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

After the Dog Dies

The house seems really quiet after the kids leave and the dog dies. My husband and I have been empty-nesters for several years, as our two children are young adults with college degrees and real jobs in towns several hours away. We’re used to them not being around all the time. But we still had our 14-year-old dog until four weeks ago.


In 2004 we brought him home from the animal shelter as an 8-week-old puppy. He was one from a litter of eight pups who were, according to the note card on the shelter pen, a mix of Black Lab, Blue Heeler, Australian Shepherd, Brittany Spaniel, Chow, and Doberman. The shelter folks had named the litter after sport utility vehicles, so we brought our puppy home as Yukon; but that name didn’t seem quite right. Our kids offered several alternatives, but couldn’t agree. So by Dadly decree, the puppy was renamed Blue (for Blue Heeler).

From then on Blue was part of our family. We loved him as he grew from rambunctious puppy, always ready to run and play; to mature ball-fetcher, chipmunk chaser, and family protector; to an old dog content to simply sniff and pee his way through a short walk around the block.

To be honest, he’d been dying for a while; we just didn’t want to admit it. Over the past few months he was moving more slowly, but he still wanted to go for a walk — until he didn’t. After he’d been lying down for a while, he had trouble getting up, but with a little help from my husband or me, he could get back on his feet and move around — until he couldn’t. He still ate and drank water — until he wouldn’t.

Out vet gave us a list of guidelines and a checklist to help us determine when it was time to end his suffering. When his time came, with the vet’s help it came quickly. Then we buried him on a gentle hillside of a friend’s country acreage.

In the time since Blue’s passing, my husband gathered up the leashes and dog food, and gave them to friends for their dog. I have swept and vacuumed the dog hair from throughout our house, and I have scrubbed Blue’s noseprints from the front window. I also framed an old photo of Blue from puppyhood to display in our living room, alongside other special family portraits. We’ve cleaned up the mess, but we’re keeping our memories of our good old dog.

Fourteen years is a long time, both in dog and people years. After the dog dies, we move on. The house is quiet, but we remember.

Laura Sternweis

Remembering Blue, June 4, 2004 – November 2, 2018

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