The only time I spent alone with him, my grandfather talked about cows’ udders. “You got to take care of cows,” Grampy told me, sitting in his worn rocking chair in Grammy’s kitchen, slurping his usual milk-and-sugared-tea, rubbing his wooden leg, a phantom of one he’d lost years before to a threshing machine, and smelling faintly of the barn. “Keep to the milkers’ routine and they’ll give good milk. Feel their udders for hardness and watch for infection.”
What did I know about cows’ udders? I’d been in my uncles’ and grandfather’s barns a few times, but other than that, not much. My family lived in southern Connecticut, 500 miles and a century away from the farms in far northern Maine where my parents grew up. We visited twice a year for a few days during winter and summer vacations.
I only knew my grandfather as a presence at family reunions. The Duff’s were a community, my father one of ten children and I one of over forty grandchildren. Stories told at gatherings were filled with characters, and Grampy was one of them. Privately, my parents said that my grandfather was a silent man, a hard man, and that he was not always clean. He was also the man who went to town one day and took out a loan on his future potato crop to pay for my father’s first year of college.
I was 15 when my grandfather told me about cows’ udders. My sisters and mother were visiting her family that afternoon while my father and I went to check on his parents. Grampy’s double vision, weak swallow control and other stroke-induced disabilities were particularly troubling him that day, and Grammy asked my father to help her deliver her eggs and fudge to my grandmother’s regular customers. That left me to tend my grandfather.
There I was, alone with my grandfather in my grandmother’s kitchen, watching Grampy watching me. I knew that it was remarkable that Grampy spoke at all, so I paid close attention. And even though I was not yet comfortable with my own mammaries, I somehow realized that Grampy was telling me what he knew: the importance of routine and care for living things, the importance of good production and health – udder wisdom.
“Grampy,” I asked touching his right hand, “Can I get you anything? More tea? A gingersnap?” His left hand aimed the chipped teacup in my direction and his graying head said no thank you to the cookie. I refilled his cup with hot water from the kettle on Grammy’s wood stove, milk from the icebox and sugar lumps from the bowl on the kitchen table, and carefully guided the cup back to my grandfather’s wrinkled hands. We sat in companionable silence, never uttering another word, and listened to the ticking of the kitchen clock.