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The Milk House: Scarf-wearer, cat-shooter

Ryan Dennis Published on 11 March 2015

I had always considered tea an effeminate drink.

I should clarify: hot tea. Surely, hard-working men would have a glass of ice tea in the summer coming in from the fields. Hot tea was, well, girly ... or worse, urban.

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When I lived in Ireland, however, I was among a breed of people who took their tea very seriously. Nothing happened in the day unless it happened over a mug.

If it wasn’t the right time to be “on the drink” (Guinness), then you would be handed a cup of Barry’s or Lyon’s, according to the host’s preference (which they were very passionate about), every time you sat down. They considered ice tea an unfathomable bastardization and shuddered when I mentioned it.

For the record, I resisted for months. Maybe even a half a year. I insisted on coffee instead, as a man should. Eventually, however, they wore me down. I’ve been a tea drinker since.

At the same time, I wanted to start wearing a scarf. I can’t tell you why or where the desire might have come from, only that I was conscious it was not something men did where I came from. I don’t think I would have had the guts to buy a scarf, and that’s probably why fate stepped in.

One night I was on the streets of Ireland at 4:30 a.m. (I can’t remember why – but probably not coming back from a church meeting). A stranger came up to me, holding a scarf. It was green and black, matching my coat.

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“Is this your scarf, Sir?”

“It isn’t, I’m afraid.”

He looked around at the empty darkness surrounding us and shrugged his shoulders. “Do you want the scarf?”

I did want the scarf. He handed it to me and disappeared into the night.

I had the scarf for years. I wore it everywhere. I suspected it might have been magic because no matter how many times I lost it, it always seemed to make its way back to me. Once, while living in Germany, I left it in a pub.

The girl I was dating at the time was very jealous of my affection for the scarf and how I and the accessory were destined to be together. While I was at work, my girlfriend went to the bar to retrieve it but reported back that it wasn’t there. In actuality, she had found it – and gave it to me on my birthday several days later.

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“Now the scarf represents how good you and I are meant for each other because we’ll always be able to find what the other loses.”

I touched her cheek, looked into her eyes, and spoke with a tender voice. “Girl, you don’t change the narrative of the scarf. The scarf transcends both of us.”

I knew I had to get rid of her.

When I returned home to the farm during summers, people didn’t know what to do with the long-haired, tea-drinking guy in a scarf they used to know. They hid their children behind them when I entered a room and crossed the street when they saw me coming down the sidewalk. Those that tried the hardest would shake their heads and say, “Son, you’ve been Europeanized.”

Recently, I’ve found myself watching old episodes of Justified on illegal Internet streams. The show is about a (way-too-cool) marshal who returns to his home in Harlem County to enact justice.

Although, even in Kentucky, I can’t imagine a place still existing where hillbilly mafias battle for control of a valley and leave handfuls of redneck bodies in their wake every week, I still enjoy it.

I like the idea that there’s something specific about being from the country and a particular place in it. Even if it’s a cliché about there being a certain way of doing things in Rural America and it having its own honor code, I still get into it.

My favorite writer is Tony Earley, who comes from rural North Carolina and often explores in his work what it means to be a part of the Southern countryside. In his essay “Shooting the Cat,” his grandmother asks him to put her cat out of its misery after it had been mangled by a dog.

After resolving to honor her wishes, he eventually misses it with an old pistol – and the cat disappears into the brush. Earley’s father had to shoot the cat the next day. For Earley, this event causes him to question his ability to identify himself as a rural person.

“In the South I grew up in, the cat is still in the bushes. I tell anyone who will listen that I am from the country, but that is a lie … I grew up on Gilligan’s Island, in Mayberry, I’m not sure where. My family is from the South. They’re waiting on the porch to see what I will do.”

Being an American abroad is trickier than it used to be. Europe is generally critical of U.S. foreign policy and is often miffed at aspects of both its culture and politics. When I first lived across the water 10 years ago, I was constantly asked if I had voted for Bush.

Now it’s invariably, “Do you have a gun?” Whether it’s right or wrong, if you want to fit in while living in other countries, you typically have to tone down your Yankeeness.

The predictable way to end this column is to say we have the right to be who we want to be and define ourselves as we like, scarves or not. However, that sounds a little namby-pamby. Or at least urban. It certainly wouldn’t fly in Harlem County.

Instead, I respect Tony Earley’s approach of calling oneself into question. Rural America is something specific that doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world. I don’t like all of it, but I love some of it. I was once from there. If I’m from there still is a harder question to ask. Maybe I’m from Mayberry too.

I plan on going back someday to settle there, though I don’t know what place they would have for a tea-drinking liberal. Part of me expects that when I do return, there will be people there sitting on the porch, waiting to see if I shoot the cat. PD

Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.

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Ryan Dennis
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