Because of the Badger

badger-sweatshirtI saw the bright green sweatshirt hanging in a vendor’s booth at a Midwestern flea market in the midst of a large city. I would have easily passed it by, save for its one, small adornment. The black , yellow, green, and white Badger Northland farm equipment logo drew me close, like a moth to the flame.

Into the booth I went, in search of a price tag. I examined the sweatshirt, but it was tagless, it’s price unknown. Not one to haggle, I walked away. I was content just to have seen the little Badger. That’s what I told myself, but my husband wasn’t buying my bravado. He went back to the booth and asked the vendor for the price. When the vendor said $12, my husband countered, “Would you take $10?” The vendor would and did, and my husband bought the sweatshirt for me. I must say, I was pleased, for I have a history with the Badger.

Fifty years or so ago, my Dad was a dealer for Badger Northland farm equipment. He used to buy, assemble, and sell big machinery like forage wagons, as well as smaller equipment and miscellaneous parts. The Badger logo was emblazoned on equipment and metal signs on our farm, as well as on assorted swag, such as outdoor thermometers and clothing. Evidently the Badger also is embedded in my brain, a reminder of my rural upbringing.

I am 35 years removed from my family’s farm. During my youth I was a “good enough” farm worker at best; I knew I would never be a farmer. I knew I would leave the farm. But in these passing years it has become clear that the farm has never left me. Farm and family and memory remain intricately intertwined. My little Badger is an icon, a sacred image I wear like a scapular. It is an outward sign of my inner faith, a tribute to my father, my family, and our farm.

The sweatshirt is a solidly ’70s fashion fantastic of acrylic, nylon, and pure, laminated urethane. When I wear it I pray that no one lights a match in my vicinity. But wear it I do — because of the Badger.

Laura Sternweis

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Don’t Tell the Children

couchA few times a week my husband and I eat supper in the living room while we watch TV — our butts on the couch, our plates in our laps. But don’t tell the children, because it’s something we hardly ever allowed them to do.

In our child-rearing years we followed the “eat in the kitchen rule” most of the time. The exception was to eat at the dining table at the far end of the living room — if we had company or for special-occasion TV viewing (that is, Sunday Green Bay Packers games), since the TV was viewable from that location. But the couch was off limits.

When I was a kid, my whole family always ate in the kitchen, even for a holiday — unless we had company. In that case, the big kitchen table was for the grown-ups. The kids’ table was a smaller one in the nearby music room. Nobody sat in the living room watching TV while eating.

Now our kids are adults and, yes, we know that they know we break the rule sometimes. But don’t tell them, anyway.

Laura Sternweis

P.S. Sometimes we go to town on a school night. Don’t tell the children that, either!

Remarkable Eva

EvaWe only knew Eva for eight years, and she’s been dead now for more than 20. But we still marvel at her remarkable life.

My husband and I were in our late 20s when we met Eva, and she had just turned 90. She lived alone in the big white house across the alley from our first little house in a small Iowa town. She had a big vegetable patch in her back yard and our initial conversations were about gardening, but soon branched out to life in general. We told her we weren’t sure we’d stay in Iowa; she told us she saw no reason to leave.

Eva’s life was not ordinary. She and her mother had moved into that big white house, her grandparents’ house, when Eva was 5 years old, soon after her parents’ divorce. It was 1905, so talk about scandal! She said the other children at school wouldn’t play with her because she didn’t have a daddy.

She gave us her high school graduation picture, class of 1918. She was beautiful in a white georgette blouse and white satin skirt, blondish-brown hair piled atop her head.

She married at age 20 and divorced the man 18 and a half years later. She had reasons, which she had to prove to the judge. Her husband drank and ran around with other women, and Eva had put up with it long enough. She asked, “How can you stay with a man who doesn’t want you?” The divorce took 15 minutes at the county courthouse.

When they married, he had moved in with her and her mother, into that white house in that small Iowa town. She kicked him out upon the divorce and told him she never wanted to see him again. And she never did. She also sold her wedding ring and had her engagement diamond placed in a new setting with an extra diamond on each side.

She worked at the local drug store in the late 1920s, then spent some time in California. She said current-day Tournament of Roses parades couldn’t match the one she watched in person — in 1929. Back in Iowa in the early 1930s she started a sewing business from her dining room. She did that for 52 years, until she couldn’t stand putting up with the public anymore.

Eva always dealt in cash, thank you; she did all her business that way. She kept a wad of cash in her purse; the rest she kept hidden at home in a sock. She seemed not to trust banks. After all, when President Roosevelt closed the blanks in 1933, Eva, her husband, and her mother had only 45 cents in cash among the three of them.

