My urban upbringing was as far removed from the land as it’s possible to be. I once told a girl my age that milk came from cows, only to be ordered by her mother to say it came out of a milk bottle and not from a cow at all, otherwise there’d be war over the breakfast table. We were ten years old at the time and knew next to nothing of how our food was produced. Farmers, now as then, work from early morning to long into the night, while we townies stay beneath the covers till dawn has well and truly dawned, and slip back into our beds when darkness falls.
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way – Leo Tolstoy
The Cow Book by John Connell is all about life on an Irish family farm, told by the returning son who needs a year off in which to write and recover. County Longford is the centre of his parents’ universe, where everything is geared towards looking after the animals in the continuation of a way of life that goes back generations. Even though John easily steps back into the rhythm of farm life, his father is far from impressed, often considering John inept and not up to the job. Through wonderfully evocative writing, John takes us through his working day, introducing us to the animals that depend on his care, and giving us a picture of how he relates to his parents and his friends. We come to understand his struggle to maintain an equal relationship with his da, while his mother tries to keep the peace between them. Sure isn’t that the same the world over!
Families muddle along as best they can. Neither money nor education can ease the tensions that fly up out of nowhere between jealous siblings who need their share of parental love and approval that is rarely doled out in equal measure. And mums and dads, who started out with a heady love affair, spend their days in search of that oft promised but usually elusive work-life balance. From an early age, books and reading can help keep everything in perspective, while opening a window into other lives and experiences so that we feel less alone and more able to cope with the ups and downs that come our way. Just as John describes at the end, when he and his father have started to speak to each other after a long period of silence:
We talk now as if we have not spoken in a long time. It has been a long time.
It’s as close as he may come to, ‘I am sorry’, as close as we come to ‘I love you’. We wipe our brows and curse the heat, but jokingly so, for we are glad of the sun, of the change in the season. High above, the birds sing and a murmuration of starlings passes, cresting and falling as a giant black sky shoal. The patterns of nature do not change, but we can.
‘The summer is here’, he says.
‘Thanks be to God’, I reply.
It is the end of the calving season. We have all our stock, we have each other. It is all we need. It is all we want.