Mama Made Extra

mom-kitchen-86My Mama knew how to cook for a crowd. When she was putting on a buffet, she made sure the last person in line had as many flavorful choices as the first person. For more than 50 years she fed her farmer husband, seven kids, extended family, and an assortment of hired men. She also orchestrated the menus for countless Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter dinners, as well as birthdays, graduations, and wedding and baby showers. For every meal, she obeyed one cooking commandment: Thou shalt not run out of food. Always prepare more than enough.

The food wasn’t fancy. Her goal wasn’t to impress. She never called herself a chef; she was a cook. Her calling was to feed the masses, and her meals were hearty and tasty. I miss them.

I can cook, but I am not “a cook.” I have some of her recipes. Some I’ve never attempted and others I often prepare, but never quite replicate. Whatever the recipe, when I make it, it just ain’t the same. Because it ain’t made by my Sweet Mama.

But one thing’s for sure. Whenever my husband and I (because I don’t do it alone) cook for a crowd, we make extra, just like Mama.

Laura Sternweis

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40 Past Elvis

I’elvis-clockm not an Elvis apostle, or even a disciple. Although I’m a fan, my devotion to the King has never reached religious proportions.

Granted, in my teens I was a bit Elvis obsessed. I was 15 when he died on Aug. 16, 1977, and at the time the loss affected me deeply. But life went on and so did I. I never became Presley possessed.

Yes, I still like his music, and I still have a small assortment of Elvis crap — records and CDs, a few books, a clock, and some figurines that my mother gave me. But to finish the analogy I started with, in terms of Elvis Presley, I’m more like an occasional Christian who shows up in church on Christmas and Easter and calls it good.

Another year has gone by, and now it’s 40 past Elvis. Time to pay my respects once again.

Laura Sternweis

I’m from Wisconsin

cheesecurdsSome people can trace their lineage hundreds of years back to the old country. I cannot. My story begins in Wisconsin.

My husband’s family on his mother’s side can follow their roots to a little farm near a fjord. His ancestors, who made their way to Iowa, held tight to their relatives in Norway, a direct connection his family continues today.

I know a little bit about my ancestors, thanks to my aunt’s genealogical detective work. What she’s discovered is interesting: German immigrants, an orphaned boy, steadfast farmers, and a family broken by tuberculosis and logging accidents. But from what I can tell, when my branch of the Sternweis family came to America sometime around 1850, they kept their past behind them and started over.

So for me, everything begins a bit later, about 1907, when my paternal grandfather purchased the original 80 acres and began my Sternweis family’s farm in central Wisconsin. And it still is my family’s farm — those 80 acres and quite a few more — because members of my family are still farming it.

Yes, I come from America’s Dairyland, home of cows and cheese, bratwurst and beer, and a particular farm on the Marathon-Wood county line. That’s why I don’t need my DNA swabbed. I have no desire to know the percentage ethnic breakdown of my forebears. I already know my ancestry. I’m from Wisconsin.

Laura Sternweis

Mama Played Scrabble

Mama-scrabbleWhen Mama moved to the nursing home she was going to play Scrabble for money. Gambling on crosswords and letter tiles, she’d make a fortune off the other little old ladies. That was our family joke, anyway. Mama liked to play Scrabble and she was good at the game, so my siblings and I teased her about the earning potential of her word-puzzling skills.

My family obtained our first Scrabble game sometime in the mid-1970s. We started with the basic version. Its cardboard game board, when unfolded, revealed a colorful pattern of double and triple score squares. Sure, it was pretty, but turning the board during play required careful maneuvering so as not to disturb the letter tiles forming the ever-expanding crossword puzzle. By the early 1980s we’d upgraded to the deluxe edition. Its plastic gridded game board rested upon a turntable base, which could be rotated to face each player in turn.

We all played Scrabble, but it really was Mama’s game. I remember her hunched over the Scrabble board, in concentration and determination to make the best word she could, both in point value and strategic placement on the board. She was adept at using the high point Q, X, and Z, and she could hit the triple word squares better than anyone. Turn by turn, she would rack up the points, and often won the game. She had only a high school education, but she could beat the Scrabble pants off her college-educated children.

