Will spoke from behind me as I stood on the kitchen porch, beating the eggs for breakfast. As I turned toward him on the right, he snitched an apple muffin from the platter on my left where I had them all arranged with a sprig of mint in the middle. I smacked his hand with the wire whisk before he could dodge and we both laughed as he washed the raw egg off of his hand in the porch sink while holding the muffin in his mouth.3
“So what do you think of him?” Will asked, turning around to lean against the sink as he ate his muffin. I poured the eggs over the sizzling green onions, ground beef and chopped cherry tomatoes in the buttered skillet before I answered.
“I don’t know. He seems a little uptight and kind of—skinny. But friendly enough.” Will started sneaking toward the muffin platter again, so I covered it with a towel and moved it closer to me as I stirred the eggs around with a spatula.
“Not any skinnier than usual, I think,” said Will. “And what makes you think he’s uptight?”
“Well, I would be too, I guess, if I were him,” I conceded, grinning.
“If you were him!” Will laughed. “That’s an odd way to put it.”
“Why? Haven’t you thought about what it would be like to be him?”
“Uh. No. I guess I hadn’t,” Will soberly replied, with a quizzical frown on his face. “Since that isn’t a remote possibility. But, to change the subject . . . what do you think about Daniel?”
“Daniel?” I turned to face Will, frowning and laughing at the same time, “Who the heck have we been talking about?”
Will started laughing and I thought he was going to choke on his last bite of muffin.
“Squirt!” We exclaimed at the same time, bursting into laughter.
“What’s so funny?” asked Mom, coming into the kitchen with Anna on her hip.
“Squirt,” I said, still chuckling.
“The new calf? What’s funny about him?” Mom questioned.
Will answered her with a straight face, “He’s a little uptight and skinny, but friendly enough.”
Mom left the kitchen, saying, “Sounds a little like Daniel.”
Will carried the heavy skillet of scrambled omelet out to the table for me and I came behind him with the platter of muffins and a bowl full of fresh butter. Susanna was setting the table on her tiptoes, singing and twirling between the sideboard cabinet and the big farm table. Will picked her up and turned around and around with her and set her back down when she started squealing.
“Where are the boys?” Will asked, “I’ll call them to breakfast.”
“Jake took Daniel out to milk with him and Dad,” Mom said, smiling. “Daniel may never drink milk again.”
“Why not?” asked Susanna, voicing my own question.
“Most people have no idea where their food comes from,” Mom explained. “Actually, seeing the milk come out of a cow is a little unnerving if you’ve always associated it with a plastic jug and a grocery store.” She turned her back to put Anna in the wooden high chair Dad had made but continued, “I remember the first time I milked a cow and brought the milk into the house. I was hesitant to drink it myself. It was only after it had chilled in the fridge and had the cream removed that I got the nerve to taste it.”
“You’re kidding!” Will exclaimed. “What the heck? It seems like you’d want to drink it more than store-bought milk because you knew where it came from. Why were you scared of it?”
“I don’t know— ” Mom shook her head at the memory, “It was just so—real. So unrefined and associated with the smell and warmth of the cow—a big animal. I love it now. I can drink it warm right out of the bucket. But I can still remember that first time.”
I heard Jake, Dad and Daniel coming up the wood steps and turned around, still thinking about what Mom had said. I looked for signs of stress on Daniel’s face; he seemed normal—for Daniel—to me. There was a big pitcher of cold milk on the table. I wondered if he’d drink it.
I went to the indoor kitchen and began to fill the two deep sinks with cold well water. Dad and Jake followed me, each carrying two stainless buckets holding two gallons each of frothy warm milk. They lowered their buckets of milk down into the cold water to cool while we ate our breakfast.
This was the milk of four miniature Jersey cows and it was all the milk we needed to make all of our cheese, butter, yogurt, sour cream, buttermilk, whipped cream and drinking milk, plus a few extra gallons to sell or trade to some milk-loving neighbors. I looked at the wealth in those two pails and tried to imagine life without it.
Dad and the boys had returned to the porch to wash up at the porch sink. As I came back into the dining room that adjoined the indoor and outdoor kitchens, they were returning to the table as well.
“Ah, that smells great!” Dad said, sitting down in his chair at one end of the table. Mom had served Anna already and she hit the tray of her high chair with her fork and exclaimed, “Great!” with a mouth full of eggs.
Daniel was looking at me furtively so I kept my eyes away from him, looking around at my family.
“Thank you, God!” said Dad and then the meal began. Will was seated across from me, near the middle of the table and he held up each plate for me to load with food.
“Not very much, please,” said Daniel as he hesitantly gave up his plate. “I’m not used to eating much in the morning. Just cereal, usually. Do you guys eat cereal—ever?”
“Granola!” announced Susanna. “I can make granola. It’s my favorite.”4
“The muffins are great,” asserted Will, putting one on Daniel’s plate as he passed it back to him. “Load it with butter, man.” He passed Daniel the butter bowl with the other hand.
“Milk, anyone?” I asked, picking up the pitcher of milk and looking at Daniel.
“Sure, thanks,” he said, as he started to hand me his glass. Then I saw him hesitate and pull it back. “I mean—uh— just a little.” He grudgingly handed me his glass. I hid a smile, knowing he had remembered the cows. I poured him a full glass, chuckling inside as I did. Will caught my eye and winked. Mom shook her head at us.
