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

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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 *

 

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