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

Dog about Town

Blue-coneNone of my family’s farm dogs had to wear the Cone of Shame when I was a kid. But today our town dog does.

My husband and I have an old dog. Blue is almost 13. But a week ago he forgot he was an old dog when the smell of a backyard rabbit helped him recapture his long-gone puppyhood.

Blue gave chase and the rabbit went running. It took refuge in our small metal tool shed, squeezing through the gap underneath the closed doors. Blue couldn’t get through the doors, so he turned the corner and proceeded to tear open one of the shed’s metal side panels. He popped the screws and bit and clawed his way along the sheet metal, tearing it like paper — and cutting a gash in his left front leg. He didn’t catch the rabbit, but he left the shed looking like a blood-stained crime scene.

The vet prescribed antibiotic pills, Neosporin cream, and the cone until the wound on Blue’s leg heals. Not sure what to do for the wound to his pride, as he wears his cone with shame.

Perhaps the farm dogs of my youth were tougher than our town dog of today. Or maybe they just never encountered a rabbit in a closed-up metal shed.

Laura Sternweis

Requiem for My Sunbird

with-sunbirdTwenty-five years ago I bid my Sunbird goodbye. As a new mom with a sweet baby and an awkward car seat, my relationship with my two-door, compact car had irrevocably changed. Getting that car seat into the back seat simply was a pain in the ass.

Six years earlier I’d purchased my 1986 Pontiac Sunbird brand new from the dealership. It only had 12 original miles on the odometer when I drove it off the lot.

But I’d brought my sweet baby home from the hospital after nearly 24 hours of labor, 2 hours of pushing, and an emergency C-section. For all the trouble it took to bring him into this world, I wanted to be able to transport him safely around town.

My husband and I received $700 for my Sunbird, which we used toward the purchase of a year-old Buick station wagon. That car had plenty of room for sweet baby’s car seat and all his accompanying accouterment.

A lot can happen in 25 years. No doubt my Sunbird eventually ended up in an auto scrap yard. But my sweet baby has grown up to become a fine young man. All in all, it was a pretty good trade.

Laura Sternweis

Little Things about Dad

Don-Marge-jewelryMy Dad often bought jewelry for my mother, but he was not one to wear it much himself. He’d put on his watch and his wedding ring and call it good. He had a 1970s man necklace — a gold cowboy boot on a chain — that my mother bought for him from the Avon lady. But I’m not sure he ever wore it. His lack of personal affinity for jewelry is one of the little things about my Dad that I find myself pondering from time to time.

My father was more of a toothpick man. After a meal he’d grab a toothpick — flat, not round — from the box in the kitchen cupboard. He’d pick his teeth with it, then chew on it for a while, thoughtful, before going back to work on our farm.

He collected what some would call trucker hats, though I think of them as farmer caps. His were likely to sport emblems of seed companies, co-ops, or farm machinery. Some were for work, some he wore to town, and many more were stored in plastic bins on his closet shelf, awaiting their opportunity to be useful.

He grew a beard in 1982, because January was extra cold that year. On several consecutive Sundays he was either snowed in or snowed under, dealing with cold and cows and calves. So he didn’t go to church and thus he didn’t shave. At least, that’s what he told me. I’d been trying to talk him into growing a beard for years, but he always remained clean shaven — until that winter, when it was his idea. Turns out he liked having a beard, and he remained bearded for the rest of his life.

Dad also liked to chew Beemans gum by the half stick, sing from time to time, and occasionally drink half a juice glass of beer. His birthday will be here again in a few days, the twelfth one since he died. So I remember the little things about him to keep his memory alive.

Laura Sternweis

** Remembering Donald J. Sternweis, March 12, 1930 – March 30, 2005 **

Songs in My Head

old-radioAlthough I’ve never been to L.A. International Airport, I know that it is “where the big jet engines roar.” I didn’t know I knew this until I experienced a road trip revelation. When I heard that classic country song on the radio, to my surprise I started singing along. I didn’t recall being much of a Susan Raye fan, good 1970s singer that she was, but I knew the words to her airport lamentation. It wasn’t hard to figure out why.

