Grandma Surfed But Couldn’t Milk a Cow

The modern concept of the family farm depends on statistics, perceptions, and definitions. Some say only a dwindling number of family farms still exist due to corporate ag, high tech, and the realities of modern economics. Others claim that more than 90% of today’s farms are family owned, and they contend that agriculture must evolve in order to feed a growing population.
That debate will continue, but one thing is certain—my grandparents’ ran a family farm in the rolling hills of eastern Iowa, and I doubt they cared how the place was defined. They were just trying to make a living for them and their 12 children on 220 acres of post-Depression Era land.
By the time we grandkids visited them in the late 1950s they had plugged the mouse holes and added running water to the drafty, rundown farmhouse they purchased in 1943. They even had an indoor toilet by then. But the feature we noticed most at a child’s eye view was the wave in the kitchen floor. The surf was always up due to warped boards in the hardwood floor—a  6-inch swell ran the length of the room.
We thought this was great. Our little toy race cars could jump the berm, and our plastic cowboys galloped over the mountain in pursuit of the bad guys.
I imagine Grandma was not so thrilled. For years she rode the wave—shuffling plates of food to the table, moving laundry baskets to the hand-crank washing machine, and feeding babies clinging to her shoulder. Grandma stayed afloat when she sewed clothes for school and made sure each child was cleaned up for church. During two decades, she dealt with a tidal wave of diapers. In earlier years, she had found time to sing and play music. Everyone knew that from bread making to piano playing, she had gifted hands.
Grandma’s secret dream?
Except for milking—Grandma was a failure in the barn. The only time she tried was when Grandpa was kept late threshing at a neighbor’s farm. Grandma took my ten-year-old mom with her to start on the small herd of milk cows, but the duo must have been pulling rather than squeezing. They didn’t get a drop.
Grandpa was skilled with his hands also, but he contrived a way to ease up on the milking chores as the years went by. Eight of the children were boys, and he let his “milking lads” take over the task. That gave him time for other pursuits that took dexterity—shuffling cards, playing the violin, and rolling his own cigarettes.
Grandma probably complained a bit while mending the small tobacco ash burns on his shirts, but in the long run they worked hard together and took pride in their family farm. Grandma’s name was Grace, and the word describes the way she worked, loved, and prayed. Grandpa Earl had his own type of “grace” as he supported a farm family during tough economic times.
And as it turns out, Grandma was probably not so inept at the milking task. The other day one of my cousins pointed out that Grace probably came up “udderly empty” on purpose. Grandma was a dedicated farm wife, but she wasn’t about to add that task to her list.
by dan gogerty (painting from, by Toni Grote; photo from

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