Milk

Milk- Hale, Christine

Christine Hale

I held on tight to my baby bottle right up to four years old.  Black-and-white photos from the old Kodak Brownie attest to this: my lanky self lolling on the glossy-waxed linoleum of the kitchen floor, eyes glazed with bliss, head cradled on a favorite plaid-cased pillow, one knee cocked and the other balanced atop its fulcrum, free foot bouncing like Mitch Miller’s sing-along ball.

My father liked milk, too.  He drank more than his share according to my mother, and, worse, he raided the butterfat that topped the un-homogenized milk, using a spoon or even his finger to pop the cream coin from the bottle’s mouth to his. I’d seen him do it, and imagined the greasy bite as repulsive, but what really gave the act its charge was my mother’s response. Control of the milk, especially the cream, made a flashpoint in their mostly cold war.

Milk arrived at our house in heavy glass bottles, carried to a galvanized tin box on the concrete floor of our back porch by a milkman dressed head-to-toe in white. Two times a week he brought us two kinds of milk, homogenized and not homogenized. A paper hood with pleated sides covered the cardboard tab set deep inside the thick, worn lip of the bottles, rough from use and reuse. I liked to lift the box lid and look at tall bottles slick with condensation, but I knew very well don’t touch.  I loved milk, but the bottles it came in spelled danger.

Early in the morning, just the two of us in the house, I might stumble from my bed to the kitchen in search of my mama and my morning milk, but stop short at the door, feeling danger like heat.

You stood at the sink, Mama. Ruddy-faced, sweating and swearing, ready to erupt.  Working. In my body, bile ignited dread: the day not yet begun already a disaster.  I should have fled and maybe tried but you sensed my nearness; it lit your fuse and let loose the awful tear the whole family feared. “I told him never do that but he went right ahead; he defied me.”

You jerked me to the refrigerator and flung back the door; the only one who loved you would witness this evidence of wrongs done to you.  Underneath the pleated cover, replaced as if the glue between its folds had not been breached, beneath the tab set innocently back in place—the cream missing.

 ∞

I don’t know if I feared for my father.  I know I feared for me.  Exactly once I’d attempted to lift the sweating cool bottle from the misty-cold shelf all by myself.  But the bottle lay shattered already at my feet, shards of thick glass awash in a pale spreading lake of ruined, wasted milk, my fault, my fault, blame beating like waves too big to jump that snatched me off my feet, ripped air from my lungs and dragged me mute across sharp shells to dump me raw on the sand, my mouth full of grit.

My eardrums, my bones, the whole screaming world rattled with your rage.  In a heap on the kitchen linoleum, I cried oceans of hot, hysterical, self-abnegating tears.

5 Comments

  1. I love this piece. There are some fantastic turns-of-phrase here, and I can really feel those moments of being caught up in a parental dispute and being a child who immediately knows he’s done something wrong.

    Also, I’ve got to start getting unhomogenized milk delivered!

  2. Wow! What a powerful piece. I could see the scene unfolding before my eyes, just as I could feel the dread.

  3. We, too, had milk delivered to the same galvanized tin box by our back door steps. My daddy also loved the cream on top (we had only non-homogenized milk), and so did everyone else in the house! Daddy got first choice, though, of breaking that thick cream and pouring it carefully out into the glass cream pitcher. It went into coffee and on cereal, rich and yellowish, sticking to the corn flakes. Mama didn’t complain, and neither did we. We just had skim milk on our cereal and in our coffee. To this day I pour a little bit of half-and-half on top of my Honey Bunches of Oats in honor of the tradition of my childhood. It’s my turn now.

  4. I well remember the thick quart bottles and the precious cream I tried to pour off without mingling it with the blue milk below. I loved cream so much that when I returned from boarding school for holidays my mother had a bottle of it in the refrigerator especially for me. Fortunately, milk/cream was not a weapon in my parents’ warfare. Instead my mother’s resentment against my father came out in a fairly steady stream of biting or sarcastic remarks and, on one memorable occasion, a dish flung across the room. Unraveling the mystery of this has been a lifetime’s work.

  5. Very vivid. I well remember the thick quart bottles and the precious cream I tried to pour off without mingling it with the blue milk below. I loved cream so much that when I returned from boarding school for holidays my mother had a bottle of it in the refrigerator especially for me. Fortunately, milk/cream was not a weapon in my parents’ warfare. Instead my mother’s resentment against my father came out in a fairly steady stream of biting or sarcastic remarks and, on one memorable occasion, a dish flung across the room. Unraveling the mystery of this has been a lifetime’s work.

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