From Finding Motherland: Essays about Family, Food, and Migration

By Helen Thorpe


I arrived in County Cavan, Ireland, yesterday morning, along with my cousin Caroline. We drove from Dublin to the dairy farm in Cavan where Donal and Caroline and their three siblings were raised. One generation earlier, my mother was raised here, too, along with her nine brothers and sisters. When Caroline and I entered the farmhouse, we found our uncle Ollie, over visiting from his nearby pig farm, beside the coal-burning stove in the main room. “Well,” he said. “How are ye keeping?”

My aunt Anna and uncle James, who’ve run the farm since my grandparents died, came in and asked the same question. We stood around and caught up on recent developments. I related all the important headlines, about those of us who lived in the United States — my mother, my father, and my two siblings.

James and Anna appreciated the update. Living here, they keep up with all the news, so they can pass it along to every other family member who phones in from wherever they may happen to be. The old-fashioned black dial telephone in the hallway by the front door rings any time something important happens to any member of the clan, and from there, everyone else will soon hear the latest dispatch. It has been this way all my life, though previously my grandmother manned the phone, and now it is her daughter-in-law Anna who does so.

James had on his daily farming attire: a tweed cap, an old sweater, a frayed shirt, and a pair of well-worn blue wool trousers tucked into green rubber Wellington boots. Everything he wore had been nice once, but had gotten patchy enough to serve as farm work attire. In the yard, Donal pulled on a medium-blue coverall over his jeans and T-shirt, then tied a brown plastic apron around his waist, to keep himself 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 protect my socks, as one of the boots had a small hole.

The cows were waiting for us inside the milking shed. There are presently forty-eight cows in the herd, twice as many as there were when my mother was growing up here. Most of them are black-and-white Friesians. The bull is a Charolais, however, 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 a few of 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. My grandparents had milked by hand, but Donal used machinery.

The size of the animals has always impressed me, ever since I was a small child, when I used to walk right through the middle of the herd to sit on the ledge of a window on the far side of the shed, a vantage point from which it was possible to survey the milking while looking down onto the backs of the cows. I’m even more aware of just how big the animals are these days; ever since my uncle Francie was killed by a Charolais cow (she had become overly protective of the calf she’d just given birth to). Not long 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 cows being milked is an echo of Kate’s sentiment, alongside a sense of gratitude to Donal for undertaking the job of keeping the farm going. All his siblings have left this rural area, covered in a patchwork fields, for careers in one city or another — Dublin, Brussels, Chicago — but Donal has stayed behind, guaranteeing that the land, the farmhouse, and the telephone number that we all carry in our address books no matter how far away we go, can still function as the heart of our family.

Copyright © 2020 by Helen Thorpe. Reprinted with permission. For more information, visit the author’s web site: www.helenthorpe.com.