The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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A cow has died. Not just any cow, but Zelda, our beloved milk cow. So ends a romantic period of our lives.
My husband, Ken, grew up on a thousand-acre farm in northern Indiana. His father managed the property, having lost his own farm, a dairy, during the Depression. Two parents and eight children — Ken was the youngest — lived in a dilapidated two-bedroom house with rudimentary plumbing. Ken’s father received two hundred dollars a month, plus three acres of land for his own use and enough pasture and barn space for a pig and a cow. They were poor, but Ken went to school with children who still had dirt floors.
As an adult, my husband dreamed of having his own milk cow. I think he wanted to bring back part of his childhood — not the poverty and the crowded conditions, certainly, but the tranquility of milking: resting his head against the beast’s side, smelling the musky scent of dried grasses and summer heat permeating its soft fur, and drawing forth the rich, steaming milk, thick with cream. My husband coveted the sanctuary of our cobwebby barn, far away from the telephones, computer screens, and numbers of his university job.
Zelda was my present to Ken for his thirty-third birthday. She came cheap, having been culled from a small commercial dairy herd because she was stunted, in part from having calved too young. She was a luxurious, soft brown Jersey with large, moist eyes. Jerseys are known for their pacific dispositions (the females, anyway) and the richness of their milk, which has a higher fat content than that of any other breed. Zelda’s milk was so rich that, when we poured it fresh from the pail into old tuna-fish cans for the cats, it was yellow.
We had heard the warnings about how much work a cow would be, especially from Ken’s older brothers, but we naively thought we could curtail the amount of milking by following a simple plan: Usually, dairy calves are separated from their mothers at birth. The mothers are milked by machines, and the calves are bottle-fed, to maximize milk production. Our plan was to separate Zelda and her calf — who came with her as part of the deal — only at night. The calf would drink enough during the day that we could do away with all but the morning milking. Or so we thought.
When Zelda and her undersized bull calf were delivered, enclosed in separate trailer compartments, we realized that neither animal knew the other. Zelda had been milked only by machine, and the calf had never suckled from its mother. Both animals bawled — one out of hunger, the other out of pain from a swollen udder.
For the first three days, Zelda had to be locked into a head gate, and even that restraint did not stop her from twitching as the calf drank its fill. Its ferocious tugging on one teat at a time was quite different from the rhythmic suction of the milking machine on all four teats at once.
Commercially, Zelda may have been a poor producer, but for our family — even with our three children being prodigious milk drinkers and the calf suckling at will — her output was overwhelming. It wasn’t possible to skip a milking. Every shelf in our refrigerator held milk in one stage of processing or another.
At first, we pasteurized the milk by hand. Standing over the stove, The Joy of Cooking open to the appropriate page, we would stir frantically to prevent the milk from burning, all the while keeping an anxious eye on the clock and the thermometer. Overwhelmed by this complex task, we actually began to consider drinking unpasteurized milk. Then Ken mentioned this idea in passing to a colleague in the university’s school of agriculture, who replied succinctly, “Don’t be stupid.” So my husband searched the refuse in his parents’ yard, where he found, half buried in the ground, the old gallon pasteurizer that they had ordered from the Sears and Roebuck catalog when he was a child. It was rusty, but basically intact. After cleaning and rewiring it, we used it to eliminate all traces of live bacteria from our milk.
Once pasteurized, the milk had to sit until the cream rose to the top. Then we would spoon off the cream and put it in its own special bottle. When enough cream was amassed, we brought out the butter churn, the one Ken’s grandmother had used. On hot, humid nights, we had to put the bottom of the churn in a sink filled with ice cubes to get the butter to set. Our freezer shelves were soon lined with packages of butter, our fingerprints pressed into the bright yellow surfaces where we’d molded the one-cup blocks. We even made cheese. The vegetable bins overflowed with dated blocks of cheddar, there being no space on the refrigerator shelves because of all the milk.
Our three barn cats grew so fat on Zelda’s milk that their stomachs began to drag the ground. The mice flourished, and, for the first time since we had bought the property, we began to see them scurrying across the barn floor in broad daylight. The dogs were just as bad as the cats. Moles took over the flower beds while the canines lay lethargically in the sun.
Because of health regulations, we could neither sell the milk nor donate it to our local food bank. Our neighbors stopped returning our glass bottles for fear that we would refill them yet again. Running out of options, we blocked from our minds the images of starving children with distended bellies and poured the milk on the ground. It didn’t hurt the grass.
As problematic as the milking chores were, we wouldn’t think of giving Zelda up. She taught us to tolerate menial tasks and kept us from drowning in the mundane. She used to follow Ken around and lick his upper arms with her moist, bumpy tongue. When he would worry about our finances, the children would say to him, “Well, Dad, at least Zelda thinks you taste better than a salt block.”
Ken started waking the children every third morning so they could milk with him. They were each responsible for a teat. At school, they would sit at their desks, dutifully studying the multiplication tables and the Pyramids like the other children, but they had started the day with milking. They had churned butter. They had seen curds and whey.
