It was the spring of 1921 in Covedale, Ohio. Ten-year-old Mary Ellen finished her homework, closed her books and ran out to the front porch where she jumped onto a swing suspended by chains from the ceiling. Her feet could barely reach the floor to push the swing, but she managed. Its screeching hinges contradicted the afternoon’s tranquility with birds singing in freshly-greened trees. She closed her eyes as the back-and-forth motion triggered imaginative thoughts about being a grown-up living in nearby Cincinnati.
A locomotive hauling freight blew its whistle for a crossing a mile from the house. The sound made the city seem so near. She wondered when her daddy would be home from the Townsend-West Dairy that he managed downtown. He brought a calm presence into the mixture of family issues that she anticipated. With three older brothers, and an older sister, life in her world was sometimes hectic.
From inside the house the contentious voices of her mother and older sister emerged. A squirrel darting through the yard caught her attention. She jumped from the swing and ran into the yard, then down the sidewalk toward her grandma’s house. One of her favorite places along the way was a dark cherry tree. She stopped and climbed up into its branches. She felt invisible up there. In her imagination it was like being a spy, keeping watch for dangerous activities.
The sound drifted up from the barn where her grandpa’s farm hand was rounding up the eight cows he still kept. John Townsend had inherited the farm as a young man from his father, Isaac Townsend. He was now retired and the dairy he had operated from his barn was now located in a modern downtown plant.
Milking time always reminded Mary of when she was four years old and would sneak away to the barn and climb up into the hayloft. There she could lie on the straw floor and wiggle herself to a place where she could look down through a knothole at her grandpa doing his milking. She always thought she would be undetected but he always heard her. He would squirt milk at her and she’d giggle.
“Now you come down outa there, y’hear?”
She’d come down and he’d give her a tin cup with milk straight from the cow. It was their “secret” from her mother who didn’t allow her to drink raw milk. She loved being with her grandpa. Sometimes he would take the horse-drawn springboard wagon to town and come back with a bag of peppermint sticks for her. On a couple of occasions he had even let her ride the horse while he was plowing a cornfield. Grandpa was fun.
There were times when he had to correct her. Once she couldn’t find him and went into the big barn, which was off limits to her. When he saw her coming he said to his farm hand, “Now where was it was saw that big snake in here the other day?” She made a hasty exit.
In spite of the adventure at milking time, Mary was afraid of the cows. They would swish their tails and sometimes she’d be in the way. She’d even seen them kick and balk in the stall. She tried to keep her distance.
Mary Ellen’s reverie was broken when a cow suddenly bellowed, “Moo-oooo-oo.” Mary decided it was time to go back to the house. She jumped down from her tree perch and ran back to the porch where she jumped onto the squeaky swing. Little did she know that she would vividly remember these moments nearly seventy years later when writing her memoir.
(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter,” by Hugh Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris.)