Mama didn’t cheat at Scrabble, but she didn’t play exactly by all the official rules. She viewed playing Scrabble as a learning experience. Our official Scrabble Players Dictionary was a teaching aid rather than a challenge guantlet. She encouraged us to consult it so we’d learn to spell new words as we played. But even though we could use the dictionary, usually she’d still win the game. She was just that good.

Unfortunately Mama never had the chance to earn Scrabble money at a nursing home. She moved directly from her home to hospice when, much too young, she died from cancer 13 years ago. Unlike Scrabble, cancer was a gamble she couldn’t win.

Laura Sternweis

* In memory of Marguerite Sternweis, July 25, 1930 — March 14, 2004 *

 

My First Ma’am

beer-bandThe lady by the beer tent at the outdoor concert venue said she didn’t need to check my ID. She assumed, quite rightly, that I was of legal drinking age. Requiring no verification, she quickly slapped the drink responsibly band around my wrist and encouraged me to move on. Little did she know just how far I’ve travelled.

I’m 55 and it’s been a long time since anyone has questioned my rightful age. And I don’t mind. I’ve come a long way since my first Ma’am.

In the summer of 1981 I was home from my first year of college. One afternoon I was browsing in a clothing boutique in my hometown shopping mall. I was minding my own business, thumbing through the clothes racks, when the teenage clerk asked, “May I help you — Ma’am?”

I was 19 and mortified. Where did this little twit get off calling me Ma’am? In a huff, I walked out of the store.

Ma’am is a contraction of madam. Webster’s New Dictionary calls it a polite term for a lady, used in direct address. In the clerk’s defense, she probably had been told to use the courtesy title with all female customers. But to me, at the time, Ma’am just meant old, a derogatory designation I did not accept.

Back then, I knew I was old enough. I could drink — and vote. (In 1981 Wisconsin, the legal age for both was 18.) Sure, I was an adult — but I was young, dammit! I was a Miss with my whole life ahead of me — not a Ma’am whose time had passed.

A lot of living happens between 19 and 55: college and career, marriage and family, a mortgage and so much more. Today I’m old enough to know better. The more experience I have, the more experience I want. My time hasn’t passed at all.

Being Ma’am means I’m alive — still learning and loving, still growing and gaining wisdom. So ask to see my ID, or don’t. Offer me a senior discount or not. And feel free to call me Ma’am.

Laura Sternweis

Riding Side Saddle

side-saddleI wasn’t riding shotgun in my brother’s big blue tractor. More like riding side saddle is how I’d describe it. Riding shotgun implies having a protective function and a clearly defined task. I had neither. I was in the small jump seat to the left of his driver’s seat. Close enough so we could talk, yet far enough to be out of his way while he drove.

When I was back home playing farm on a recent June afternoon, my brother invited me to ride with him as he prepared a field for planting soybeans. I live in Iowa, nearly 350 miles from the home farm in Wisconsin, so I don’t get quality or quantity time with my big brother very often. These opportunities only arise every couple of years. So I accepted his invitation.

I’ve never been any good at field work. My long-passed tractor driving experience is limited to a Cub Cadet lawnmower and an old Allis-Chalmers tractor that wasn’t much bigger. But I still like tractors and I love my big brother. So when he offers, I go along for the ride, on the side.

Laura Sternweis

How to Fold Towels

Soon after my husband and I were married, we discovered we had been raised in two different schools of thought regarding an issue that affected our daily living: how to fold towels. He thought towels should be folded in thirds. I believed that the correct and aesthetically pleasing way to fold towels was in quarter sections. Each of us was certain the other was doing it wrong.

towels

However, we had taken to heart the communication sessions during our premarital counseling. (Thank you Father W. and Reverend Bill. Yep, we had two, but that’s another story.) So as we dealt with our laundry in those early days of our marriage, we calmly worked to discern the reason for our folding discrepancy.

Dear husband thought towels should be folded in thirds because that was how his mother did it. I thought towels should be folded in quarter sections because that was my mother’s method. Both our mothers were wise women, so I pondered why they didn’t fold towels the same way. (Dear husband didn’t much care, but humored me anyway.)

My mother folded towels in quarter sections for a simple reason — because a stack of quarter folded towels would fit in the bathroom cabinet. As dear husband thought more about the issue, he realized that towels folded in thirds fit neatly on the shelf in his family’s home. In both cases it seemed necessity indeed was the reason for our mothers’ invention. Each method made sense to us and neither was worth arguing about.