From time to time, Eva would talk about the things she missed — cooking for threshing crews and road gangs; getting together with neighbors to can or to make sausage or soup; going to the neighbor’s house for dinner after church on Sunday. She also missed going to church, “but all they want is your money these days.”

Eva never had the chance to set up her own home. Her husband never offered, was the way she put it. She only had two new pieces of furniture in her life. Everything else was handed down from her mother and grandparents.

Eva never had children of her own, either. In her words, “it takes two to tango,” and her husband preferred to tango with someone else. However, she managed to acquire a family. She raised the neighbor kids. She became everyone’s grandma, including ours.

Eva was genuine, honest, the real deal. She called it like she saw it. Decades ago, when she told these stories, I was smart enough to write them down. However, her stories are far too good to remain confined to the faded pages of my long-ago journal. I must share these stories of remarkable Eva.

Laura Sternweis

Remembering Eva, 1900-1998

Rings of Meaning

spoon-ringThe ring I wear on my right hand used to be a spoon. It’s a flower-adorned counterpoint to the plain gold band on my left hand. I’ve had the spoon ring for about 6 months; I’ve worn my wedding ring for more than 30 years. Each is special in its own way.

More than 30 years ago, my soon-to-be husband and I pooled our money and purchased our matching wedding rings from a jewelry store in an Iowa shopping mall. The rings were simple, solid, and reasonably priced — $200 for the pair, if memory serves. They fit our fingers and our budget.

Last fall I was admiring artisan-made spoon rings at a downtown art show when dear husband asked, “Which one do you want?” I decided on the daffodil pattern because I thought the flower was pretty. He then whipped out $20 and bought the ring for me.

I have never had a traditional diamond ring. Back when we were engaged, he was still in tech school and didn’t have any extra money to buy a diamond for me. Over the years I joked that he could buy me a diamond for our 10th anniversary, or our 20th, or our 25th. However, as the years passed, I realized my diamond ring joke was just a joke. I’m good with a used-to-be spoon. I don’t want or need a diamond to prove the love my husband has for me or I for him.

You know what proves love? Scraping by on my part-time income when I was in graduate school and he was a laid-off landscaper during a drought. We worried, but he found another job and we rejoiced.

Love is bundling up the kids for overnight winter camping in our little, rented farmhouse, because the snowstorm knocked out the electricity and the rural electric co-op wouldn’t be able to repair the power lines until morning. We worried, but nobody froze. The kids thought it was an adventure, the power came back on eventually, and we rejoiced.

Love is keeping that whole “in sickness and in health” vow — through child birth, ear infections, fevers, and vomit, and trips to the ER for a broken bone or sliced finger. We worried, but nobody died. We persevered and we rejoiced.

For more than 30 years my husband and I have shared both ordinary and extraordinary experiences, with both worry and rejoicing. Because what proves love is simply carrying on together.

Rings are merely tokens. It’s not the price of the ring or the size of the rock that matters — it’s the meaning it holds that counts. If a diamond ring has meaning for you, that’s fine. But a plain gold band and a former spoon are rings of meaning for me.

Laura Sternweis

Wrapped in Her Memory

mom-sweaterAs I put on my old sweater, I am reminded that I am becoming my mother. I wear my old sweater on winter days as I do household chores or pay bills or read the newspaper or do practically anything else in the privacy of my own home. Just like my mother did.

My old sweater is my house sweater. Mine is 100 percent cotton; I think hers was a blend. She wore hers over a sleeveless housedress; I usually pair mine with a T-shirt and jeans. Hers was a bit ragged, but so is mine.

When I was much younger, I used to tease her about her house sweater. Why did she wear something that looked that bad, I wondered aloud. Why didn’t she buy a new one, I brazenly asked. She replied that her sweater wasn’t worn out yet and was perfectly fine for wearing around the house. Besides, she never wore it in public.

And that certainly was true. She dressed up when she went to town. (Our family lived on a farm out in the country, so yes, we went to town.) She usually put on a pantsuit or a coordinated blouse and slacks for the public eye, though she’d wear an appropriate dress if the situation warranted.

I usually don’t dress up near as much for town. In today’s more casual culture, I’m likely to put on my “good” jeans, a knit top, and blazer. However, like my mother, I’ll wear an appropriate dress if necessary.

But at home, it’s back to my house sweater. My kids likely wonder why I wear it, and if ever they should ask, my response to them shall be the same as my mother’s to me, but with an addition: My mother has been dead for 15 years and I miss her. But as I wear my house sweater, I am wrapped in her memory. And that is a comfort no brand new sweater could ever match.

