Philosophical Questions

razor-shave-croppedIf hair grows on my legs but I can’t see it, is it really there? This is a philosophical question I grapple with as a bifocal-wearing woman of a certain age.

Glasses on, glasses off, in the bathroom I hold my leg high. With my foot resting first on the bathtub and then on the sink, I examine one leg, then the other, for evidence. Is the hair really there?

Other philosophical questions I ask myself are more complex, requiring more intense discernment. For example, does God exist? I like to think so. After my parents died, I became more convinced that there had to be something more, something beyond life in this world. Did my faith grow stronger or did my desire not to doubt merely intensify? I’m not sure.

Likewise, is our country going to hell? Given our current climate of political unrest and incivility, it sometimes seems likely. However, as I keep reminding myself, there is hope. Perhaps we’ll all come to realize that just because we voted for a political party doesn’t mean they’re right. Just because we didn’t vote for them doesn’t mean they’re wrong. A good dose of manners would help us all.

From shaving to God to politics, I’m not too good at discernment, as this blog post likely makes clear. But I keep trying. So back to my legs. Glasses on, glasses off, I take one more look. Is the hair really there? This time my answer is no, and I put my razor away. I’ll ponder philosophical questions another day.

Laura Sternweis


From Shinola

I now know Shinola, but for a long time I did not. For most of my life I thought it was a made-up word.shinola

I’d only heard it used in a phrase to imply insult, as in “you don’t know s–t from shinola,” in which shinola is compared with a four letter word meaning excrement. The phrase could be used in any context to insinuate an individual did not know what he or she was talking about.

Until I was 56+ I knew from lower-case shinola, but I did not know of Shinola with a capital S.

After my husband’s parents died, he acquired some of their stuff, including some personal items that had belonged to his father. In a random box of odds and ends, we found not one, but two small cans of Shinola.

Turns out Shinola was an American brand of shoe polish, popular in the first half of the 20th century. Shinola went out of production in 1960, Wikipedia says.

Now that I know of Shinola, “s–t from Shinola” has a whole new meaning.

Laura Sternweis

P.S. There’s a new Shinola company in Detroit that makes not only shoe polish, but also luxury goods. Which takes the old expression in yet another direction.

She Dressed Him

mom-dad-86-cropped-400wMama made sure Papa was well dressed when necessary and appropriately dressed always. She dressed him because she loved him and, I suspect, because she thought it was just something she should do.

They began their union at a time, 1950, when shopping for her husband’s needs was an expected task for a wife. Besides, she was good at it. With measurements for his neck and sleeve, waist and inseam, she knew how and where to find clothes that would fit him. So he did the farming and she did the shopping — for more than 50 years.

As his Parkinson’s disease progressed, robbing him of fully independent movement, she actually dressed him. He was “big and tall,” to quote catalog lingo, and she was barely 5-foot-2, so getting him clothed required not only love, but strength. She dressed him ’til her strength ran out, claimed by her cancer. But before she died, she found him a place in a group home with caring staff who could tend to his needs.

As Heavenly residents, 14 years for her and 13 for him, they can wear whatever they want. But I imagine she makes sure his outfit and hers look smart with their angel wings.

Laura Sternweis

Showing I’m Farm

FPS-tractor-resizedWhile I was walking through the farm show, a vendor asked me if I planted cover crops. It was a valid question, since I was perusing the displays in the varied industries tent. I politely answered “no,” and told him that I did not farm. We talked a bit about the value of cover crops and then I moved on to the next exhibit.

I must say, the whole experience left me pleased and proud that I could be mistaken for a modern farm woman. In my blue jeans and denim shirt and ball cap, I must have looked the part.

Full disclosure: I am a former farm kid. I grew up doing farm chores, such as milking cows, baling hay, and feeding silage. But I left the farm for college and have lived and worked in one town or another since my mid-20s.

I don’t farm. But I still sort of am farm. I go back home to my family’s farm to visit a few times a year. I have an advanced degree from a College of Agriculture. My kitchen features dairy cow decor. On occasion I watch Market to Market or read ag-related news. And when the opportunity arises to attend a farm show, I take it. I visit the ag vendors and I climb on the tractors, pleased and proud to show I’m farm.

Laura Sternweis

For Whom the Pillowcase Waits

HB-pillowcasesI just may burn in Hell for it, but I’m using my Holy Bible pillowcases. I purchased the pair for $4 at a church garage sale on a summer Saturday morning. I was drawn to the hand stitched Bibles and flowers and crocheted lace trim in shades of yellow, pink, blue, and green. Crisply starched, pressed, and never used, the pillowcases had been hand stitched by a church lady some time ago. She may have been old or she may have been young, but in either case she was a talented crafter.

