Monday, February 8, 2010

My Mother's Sunday, a Day of Rest

About three years ago my mother found an old camera which still contained some film.  This was an old 'Brownie' camera, the familiar brown box camera with the viewfinder on the top that you looked down into to take a picture.  We took a chance on the film in the camera and had it developed.  (Remember the days when you took film to the drug store to have it developed?  Seems like ages, doesn't it?)

Imagine our surprise when we saw the one and only picture of the twelve which turned out.  I was amazed to see this rare photo, actually the only one ever taken of the inside of our barn and our cows.  What is even more rare is to have a picture of my mother who is notoriously camera-shy.  If Mom sees a camera in someone's hand, she'll do her best to vanish into thin air. This picture brought back a flood of memories.

I'm fairly certain this picture was taken on a Sunday in the late 1960's because Mom is wearing a dress.  She did NOT do chores in a dress, but Sundays were different, the one day she took a break from work.  Well, I have to clarify that statement....yes, it was Sunday and we did treat Sunday as a day of rest, but when you live on a farm there is no such thing as 'rest'.

Mom woke up every day of the week at 5AM.  She proceeded to the basement where she put on her barn shoes and filled two five gallon stainless steel milk pails with blistering hot water from our kerosene water heater and then traipsed up the stairs and trudged out to the barn with the water to rinse the milking machines for the morning milking.

Then, if it was winter, my 5' tall mother climbed one of the 40' silos in the dark to pitch down frozen silage for the 30 cow herd.  She had a pickax up in the silo to chop into the frozen feed and a silage fork to throw it down the chute.  When she had enough feed for the day, she climbed down the chute again and proceeded to fill a wheelbarrow with silage and wheel the feed to the waiting cows.  The trip had to be repeated at least six times per side of the south and north side of the barn.  After the silage was fed, she went to the haymow and threw down hay for the day and also slid a 50 lb. bag of ground feed down the loft steps to the feed cart.  The cows were then given their grain for the day, which is much like frosting on a cupcake for humans.

After the feeding was done, she scraped and spread lime on the alley and scraped down the cow's stalls.   Next, she brought in the milk cans to the feed room and set up the milk strainer with its De Laval strainer pads.  Then, like as not, she would have to go back to the house to get my dad out of bed (if he'd had a late night out in the taverns) so they could get ready to milk.  He didn't always sleep later than Mom, but it wasn't uncommon if he'd had a 'large' night.

We did have an automatic milking machine, two of them in fact, with a vacuum style pump.  The resident barn cats used to sit up on top of the belt-driven milker pump to warm their feet.  This was back in the day before OSHA safety rules and regulations; consequently we lost a few young cats when they let their tails droop onto the belt.   The older cats observed this phenomenon and learned quick; keep your tailed curled up out of harm's way.

My father, however, did not believe a cow was 'milked out' by the automatic milkers.  He grew up milking cows by hand before the barn was built by chasing a cow around the cowyard and somehow getting them to stand for milking, a thing I cannot comprehend.  By the time my folks married in 1940, the barn was built and I'm not sure when the new-fangled milkers were installed, but it was before 1958, when I was born.

 After washing the cow's udder, the milking machine with its four teat cups was applied.  When it appeared a cow was done lactating,  the machine was moved to the next cow.  My father did not trust a machine to milk a cow out properly, however, so after the milker was taken off, both Mom and Dad got their milking stools and sat down to 'strip' each cow by hand.  They would invariably get another half-cup or so of milk from each cow after a few minutes of hand stripping.  

I guess it made sense, in a way, but if you've never hand-milked a cow, I have news for's brutal work.  My hands would fall asleep after five minutes of stripping.  Mom stripped cows for over 40 years.  She would end up having surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome in her 70's.  The doctor said it was the worst case he'd ever seen.  After the surgery, she did have instant relief from the nightly pain she experienced which was a wonderful thing.  I can recall her walking the floors at night because her arms ached so much.

Back to the chores.  After the milkers were partially full, the milk had to be carried by hand to the milk cans in the feed room.  We kept two five gallon milk pails in the alley for this purpose so the person carrying the precious milk would have a balanced load.  I developed tremendous upper body strength from farm work. The milk was dumped into the strainer and when a milk can was full, it was rolled out the door and into the milk-house where we hoisted it into a water tank of cold water for cooling.  Then the next can would have the strainer placed on it and so on.

After all the cows were milked and stripped, it was time to feed the calves.  This is a job too, especially if there are young calves to contend with that do not have the hang of drinking out of a pail and want to suck on your fingers.  Training a calf to drink from a pail was often my job, and it simply took patience.   We did have a new-fangled pail with a nipple on it called, appropriately enough, a nipple pail, and they work very well albeit a bit slow.  More on calf training at a later date.

After all the calves were fed, my mother would go back to the house to get another two pails of hot water (we didn't have a hot water heater in the barn) and rinse the milkers by running hot water and through them.  Then the milkers were put in a tank to soak.