Daniel looked down into his glass and swallowed soberly. We were all watching him and he must have felt pressured. He slowly raised his glass and took the tiniest taste ever. Then his glass tipped a little further and he took a big mouthful of milk.
“Holy shit!” he said very quietly, as if to himself, staring at the glass of milk in his hand. Then his shoulders stiffened, and he looked up at us wide-eyed and alarmed.
“I—I—sorry, I—it’s really good!”
“Holy cow,” Dad corrected, grinning at him. “Shit is what you’re used to drinking.”
“I guess so!” Daniel exclaimed, laughing with relief. Jake was laughing so hard he choked on a bite of eggs and had to leave the table to cough for a while.
As we ate breakfast, Dad told about Daniel’s first experience at milking a cow. Daniel turned a little red but couldn’t help grinning as well. The cow had stepped to the side and knocked him off the stool when he had accidentally squeezed the milk upward instead of downward.
“At least you didn’t land in a cow pile,” I told him. “That’s what happened to me the other day.”
“Yesterday,” Will said. “It was only yesterday. That was pretty funny. You were covered with it.”
“Did you really pull a calf out of the cow?” Daniel asked. “I thought that was a joke.”
“She really did,” said Mom. “It’s not as crazy as it sounds. The calf was already coming. His feet were out. She just had to get a good hold on them and pull.”
“Yeah, with all my might.” I added. “I pulled so hard that when he finally did come, I fell backward—with him in my lap—into a cow pile. That’s why I looked the way I did when I met you.”
Daniel laughed and I thought he seemed relieved to laugh at someone other than himself.
“I guess you were a little embarrassed.” He gave me a prodding look that reminded me of Jake.
“Or a lot,” I agreed, unwilling to let myself become self-conscious now. “I probably smelled terrible too. But it was worth it. I love Josephine! I could have stayed there all day.” I met his eyes with a challenging look, daring him to offer me something better or more impressive. He looked away.
“Did you make these dishes?” he asked Mom.
“Just the mugs and the pitcher,” she said, “I haven’t come up with a plate yet that I really like.”
“Did these eggs come from your chickens?”
“Yes. And the veggies in them are from the garden.”
“And the meat?”
“That’s from a steer we butchered.”
“How do you keep it good?” Daniel asked, taking a cautious bite of his omelet.
“We pressure can it or smoke it,” Dad said. “I think I can build an in-ground refrigerator but I haven’t done it yet. Maybe this year.”
“How about the muffins?”
“Mona baked them while you were milking,” Mom told him.
“You can cook?” Daniel asked in amazement. I smiled vaguely, trying not to look too pleased.
“What else can you make?” he asked.
“Whatever,” I said, unable to hold back a smile. “Cookbooks tell you what to do, anyway. But I make up new recipes sometimes, too.”
“I can cook too!” Susanna broke in, “I make cookies!”
“I like cookies,” Daniel said, smiling at her. To my surprise, Susanna blushed. I felt a little irritated at her and then irritated at myself.
“I can cook a little too and so can Will,” Jake announced. “We’re all pretty good cooks.”
“That’s true,” sighed Mom. “I’m the only one who can’t cook.”
We all laughed, because it was Mom who had taught us. She is a really great cook and inventor of new meals. Daniel didn’t get it, he just looked around at us, smiling.
“What are we going to do today?” he asked.
“It will be full moon tonight,” Dad said. “Time to set out the seedlings. After breakfast, we’ll go to the greenhouse and get the trays of tomatoes, peppers and melons, and start planting them in the garden.”
“What does full moon have to do with it?” Daniel asked, “Is it good luck or something?”
“Well, I guess,” Dad said, pushing back his chair and grinning at Daniel. “If you call good plant growth ‘good luck’. From full moon to third quarter, there is an increased root-growth rate. So it’s the perfect time to transplant seedlings from flats to garden beds.”
“So what happens when there is no moon?” asked Daniel. Dad nodded, acknowledging Daniel’s question as a good one.
“You mean ‘new moon.’ New moon is the best time to plant most vegetable seeds in flats or in the garden. From new moon to first quarter, there is a pretty balanced rate of growth for both the roots and above ground leaves. During that week, after the seeds are first planted, the seed softens, germinates and opens. Then, during the second week, from first quarter to full moon, there is increased leaf growth. Those newly planted seeds come up and spread their little leaves toward the light of the waxing moon. It’s on full moon when those little mushrooms pop up overnight in the forest.”
Daniel shook his head, indicating he had never heard of little mushrooms in the forest.
“Do a lot of people know that stuff?” asked Daniel
“No.” Will answered. “Not anymore. People used to but most have lost that knowledge.”
“Let’s get to work,” Dad rose from the table. “You girls can join us when you’ve finished the clean up in here. Breakfast was good. Thank you.”
Susanna and I jumped up and started clearing the table. There is something thrilling about planting a garden. I look forward to it every year. Daniel hesitated between the table and the door, looking at me. I wondered if he wanted to stay inside with us.
“I’ll be there in a minute,” I told him, as though he’d asked me if I was coming or not.
“Okay,” he said, and went out the door.