All Three

baby-eyes-closedOn the night I was born, my Dad told the hospital staff that he took better care of his cows than they were taking care of my mother. At least that’s the story she once told me.

On the evening of January 10, 1962, my Dad drove my mother to the hospital. He made sure she was situated in the maternity ward, as much as a husband was allowed to at the time. Then, being that he was a dairy farmer and had cows to milk, he went home to the farm. Several hours later, after the milking was completed, he headed back to town and the hospital to see my mother and meet their new baby, Child Number 4 in the family.

However, when he got back to the maternity ward, he found my mother in about the same state as he’d left her, though a bit blearier. She thought he was her doctor and told him it was about time he came to see her. My Dad was not pleased that my mother had been fending for herself and proceeded to tell whoever he could find. He did get the health care professionals to see to her needs, and at 11:06 p.m. I was born.

I don’t remember when exactly my mother told me this story, nor do I remember why. Maybe I’d asked her about my birth. Maybe she wanted to make me feel special. Or maybe she just wanted to help me better understand my Dad. I do know there were times when, as a child, I wondered whether the cows were more important to him than anything or anyone else.

Most likely Mom wanted me to know that Dad didn’t play favorites. He had room in his heart for his cows, his wife, and his kids — and not necessarily in that order. Fifty-six years ago cows were important, but Dad made sure everyone knew that his wife and soon-to-be-born child mattered, too.

A good dairy farmer cares about his cows. A good husband cares about his wife. A good father cares about his children. My Dad was all three.

Laura Sternweis

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New Stuff to Read

Laura-3booksSiddhartha, Chip Gaines, and Hillary Clinton may seem like an unlikely trio. But together they’re the new reading material I received as recent Christmas and birthday presents. If you are looking for new stuff to read, feel free to try the trio. I can’t vouch for them at this point, since I haven’t started the books yet. However, here’s my list of books I read in 2017 — and I recommend them all.

  • The Millennial Mindset: Unraveling Fact from Fiction, by Regina Luttrell and Karen McGrath
  • Bad Little Children’s Books: Kid-Lit Parodies, Shameless Spoofs, Offensively Tweaked Covers, by Arthur C. Gackley (ABRAMS Books)
  • Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear … and Why, by Sady Doyle
  • The Fireside Grown-up Guide to the Husband, by J.A. Hazeley and J.P. Morris
  • The Fireside Grown-up Guide to the Hangover, by J.A. Hazeley and J.P. Morris
  • Now Go Out There (and Get Curious), by Mary Karr (originally her Syracuse University commencement speech 2015)
  • Simply Styling: Fresh and Easy Ways to Personalize Your Home, by Kirsten Grove
  • Culture War: How the ’90s Made Us Who We Are Today (Whether We Like It or Not), by Telly Davidson
  • Judgmental Maps, by Trent Gillaspie
  • The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, by Courtney E. Martin
  • Better Homes and Gardens Easy Decorating Makeovers, edited by Vicki L Ingham
  • Lyn Peterson’s Real Life Decorating, by Lyn Peterson
  • But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”? Advice from the Chicago Style Q&A (The University of Chicago Press Staff – Chicago Manual of Style)
  • A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends: From Fear to Faith in Unsettled Times, by David P. Gushee
  • The Pocket Square: 22 Essential Folds, by A. C. Phillips
  • Canada, by Mike Myers
  • How to Speak Midwestern, by Edward McClelland
  • How the Hell Did This Happen? The Election of 2016, by P.J. O’Rourke
  • A Possession Obsession: What We Cherish and Why, by Monica Rich Kosann
  • Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen
  • The Writer’s Diet: A Guide to Fit Prose, by Helen Sword
  • Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk, A Visual Guide, by Josh Katz
  • Pantsuit Nation, edited by Libby Chamberlain (www.pantsuitnation.org)
  • Greetings from Utopia Park: Surviving a Transcendent Childhood, by Claire Hoffman (memoir, about growing up in Fairfield, Iowa, with the Maharishi and Transcendental Meditation)
  • Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism, by Fumio Sasaki
  • The Americana Revolution: From Country and Blues Roots to the Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, and Beyond, by Michael Scott Cain
  • Dolly on Dolly: Interviews with Dolly Parton, edited by Randy L. Schmidt
  • Flea Market Style: Decorating + Displaying + Collecting, by Better Homes and Gardens
  • Johnny Cash Forever Words: The Unknown Poems, edited by Paul Muldoon
  • Words to Ride By: Thoughts on Bicycling, by Michael Carabetta
  • Make Trouble, by John Waters (his speech to the graduating class of Rhode Island School of Design)
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain
  • Roughneck Grace: Farmer Yoga, Creeping Codgerism, Apple Golf, and Other Brief Essays from On and Off the Back Forty, by Michael Perry
  • Stephen Colbert’s Midnight Confessions, by the Staff of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
  • The Once and Future Liberal, by Mark Lilla
  • Heating and Cooling: 52 micro-memoirs, by Beth Ann Fennelly
  • Gen Z @ Work: How the Next Generation Is Transforming the Workplace, by David Stillman and Jonah Stillman
  • Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives, edited by Holly Gleason
  • Mistaken for a King: Sketches of a Small-Town Boyhood, by Dan Kellams
  • City Farmhouse Style: Designs for a Modern Country Life, by Kim Leggett
  • Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History, by Katy Tur

Laura Sternweis

Still Christmas

Andy-Williams-xmasSince the radio usually goes Christmas Music Silent by 11:59 p.m. December 25, during these last days of December I plop Andy Williams and other vintage Christmas vinyl on the record player, as I address my Christmas greetings.