Dad would back the old Chevy pickup up to the milk house to load the seven or eight cans of milk in the back and drive the three miles to the cheese factory.  I would often go along for the ride.  There we would meet all the neighbors who were doing the same thing, bringing their last evening and present morning's milk in for a paycheck.  I used to love to ride with Dad who gave the 'farmer salute' to each and every truck we met--index and middle finger raised off the steering wheel just a bit and a slight nod.  Every other farmer responded the same dignified way.  It made me proud.

While we were gone to the cheese factory, Mom headed to the house one more time (by now, around 7:30-8:00 AM) to make a large breakfast consisting of fried eggs, toast and bacon and corn flakes with a banana.  After we ate, she stacked the dishes and headed back to the basement for yet another two pails of steaming water and went out to wash the milking machines which took another hour.  Sanitation was very important, if the cheese factory detected a high bacteria count, it would come back to haunt a farmer; things had to be very clean. 

When she finished with washing the milkers, she threw down straw from the straw mow to get ready for barn cleaning.  However, on Sundays, she left Dad to his own devices with pitching cow manure by hand as she hurried to the house to wash up so she could get ready for late church at 10AM.  She would put on a dress and high heels and we'd (Mom and I, my father did not attend church) climb into the old 1964 Buick Special and try not to be noticed when we walked in just a bit late.  She did her best.

We would come home from church and Mom would immediately set in to making a huge Sunday dinner, usually roast beef or chicken or scalloped potatoes and ham.  She would have it all on the table by noon (don't ask me how) and we would eat a meal fit for a king's table, complete with a homemade cake and cookies.  After dinner, she set to washing the breakfast and dinner dishes.  By the time the dish washing was done, it was around 2:30 PM.

Remember, Sunday was a set aside as a day of REST.  She had no rest coming from me, however, as Sunday afternoon was the one day she set aside to play with me.  I was thirteen years younger than my brother and was born when my mother was 38 years old and my father was 45.  I was, I know, a pain in the butt.  My mother felt sorry for me as I had no siblings or other kids in the neighborhood to play with, so she would set aside Sunday afternoon from 3PM to 4:30PM to play with me.  We waded in the creek or sledded down the barnhill or played baseball or hide and seek.

'Baseball' consisted of me standing on the barn hill while Mom tossed me the ball and I hit it, or missed it, more likely.  When I missed, the ball rolled back down the hill to Mom who would pitch it back to me.  If I got a hit, I was so happy, and would drop the bat and run and get the ball to give it back to Mom.  I know it sounds mean of me to make my mother play with me on her day 'off' but she still claims to this day to have enjoyed it and I think she truly did.

By 4:30PM, it was time for her to make supper again so we could eat by 5 and get out to the barn at least by 6PM.  The same routine she had followed in the morning with the hot water hauled out to the barn was repeated and all the same steps for the feeding and milking were once again carried out.  By 7 or 8PM we would be done with the night chores and after pushing the hay in to the cows, we could bid them a good night until 5AM the next morning.

When she came in at night from milking on Sunday night, we always had popcorn with butter, which was a tradition.  My father was always home on Sundays, because he didn't believe in going to the tavern or doing any other work besides those chores that absolutely had to be done on Sunday.  We did virtually no field work on Sundays, short of chopping feed for the cows which is a necessity. 

On the other six days of the week, the 'down time' between morning milking and evening chores were filled with housework.  On Mondays she washed clothes with her Speed Queen wringer washer and hung the laundry to dry outside, yes, even in the winter.  I can still see all the frozen bib overalls propped up against the heat register.   She also did all the firing up of the huge octopus furnace we had in the basement.  On Tuesdays, she baked bread.  On Wednesdays, she ironed.  On Thursdays, she baked desserts.  On Fridays, she bought groceries.  On Saturdays, she cleaned house.  Of course, during the summer, she did all of the above AND had to help with the field work, baling hay, etc.

The field work was where I excelled, more about that some other time....suffice it to say, I was not much of a help to my mother in the house, I was a tomboy and my father's right-hand man. 

My mother often fell asleep stirring things on the stove.  She would lean up against the wall and I saw her slump more than once and then catch herself before she fell.  As I write this, I get teary-eyed for the woman who worked so hard, and this is only a description of one day (and a Sunday at that) in her life.

I owe my mother more than I can ever repay.  She is now 89 years old and still lives on her own with very little help from me.  The doctors say she's in such good shape because she was a farm woman.  What a price to pay for good health.   I can see my exercise program looks like a walk in the park (which it is) compared to what Mom did day in and day out for over 40 years.  She is the most amazing person I know.

Mom, I love you.

(Oh, and before I forget, the other person in the picture is yours truly.  I must have been around ten or so.)


Cathy said...

What a great tribute to your mother. They are amazing aren't they? Mine was up at the crack of dawn, frying donuts every morning. Thanks for some wonderful insight into what it meant to grow up on a farm. I had it easy.

Alison said...

Thanks for sending me here to read this great post about your mom, from today's post about her birthday. What an amazing woman and role model she was for you. What a life!