How I survived mom’s quest for healthy milk

Cows grazing in a field at Bevan’s Farm in Yellowknife | NWT Archives/Henry Busse fonds/N-1979-052: 4665

I am told that some 59 years ago I was delivered by Dr. Stanton in the old Red Cross Hospital. Dr. Stanton delivered a lot of my Yellowknife friends; I was one among many. At the time Dad was away flying. Back in 1954, nobody guilted the fathers into being present during the birth and delivery of their progeny. So a few days after I was born Dad walked into the hospital room where Mom was staying, because in those days you got to hang around the hospital for awhile after you’d given birth, and said, “Hullo Mary. How is he?”

“He’s fine,” my mother replied. “His name is Catherine.” My mother has a dry sense of humour.

Now my parents lived at that time in a small rented shack in Old Town (torn down years ago) that was so cold in winter that one Christmas Mom washed the floor and then chipped the resulting ice off with a kitchen knife. Mom was a conscientious new mother. As soon as she learned she was pregnant, she was delighted to hear someone had imported a herd of dairy cows into Yellowknife. She signed on for milk for her new precious baby-to-be. She was excited to think she’d have access to fresh cow’s milk. She had begun to think the Arctic bereft of the kind of amenities she was accustomed to in the south – like kitchen floors that didn’t freeze over – but obviously Yellowknife had launched itself into the modern world. Then one by one the dairy cows sickened and died.

I am one of the few people in the world whose pregnant mother drank milk from a herd of cows who died of arsenic poisoning, thanks to the toxic plume that spewed unabated out of Giant Mine’s roasting stack for years. Probably what saved me was that the tainted milk cost 50 cents a quart and was therefore too outrageously expensive to drink to excess. In addition, Mom had to pay for any bottles that froze and then broke. After I was born I turned out to be allergic to cow’s milk and Mom had to switch me to goat’s milk, imported from the south at great expense.

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To this day I love the smell of goat cheese.

My parents moved away from Yellowknife when I was very young, then back again when I was 13. By then milk in town was pasteurized and sent up from the south and delivered to our doorstep in bottles by a reliable and friendly milkman who nearly lost his shirt buying gas and maintaining his truck and otherwise meeting the expenses of his business. Mom was always anxious to collect the day’s milk from the doorstep before the milk froze and popped the paper lid an inch above the lip of the bottle. Housewives in 1968 prided themselves on different matters than they do today. Also, in summer, Mom kept on the lookout for prowling neighbourhood cats clever at loosening the bottle lids or tipping over bottles.

Then when I was a teen, word went out that Yellowknife’s groundwater was contaminated with arsenic. A technician with collection bottles came to take samples from our back yard.

When the results came back, someone told my mother, “Don’t eat any of the leafy vegetables you grow in your garden.”

But Mom had survived the attempted poisoning of her first born daughter, and she was made of stern stuff.

“Nonsense,” she said. “I LIKE fresh leaf lettuce.”

Now it’s years later and Mom is a senior citizen and she buys milk in the grocery store and if her body is inundated with arsenic, it hasn’t done her a lick of harm. As for me, I’m miles past my middle years and any arsenic I imbibed with my early dose of cow’s milk hasn’t hurt me either. I have no proof of this, but judging from the longevity of my family members, it may be that arsenic is a preservative. You never know.

Catherine Dook was born in Yellowknife, where her father worked as a bush pilot. She became a teacher and author and now lives onboard the sailing vessel Inuksuk in Cowichan Bay, B.C. with her husband. Her books Damn the Torpedoes, and Offshore were nominated for the Leacock Award.  She is also the author of Darling, Call the Coast Guard, We’re on Fire Again! Contact catherinedook@hotmail.com to purchase her books.

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