Once, my husband had to travel to Honduras, a country with such abject poverty that ownership of a cow there often separates those whose children will grow to adulthood from those whose children will not. For a week while Ken was gone, our older son, Jake, was responsible for the milking.
Now, at thirteen, a boy is certain that the world should revolve around him, and as he grows increasingly aware that it does not, he becomes touchy and belligerent. So when I suggested to Jake that he put on his black rubber work boots to keep the manure off his shoes, it was enough to make him storm out to the pasture with a big stick, angrily screaming that I couldn’t make him do anything he didn’t want to.
Cows can sense anger, and as Jake left my field of vision waving his stick, I could just see him lying in the pasture or on the barn floor with his skull crushed by Zelda’s hoofs. I knew I had to check on him. I also knew that Jake must not see me checking on him. My presence would not be viewed as tender, or even neurotic, maternalism, but as a trespass on his domain. He was acting governor of the barn while Ken was gone. His father had said, “Milk,” and, by God, Jake was milking.
Donning my own black rubber work boots, I walked quietly to the barn and peered in a side window. I saw Zelda positioned in the head gate, feasting on her daily ration of corn, and Jake squatting on his haunches, almost underneath the cow. The three cats were resting on the beams above her, their purring and the steady ping of the milk hitting the pan the only sounds. Jake’s hands moved with a firm, steady rhythm. There was a sureness — very different from his usual adolescent cockiness — in his movements. He handled Zelda’s teats exactly as his father had taught him, and the milk flowed.
I suppose I was wrong to have checked on him, and I would have been mortified had he detected my presence. Luckily, Jake remained oblivious, intent on his responsibility: milking our cow. He was taking care of his livestock, the way all farmers do.
To ensure that Zelda would not be a financial liability, we had to breed her. This caused her to produce milk again (we had begun to let her dry up after each calf was weaned) and provided us with a reliable supply of meat from her calves. The arrival of each new calf also gave our children the chance to witness the miracle of birth.
Words cannot describe how it is to see a calf emerge from the womb perfectly still and, within moments, aided by its mother’s careful nudging and licking, begin to move. Our hearts would race, and then sink, when the calf’s first attempt to stand failed. Its legs trembled so. I always feared it would be too weak to suckle. When, finally, mouth adhered to teat and the milk streamed thick and warm down the calf’s throat, I breathed deeply and rejoiced.
Other parts of the birth were not so heartwarming. My daughter, Sarah, was both repulsed and fascinated by Zelda’s postpartum consumption of the placenta, a large, bloody mass of astronomical proportions. Once, Sarah turned to me and asked, “Is that what you did, Mom, after we were born?”
Every year, there was controversy about what to name the calves. My husband, the farm boy, argued vehemently against naming them at all. “They are only beasts,” he said. “If you name it, you won’t be able to eat it.” Heedless of his warnings, however, our children named the first two calves Zane and Zeke. When they ran out of Z names, they went on to such proper bovine names as Rose, Honeysuckle, and Midnight.
One night at dinner, conversation turned to the cows, and Sarah asked casually, “Whatever did happen to Honeysuckle?”
Ken and I looked at each other. Though from the very beginning the children were told that the calves were for our consumption, we’d always made sure that the animals were taken away while the children were at school. (On at least two occasions, however, the kids had accompanied me when I went to pick up the neatly labeled white packages of meat.)
Ken’s reply to Sarah was blunt: “You just took a bite out of her.”
Sarah paled and fed the rest of her hamburger to the dogs.
This was just what my husband had warned them about: with a name comes individuality. That evening, as he tucked Sarah into bed, Ken gently told her the story of humankind and agriculture. And when the next calf was born, my husband fiercely insisted that it was his turn to do the naming. He called it F. B., short for Freezer Beef.
As the years passed, Zelda began to have difficulty with a particular teat. Her allergies started to interfere with her breathing, and she developed an incurable skin ulcer, probably cancer, on her udder. Though it was still necessary to milk her when she calved, we stopped drinking what she produced.
Zelda began to lose weight, and her pelvic bones jutted out. The ulcer slowly got worse. “I can’t justify keeping her,” my husband said. Yet he continued to feed her corn and alfalfa in the winter when there wasn’t any grass in the pasture, and she continued to wait for him at the fence. By economic logic, we should have slaughtered her. Instead, we reached a tacit agreement that Zelda would die of old age. “She’s earned it” was the only thing Ken said.
My husband had touched Zelda’s udder more than he had touched my breasts. He was as familiar with each individual teat — their minuscule differences, freckles, and moles — as he was with his own face. He had stroked, massaged, squeezed, and pulled those four nipples morning and night for more days than he could count. When he had run out of teat balm, he had, without a second thought, taken my own lotion from the bathroom shelf and massaged it into Zelda’s teats. He’d injected her with antibiotics when she was ill, rubbed salve on her cuts, and washed her eyes when they were teary from her allergies. His hands, covered in long plastic gloves, had felt her young before they were born. He had even printed Zelda’s menstrual cycle on the family calendar, alongside the birthday parties and PTA meetings.
