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Milk Buckets A Sense of Community
My grandfather is an old Swedish farmer – a centenarian – who still lives on his farm, still wakes with the birds. He is one of a shrinking number in our country who knows what it is to hook up the horses to go to town or to carry the cooking water up from the creek, to live tied to the earth and what grows in it, or die by the devastation of drought or flood or infestation. He knows what happens to a town when the train doesn’t go through, what it’s like to plow a field on foot, and crank the front end of a car to get it started. He’s known loss from polio, home births, the Great Depression, both World Wars. He has stories to tell.
He’s told the story often of the cow he bought in the early 1940’s. He was a young farmer and a new father during World War II, a difficult time economically, a difficult time for farmers. He sold my grandmother’s new refrigerator and bought, instead, a cow. This felt, undoubtedly, like a huge step backward. But times were tough; he was farming by day and working as hired labor by night, and still not earning a living. The cow could provide milk for the baby, could give him calves to sell or raise, could provide the meat his family would need through the winter. It felt like the thing they needed to survive.
But then the cow got sick and died – before it had provided enough milk or calves or meat. It was a greater loss than they could imagine surviving – the cow was the only power they had over their poverty. My grandfather remembers vividly, the long sad walk from the barn to the house to tell my grandmother the bad news. Tomorrow’s sustenance – hope itself – had died.
When my grandfather woke early the next morning, and stepped outside to start the day’s chores, he found on his doorstep a fresh bucket of milk – a gift from a friend or neighbor, who upon hearing about the cow had quietly brought milk from his own cow in the early morning hours. The next morning on the doorstep – more milk, along with some eggs and a loaf of bread. The next day, more. And it continued – this daily anonymous doorstep providing – until a neighbor’s cow had a calf, and the neighbor traded it to my grandfather for labor.
It was never spoken of in their small farming village – how all the neighbors and friends quietly made sure my grandma, grandpa, and mom made it through to the other side of loss. The sustenance just appeared and kept coming.
Now – almost 70 years later – we find ourselves once again at war, in bleak economic times. The bad news keeps coming: lost jobs, lost homes, hungry families, disconnected utilities, violence in homes and nations, failing systems. It feels like everybody’s cows are dying.
I think of my grandfather’s cow story. How very different the ending to that story could have been, if not for those buckets of milk and the caring they represented. How beautiful that, despite the many losses my grandfather has known, he has also known rare, true community – the kind of community that happens when people who may or may not approve of each other, who may or may not agree with each other, who may or may not call each other friends, still know how to take care of one another.
And in that experience, I envy him. It is the community I seek, want to be part of, hope for, and need.
It is the community we can create – you and I – as we become the neighbors who, in the quiet of the night, deliver buckets of fresh milk to the doorsteps of our own neighbors in need – and keep them coming, until the new calves are born.