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

Oklahoma Hail … Mary?

OK-MaryWhile riding out a hail storm in southeast Oklahoma, it didn’t occur to me to recite Hail Marys. Although raised Catholic, I have become Lutheran by osmosis, so I don’t often think of praying to the Blessed Virgin. However, I did call upon the Lord a time or two. Not aloud, but in my mind I found myself repeating, “Ride with us, Lord” and “This is not how it ends.” I did not think my husband and I were meant to meet our maker along a four-lane divided highway in the Tornado State on a recent April afternoon.

I confess: not often am I called to prayer in the middle of the day. But as we sat pulled over in our pickup truck, flashers on, waiting along the shoulder with countless fellow travelers, it seemed the thing to do.

Let me be clear. I am not the one you want leading devotions. I’m just not very devotional. I don’t do freestyle praying very well. I tend to stick with the prayers I learned as a child — like “three Our Fathers, three Hail Marys, and a good Act of Contrition right now” (the standard penance for my Catholic grade school confessions).

But freestyle pray I did, silently, as I held my husband’s hand in the truck. We had to stop twice along that Oklahoma highway to wait out the ominous clouds, blinding rain, and hail stones dinging all around us.

Other than a good scare (on my part; Dear Husband was cool as could be) and a few small chips in our windshield, we survived unscathed. Did my half-assed praying have any effect on the outcome? Not sure. But to hedge my bets for the next emergency, maybe I’ll recite a Hail Mary — or three — right now.

Laura Sternweis

Dishing up Memories

dishes-in-cabinetIn my grandmother’s day, her good dishes often held mashed potatoes, gravy, and heaping helpings of chicken and biscuits. In my possession they occasionally still hold foodstuffs. But they always are filled with memories.

She used her fine china only for special occasions, which didn’t involve small children. Her pink floral Homer Laughlins were the dishes I remembered from Thanksgiving dinners and other meals at her house when I was a child. Both sets of dishes were passed on to me decades ago.

Grandma’s dishes (I still call them Grandma’s dishes.) reside in my mother’s china cabinet, which I’ve had since my mother’s death in 2004. Fourteen years later, I still think of the cabinet as hers. I merely provide a home for this stately armoire. I am the caretaker, the conservator, the docent for the collection of meaningful things stored inside.

Grandma’s dishes and a few of my mother’s are among the finer pieces. My mother collected pretty things for “looking at” and I have some of her floral plates, dainty teacups, and other fancy glass. They are kept company by a blue and white luncheon dish set that had belonged to my mother-in-law. My husband inherited the set after she died. Beside these pretties are an assortment of breakables including a few items that some might call downright odd: an old glass milk bottle I use as a vase, a commemorative plate depicting an old church, and a small glass ax — a souvenir from the 1910 Illinois State Fair.

Why do I like this stuff? Because these items cannot be found in a big box store. Ever. They are unique. But more important are the memories they hold.

Whether it came from my family or my husband’s family, an estate sale or a garage sale, everything in this china cabinet represents a memory. Every dish, cup, bowl, plate, vase, or tchotchke means something. They are beautiful, useful, or some combination thereof. As I use them or simply look at them, I remember my grandmother, my mother, and my mother-in-law. I honor the unknown ladies whose treasures are now in my care, as well as the Iowa church ladies who hosted my wedding shower 30 years ago. (That’s where the blue glass pedestal cake plate came from.)

I may not cook much, but as I use or simply admire my collection of meaningful things, I dish up memories every day.

Laura Sternweis

Meaningful Things

Ihigh-school-crap-cropped-resized hope that by the time I’m carted off to the nursing home or when I take my last breath and keel over, I will have culled my possessions down to a small, curated collection of only meaningful things. Might happen. Might not. But I am on my way.

Slowly I have been ridding myself of things that no longer mean much to me. Item by item, I decide what stays — and what goes.

In the past year I have said good-bye to 40-year-old high school crap, including 3 yearbooks (I kept senior year.), homecoming buttons, my religion class collage of the biblical story of Ruth, and my physics term paper on magnetohydrodynamics. (I once knew what that was.) I’ve thrown away college essays, as well as my graduate school commencement program (since I didn’t attend the ceremony, anyway). I’ve ditched diaries and journals, news clippings, duplicate photographs, and long-saved greeting cards. These items were important to me once, but their significance faded long ago. That I’ve kept them this long is as much from inertia as nostalgia.

