In my hands, I carried two zuchinni squash as a thank you for this unknown woman's kindness. I knocked on the door and was let inside by a red-faced woman in her late 50s. She was in the middle of canning pickles, hot from steam and boiling vinegar and spices. She waved her paring knife towards a chair, and told me to have a seat, until she reached a stopping point and we could go and meet the goats. "May I help you chop?" I ask. She shakes her head and turns her attention to the sink full of bowls and cucumbers. "No," she replies. "These cucumbers were given to me by a friend, but they are a bit big, so I'm turning them into relish." She holds up a massive cucumber, fully three times the size of store bought cuke. "Yes," I say, "It'd probably be a bit mushy if you tried making that into a big pickle." She works fast, zipping through seeds and stuffing the remaining pieces of vegetable into a food processor, where she grinds it into relish and packs into a large mason jar.
Dogs barked and her husband came out and introduced himself. He was off to get some hay and run a long list of errands. They take turns telling me that he worked the night shift at a local factory and only gets two Saturdays a month off. These are hard-working, of-the-land folks, and I did not quite understand why I was not simply handed my free milk and shooed out the door.
Because I feel dramatically out of place.
Like I should be doing something to help these good people, not vice versa.
So I offer again to help chop or ladle or do whatever this Missus would ask me to do to be useful.
She shakes her head and keeps zipping, chopping, and stuffing.
Instead, she talks about her family.
Their life now and their life before this place.
The goats and the sheep, that they consider like children, who made the journey across country with them.
She asks if I want to milk the goats and learn how its done.
"Oh, yes, please!"
We walk outside and it begins to rain.
The air is so hot, the rain evaporated before it touches my skin. I can smell it and feel it in the air, but it does not reach me. They've turned an old trailer into the milking shed and she sets to work, explaining the parts and showing me the steps involved. It seems simple enough and I am half paying attention, enjoying the smell of the sweetened feed and listening to the now soft tap of the rain against the metal roof. We walk out into the paddock to get the first goat. I clonk my head on the doorframe. That klutzy action brings back memories of my horseriding childhood.
Undeterred, I follow her out as she talks to her goats and brings the first one up for milking. Never have I seen such large teats on a goat! They are huge, like two giant brown carrots dangling down beneath her swollen milk sac. Silently, I wonder if she's abnormal. I was expecting something a little more discreet. Her name is Oreo and she settles in for her milking, happily munching the feed. Missus' tone changes to a soothing sing-song, whether talking to me or the goat as she explains and works in one seamless series of constant motion. She cleans the goat and pats and rubs and brushes her coat. In less than 10 minutes, we have a mason jar filled with 7 cups of milk. We clean and balm her udders, thanking her for the tasty milk she's provided for us, and lead the goat back to the pen. Now, it is my turn. Next goat.
And then the next.
Talking gently, rubbing, cleaning, balming, thanking each goat. We finish and I follow the woman back in the house where we strain and pour the milk into clean containers. She talks some more and it starts to sink in on me what she is saying. I repeat her words, "So, you are saying that from now until the middle of September, I can take over the milking of your goats and have all their milk?"
"Yes," she replies. "I am tired and, if it is helpful for you, it would be a blessing for me and for them."
In September, they will have a rest and then start the cycle of being bred, having a baby goat and being milked, once the baby is weaned.
I call my friend and fellow cheese hound, "Do you want to do this with me? Can you commit to this for the next six weeks with me?" She agrees. The Missus and I set a time to come out tomorrow, this time with my friend. She loads me up with milk and jars, and equipment, along with a recipe book and a cheese press to borrow. As an afterthought, she goes down the hall and comes back with four bars of goat's milk soap. "For you and for your friend." She walks me out to the van and then says, "Come and meet the other animals." We go and I am introduced to the wise old billy goat, who is nearly blind. His beard is at least nine inches long and his thin, dark face remind me of an ancient elder who has seen much of the world. There is the ram, a massive male sheep. And more billies who tussle and kick at each other. The sheep and lambs with their heavy woolen coats come expectantly to the fence, nuzzling their mistresses hands. We walk down the garden and she snaps off cucumbers and hands them to me and then okra.
"It is too much work to do alone," she says, "So, I just do what I can and leave the rest."
I offer to help and she says that it is too hot for working outside right now. Perhaps, in the evening, she'll get to cut the grass.
I thank her and pull her trash can down the driveway and to the curb. The truck is rumbling in the distance and I offer to wait and drag it back to the yard. "No. Louis will get it, when he comes home."
She heads back inside to finish her canning. I leave and promptly get lost in my excitement over free milk and cheese and the wonder of it all. How had I happened here today?
This morning, I had mentioned enthusiastically that I was learning how to make cheese and yogurt, because I was trying to be mindful of my money.
This stranger mentioned that knew a woman, who at times, had free milk. He had her number. I could call and ask if she had any? With a shrug of his shoulders he said non-committally, "Perhaps she would have some or perhaps not?"
I thanked him, took the number, and did not hesitate to call.
Money spent: $0 from account; gift card and found/loose change ($2.50 @ the farmer's market, cheesemaking supplies)