“How about I call you Big Mama?” I asked, stroking her beard. A resigned expression was her only answer. It was just one more thing over which she had no control.
Her real name was Kodiak. At least that’s what it said on the tag meant to be pierced to her ear. “Kodiak” was scribbled in sharpie marker and attached not to her ear, but to a chain around her neck. Big Mama seemed a better fit. It may have had something to do with an earworm left behind by my musician daughter. Big Mama Thornton had been one of her favorite artists and played on repeat quite often.
“Big Mama!” I sang to her, trying it out. She kept her countenance and chewed her cud. Though it was considered bad luck to change a barn name, I threw caution to the wind, tossing the chain and ear tag into the trash. She became Big Mama, and I became the owner of a dairy goat.
I found Big Mama through a livestock marketplace ad. I wasn’t even really looking, just avoiding the gloom of news headlines by watching videos of goat kids in pajamas and goat yoga and goats for weed-eating. I already had four of those, the weed eating kind, and they were an endless source of entertainment. And cussing. Plenty of cussing and chasing, as they would crawl under yards of electric fence, or learn to jump said electric fence and eat newly planted perennials, or carrot tops, or denude my peonies, the weeds snubbed for these tidbits. Lord knows I did not need another goat, but one never really needs a goat. Or so I thought.
Big Mama was what they called an “aged doe,” somewhat past her prime. That was a little too close for comfort. Fresh from my twenty-something twin daughters moving away to pursue their careers, the proverbial empty nest had hit me hard. I had homeschooled my girls as youngsters and thrived on the challenge. They had mainstreamed into high school, finishing top of their class, then went on to a local college, graduating with all the regalia of honors students. They deemed my parenting a success, yet I felt as though I had successfully pushed myself out of my life’s purpose.
To add insult to injury, I had recently quit my full-time job, defenestrated by a power-hungry ladder-climbing millennial upstart who had wanted and won my position and my salary. I had been so proud of juggling it all––a quadragenarian tour-de-force––I hadn’t seen that one coming. Now in my fifties with a stalled career, hands-on motherhood at an end and menopause knocking at my door? The French have a phrase for a woman like me; “une femme d’un certain âge.” A woman of a certain age. A mature woman.
Too old to compete with the dozens of younger goats with which she housed, the goat farm was hoping to find a home for Big Mama where she wouldn’t struggle for food and attention. She had recently freshened, which in dairy goat language meant she was in milk. She was a high-production goat, capable of producing over a gallon a day. They took away her kids and bottle fed as they were born so she could be machine milked and her milk sold. Her photo showed a body worn by years of giving birth and working as a heavy producer. Her topline was thin, her hips stood out, her mousy coat dull and dry. As I stood in the grocery store in the early days of the Covid pandemic, facing the yawning shelves where milk had once been stocked, I caught my reflection in the store case; oversized sweatshirt, hair twisted into a bun at the top of my head. Escaping tendrils, which on a 20 or even 30-year-old would be sexy, looked sloppy and ridiculous. My eyes were tired, worried, and bracketed by crow’s feet over my mask. I made a snap decision and whipped out my phone. I bought Big Mama with one click.
I have a history of buying dairy animals in times of national crisis. During the Y2k scare, I was convinced we were all going to be scrambling for food. I found a cow. A giant Ayrshire cow. Her calf recently separated from her side. Her udder was near to bursting, which makes a cow sore and very, very cranky. As a nursing mother of infant twins, I felt a kindred spirit. My husband, who usually sighs and goes along with my crazy barnyard schemes shook his head at this one. This cow was mean, grumpy and was not trained to be milked by hand. I went down to the barn with my shiny new pail, visions of sitting on a little three-legged stool in the doorway, enveloped by the sweet smell of sun-warmed new-mown hay, a Robert Duncan painting come to life. Y2k cow disavowed my fantasies with one swift kick. My pail didn’t even make it close. The stool splintered. I windmilled into the manure pile. Flies buzzed around my head. I gave up trying to milk her, let her go dry and just graze the pasture. Then the twin towers fell. I traded her for a family of goats.