As I analyze my remaining ephemera (and there’s a lot of it), I wonder what compelled me to keep this stuff in the first place, and as I handle each item, what obliges me to keep it now. I don’t look at any of it very often. Does it comfort me somehow just knowing it’s there, up in the attic bedroom stashed away in an old footlocker and my mother’s suitcase? Or is it simply easier to close the trunk and shut the case than confront these physical remnants of my past? The answer, I suspect, is a bit of both.

But I am committed to removing the baggage from my luggage, as I search for the meaning in my things.

Laura Sternweis

Basket of Cash

basket-of-cashMy husband and I used to keep a basket of Cash in our living room, just to have it handy. We liked having our Cash easily accessible so that at any time we could grab some out of the basket, on a whim, and pop it into our CD player. Of course, I’m talking about Johnny Cash.

My husband was a young adult when he first became interested in Cash, but I grew up with Johnny. I heard his music on country radio playing in the barn and from my parents’ records playing on the stereo in our family home. We always had plenty of Cash on hand — from the big hits like “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues” to the lesser known gems such as “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog” and “The One on the Right Is on the Left.”*

My husband and I acquired our first together Cash in 1990, shortly after we purchased out first CD player. “Classic Cash” from the Hall of Fame Series gave us 20 of Johnny’s hits, which kept us afloat for a couple years. But then we needed more. We started collecting his American Recordings as they were released, and we picked up older Cash on vinyl from garage sales. After Johnny died, we acquired several boxed sets of his vast recordings, along with “long lost” music released from his vaults. We’ve heard rumors that more collections may be coming, and we’ll likely get them when available.

Since it seems we can’t get enough Cash, the basket no longer is sufficient. So now we keep our Cash in a drawer.

Laura Sternweis

*You’ll find both of these songs on Johnny’s “Everybody Loves a Nut” album.


On Impulse

sunshine-shirtMy new T-shirt is made of 90 percent cotton, 10 percent polyester, and questionable moral fiber. It bears a cuss word front and center. I swear, it was an impulse buy.

Under a smiley-faced sunburst, there’s a simple, snarky message (which I will censor here for reader protection): “I’m just one big, f******g ray of sunshine, aren’t I?” When I saw it that fall day at a tourist trap in far northern Wisconsin, I was mesmerized. For some reason I could not discern, the shirt appealed to me. So I bought it and left the store $10 poorer and no wiser.

Usually I am responsible. Accountable. I am the opposite of impulsive. I plan. I follow rules. But sometimes I just want to at least bend them a little. So when I asked myself why on earth I should buy the swearing T-shirt, I answered, “Why the hell not?”

Overall the T-shirt’s wearability is limited. At home? Sure. To a bar? Maybe. To church? Probably not. Actually to most places I frequent, probably not. I knew that when I bought the shirt, but I didn’t care.

I don’t care now, either. The shirt makes me smile, even when it’s just hanging in my closet. I’ve worn it at home, and maybe someday I’ll wear it in public, on impulse. I’ll just plan to hide the cuss word.

Laura Sternweis

All Three

baby-eyes-closedOn the night I was born, my Dad told the hospital staff that he took better care of his cows than they were taking care of my mother. At least that’s the story she once told me.

On the evening of January 10, 1962, my Dad drove my mother to the hospital. He made sure she was situated in the maternity ward, as much as a husband was allowed to at the time. Then, being that he was a dairy farmer and had cows to milk, he went home to the farm. Several hours later, after the milking was completed, he headed back to town and the hospital to see my mother and meet their new baby, Child Number 4 in the family.

However, when he got back to the maternity ward, he found my mother in about the same state as he’d left her, though a bit blearier. She thought he was her doctor and told him it was about time he came to see her. My Dad was not pleased that my mother had been fending for herself and proceeded to tell whoever he could find. He did get the health care professionals to see to her needs, and at 11:06 p.m. I was born.

I don’t remember when exactly my mother told me this story, nor do I remember why. Maybe I’d asked her about my birth. Maybe she wanted to make me feel special. Or maybe she just wanted to help me better understand my Dad. I do know there were times when, as a child, I wondered whether the cows were more important to him than anything or anyone else.

