The farm’s distinctive business was the sale of milk. They had about fourteen animals, she doesn’t remember which breed. What colour, I ask, black and white?
She shakes her head categorically: no! Beige, I venture and understand, that’s more like it.
During night and morning the cows were kept in the stable under the same roof as the farmhouse, the stable now converted into a living-room, the ‘salon des vaches’, where we sometimes sit. Mme El points to a corner of the ceiling and explains that at one time there was a hole up there through which her husband, in his night-wear, was able to administer hay to the waiting animals down below, thus keeping them happy while he himself was able to return to bed for another half hour, she laughs.
The cows as such were the job of the men, her grandfather who guarded them when out in the ‘champ’, her father and her husband who milked them, by hand at first and later with an electric apparatus to which the animals got so used that they refused to be milked in any other way when there was a power cut. What was it like when the calves were born?
I inquire. She says they were mostly there in the morning when her father came into the stable. Sometimes it was necessary to help. No, half in, half out didn’t occur. It did happen that they were completely stuck inside. Nothing to do with her, she says, visibly not liking the whole business, she remembers her son’s difficult birth, bad enough to put them off ‘ordering’ another one, good thing, too, they couldn’t have paid for the education of two of them, she said. So entirely her father’s job, the cows were, he was a ‘semi-vet’ anyway, putting his arm in and pulling things out, but sometimes they had to send for the real vet, and on rare occasions they lost a calf. The calves were sold very young, some two weeks old, because of the farm’s milk-business and because of the
expense of fattening them, they were not into that side of farming.
The sale of milk, now, was Mme El’s job. At one time she went round the village with a little cart, from one door to the next. It was dicey to leave the milk-can open, for things got emptied out through windows. It once happened that some water or other from above actually got into the can. But she couldn’t throw out the milk for that, could she?! A whole day’s milk! No, she says calmly and with a twinkle, she just went on selling it and never had any complaints. People also came to the farm to buy milk there. She used to dispense it outside the kitchen, for there were the men inside having a meal or something. Payment by the regulars was on a weekly basis, she doesn’t remember the price.
When her grandfather was gone, she, too, had to take part in guarding the cows, in the afternoon only, for she had to provide lunch for the men, helped by her grandma. Mme El speaks highly of her grandmother, a decent, hard-working, strong-willed woman: didn’t she oblige her granddaughter to marry the man she did?! For if not, she would have been ‘thrown out’, she said, and since she was attached to this house and its walls, she chose to marry the man, a successful match as it turned out. A church-minded woman, her grandmother, who liked the curé, she says, and went to mass on a Sunday. Now, going to church did not enter the mind of Mme El who, preferring a bit of a distance, is happy to watch mass on T.V. on a Sunday and she never cared to see the local ‘curé’, in her house.
As for the cows, they were taken out into the ‘champ’, the meadow in the afternoon. They were patient, easy-going beasts who knew the way. Mme El accompanied them and stayed there, she and the dog ‘Parise’, all their successive dogs had the same name, who understood her ‘patois’ commands and reined in the cows if necessary at all. Mme El had a stool in the meadow on which she sat reading or knitting. Reading, she stresses, raising her eyebrows, reading as much as she liked, the news-paper for the most part, there was nothing else, and regret in her voice. When her son was born she took him to the meadow with her, in the pram. Imagine the cows trotting to or from the meadow, lingering with the roadside greenery, and the young woman with them, pushing her
pram. They were patient animals, she stresses, there was no danger. This went on for a number of years, until her father also left and her husband got rid of the cows, having been brought up, himself, working in the wood, with trees, he knew all the trees, she proudly says.
Her grandfather lived into his early eighties. One day, guarding the cows, he fell asleep in damp grass, thus catching a deadly cold which finished him off within two days. Her grandmother, five years older than her husband, lived up to ninety, cared for in her later years by Mme El. Her father, a hearty eater, I understand, passed away unnoticed one night after an excellent meal, he was eighty-six. Mme El found him early in the morning, but couldn’t attend to this new situation until all the customers for milk had been served. 
As for her husband, to whom she was tenderly devoted, he left in his eighties after a fall in the ‘chai’, the wine storage hangar, two months after my father on whose death he had expressed his sympathy to me. Mme El became very ill as a result and who knows might have wanted to leave in turn, but then she pulled through, with a diminished memory, but perfectly capable of thinking, writing and reading, even if this takes energy of which she doesn’t have much left.
She lives mainly in the present, in the company of her son and daughter-in-law who exchanged a small flat in town for a spacious village farmhouse which they have done up very nicely with the help of parcels of land gathered by Mme El’s father and sold by them in order to finance the modernization.