Goats were smaller. They too can kick, but it’s easily managed. I scoured the library shelves for goat books. I read them in the evenings and applied my newfound knowledge during the day. I had a doe named Daisy and her 3-month-old kid. She was pure white, a fancy registered Saanen goat, a breed direct from Switzerland, gentle and trained to the milk stand. She forgave my learning curve as I strived to master the rhythm of milking. I finally got my bucolic hay-perfumed sun-streamed moments in the barn doorway. I felt positively heroic making concoctions of yogurt and my own cheese to spread on my daughters’ afternoon snacks. While the world searched for weapons of mass destruction, I was feeding my children from my own arcadian backyard. Milk husbandry, however, is a time-consuming endeavor. One must milk a goat on schedule every day in order to keep producing, and after a while carting kids to play dates, ballet class and track practice took precedence. We moved to town and sold all the farm animals. I missed them, but turned my focus to the busy parenting years of adolescence and teenagers and a demanding career. When that ended, and hoping to cure my resulting dispiritedness, my husband suggested we live rural again. We bought 35 acres; he built a pretty red barn, and I fell to the task of picking out chicks at the feed store and acquired the naughty weed-eating goats.
Big Mama was not fancy. She had a ratty coat and crooked legs and had a difficult time walking. Her feet were long overdue for a trim. She was registered, a French Alpine ADGA goat, but they had reduced her elegant pedigreed name to a sharpie scribble on an ear tag. The weed-eaters bounced around her while I unloaded her from the trailer. She followed them across the pasture, moving as quickly as her gnarled legs would allow. She fell far behind but muddled through, following them to the greenest patches of grass. Her expression was perpetually bug-eyed, yet something about her phlegmatic way of moving, her attitude of just “put my head down and get ‘er done” touched my heart.
It had been twenty years since I had last milked Daisy. Would I remember how? I helped Big Mama up on the stand, and she stoically stood while I found my rhythm again. There is no rushing milking a goat. Milking takes the time that it takes, and there is nothing else to do while milking a goat but to face whatever ails your mind, whether you want to or not. When my empty-nest and “world is going to hell” melancholy threatened to engulf me, it forced me to crawl out from under the covers. I had to get up, I had to milk the goat.
Big Mama blossomed under daily attention and care. Her coat became silky and acquired a copper sheen. Her eyes settled from their startled expression and grew bright and calm. Through the kitchen window, I could see her in the pasture, broadside to the morning sun, soaking up her daily dose of vitamin D.
“Hey Big Mama,” I would sing to her as I opened the door, and she would interrupt her sylvan repose to bleat an answer to me every time.
A doe that doesn’t pick up the scent glands of a resident buck will often produce milk that doesn’t have a “goaty” flavor. Big Mama epitomized this phenomena. She may have been aged, but she gave delicious milk, with foam enough to make any barista envious, and a level of cream at the top that was not usually found in goat's milk. I expanded my cheese making into the exotic, sending away for things like butter, muslin and rennet tablets. I made bread from the resulting whey. I was no longer nourishing my children with my home-grown food, but nourishing myself. The grocery store shelves were still empty, but my pantry was full. As Big Mama’s milk foamed and filled my pail, my eyes lost their tired, worried look.
“This old goat really looks forward to seeing you,” my husband remarked one day as he was trimming her curled, overgrown hooves so she could walk straight again.
“It’s because I have the oat bucket,” I scoffed; yet her ears swiveled my direction, her attention focused. Could be because I was carrying the oat bucket, but I did remember a bit of wisdom I had read in a book once: oats or the bringer of oats, sooner or later it amounts to the same thing.
This morning when I finished milking and reached to help Big Mama off the stand, she hesitated. She turned and pushed her head into the crook between my neck and shoulder and let out a deep snuffling sigh. I scratched her flank and smiled as her tail wagged; the universal “I’m very happy right now” goat language. Big Mama was content, and I felt grateful. At a time of chaos in the world and a new chapter in my own life––one which I did not necessarily welcome––with her example, her way of being and her gift of sweet milk, this old goat had given me much more than I had given her.
A former copy writer and marketing director, Lisa Sherrodd lives on the border of Wyoming and Colorado with her herd of dairy goats and Norwegian Fjord horses. Lisa is a member of Women’s Fiction Writers Association and has had numerous press releases published across the state of Wyoming and beyond.