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


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

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

Home on Sunday

Lue-cropped-300wMy mother-in-law was born at home on a Sunday. Ninety-two years later she died — at home on a Sunday. There are worse ways to go.

Whenever someone completes a journey on this Earth, whether the news is good or bad depends on perspective. My mother-in-law had a minor heart attack in the fall and spent a month recovering and rehabbing. Then she had a massive stroke. She died 10 days later. That’s all bad news because my husband, son, daughter, and I, and the rest of her family, loved her deeply, and now we have to figure out life without her.

But it’s good news, too. She was 92 years old. She had lived a long, loving, happy life. She bounced back well enough after her heart attack to enjoy another month of quality time with her family. The stroke paralyzed her left side, but her right side was strong as ever. She could still grip with her right hand at full strength and kick her right leg high. She could still hear and best of all, for a few days she could still speak her mind. As she moved from intensive care to palliative care at the hospital, and then to hospice at her apartment, she knew where she was and who she was with until the end. And then, she knew full well where she was going next.

As a former Catholic living Lutheran with a modicum of secular humanism, I struggle with my faith and doubt. If my mother-in-law ever struggled, she never let on. 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. Her faith also comforted and sustained her as her life ended.

Sundays always were special for her — from Sunday school to Sunday church, from her Sunday birth to her Sunday death. The obituary in the newspaper said she died. The card at her memorial service said she passed away. Neither had it quite right. She gave us the time we needed to say goodbye, and then she simply went home, on Sunday.

Laura Sternweis

** In memory of Luella Hampton, April 9, 1925 – November 26, 2017 **

Travelers Together

mom-dad-laura-96-croppedAfter they’d been married for 25 years, my parents went on their first real vacation. They went to Hawaii, but they didn’t loll around at the beach. Instead, they toured Hawaiian agricultural sites, because that’s what farmers do. When they leave their own farm, they often visit someone else’s.

My parents weren’t travel averse. It’s just that it took 25 years of farming and family raising for them to be able to leave the farm. By then my older brother was farming with my Dad, those of us who were next in age were helping with farm work, and the youngest among us were old enough to be left in their older siblings’ care for a few days.

Once Mom and Dad started travelling, they made up for lost time. Beginning in the 1980s, my Dad served on the board of directors for Land O Lakes and Federal Land Bank. Mom often accompanied him when he’d head out of state for a board meeting. These mini-trips often involved a hotel stay for the two of them, a nice dinner and socializing with the other board members and their spouses, and shopping excursions for Mom.

During the ’80s and ’90s their travel included trips to Arizona to visit relatives, tours of Germany and Austria, bus trips to Branson, Missouri, a jaunt to the Alaska State Fair, and even a few visits to Iowa to see my family and me.

However, by the time their 50th wedding anniversary arrived, their long distance travels were over. Their final vacation was a fall colors bus tour of New England. They weren’t tired of travelling, but Dad’s Parkinson’s disease had progressed to the point where leaving home was just too difficult. Then Mom was diagnosed with cancer. Their last trips were to visit their doctors at the local medical center. Not the type to complain, they accepted this as the next phase of their combined journey.

Mom died in 2004 and Dad died only a year and two weeks later. In death as in life they were travelers together.

Laura Sternweis

*** To Donald and Marguerite, united in marriage September 28, 1950 ***

Mama Made Extra

mom-kitchen-86My Mama knew how to cook for a crowd. When she was putting on a buffet, she made sure the last person in line had as many flavorful choices as the first person. For more than 50 years she fed her farmer husband, seven kids, extended family, and an assortment of hired men. She also orchestrated the menus for countless Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter dinners, as well as birthdays, graduations, and wedding and baby showers. For every meal, she obeyed one cooking commandment: Thou shalt not run out of food. Always prepare more than enough.

The food wasn’t fancy. Her goal wasn’t to impress. She never called herself a chef; she was a cook. Her calling was to feed the masses, and her meals were hearty and tasty. I miss them.

I can cook, but I am not “a cook.” I have some of her recipes. Some I’ve never attempted and others I often prepare, but never quite replicate. Whatever the recipe, when I make it, it just ain’t the same. Because it ain’t made by my Sweet Mama.

But one thing’s for sure. Whenever my husband and I (because I don’t do it alone) cook for a crowd, we make extra, just like Mama.

Laura Sternweis

I’m from Wisconsin

cheesecurdsSome people can trace their lineage hundreds of years back to the old country. I cannot. My story begins in Wisconsin.

My husband’s family on his mother’s side can follow their roots to a little farm near a fjord. His ancestors, who made their way to Iowa, held tight to their relatives in Norway, a direct connection his family continues today.

I know a little bit about my ancestors, thanks to my aunt’s genealogical detective work. What she’s discovered is interesting: German immigrants, an orphaned boy, steadfast farmers, and a family broken by tuberculosis and logging accidents. But from what I can tell, when my branch of the Sternweis family came to America sometime around 1850, they kept their past behind them and started over.

So for me, everything begins a bit later, about 1907, when my paternal grandfather purchased the original 80 acres and began my Sternweis family’s farm in central Wisconsin. And it still is my family’s farm — those 80 acres and quite a few more — because members of my family are still farming it.

Yes, I come from America’s Dairyland, home of cows and cheese, bratwurst and beer, and a particular farm on the Marathon-Wood county line. That’s why I don’t need my DNA swabbed. I have no desire to know the percentage ethnic breakdown of my forebears. I already know my ancestry. I’m from Wisconsin.

Laura Sternweis

Mama Played Scrabble

Mama-scrabbleWhen Mama moved to the nursing home she was going to play Scrabble for money. Gambling on crosswords and letter tiles, she’d make a fortune off the other little old ladies. That was our family joke, anyway. Mama liked to play Scrabble and she was good at the game, so my siblings and I teased her about the earning potential of her word-puzzling skills.

My family obtained our first Scrabble game sometime in the mid-1970s. We started with the basic version. Its cardboard game board, when unfolded, revealed a colorful pattern of double and triple score squares. Sure, it was pretty, but turning the board during play required careful maneuvering so as not to disturb the letter tiles forming the ever-expanding crossword puzzle. By the early 1980s we’d upgraded to the deluxe edition. Its plastic gridded game board rested upon a turntable base, which could be rotated to face each player in turn.

We all played Scrabble, but it really was Mama’s game. I remember her hunched over the Scrabble board, in concentration and determination to make the best word she could, both in point value and strategic placement on the board. She was adept at using the high point Q, X, and Z, and she could hit the triple word squares better than anyone. Turn by turn, she would rack up the points, and often won the game. She had only a high school education, but she could beat the Scrabble pants off her college-educated children.

Mama didn’t cheat at Scrabble, but she didn’t play exactly by all the official rules. She viewed playing Scrabble as a learning experience. Our official Scrabble Players Dictionary was a teaching aid rather than a challenge guantlet. She encouraged us to consult it so we’d learn to spell new words as we played. But even though we could use the dictionary, usually she’d still win the game. She was just that good.

Unfortunately Mama never had the chance to earn Scrabble money at a nursing home. She moved directly from her home to hospice when, much too young, she died from cancer 13 years ago. Unlike Scrabble, cancer was a gamble she couldn’t win.

Laura Sternweis

* In memory of Marguerite Sternweis, July 25, 1930 — March 14, 2004 *


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.


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