I collect and use vintage cotton pillowcases that feature handmade handiwork. A few were made by my grandmother, but most were carefully stitched by crafty ladies I never knew. I’m always delighted, while at the same time, slightly saddened, to find such fine examples of domestic art left unused.

I’m not the most religious person. However, it seems to me it would be an original sin to not use beautiful pillowcases, particularly Holy Bible pillowcases, for their original, fundamental purpose — to cover a pillow on which to rest a weary head, on the seventh or any other day. Thus, I wonder: For what purpose had the stitcher been saving them? Why had they never been used? And why did they end up at a garage sale?

Perhaps the stitcher, or more likely, whoever cleaned out the stitcher’s home after she passed on, didn’t need any more pillowcases. Perhaps the cleaner-outer was not aware of the love and care sewn with every decorative stitch. Or maybe he or she simply thought that Holy Bible pillowcases could likely find a buyer at the church sale and fetch a few bucks for the local House of God.

I have questions about my pillowcases’ backstory. But whenever I lay me down to sleep, an embroidered Bible below my head, I need not ask for whom the pillowcase waits. It waits for me.

Laura Sternweis

Stories Not Told

chronicleOn a recent summer night* I burned my five-year diary. Torched the sucker. Watched it turn to ashes in the backyard fire pit. The diary in question, or perhaps I should say, the questionable diary, was my personal chronicle of 1985 through 1989.

I’d received the diary for Christmas in 1984 from one of my roommates at the time. As a young woman newly graduated from college, freshly minted as a farm news reporter, and recently rid of my lying, cheating ex-boyfriend, I accepted the gift, eager to fill it with what I and I alone deemed true. From age 23 through 27, I faithfully scribed my thoughts and perspectives onto the journal’s blank pages.

After completing the last entry on Dec. 31, 1989, I stashed the diary in my old trunk, tucked away with other personal ephemera for safekeeping. I believed, then, that as I aged I always would want to know what I had written in my youth. But now in 2018 at age 56, I no longer hold that belief. Sometimes the statute of limitations on documenting memories runs out.

I want to hold on to the meaningful things in my life, but I’m becoming more willing to let go of those items that over time have become meaningless.

For the record, I reread my diary before I burned it, at times amused, at times surprised. Some of the stories I remembered; others I did not. But the more I read about myself in my 20s, the more I realized that I did not want to share the majority of these stories with anyone who might inadvertently or purposefully find my old diary. So I decided to censor my younger self, for all posterity.

But first, I removed three pages from my chronicle — the pages that held stories I wanted to keep and was willing to share: how I met the man who would become my husband, how we traveled our way through a snowstorm to get to Lambeau Field for what became known as the Green Bay Packers’ Snow Bowl game, and my four-paragraph summation of my life in the 1980s.

I am a writer and I share stories, but some of my stories are reserved for only me. Not every story should be told. Not every inquiring mind needs to know my secrets. Rather than tell all, sometimes it’s better to keep ’em guessing.

Laura Sternweis

*Aug. 1, 2018

Words Away

college-dictionary-resizedAfter 36 years the time had come to chuck my college dictionary into the dumpster. As I tossed the book into the trash receptacle, I wondered if I should play a funeral dirge. I am a writer, so saying goodbye to this old book was like bidding farewell to an old friend.

I had purchased my New World Dictionary, copyright 1979, back in 1982, as near as I can remember. My college professor deemed the dictionary a required text, and grudgingly I bought my copy at the college bookstore for what seemed to me an exorbitant price. Given how much it cost, I thought I’d better use it, and so I did, for his communication theory class, and a class after that, and another, and so on for the duration of my college career and far beyond.

My college dictionary gave me many years of faithful service, helping me consider spelling and meaning throughout college, my years as a newspaper reporter, two years in graduate school, and my writing and editing career. But as time passed, my dictionary’s pages became flimsy and torn, and the tiny type became ever so much harder for my bifocal-ed eyes to read. So I replaced it with a newer version.

I do not take lightly throwing words away, even in a dictionary long past its prime. Although my college dictionary has passed on, I remember it fondly. And I honor the old book’s memory as I use my Webster’s New Dictionary. Sporting larger print, brighter paper, and more white space, it will work just fine. Perhaps I’ll even get another 36 years before it’s dumpster time again.

Laura Sternweis

It’s Just Heat

thermometer-cropped-resizedIt may not be hotter than hell but it’s getting close. Daily temperatures have been in the high 90s at least with heat indices in the 100s and it’s only mid-June. So far the summer of 2018 reminds me of a summer 30 years ago.