Laura Sternweis

P.S. My mother always had a house sweater. For the record, when an old sweater would finally wear out, she would upgrade to a slightly newer model and continue the process. So when my house sweater no longer serves, I’ll replace it with a not-as-old-one and continue to be just like my mother.

Here’s to Getting Old

stonesAs young men, the Rolling Stones sang “what a drag it is getting old.” But as they’ve aged they’ve changed their tune. Now as septuagenarians, they’ve embarked upon their “No Filter” U.S. tour. Evidently they don’t think getting old is such a drag anymore. Neither do I.

Seventy-something, for the Rolling Stones or anyone else, doesn’t seem very old at all. Particularly since I’m 57 and 70 is only 13 years away. My parents died in their early 70s and didn’t get the chance to get old. But I have a grandparent on each side who saw 90, so I’m hoping I inherited some of those longevity genes.

Because I’d rather live long enough to get old, than to die anytime soon — and those are the available choices. So I choose to embrace getting old.

I drink responsibly, exercise moderately, and make good dietary choices most of the time. I don’t mind wrinkles or gray hair; I already have some of both. I think the paths of understanding on my face and the silver strands of wisdom in my hair pair well with the whiskey-tango-foxtrot attitude I’m developing the older I get. I don’t feel the need to impress other people or to wear uncomfortable shoes. I also don’t feel compelled to put up with other people’s drama. And I’m not afraid to use a senior discount when I qualify.

So here’s to getting old. I plan to be the gray-haired lady in the Rolling Stones sweatshirt for many years to come. And when I no longer have the flexibility to pull it on over my head, I’ll get a new one with a zipper.

Laura Sternweis

On Books and Swedish Death Cleaning

swedish-bookI’d rather read books than think about death or clean my house. I’m also not the least bit Scandinavian. However, I found myself drawn to “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter, by Margareta Magnusson.” So in late December when I saw the book in my local library’s get-organized-for-the-new-year display, I checked it out.

The author’s concept is that each of us should sort through and clean out his or her own stuff rather than leave the task for some poor sap to deal with after we’ve left the planet. It’s an idea that’s quite in line with what I’m already doing. Though I hope I’m a long way from death, I decided a while back that I didn’t want to live with as much stuff as I had accumulated. I have been sorting through my memorabilia and collections with purpose: getting rid of the junk and keeping only the meaningful things.

Need a resolution for 2019? Do some death cleaning and have a meaningful new year.

Laura Sternweis

P.S. I occasionally think about death and I often clean, but I read whenever I can. Here’s my list from 2018. I recommend them all.

  • Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • A Glorious Freedom: Older Women Leading Extraordinary Lives, by Lisa Congdon
  • The Book of Joe: The Life, Wit, and (Sometimes Accidental) Wisdom of Joe Biden, by Jeff Wilser
  • Women and the Land, written by Barbara Hall, photography by Kathryn Gamble
  • Worn in New York: 68 Sartorial Memoirs of the City, by Emily Spivak
  • What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism, by Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner
  • The African Svelte: Ingenious Misspellings That Make Surprising Sense, by Daniel Menaker
  • Feminist Icon Cross-Stitch: 30 Daring Designs to Celebrate Strong Women, by Anna Fleiss and Lauren Mancuso
  • Courage Is Contagious … And Other Reasons to Be Grateful for Michelle Obama, edited by Nick Haramis
  • Capital Gaines: Smart Things I Learned Doing Stupid Stuff, by Chip Gaines
  • The Importance of Being Funny: Why We Need More Jokes in Our Lives, by Al Gini
  • Mary Emmerling’s American Country Cottages, text by Carol Sama Sheehan
  • Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure, edited by Smith Magazine
  • What to Do When I’m Gone: A Mother’s Wisdom to Her Daughter, by Suzy Hopkins and Hallie Bateman
  • Overload: Finding the Truth in Today’s Deluge of News, by Bob Schieffer with H. Andrew Schwartz
  • Race Matters (25th anniversary edition with a new introduction), by Cornel West
  • Notes from a Public Typewriter, edited by Michael Gustafson and Oliver Uberti
  • Between Gravity and What Cheer: Iowa Photographs, by Barry Phipps
  • Styling with Salvage: Designing and Decorating with Reclaimed Materials, by Joanne Palmisano
  • Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America, by Rich Benjamin
  • Cabin Living: Discovering the Simple American Getaway, by the editors of Cabin Living Magazine
  • Counting Down Elvis: His 100 Finest Songs, by Mark Duffett
  • Gay Icons: The (Mostly) Female Entertainers Gay Men Love, by Georges-Claude Guilbert
  • Live Long and … What I Learned Along the Way, by William Shatner with David Fisher
  • The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, by Jonathan Rauch
  • Hygge and West Home: Design for a Cozy Life, by Christiana Coop and Aimee Lagos
  • My Love Story, by Tina Turner with Deborah Davis and Dominik Wichman
  • Maverick: An Unauthorized Collection of Wisdom from John McCain, the Sheriff of the Senate, by Mary Zaia
  • What Would Unicorn Do? Magical Rules for a Happy Life, by Sarah Ford
  • Flawed, A Story by Andrea Dorman
  • Nora Murphy’s Country House Style: Making Your Home a Country House, by Nora Murphy
  • The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter, by Margareta Magnusson