As I sang along with Susan, no longer was I in the car, tooling down a Midwestern highway with my husband. Instead I was transported via audio back to the dairy barn of my youth. Evidently L.A. International Airport imprinted on my brain back when I used to milk cows, feed silage, and carry out other farm chores with my father and my family, all while listening to the barn radio. Whenever my dad was in the vicinity, that radio was tuned to the country music station.

Classic country music accounts for many of the songs in my head — and by classic country I mean mainly 1960s and ’70s country. It’s cow-milking music, the music of my farm-kid youth. It rattles around in my head along with ’70s rock (from when Dad wasn’t in the barn) and ’80s pop from my college years, as well as hymns and gospel music — from church and my parents’ record collection.

But most often it’s that old country music that I’ll find myself singing along to, whether I hear a song on the radio or in a random YouTube video. Sometimes a song starts playing in my mind for no reason I can discern. Then come the memories — of home and farm and family.

Once in a while, a song will trigger a memory strong enough to make me cry, as was the case with L.A. International Airport. I don’t know why that particular song affected me so. Perhaps because I hadn’t heard it in decades. Maybe when I was a kid I had liked the song more than I realized. Or possibly the repetition of the last line of the chorus — “I won’t see him anymore” — was enough to spark my tears. (My dad died 12 years ago.)

Although L.A. International Airport and the other songs in my head occasionally give rise to tears, they do not lead to sadness. Instead the songs in my head transcend space and time and reconnect me to days gone by.

Laura Sternweis

My Big Brother

me-steve-shep-1963I cried at my big brother’s wedding in 1974. I was newly 12 and he was nearing 20. I cried because he would be moving away. Granted, he was moving only to the next farm, a short jaunt across the field, but still. No longer would he be living in our family’s home, in the room just across the hall from mine. I was reminded of this last week, upon the occasion of his 43rd wedding anniversary. As they say, time flies.

Back then my big brother farmed with our dad. At first he milked cows on the farm where he lived. But soon a bigger barn was built on the home place, and both dairy herds were combined. Then I again saw my big brother every day, as we worked together on the farm.

For the record, he worked at a far greater rate than I did. He was a farmer and I was his kid sister, and not all that adept at farm work. So I forgive him for that one time he said I should have been a boy — “Larry” rather than Laura — because maybe then I’d be more useful. However, I guess he didn’t mind my inability too much, because he didn’t even yell at me that time when he was teaching me how to rake hay and I nearly knocked him off the Allis-Chalmers tractor, as I learned the importance of the clutch.

Overall, he looked out for me. When I was in 8th grade, he lent me his roller skates so I could practice before a class trip to the town roller rink. His skates were a little big, but they fit good enough that I could learn to keep my balance as I skated laps across the cement floor of our machine shop.

When I fell out of the hay mow and landed, screaming, on the barn floor, he ran to my side ready to offer aid, along with Dad and the veterinarian, who happened to be in the barn at the time. Luckily I was bruised but not broken, and needed no special care from the vet or other medical practitioner.

Otherwise, we milked cows and baled hay and fed calves and scooped silage and whatever else needed to be done — just being a farming big brother and his kid sister.

Then I left home — first for college, then a job, then marriage and graduate school, and a career at Iowa State University. For nearly 29 years I’ve been making a life in Iowa with my husband and kids, some 340 miles away from my big brother. But I keep coming back to the farm. And big brother and his family always welcome me home. Guess he’s still looking out for me.

For that I thank you, big brother. I hope you had a happy anniversary. I’ll see you again on the farm, and soon.

Laura Sternweis

Scrappy Little Tree

Twscrappy-tree-croppedenty-eight years ago a last minute, scrappy little Christmas tree earned a special place in my heart.

