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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Mixed Milk

There is a period of my family’s shared life that we affectionately refer to as the “mixed-milk” years. If Dad were here to remember it with us, he would laugh along as Mom does, but he might also disclose (now that we’re old enough to understand) that a better name for those years might be the “single income, five children (four of whom would be in or entering college one year apart beginning in four years), two family cars and a truck, building one house while living in the other, and having a wonderful newborn son”… years.

We were not poor—such a thought never entered our heads. We were simply in the middle of middle-class America. We knew this because from our front porch we could see scores of nearly identical small, three-bedroom brick ranches, and beyond them were hundreds more, packed into the streets of our tightly-woven world.* In over half of those houses large, young families like ours were living the same frugal lives—although none of them, as far as we knew, were mixing their milk to stretch the grocery budget.

It’s hard to know for sure, because such money-saving measures were deeply guarded secrets. The idea was not new. Carnation introduced “Magic Milk Crystals” in 1954. By the late sixties, the magic was gone but the product was still on store shelves, and unfortunately Dad found it. In fact, he found a slightly cheaper brand, Sanilac Non-Fat Dry Milk. We didn’t call it dry milk or powdered milk. To us it was mixed milk because it was the mixing that we hated most.

Each week, the four older kids rotated through a cycle of specific evening chores: washing the dishes, drying the dishes, and taking out trash / feeding Duke (these latter two were one chore), but the fourth assignment was the worst of all—mixing the milk. For starters, the smell of the stuff reminded me of our friend Blain Fuller’s dairy farm. In his big barn, at the end of a long row of Holsteins was a small room where their milk was held in stainless steel tanks for shipment. Powdered milk smelled like that room, neither fresh nor sour— just raw and dusty.

Worse than the smell was the taste. Even if the kid on mixing duty did a good job of adding the powder gradually into the jug while stirring the water…the end result was still this odd-tasting white concoction that only Dad could drink without getting a twitch down his spine. We eventually got used to the taste (it helped if the milk was ice cold), but we never got used to the lumps. If the person mixing just plopped in the powder without stirring at the same time—I won’t mention any names—there were dry curds that settled in your glass or stuck to your front teeth. About once a month, we’d have a batch like that, and we’d all have to break up the globs with our forks and stir them in while Dad reviewed the proper milk-mixing technique.

I should mention that the “mixed-milk” years had sub-chapters too numerous to include here, but I’ll tell a short one that comes to mind during this time of year:

One evening while I was mixing milk, Dad was reading the evening paper and saw a mail-order ad for “leather-like vinyl shoes” at $4.99 a pair. The deceptive “buy-one-get-one free” line should have been a clue that this was a rip-off (it meant only that the second shoe of the pair was included in that low-low price). Still, the offer was too good for Dad to pass up, and within six to eight weeks, he and his boys were slappin’ the pavement with stiffly molded ankle-high, strap-over “boots” that looked about as “leather-like” as the shoes that come with Mr. Potato Head. To use my sister Kathy’s term from the time: We looked like “clods.”

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the smell of these shoes stunk to high heaven. Oh, they pulled on innocently enough with a faint scent of “new vinyl”—but because the plastic did not breathe at all, each night when we pried them off of our sweaty feet, they reeked like some dead thing wrapped in a shower curtain. Even Dad conceded that this was a serious flaw in design. As a courtesy, we began taking them off outside. By early winter, the freezing temperatures made the plastic so inflexible that the uppers and soles began cracking, as if on cue, in late December. It was a modern Christmas miracle if ever there was one.

That year under the tree, we each got new leather shoes. We always mixed necessities in with our wants at Christmas. This was especially true during the mixed-milk years. In fact one of my favorite Christmas snapshots is me sitting beside the tree in an undershirt with a new Bible in my right hand, a new bike tire in my left and those shoes somewhere in the wrapping paper in front of me. My mother says that picture makes her sad because I seem to be holding a bike tire with such satisfaction, but I had asked for the tire—it was on my list, just like the Bible and lots of other things I had unwrapped--and then to top it off... new shoes. The smile on my face is one of genuine contentment.

Some of my favorite memories are from our mixed-milk years. I’m not exactly sure when they ended. It might have been when Kathy went off to college, leaving a gap in the chore rotation; or maybe it was the next year when Paul joined her and we simply needed less milk. Maybe it was the next year when Dave left. Maybe Dad got a raise. I don’t know. We children were blissfully ignorant of family finances (except for what we heard through our parent’s bedroom door). We learned not to ask for some things, and we collectively made do with what we had. Kathy babysat, and each boy had a paper route until we were old enough to have "real jobs." Our needs were met and our wants were few. We took great "tenting" vacations across the state and Canada at Georgian Bay, attended church camp each summer, and eventually went off to college. (With Mom and Dad’s help and some God-send jobs, not one of us graduated with any debt.)

One could calculate, I suppose, how insignificant the savings of mixed vs. real milk was during those years, but mixed milk was more of a mind-set than anything else. It let us know things were close but so were we. We were all drinking from the same cup so to speak. Now that I know how such things work, I don't know how Mom and Dad pulled it off. I’m sure their budget during the mixed-milk years looked like a badly written story problem. The hard kind that makes a student say, “This can’t be done!” and the puzzled teacher reads it aloud, shrugs, and agrees that something must be missing. But somehow Mom and Dad worked through that story problem in such a way that the problem parts seemed small...
and the story parts stayed with us.

Very little was missing.

*If you click link on "tightly woven streets," our house and garage on Buckhannon in Roseville is below the "k" in Buckhannon at the east end of the street. Click "hybrid" to see street names if they do not appear.
© Copyright 2005,TK, Patterns of Ink

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