Jesus, the Ocean, and My Mother-in-law

beach-heartAs the cold Pacific Ocean wave hit my calves, I called for Jesus. At least, I exclaimed “Jesus!” as I ran back to dry land. (I tend to swear or invoke the Lord at such times of intense personal feeling.) But this time my Jesus outburst also served as a reminder of why I was there, walking along a central California beach, tentatively wading in and out of the Pacific.

My mother-in-law had died the previous November, and we held her memorial service at her church in December. In June we interred her ashes at the cemetery. And in September her adult children and their spouses, of which I am one, all walked the beach, carrying her gently in our thoughts.

Two Septembers before, she and her children had walked that same beach to honor her husband, their father. California was his home state, a place where she and he spent several years of their early married life together. The beach and the ocean always had been special places for the family. These post-death trips had made them sacred spaces as well.

My mother-in-law was a God-loving, not God-fearing woman. 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.

So for a few, brief September days as I walked the beach and waded in the ocean, I commemorated a woman who, when calling for Jesus, actually was praying and looking forward to an answer.

Laura Sternweis

P.S. How far apart are the Pacific and Atlantic oceans? In my case, 36 years. In 1982, as a 20-year-old college student, I first saw the Atlantic Ocean during my Spring Break with Jesus. I guess oceans and the Lord are just a thing with me.

Ornamental, Sentimental, and Meaningful

nutcrackersNothing says Christmas like two paper-towel-roll nutcrackers! They are the kindergarten holiday crafts of my two now adult children. Every year I get the two soldiers out of their shoebox bed in the big Christmas storage tub and set them atop the piano.

As I pull out the Christmas decorations for another year, I realize once again that I didn’t buy any of them, at least not new from a store. Some are handmade, like the nutcrackers. Some were gifts. Many are hand-me-downs from my mother’s collections. Others I bought cheap at garage sales or thrift stores, like the Shiny Brites and an assortment of mid-century plastic spheres. And this year we added a box of decorations, Scandinavian themed, that my husband inherited after his mother died.

I don’t go overboard on Christmas decorating — just the basics: the Christmas tree by the front window; my mother’s Christmas village displayed on a high shelf; my grandma’s post-war, papier-mâché bells by the phone (yep, still have a landline); the manger scene (a Christmas 1987 gift from Mom) on top of the filing cabinet; electric candles on the windowsills; and a few choice items on the piano and tabletops.

I decorate just enough to be ornamental, sentimental, and meaningful. That’s what says Christmas to me.

Laura Sternweis

Our Lady Lost … And Found

Our-Lady-cropped-resizedIf you’ve visited my house in the last 13 years and you’re missing Our Lady of Guadalupe, let me know. Because I just found her. Let me clarify. I did not find Our Lady herself, but rather a small laminated card bearing her image and worth 500 days indulgence.

I have no idea when she wedged herself deep into the crevice between the chair seat and arm, far past where any vacuum cleaner upholstery tool could reach. I wasn’t even looking for her when I found her. My husband and I were about to hang a picture on our living room wall. Unbeknownst to me, he’d placed a small nail on top of the framed glass and balanced the picture on the arm of our 13-year-old upholstered chair. When I lifted up the picture, I tipped it slightly, sending the small nail flying. I thought it might have landed on the chair, so I began my deep search — and found Our Lady.

They say the Blessed Virgin appears to believers in various eras and locations. Not sure that applies when you’re more of a doubter and you find a holy card in an old chair. Call it iconic or maybe ironic, but Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared in my Iowa living room only a few weeks before her Feast Day, which arrives December 12.

Our Lady was lost and I found her, only because I wasn’t looking for her. But isn’t that how it goes with faith and doubt? When you search for one thing, you often find something else.

I never did find that nail.

Laura Sternweis