Helen Thorpe

Helen Thorpe

A weeklong electronic journal.
Sept. 14 1999 9:00 PM

Helen Thorpe

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Milking starts at 8 most mornings. I was up at 6:30, thanks to the time difference, so I noodled around until I heard Donal stir. We fixed tea, then drove over to Cornaslieve in his blue van. "It's a long, hard commute," said Donal, as we traveled the scant distance to the farmhouse that belongs to his parents.

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We met James and Anna in the courtyard behind the main building. "How are ye getting on?" asked James. I related an account of our evening at Sharkey's Hotel. We had all been there two nights ago for my cousin Michelle's wedding reception, but then Donal and I had returned last night to have dinner with Michelle and her husband, Sean, as well as Sean's sister Una, my cousin Fergal, my cousin Geraldine, and her husband, Andre. We had talked for so long that the doors of the pubs were locked by the time we went out for a drink, so we trooped back to Sharkey's again, sat down beside a fire in the lounge, and talked for another couple of hours. Today Sean and Michelle leave for Barcelona, where they will spend their honeymoon, while Geraldine and Andre head off to Brussels, where they live.

James and Anna appreciated the update. Living at Cornaslieve, they have to keep up with the news so they can pass it along to all the other family members who phone in from wherever they are. James had on his daily farming attire: a tweed cap, an old sweater, an old shirt, and blue wool trousers tucked into a pair of green rubber Wellington boots. Anna was wearing navy slacks, a striped T-shirt, and a sweater vest. In the yard, Donal pulled on a medium-blue coverall over his jeans and T-shirt, then tied a brown plastic apron over the coverall, to keep his clothes clean as he milked. I'd already put on an old rain jacket, knowing I'd soon be covered in splatters of cow shit. I borrowed a pair of black Wellingtons from Anna, and she gave me plastic shopping bags to put over my socks first, as one of the boots had a small hole.

The cows were waiting for us inside the milking shed. There are 48 in the herd, and most of them are black-and-white Frisians. The bull is a Charolais, however; he's a big white fellow, with tight curls covering his massive head, and a thick gold ring through his nose. We surveyed each other warily. Donal had a hard time getting the cows into their stalls, as they could smell a stranger in the shed and kept rearing their heads up to eye me. He milked the cows six at a time, with another six lined up waiting in a parallel row. The size of the animals has impressed me since I was a small child, when I used to walk through the herd to sit on the ledge of a window on the far side of the shed. I'm even more keenly aware of just how big the animals are these days; we all are, ever since my uncle Francie was killed by a Charolais cow (the cow had become overly protective of the lame calf she'd just given birth to). Two years ago, I was driving with my aunt Kathleen down a narrow country lane, when we came upon a herd of cattle being prodded along by a farmer with a stick. The herd engulfed our car. Kate stared at the cows as they slowly lumbered past our windshield. "It's strange to look at animals that you've worked with all your life," she said, "and to be afraid of them now."

What I feel when I watch the Cornaslieve cows being milked is a subdued echo of Kate's sentiment, alongside a sense of gratitude to Donal for undertaking the task of keeping the family farm going. When my grandmother's brother emigrated to Chicago, he didn't return to Ireland for 50 years. But I've grown up coming back here often, usually with my sister and my brother and our parents. We were all here in May, when my brother and his wife brought their 1-year-old son to Cornaslieve for the first time. Cheap air travel and reasonable phone charges and the advent of e-mail have changed the nature of emigration. It's not what it once was--it's not a final separation.

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I was no help to Donal, but I kept him company as he milked. We talked over the noise of the transistor radio strung from the ceiling that was playing fuzzy pop music and the noise of the milking machinery, which was making a perpetual shuck-shuck-shuck sound. Donal told me that he'd been to Scotland with some friends, and to Belgium to see Geraldine before that; aside from those two weekends away, he has worked every day of the summer. He's looking forward to taking a trip to Germany in the fall, when the workload will finally lighten. (Once Donal came to see me in Texas, and I drove him down to the border and plied him with tequila in the Mexican town of Nuevo Laredo, then hired a very large mariachi band in matching turquoise suits to sing "Volver" for him.) Donal punched the last of the recalcitrant cows in their bellies to make them move on out of the shed and walked the herd up the road to their field. I stayed behind to talk to Con, one of the workmen. He wanted to tell me what a fine lassie Michelle was and how like her Daddy in manners and what a generous man Francie had been.