In all the years since, we have folded both ways: thirds for bath towels and quarter sections for hand towels and dishtowels, based on what fits best on the shelf or in the drawer. This has been our approach to most issues in our marriage — deciding what’s worth an argument and what isn’t, and doing what makes sense. This approach has served us well for 29 years and we anticipate it will work for quite a few more.

Laura Sternweis

Something New at the Farm

siloThe silo behind the barn was new once, but it’s old now. It’s an example of changing technology in American agriculture in general, and my family’s Wisconsin dairy farm in particular. The silo stands alone, its two companions having been dismantled stave by stave and carted away. Their former foundations are all that remain to prove their existence, just two concrete crop circles, lonely labyrinths that lead nowhere.

Technology comes and goes on the farm, as it does elsewhere in life. Whenever I return to my rural roots, I’m likely to be greeted by another change. I’ve been coming home to something new at the farm for nearly 37 years.

I left home for college in 1980, when plans were underway for the farm’s first milking parlor. Each time I came back for a visit that fall, there was something new to see — the double 8 herringbone milking parlor, a freestall barn with a slatted floor over a manure pit, new silos by the barn. Because I hadn’t witnessed the day-to-day progression, the farm’s transformation seemed all the more pronounced.

Since then I’ve lived away from the farm — graduating from college, working in central Wisconsin, and moving to Iowa. During the intervening years two new freestall barns have been built, along with a larger milking parlor. Older tractors have been traded for newer tractors. Older buildings have been repurposed. A small calf barn went up, worked hard for several years, and now is being replaced by a larger structure with modern automatic feeders. New silage bunkers have been added and old tower silos have been torn down.

A few days ago I travelled the circular paths of the old silo foundations. I wandered through the framing of the new calf barn under construction. And I walked the farm, contemplating the past and the future. With each visit home to the farm, I remember the old, but I look forward to the new.

Laura Sternweis

Dog about Town

Blue-coneNone of my family’s farm dogs had to wear the Cone of Shame when I was a kid. But today our town dog does.

My husband and I have an old dog. Blue is almost 13. But a week ago he forgot he was an old dog when the smell of a backyard rabbit helped him recapture his long-gone puppyhood.

Blue gave chase and the rabbit went running. It took refuge in our small metal tool shed, squeezing through the gap underneath the closed doors. Blue couldn’t get through the doors, so he turned the corner and proceeded to tear open one of the shed’s metal side panels. He popped the screws and bit and clawed his way along the sheet metal, tearing it like paper — and cutting a gash in his left front leg. He didn’t catch the rabbit, but he left the shed looking like a blood-stained crime scene.

The vet prescribed antibiotic pills, Neosporin cream, and the cone until the wound on Blue’s leg heals. Not sure what to do for the wound to his pride, as he wears his cone with shame.

Perhaps the farm dogs of my youth were tougher than our town dog of today. Or maybe they just never encountered a rabbit in a closed-up metal shed.

Laura Sternweis

A Cap for Wolf Blitzer

NRC-hostThe day I met Wolf Blitzer was cool and crisp. Our encounter was brief, yet poignant on that Iowa April morning 22 years ago. As he stepped off the White House Press bus near the Memorial Union parking ramp, I welcomed him to Iowa State University and gave him an ISU cap. Then he was off, headed to the ballroom-turned-press-room in the union. We did not meet again.

I handed university headgear to many reporters that morning. As an extension communications specialist at the university, I’d made the cut to be an ISU host for Wolf and all the other national reporters on the bus — including Rita Braver! and Bill Plante! — two icons in particular who I admired from across the press room. They all had travelled to Ames, Iowa, for the National Rural Conference, co-hosted by Iowa State and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Now the “normal” people in attendance likely were more impressed by the real stars of the day, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. And it was inspiring to witness history being made as the President and Vice President gathered perspectives on rural issues and views on the 1995 Farm Bill. However, as a former agriculture reporter and continuing news junkie, I was star struck to be in such close proximity to not only the newsmakers, but also the news breakers.

President Clinton and Vice President Gore were too far away to see me. Rita Braver and Bill Plante were close enough to see me but likely didn’t notice me. And Wolf Blitzer probably didn’t keep the cap. But I still have the story.

Laura Sternweis

P.S. Watch this C-SPAN video of President Clinton’s opening remarks at the National Rural Conference.