Finally, Zelda took a turn for the worse. Ken would cup ground corn in his hands and hold it out to her, but she would just hang her head. She’d still drag herself a few feet from the barn to be in the sun and near her calves, but while they grazed, she’d stand miserably by, not moving.
One night, unable to sleep, Ken went out around midnight to check on Zelda. He found her collapsed in the snow, her neck arched, each breath a strangled gasp. Her eyes were glazed, and she did not respond to his touch. He held her head in his lap for two hours and told her that he loved her. Then he came in to get his gun. He had to warm his fingers over the wood stove before he could load it. Instead of going back outside right away, he sat at the kitchen table with his head in his hands. I told him we could call a vet to put her down. “No,” my husband said wearily, “it’s my responsibility.” He returned to where Zelda lay in the snow, still in the same position, and he cradled her. Then he shot her.
When Ken returned to the house an hour later, his eyes were red. “I would have wanted someone to do the same for me,” he said.
The next day, I called the fertilizer plant to have them pick up Zelda’s body — the standard procedure for disposing of a dead farm animal. “We’re running late because of the ice,” the man said. “Just give us directions, and we’ll come get it when we have time.”
Not wanting to leave Zelda exposed, Ken had covered her with an old plastic tarp. It was as if, overnight, a blue mound had pushed itself up out of the white expanse of snow.
“I keep telling myself she was just a cow,” Ken said.
That evening, Sarah announced that she was going to conduct a funeral. She dressed in a black T-shirt, black sweat pants, and an elegant black velvet blazer handed down among the women in my family. Jake refused to attend. Instead, he crawled into bed, covered himself with blankets, and read science fiction. Our younger son, Jon, had to change his clothes several times before Sarah decided he looked good enough for the occasion.
Sarah played “Greensleeves” on her flute, from memory. The notes were clear, rising in the cold air around us. When she finished, Ken read Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” and Jon stuck his pinwheel into a mound of snow Ken piled on the tarp for him.
Jon’s pinwheel whirled for three days before the truck came. It looked like a garbage truck, except on its door it had a picture of a green tree and the words PLYMOUTH FERTILIZER. The driver got out and put on heavy black plastic gloves. As I began to pick up the boards we had used to keep the tarp from blowing away, I saw Zelda’s muzzle peeking out, and I couldn’t continue.
“I guess she just didn’t want to live no more,” the man said compassionately. I think he knew before I did that I could not watch.
A chill breeze caused the loosened tarp to flap, exposing once again Zelda’s delicate muzzle, the beautiful white hairs on its end. “We loved her,” I said, and I ran crying into the house.
When she was gone into the bin of the truck, I came out and handed the man a check for fifteen dollars and a bag of homemade cookies: oatmeal chocolate chip.
“We weren’t real farmers anyhow,” my husband said when I called to tell him that it was over. “Real farmers would have just left her uncovered. They would have just left her by the side of the road for the pickup. I had to cover her up.”
Three days later, Ken and I met for lunch. At one point in the conversation, he said abruptly, “I had to take her halter off before I shot her.” He looked out the window at the university students walking down the street. Our hands touched, and I began to stroke his rough palm with my fingers. He closed his fingers over mine and said, “On those mornings when I’d go out and milk her, and the kids couldn’t come because it was so cold, I used to warm up my hands on her teats.”
Reading Ruth Foster’s “Death of a Milk Cow” [July 2000] reminded me that I, too, named all the four-legged near relatives on and around the farms I visited and worked on as a kid. Well into my adult years, I wrestled with the whole issue of a “natural” food chain. As a student of theology, I learned that the first Genesis story involving food had all of us eating vegetation. (The more familiar Genesis story came a bit later.)
The current explosion of genetic information leads us to conclude that we are more related to the other members of the food chain than we might comfortably admit — we’re all at least genetic cousins. It wasn’t just apes learning American Sign Language that convinced me that animals know more than we think they do. The local deer would migrate into the state park a full week ahead of the hunting season — until there had to be a hunt inside the park, too.
Perhaps, however, we can admit our kinship and honor it (even with a name now and then) and still keep the food chain. If any culture has managed to do this, the Native American traditions are close. Meanwhile, the nearby rendering plant still stinks.
I am an avid animal lover and have always wanted to adopt a few farm animals and let them run free, without the impending doom of the slaughterhouse. I came away from Ruth Foster’s “Death of a Milk Cow” [July 2000] with very mixed feelings. Her writing revealed how even an animal whose purpose is functional can touch the human heart and cause grief with its passing. I couldn’t help but feel horrified, however, that while Foster’s family was doting on their precious milk cow, they were routinely killing her calves and serving them at the dinner table.