I don’t want to hear Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving. However, I do still want to hear those seasonal tunes beyond Christmas Day. After all, the 12 days of Christmas begin, not end, on December 25. (Note for the unchurched: The 12 days refer to the time between Jesus’ birth and Epiphany, not pre-holiday shopping.)

I don’t believe in rushing the season. I need a couple weeks of “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel” before I’m ready for “Here Comes Santa Claus.” It’s usually mid-December when Dear Husband procures a real Christmas tree for our living room, which we then decorate with a motley collection of old ornaments. During the week before Christmas we finish our gift purchasing and wrapping, and I start my annual Christmas letter. We go to church on Christmas Eve, have a tasty dinner afterward, and open a few gifts. We check our stockings Christmas morning, and by the afternoon of Christmas Day I’m ready to start addressing Christmas cards.

So for those of you who receive my cards sometime after December 25, please understand they aren’t late at all. Because it’s still Christmas.

Laura Sternweis

Home on Sunday

Lue-cropped-300wMy mother-in-law was born at home on a Sunday. Ninety-two years later she died — at home on a Sunday. There are worse ways to go.

Whenever someone completes a journey on this Earth, whether the news is good or bad depends on perspective. My mother-in-law had a minor heart attack in the fall and spent a month recovering and rehabbing. Then she had a massive stroke. She died 10 days later. That’s all bad news because my husband, son, daughter, and I, and the rest of her family, loved her deeply, and now we have to figure out life without her.

But it’s good news, too. She was 92 years old. She had lived a long, loving, happy life. She bounced back well enough after her heart attack to enjoy another month of quality time with her family. The stroke paralyzed her left side, but her right side was strong as ever. She could still grip with her right hand at full strength and kick her right leg high. She could still hear and best of all, for a few days she could still speak her mind. As she moved from intensive care to palliative care at the hospital, and then to hospice at her apartment, she knew where she was and who she was with until the end. And then, she knew full well where she was going next.

As a former Catholic living Lutheran with a modicum of secular humanism, I struggle with my faith and doubt. If my mother-in-law ever struggled, she never let on. Her Lutheran faith comforted and sustained her throughout her long life — as an Iowa farm girl, a school teacher, a parish worker, a minister’s wife, a mother, and a grandmother. Her faith also comforted and sustained her as her life ended.

Sundays always were special for her — from Sunday school to Sunday church, from her Sunday birth to her Sunday death. The obituary in the newspaper said she died. The card at her memorial service said she passed away. Neither had it quite right. She gave us the time we needed to say goodbye, and then she simply went home, on Sunday.

Laura Sternweis

** In memory of Luella Hampton, April 9, 1925 – November 26, 2017 **

The Lone Recorder

laura-recorderI still have my recorder, circa 1975. And I can still play it, badly. It’s just another page in my personal nerd file.

Recorder lessons were new that year in my Catholic grade school, offered by an overzealous and underpaid music teacher who favored folk songs and skiffle bands. At that age I thought I wanted to be a music teacher when I grew up, so I sought a variety of melodious experience. I’d ditched piano lessons by then, believing I’d mastered the ivories well enough, and grabbed this opportunity to widen my musical horizons. I was intrigued by this plastic wind instrument, and not recognizing the nerdiness with which it would brand me, I signed up.

No one else did.

But the overzealous and underpaid music teacher gave me lessons anyway. I even played my recorder at a school concert.

Playing the recorder may or may not be my nerdiest accomplishment as a youngster. My early life is filled with competing examples. For instance, I was a student safety patrol. And student council secretary. Twice. And yearbook co-editor. I went to science camp. And student council camp. And so on.

I could say, “That was then.” However, I’m still a nerd now. But I’ve confessed enough for one day.

Laura Sternweis

Travelers Together

mom-dad-laura-96-croppedAfter they’d been married for 25 years, my parents went on their first real vacation. They went to Hawaii, but they didn’t loll around at the beach. Instead, they toured Hawaiian agricultural sites, because that’s what farmers do. When they leave their own farm, they often visit someone else’s.

My parents weren’t travel averse. It’s just that it took 25 years of farming and family raising for them to be able to leave the farm. By then my older brother was farming with my Dad, those of us who were next in age were helping with farm work, and the youngest among us were old enough to be left in their older siblings’ care for a few days.

Once Mom and Dad started travelling, they made up for lost time. Beginning in the 1980s, my Dad served on the board of directors for Land O Lakes and Federal Land Bank. Mom often accompanied him when he’d head out of state for a board meeting. These mini-trips often involved a hotel stay for the two of them, a nice dinner and socializing with the other board members and their spouses, and shopping excursions for Mom.

During the ’80s and ’90s their travel included trips to Arizona to visit relatives, tours of Germany and Austria, bus trips to Branson, Missouri, a jaunt to the Alaska State Fair, and even a few visits to Iowa to see my family and me.

However, by the time their 50th wedding anniversary arrived, their long distance travels were over. Their final vacation was a fall colors bus tour of New England. They weren’t tired of travelling, but Dad’s Parkinson’s disease had progressed to the point where leaving home was just too difficult. Then Mom was diagnosed with cancer. Their last trips were to visit their doctors at the local medical center. Not the type to complain, they accepted this as the next phase of their combined journey.

Mom died in 2004 and Dad died only a year and two weeks later. In death as in life they were travelers together.

Laura Sternweis

*** To Donald and Marguerite, united in marriage September 28, 1950 ***

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

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 *