My father was not one to give presents, except in his latter years. He expected work from his sons. Consequently, when we moved to the country, he bought a cow so we would learn to work and to rise early. On the other hand, I love presents, and my father gave me one not too long ago just before he died. It was my old cow milking stool.
He delicately handed it to me as if it were a newborn baby. I took it and ran my fingers carefully across the top. I remembered painting it once with a drab, pale creme color. Despite the cold mornings and lying in the barn for many years, the stool's simpleness still filled me with early morning tales. The creme paint had flecked off in most places, revealing old gray two-by-fours, fitted together like a cross, full of ancient slivers. All of the edges were nicked, and a crack ran from one end of the top to the other. Brown paint spots were splattered on the top. I could not smell them, but stains from a mixture of manure, hay, grain, and straw were now embedded in the cracks in the wood.
My cow milking days were filled with Dickens' words: "They were the best of times and the worst of times," particular on cold mornings when Bossy, our cow, rushed in to licked up her gallon of rolled oats coated with molasses. On snowy mornings, steam rose from her back quietly like fog on a hidden pond. I brushed off the snow and then dried her with a gunny sack. I did not want tiny drops of snow mixed with cow sweat dripping down my back or face during milking.
Below zero weather invariably brought a closeness between cow and boy. She was warm; I was cold. Gently, I pressed my head in her dried flank and carefully began milking. Her chomping the grain mixed with the steady flow of milk in the pail orchestrated a cadence to the brisk morning. The more the milk filled the bucket, the deeper the sounds.
Foam rose to the top of the milk. Our cats seemed to know when the foam was ready. Stretching, they emerged from their warm hiding places, strolled over to where I sat on the stool, and rubbed up against me. I stopped and brought their dishes into the milking area. Cupping my hand, I pulled the foam to the side and out into the cats' dishes. I returned to milking, and the barnyard cadence began again, now replete with the cats' gentle lapping of their morning brew.
Sometimes I entered the musical fray, whistling some tune I knew. Bossy finished her breakfast dessert, turned, and looked at me. She shuffled her feet, perhaps trying to keep tune with the music. I readjusted her hobbles, and she stood quietly, waiting for me to drain her of a night's production.
When I finished, I dropped the stool into the straw and kicked it up against the wall. Knowing that their time was up and not wanting to get caught under Bossy's sharp hooves, the cats scurried away and waited for more foam.
As I opened the barn door, a blast of frigid air met me. The warmth that Bossy and I generated fled from the barn. I removed her hobbles and beckoned her to go to the corral. She hesitated, also feeling the warmth dissipate, then headed out to the hay that my brother had strewn into the manger.
Milking cows by hand and squatting on a two-by-four stool brought a sense of doing--of building strong hand and forearm muscles, of understanding a cow's rhythm and temperament. Although I fought her tail during summers, I learned to capture it in the hobbles. Her dancing irritated me, and I retaliated by raising my voice or cooing, "Sooooo....Bossy," hoping my soothing voice would calm her down.
When I arrived home from my father's, I went downstairs and sat on my stool, once again balancing myself and wondering where the time had gone and why dad had kept this milking stool for so long. As I balanced on my stool, I felt again the swishing of Bossy's tail, heard her mooing as her utter grew tighter by the minute because I was late again, and heard dad’s voice saying, “It will teach you to work and get up early.”