My husband and I were newlyweds and 1988 would be our first Christmas together. That December he was a soon to be laid off landscaper, as his employer prepared to shut down for the winter. I was in graduate school and earning only a small stipend. We had no money to buy a Christmas tree and had planned to go without.

However, a few days before Christmas on one of his last landscape jobs of the season, my husband and his coworkers cut down a large, overgrown evergreen shrub for a client. As he examined the downed greenery, my husband decided the topmost five feet would make a passable Christmas tree. So with the client’s and his employer’s permission, he brought it home.

We didn’t have a Christmas tree stand, so we put the little tree in a bucket of water, with a blue blanket filling in as a tree skirt. (Think Linus and Charlie Brown’s Christmas story.) We had only a half a dozen or so Christmas ornaments between us, but we hung them on the little tree, along with two crocheted snowmen, some fabric flowers, a beaded necklace, and a “Noel” banner. In our final stroke of ingenuity, we took one of our remaining wallet-sized wedding photos, taped a string to it, and hung it on the tree as well.*

Ever since that first Christmas, we’ve always found a way to have a Christmas tree. Sometimes we’ve gotten them for free from a friend with a woods to clear, but more often from a more usual route — a cut-your-own tree farm or a grocery store’s tree lot. Our ornaments have ranged from kid-proof plastic to heirloom glass. Over the years the trees have all been lovely. But that first scrappy little tree still has a memorable beauty all its own.

Laura Sternweis

*We have hung that wedding photo on every Christmas tree we’ve had, every year since.

Past Christmas Present: 6 Volumes!

6-volumes-croppedIn 1968 I received over 10,000 words for Christmas. They were packaged as “The Golden Book Illustrated Dictionary.” As a first grader who had only recently learned to read, I was awestruck. There were six volumes! And they featured “many hundreds of space-age words,” according to the authors. (This was the 1960s, after all.) I eagerly took in all of those words, as well as the “3,000 pictures in full color.”

When I was a kid, I always could count on getting three presents from Santa — clothes, a toy, and a book. Under the guise of Mr. Claus, my parents made sure that each of us seven kids received these three gifts every year. Although the clothes and toys I received would be outgrown– sometimes quickly, given a physical or developmental growth spurt– the books never really were. Because through those books I developed my love of reading. That is the gift for which I am most thankful.

Laura Sternweis

One Good Halloween

halloween-1966A store-bought mask and a plastic pumpkin used to be all a kid needed for Halloween. At least that was all this kid needed in 1966. I was 4 years old when I embarked upon my first Halloween adventure.

I don’t recall whether I had given my mother any indication of what I wanted to “be” for Halloween. And I can’t confirm whether I had any input into the selection of my final costume. Most likely my mother chose the blue-haired nurse mask and plastic pumpkin I ended up with from a sale rack at the local dime store. But it didn’t matter. I was going trick-or-treating for the first time, tagging along with my older sister and her friend, a neighbor girl who lived just down the gravel road and up the county highway from our farm. I felt quite grown up to be going somewhere and doing something with the big girls.

We were three farm kids going house to house in the small town where my sister’s friend went to school. I imagine it was exciting to hike in the dark, collecting candy contributions for my plastic pumpkin. (This happened 50 years ago, so an exact account of the evening is unlikely.) However, I do recall one lady asking us where we were from, because she didn’t recognize us. When my older sister and her friend told the lady that we were country kids who didn’t live in town, she yelled at us for trick-or-treating in her neighborhood. But otherwise, the local citizens didn’t mind giving us candy.

When I was school-age, I went trick-or-treating once or twice with a grade school classmate. But most Halloween nights, like other nights, I was home on the farm, helping milk our dairy cows. Halloween just wasn’t that big of a deal for me.

Today most kids seem far more into Halloween than I ever was, with elaborate costumes and industrial strength candy bags year after year. That probably was true back in 1966 as well. I guess I’m just unlike most kids. One good Halloween is enough for me. A blue-haired nurse mask and a plastic pumpkin selected by my mother sustained me then. The memory sustains me still.

Laura Sternweis