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 ***

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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.

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