Summer was fading when we filled a moving van and headed north with our young family, leaving the Nevada desert for a Minnesota farm. Some praised our spirit of adventure; others shook their heads. Leave home, family, and desert warmth for the unknown and the soon-to-be-frozen North? Were we crazy? Perhaps, but my trepidation over such a leap of faith had melted finally into peace.
We were to be caretakers on a farm, deserted except for the owner. Now we would keep the home fires burning, literally, and the water pipes from freezing, while he drove a truck cross-country.
The heart of this home beat in a single room, which housed kitchen, wood stove, and living area. Standing at the kitchen counter, I could look out the window, over the farm, down the valley, and across the highway to Jack's place. With the owner on the road so much, we were to call on Jack if we needed anything.
During our first visit with Jack, he took us to his barn, a place pungent with odors earthy and strong but not at all disagreeable, a place alive with cows and cats and unseen critters rustling in the hay. Although Jack milked some Holsteins for market, he also milked a particular cow to bottle-feed a calf he was hand-raising, and he had milk to spare. Would we be interested in the overflow? He hated wasting it.
Our city-children's eyes widened at the prospect of all the milk they could drink, straight from the source, no less.. We jumped at his offer, beginning a routine that would last through the end of our stay at the farm.
The milk's warmth posed some problems, though. At first we naively put the gallon jugs right into our refrigerator. After all, I'd unloaded groceries my entire adult life, and isn't that where milk belongs? But I had not reckoned on fresh milk, not even 30 minutes out of its bovine source. Even by the next morning, the milk would not have cooled enough to meet our "ice cold" standard for consumption. Not only that, but the entire contents of the refrigerator would have turned tepid because of the milk's intrusion.
We puzzled over this until necessity truly became the mother of invention and an idea was born, elegant in its simplicity. We would unload the jugs from our van, not into the house, but onto the deck outside, and then surround the jugs with snow. Perfect! In a few hours the milk would be chilled, the cream would rise, and we could slip the jugs into the refrigerator.
Within a day or two, we witnessed an unexpected bonus from our ingenuity. Glancing outdoors at our milk mounds, we saw only a clowder of cats. Since arriving at the farm, we'd tried to get close to the cats seen darting about the property, but we were frustrated every time. Our kids, raised with house pets, didn't understand the skittishness of animals born in the near wild, allowed on the farm only to control the rodent population in the barns.
But now here they were, eight or 10 cats right outside our door. An accurate count couldn't be made because heads and tails all intertwined. Where were the jugs? Slowly we realized that the cats were now part of our milk mounds. Canny survivors, they had discovered the cooling containers and draped their bodies over and around the jugs, absorbing the warmth.
Over at Jack's farm, our kids would watch him milk. Occasionally he squirted a stream of milk directly into a waiting cat's open mouth, warming the animal from the inside out. Here on our deck, warmth was drawn out of the milk jugs and into yet more feline shapes, from the outside in.
Although most of the cats continued to keep their distance, they became a regular part of our milk-gathering drill. They delayed the cooling part a bit with their furry insulation, but they also enriched the process. We had all the milk we could possibly drink that winter, with always enough to pour out a portion for our shy fellow farm dwellers.
As we grew accustomed to life on the farm, our every-other-day trips to Jack's soon provided much more than milk. We would take bachelor Jack cookies warm from our oven and visit as the kids tagged along during his chores. This gentle exchange of neighborly caring, of thoughts on life, of mutual appreciation became balm to our hearts.
As winter waned, we decided that we'd move on. That March, we loaded a moving van yet again and headed south, this time to Kentucky, to warmer climate and loving family, where bodies and hearts could thaw. And along the way and through the years since, I've remembered Jack and been warmed anew by the milk of human kindness.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society