 2-year-old heifer produces daily for a first calf, needed to know this truth.
I drew an outline of a cow on the board.
“What’s this? The United States?” Carnivore asked, his notebook open.
“What’s that thing near Disney World?” Andrew’s voice was quieter than usual but no less audible in a room grown suddenly still.
“I’m no artist,” I replied, “but at least I can tell you where my food comes from. This happens to be a cow. And this isn’t Florida, it’s an udder.” I spelled the word out for them. “See? No t’s.”
“Should we be writing this down?” Someone always asks this question.
“Now I’m going to blow the udder up for you because that, ladies and gentlemen who grew up too close to a mall, is where milk comes from. And contrary to some theories, the cow is very much alive when she produces it.”
Although I skipped the vocabulary lesson with “flaccid” in it, I plowed right ahead with the correct pronunciation of “teats.” I defined artificial insemination, gestation, and lactation. I diagrammed a milking parlor, made them pantomime after me as I tugged on an imaginary teat. “Not the end of your thumb,” I corrected them. “Flatten it out with the whole side of your hand.”
They’d dozed through Le Morte d’Arthur, slipped into full REM cycles during Macbeth, and so far had not discovered much of interest in sonnets. But suddenly, everyone focused on the board, held their hands out, and stared hard at them, imagining the milk coursing at their touch, jets of it streaming floorward.
“Gross,” Carnivore said, wiping his hand on his jeans. “How could you do that?”
But I did do it, and standing in my classroom that day with a view of the soccer practice fields and the roofs of three strip malls, I finally felt as though I could put to use the other half of my brain. For the remainder of the class, I answered questions from kids who hadn’t stuck their hands up all year. How much milk do cows give? Did you drive a tractor? Did you have horses, chickens, pigs, goats, sheep, llamas? What’s a cow weigh, anyway? Aren’t bulls the ones with horns?
When the bell rang, the group waited for me to finish the last answer before shaking their heads and trudging off to their next class—to history or child development, to geometry or graphic design, to any lesson less interesting than this one had been for us. Never in a hurry, Carnivore and Andrew held up their hands on their way out.
“Great class,” Andrew said. “I learned more in here today than I did all year.”
“Hard to believe you really did all that stuff,” Carnivore added.
“I did,” I said.
“Cool,” they said together.
I collected my notes on pentameter and shoved them in with the rest of my files from my new life. When I looked out across the practice fields, I imagined cows dotting the green, and it was a good thought, a thought that made me feel at home.
Vol. 16, Issue 05, Pages 42-44Published in Print: March 1, 2005, as The Cows Come Home