I’m starting my un-bucket list with what is, for me, the most obvious of all items on my list. It is true that I’ve seen “milk a cow” on people’s bucket lists and as a dairyman’s daughter I’m a bit flabbergasted. I don’t know why someone would purposely want to milk a cow. For one, it usually takes waking up at say, 4 am, when all reasonably minded people are still in bed. And yes, cows are generally docile creatures, but they do kick and the milking regions are in close proximity to the hooves. Mostly, though, I guess I just don’t understand what it is to NOT milk a cow. For our family, milking cows was a lifestyle; one drastically different from those who didn’t “milk.” Milking meant not opening Christmas presents until after “milking.” Milking meant planning your piano recital, your outings with friends, and even your wedding between “milkings.” Milking cows ruled our lives, our schedules, and interrupted everything.
It was also our livelihood. I knew it, and I never took it for granted. As a girl would stand on the spout of the milk tank, open the lid, and look into the white milk churning in the tank. I loved the sight of that full milk tank. It made me feel safe and whole and prosperous.
Admittedly, I didn’t milk cows often. This chore fell mostly to the men in my family. My grandfather and father had a relationship with their cows that was agitated when strangers were around; it was best to leave the ebb and flow of cows and suction machines and hydraulic gates to them. The cows responded to the clicks of their tongues, their low commands of “come boss,” and slaps on their flanks.
I have milked cows, though, both by hand and by machine. Both require a gently cleansing of the udders. This we did with soft washcloths dipped in warm water. So much of milking a cow requires being near the animal’s rear. Sometimes a strong hand on the rump can calm a fidgety cow. There’s not much to milking by machine, once you have the machine in place under the udders you simply slip them on. They suction on and do the work of milking for you. Milking by hand is trickier. Like a lot of things, it isn’t as easy as it looks. It can help to sort of massage the cow’s udder first. You should start at the top of the teat and squeeze downward. It requires a certain rocking motion of the hand. Your hand will get tired and cramp up. The cow might poop near your head. You will not look like a cute milkmaid with blond braids. Trust me on this. Chances are, it is not as glamorous or easy or fulfilling as you thought it would be. Still, there is something about the sound of a squirt of milk in an empty tin bucket, the warmth of the milk, the bulk of the animal that makes is seem like both a simple and a monumental task at the same time. I warn you: It takes a lot of milk to fill a bucket. After all that work, the bucket will only be half-full—or half-empty, depending on how you look at it.
I wish I could turn “milk a cow” into a metaphor for life; after all, growing up on a farm taught me a lot about a lot of things. I don’t love to milk cows, but milking cows let me do other things that I loved: like having a calf suck on your fingers or watching a baby calf being born. Those things were some of my favorite things and neither was on my bucket-list either. They were just part of the life I lived.