Most likely Mom wanted me to know that Dad didn’t play favorites. He had room in his heart for his cows, his wife, and his kids — and not necessarily in that order. Fifty-six years ago cows were important, but Dad made sure everyone knew that his wife and soon-to-be-born child mattered, too.

A good dairy farmer cares about his cows. A good husband cares about his wife. A good father cares about his children. My Dad was all three.

Laura Sternweis

New Stuff to Read

Laura-3booksSiddhartha, Chip Gaines, and Hillary Clinton may seem like an unlikely trio. But together they’re the new reading material I received as recent Christmas and birthday presents. If you are looking for new stuff to read, feel free to try the trio. I can’t vouch for them at this point, since I haven’t started the books yet. However, here’s my list of books I read in 2017 — and I recommend them all.

  • The Millennial Mindset: Unraveling Fact from Fiction, by Regina Luttrell and Karen McGrath
  • Bad Little Children’s Books: Kid-Lit Parodies, Shameless Spoofs, Offensively Tweaked Covers, by Arthur C. Gackley (ABRAMS Books)
  • Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear … and Why, by Sady Doyle
  • The Fireside Grown-up Guide to the Husband, by J.A. Hazeley and J.P. Morris
  • The Fireside Grown-up Guide to the Hangover, by J.A. Hazeley and J.P. Morris
  • Now Go Out There (and Get Curious), by Mary Karr (originally her Syracuse University commencement speech 2015)
  • Simply Styling: Fresh and Easy Ways to Personalize Your Home, by Kirsten Grove
  • Culture War: How the ’90s Made Us Who We Are Today (Whether We Like It or Not), by Telly Davidson
  • Judgmental Maps, by Trent Gillaspie
  • The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, by Courtney E. Martin
  • Better Homes and Gardens Easy Decorating Makeovers, edited by Vicki L Ingham
  • Lyn Peterson’s Real Life Decorating, by Lyn Peterson
  • But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”? Advice from the Chicago Style Q&A (The University of Chicago Press Staff – Chicago Manual of Style)
  • A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends: From Fear to Faith in Unsettled Times, by David P. Gushee
  • The Pocket Square: 22 Essential Folds, by A. C. Phillips
  • Canada, by Mike Myers
  • How to Speak Midwestern, by Edward McClelland
  • How the Hell Did This Happen? The Election of 2016, by P.J. O’Rourke
  • A Possession Obsession: What We Cherish and Why, by Monica Rich Kosann
  • Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen
  • The Writer’s Diet: A Guide to Fit Prose, by Helen Sword
  • Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk, A Visual Guide, by Josh Katz
  • Pantsuit Nation, edited by Libby Chamberlain (
  • Greetings from Utopia Park: Surviving a Transcendent Childhood, by Claire Hoffman (memoir, about growing up in Fairfield, Iowa, with the Maharishi and Transcendental Meditation)
  • Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism, by Fumio Sasaki
  • The Americana Revolution: From Country and Blues Roots to the Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, and Beyond, by Michael Scott Cain
  • Dolly on Dolly: Interviews with Dolly Parton, edited by Randy L. Schmidt
  • Flea Market Style: Decorating + Displaying + Collecting, by Better Homes and Gardens
  • Johnny Cash Forever Words: The Unknown Poems, edited by Paul Muldoon
  • Words to Ride By: Thoughts on Bicycling, by Michael Carabetta
  • Make Trouble, by John Waters (his speech to the graduating class of Rhode Island School of Design)
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain
  • Roughneck Grace: Farmer Yoga, Creeping Codgerism, Apple Golf, and Other Brief Essays from On and Off the Back Forty, by Michael Perry
  • Stephen Colbert’s Midnight Confessions, by the Staff of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
  • The Once and Future Liberal, by Mark Lilla
  • Heating and Cooling: 52 micro-memoirs, by Beth Ann Fennelly
  • Gen Z @ Work: How the Next Generation Is Transforming the Workplace, by David Stillman and Jonah Stillman
  • Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives, edited by Holly Gleason
  • Mistaken for a King: Sketches of a Small-Town Boyhood, by Dan Kellams
  • City Farmhouse Style: Designs for a Modern Country Life, by Kim Leggett
  • Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History, by Katy Tur

Laura Sternweis