By Claudia Costa-Jacobson
When I was about 5 years old and living in Manhattan I eagerly volunteered to walk to the nearby A & P and buy milk. Crossing the city street wasn’t too scary since I was certain green meant go, red meant no, and watching when the “big people crossed” worked.
The milk was always in the same spot, the lowest level in the refrigerator. Once, however, I raised my eyes and saw the cartons on the shelf above and I picked one: the same size but a new, prettier color. Since I shopped before I learned to read I couldn’t read the word butter stamped above the milk.
Omi, my grandmother, insisted I immediately return it and get the right one. Nobody could have felt comfortable when the grumpy man hollered across the store for regular milk instead of letting me quietly pick out the correct carton. Suddenly my age was an issue:, when he looked down I shrunk to a waddling toddler. My age never was an issue other times I shopped, even when I bought cigarettes.
“Who are these for?” the cash register lady asked me once in her lowest octave, reserved for recalcitrant children.
“My grandmother,” was my unhesitant answer.
My parents, fearing the changes happening in our Manhattan neighborhood, made a huge decision that would influence me for the rest of my life. They bought land in the Town of Conesville and converted an old ski lodge into a permanent home for us two little girls and our 60-plus-year-old grandmother who claimed to want country life and isolation even though she had never experienced it in her whole life.
Omi couldn’t drive and never needed to in the big cities of New York and Berlin, where she was born and raised. How she would get what we needed was left to her to accomplish. Omi did not burden her daughter and son-in-law with the loneliness or difficulty of living on top of South Mountain with no visible neighbors, certainly no stores, and where even the mail was a long reach.
Maybe I was the best off. Younger than Omi, older than my little sister, almost as tall as my dad, and strong as a strong man’s pant suspenders. Omi said I could safely go where she needed me to go.
Two quarters securely held in my right pocket paid for a milk pail full of rich milk from our nearest neighbor Joe, the farmer. His barn was a couple of miles away and the milk tasted much better than the powdered milk Mom bought to hold us when the fresh milk ran out during the two or three weeks they’d be gone to their NYC apartment. Dad served the Navy and she worked as a secretary.
No street lights or people on ‘our road’. Only a rare car passed. The walkers and the car’s passenger always waved.
The first barn I went to was Joe’s. Old, tilted, worn and filled with manure, hay and heavy cows waiting for the one Surge milker to relieve them of their load. The barn was warm but ventilated by missing lateral gray boards and the radio was always tuned to the same local station. No matter how early or late or thick the spider webs and dust or if the barn was empty, the radio played.
Joe was tall, very thin and permanently crooked with his long back and knees bowed; brown hair and eyes, he was always kind and usually smiled when he saw me coming. He’d sit on a small low stool bowed under his cows, to “strip” by hand each “Bossie” knowing she held more milk after he moved the milker on to the next. He taught me to stay away from the slapping dirty tails and sharp hooves, and I did. A fan as old as the radio, and not much bigger, ran all summer to keep the flies off and the dangerous tail swishing down. His cows’ tails were usually filled with burdock. Those prickly burrs could blind a person if they hit your face. I paid attention but Joe never raised his soft voice at kids or cows.
Pulling down firmly but gently while squeezing milk out of the teat looked easy when Joe held an udder. It took me awhile on a patient cow and I got it! Warm milk sunk into my new black sneakers and my toes wiggled in surprise. Joe was still grinning when he filled my aluminum pail with its round cover and the handle I held in my right hand when I walked or rode my bike. Sure was different from the A & P.~