To a Farmer and His Assistant

mom-dadWhen I wrote my mother’s obituary in March 2004, I didn’t know I’d be writing my father’s a year and two weeks later. Marguerite L. “Marge” Sternweis, 73, died on Sunday, March 14, 2004, after a two-year battle with cancer. Donald J. Sternweis, 75, died March 30, 2005, from many causes, but all linked to Parkinson’s disease.

They were born in 1930, Don in March and Marge in July. They grew up on dairy farms barely five miles from each other, but first met at a dance hall when they were 17. She graduated from Spencer High School in 1948 and then worked at the Sexton Drug Store in Marshfield. He graduated from Marshfield High School in 1947 and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Farm Short Course in 1948. He worked briefly for Hub City Foods before joining his father on the farm.

At age 20 they married and began farming with Grandpa and Grandma, taking over the operation in 1956. Mom wanted a big family and she got her wish. She and Dad had seven kids with a 17-year spread from oldest to youngest. I’m the one in the middle.

Dad was the farmer, but Mom helped with everything from milking cows to driving tractors, as well as preparing meals not only for her family, but also for a large assortment of hired men over the years. She always said she wasn’t a “farmwife,” because she wasn’t married to the farm. She called herself a “farmer’s assistant.”

In 1989 they moved into a new house they built just down the road from the old farmhouse. Dad didn’t really retire; instead, farming became his “hobby” and he continued to be involved in the farm with my brothers for several more years.

He got sick first, diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Then she was diagnosed with cancer in her salivary gland. Of all the strange places to get cancer, particularly in a woman who never smoked, chewed tobacco, or seemed to have any vices whatsoever. He took his meds and she had chemo and radiation. But Parkinson’s gradually slowed his movement and his ability to communicate. After her cancer came back and no more chemo or radiation would help, she made sure to get him placed in a care center with staff who could tend to his needs. She visited him there a few times before she went into hospice.

The farmer and his assistant were a team, partners for life. Maybe the real surprise is that he lived a whole year and two weeks without her.

Laura Sternweis

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