by Henry Swain

Everyone should know how to milk a cow. Cows that make the milk you drink are almost certainly milked by machines. The personal touch a farmer once had with his animals has been lost to mechanization. This is a shame, for both the cow and the farmer.

Like most people, I get my milk from plastic containers, which I transport from the refrigerator in the store to the one in my own home. There is no cow in the pasture that I can view from my window as I drink my glass of 2% vitamin C fortified, homogenized milk.

For me, it is a dream come true, but with nostalgic reservations. My teenage years were spent on a small farm. My chore was to milk our Jersey cow morning and evening. Having a cow is in some ways like having a pet. They need to be attended to twice a day. They confine you to a habit. Like pets, there are rewards that accompany the responsibility.

At milking time, farmers would call their cows to come in from the pasture to be milked. This worked most of the time. I do not know where the term sook came from in our neighborhood, but that was the call most farmers gave to bring in their cows. They would call out “sook cow, sook cow, sook cow,” as many times as needed to bring the cows to the barn.

Since our cow was a Jersey we personalized our call to “sook Jerz, sook Jerz.” The milk we got from Sookjerz, the name we gave our cow, brought us rich cream, which rose to the top of the gallon crocks we kept it in. My mother would make cottage cheese with which she mixed some of this cream. She was known locally for the quality of her product, and sold it locally after satisfying our own family’s needs.

I grew up using this rich cream on cereal, fruit, and anything you might think of that could be enhanced by its accompaniment. At this late date in my life my arteries are probably clogged with cholesterol from that early deluge of dietary cream. If my life is to be shortened by such accumulation, at least no one can deny my fond memories of that early cream-happy experience.

But there is another less fond side of my cow experiences. I did not like to layer up my jackets in zero weather for my morning appointment with Sookjerz. She would be waiting in the stanchion for ears of corn to grind on while I milked her. I would lean my tobogganed head against her flank as I milked for additional warmth. The first drafts of milk into the pail made a tinny sound in the empty bucket. The sound would lower into a muffled hush as foam began to appear atop the growing milk.

Along the side of barn wall I spy a mouse peering at me. I pause in my chore to send a trajectory of milk toward it, and watch it scurry out of sight as I follow it along, chasing it with a stream of milk. Barn entertainment, I guess you could call it. I finish up my job, lift the stanchion bar to free the cow. I wish Sookjerz a good day, and leave her snorting spurts of steam from her nostrils in reply.

Sookjerz would not come to my call in spring when the pasture was lush, and I would have to take my cow stick and drive her to the barn. I recall following her one morning when I was distracted by a low flying airplane. I felt a warm goo spread between my bare toes as I stepped in fresh cow poop. I can still recall the sensation as well as the odor.

One fall when the pasture had dried to ragweed, Sookjerz tramped down a weak section of fence to get to an apple tree whose base was laden with fallen apples. Sookjerz overindulged on this fine desert and bloated. The vet had to be called to release bloat of gas from the fermenting apples she had consumed. We were fortunate to save her. Witnessing the vet’s performance on Sookjerz taught me a lesson about overeating that I have heeded to this day.

There were a few occasions when Sookjerz decided my fingernails were too long and decided to kick me. This always seemed to happen just as I was finishing the milking. Invariably her foot would end up in the bucket. This action of revenge or mischief from Sookjerz may have pleased her, but it did not leave the same impression on my parents or me.

I developed an intuitive understanding with Sookjerz during my years of milking her. It was the middle of the Great Depression. We needed the milk, and Sookjerz needed to be milked. We were drawn as if by destiny to become co-partnered by necessity.

Milking was a chore I disliked as a teenager, and I vowed that when I grew up I would never have a cow. Sookjerz was the last cow I ever milked. I still like milk. Homogenized milk tastes better than skimmed milk. It tastes even better when four o’clock comes and I know I don’t have to go milk the cow. This one is for you, Sookjerz.