In June 1988 when we were only 2-days-married, my husband and I moved to Iowa. I started graduate school, earning a small stipend as a grad assistant, and my husband was a paid-by-the-hour worker for a landscaping company. We hadn’t been in Iowa very long before it started getting hot and dry and hotter and drier. There was no rain and there still was no rain — and thus there was no landscape work, so dear husband was laid off. We didn’t have much money but we had love — and luckily cheap rent and an oscillating fan in our little apartment.

By the end of the summer the weather cooled, it did rain, and my husband found other landscaping work. A year and a half later I graduated and got a full-time job at Iowa State.

Today I still work at the university, but I get paid a lot more now than I did that summer long ago. Dear husband is still in lawn and yard word, but is self-employed and makes more money these days as well. We’re much better now at managing our cash flow, since now we have cash flow to manage. We still have love, and our little house in Iowa has an almost-paid-off mortgage and air conditioning.

So yes it’s hot in 2018, but it’s just heat. It didn’t break us 30 years ago and it won’t break us now.

Laura Sternweis


The Wedding Shed

After a-hundred-plus years, the wedding shed is showing its age. The paint has faded, some windows are broken or missing, and two adjustable columns support a cracked beam. As I paid my respects on Memorial Day weekend, I remembered a time when the old shed was quite grand.


Thirty years ago — June 4, 1988, to be exact — my Dad had made sure the old shed had been thoroughly cleaned, spruced up with bright red paint, and given a new concrete floor to hold my wedding reception. My husband and I were married in my family’s church in town and we had our wedding dinner at a local banquet hall. But for a few hours in between on a summer afternoon, we and our 100 or so guests hung out in the shed. I thought it was a perfect reception location, and the farm people, small-town folks, and urbanites in attendance all seemed to agree. My reception may have been the only party the shed ever hosted.

Never a she shed or a man cave, it had been a hard working farm building for the first half of its life. Then its role was taken over by an aqua aluminum pole building with a higher roof and wider span to better shield modern farm implements from the elements. By the late 1960s it had become the automobile garage on my family’s farm. It also gave safe haven to bicycles, red wagons, lawn mowers, and an assortment of farm-related stuff from years past that my grandparents just couldn’t throw away.

In my youth I often explored the shed and exhumed its treasures. For example, I discovered old mason jars, picture frames, and bottles that once held Marshfield beer or Wing Drug mineral oil. My husband and I resurrected an old drop-leaf table, a three-burner kerosene stove, and a wooden Uncle Sam who once had held the farm’s mailbox. Though I wondered why Grandma and Grandpa had kept this stuff, I was glad they had, because I could claim these bits and pieces of family history.

These days I don’t explore the shed so much, though there still are gems to behold — old pulleys, logging hooks, wooden runners from a horse-drawn sled, and lots of old metal. Instead, I tend to experience the shed, as I did that recent May afternoon. I stand quietly and watch the sunlight shine in through the windows and knotholes and gaps between the siding. I listen to the wind, the hum of the fans from the nearby barns, and miscellaneous farm sounds. I think about my grandparents who built this shed when they started farming; my aunts and uncles and my Dad, who helped grow the farm in the early years; my parents, who in the 1950s began expanding for the future; my siblings and I and the role we played in continuing the legacy; and my brother and his family, who operate the farm today.

I wonder how much longer my wedding shed will remain. And I pay my respects — looking, listening, and remembering.

Laura Sternweis

Calling Mama

phone-cropped-resizedFifteen Mother’s Days have passed since last I called my Mama. I still miss hearing her voice.

I used to call my Mama on Sunday. Three o’clock-ish or thereabouts. Those were the days of landlines and long-distance charges. Mama usually offered the caveat, “don’t spend all your money on phone calls,” to which I’d reply, “there are worse ways to spend it.”

Mama was of the generation who used the phone for no-frills communication. She called to announce when somebody died, when somebody was born, or when she had some other vital piece of information to convey. And she clocked the time it took to deliver the news. But eventually she came around to the idea that phone calls could simply be for conversation. So on Sunday we’d talk. About something. Or nothing. In either case, we’d take comfort in each other’s voice at the other end of the telephone line.

For 16 years those calls helped bridge the 300+ miles between us, her on the farm in Wisconsin and me in an Iowa town. But as the cancer and chemo wore her down, our calls grew shorter as she grew weaker. Our calls ended when even simple conversation required more effort than she could muster. She died, too young, in 2004.

Life changes when you can’t call your Mama anymore. It’s another one of those developmental milestones that make you realize that damn, you’re a grownup whether or not you want to be. And so on Sundays I busy myself with grownup pursuits with family and friends, at church and at home. But sometimes, at about 3 o’clock, it will feel like something is missing. That’s when I’ll remember calling Mama. Although I miss her voice on the phone, I take comfort in the memory.

Laura Sternweis