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

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

My First Ma’am

beer-bandThe lady by the beer tent at the outdoor concert venue said she didn’t need to check my ID. She assumed, quite rightly, that I was of legal drinking age. Requiring no verification, she quickly slapped the drink responsibly band around my wrist and encouraged me to move on. Little did she know just how far I’ve travelled.

I’m 55 and it’s been a long time since anyone has questioned my rightful age. And I don’t mind. I’ve come a long way since my first Ma’am.

In the summer of 1981 I was home from my first year of college. One afternoon I was browsing in a clothing boutique in my hometown shopping mall. I was minding my own business, thumbing through the clothes racks, when the teenage clerk asked, “May I help you — Ma’am?”

I was 19 and mortified. Where did this little twit get off calling me Ma’am? In a huff, I walked out of the store.

Ma’am is a contraction of madam. Webster’s New Dictionary calls it a polite term for a lady, used in direct address. In the clerk’s defense, she probably had been told to use the courtesy title with all female customers. But to me, at the time, Ma’am just meant old, a derogatory designation I did not accept.

Back then, I knew I was old enough. I could drink — and vote. (In 1981 Wisconsin, the legal age for both was 18.) Sure, I was an adult — but I was young, dammit! I was a Miss with my whole life ahead of me — not a Ma’am whose time had passed.

A lot of living happens between 19 and 55: college and career, marriage and family, a mortgage and so much more. Today I’m old enough to know better. The more experience I have, the more experience I want. My time hasn’t passed at all.

Being Ma’am means I’m alive — still learning and loving, still growing and gaining wisdom. So ask to see my ID, or don’t. Offer me a senior discount or not. And feel free to call me Ma’am.

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

A Cap for Wolf Blitzer

NRC-hostThe day I met Wolf Blitzer was cool and crisp. Our encounter was brief, yet poignant on that Iowa April morning 22 years ago. As he stepped off the White House Press bus near the Memorial Union parking ramp, I welcomed him to Iowa State University and gave him an ISU cap. Then he was off, headed to the ballroom-turned-press-room in the union. We did not meet again.

I handed university headgear to many reporters that morning. As an extension communications specialist at the university, I’d made the cut to be an ISU host for Wolf and all the other national reporters on the bus — including Rita Braver! and Bill Plante! — two icons in particular who I admired from across the press room. They all had travelled to Ames, Iowa, for the National Rural Conference, co-hosted by Iowa State and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Now the “normal” people in attendance likely were more impressed by the real stars of the day, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. And it was inspiring to witness history being made as the President and Vice President gathered perspectives on rural issues and views on the 1995 Farm Bill. However, as a former agriculture reporter and continuing news junkie, I was star struck to be in such close proximity to not only the newsmakers, but also the news breakers.

President Clinton and Vice President Gore were too far away to see me. Rita Braver and Bill Plante were close enough to see me but likely didn’t notice me. And Wolf Blitzer probably didn’t keep the cap. But I still have the story.

Laura Sternweis

P.S. Watch this C-SPAN video of President Clinton’s opening remarks at the National Rural Conference.

Spring Break with Jesus

When you’re standing ankle-deep in the Atlantic Ocean and a young woman with a Bible asks if you’d like to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, what should you say? What the hell? That was my reaction, though I was considerate enough not to voice it aloud.


The woman with the Bible was convinced that Jesus was right there with us. I was skeptical. Being a savior is a lot of work and he likely had other things to do. I’d already seen evidence of far worse sinners than I on that Florida beach. I thanked her, but politely declined her offer.

During spring break 1982 I was a 20-year-old college student who’d hopped a frat bus to Daytona Beach with my best friend. She had won two round-trip tickets as first prize in a college dance marathon. She asked me to be her guest, and my parents agreed that I could go. So with my suitcase and $200, I was ready for adventure.

Wisconsin to Florida is a long ride on a bus with drunken frat boys (and college girls, to be fair). My friend and I hadn’t thought to bring any booze, good girls that we were, so other than a few swigs from a passed-around bottle of ginger brandy, our bus ride was alcohol free. Many hours later we arrived unimpaired at our hotel, a low-budget, beach-front, cinder-block edifice. We were pleased to find our room had a balcony with a view of the ocean — if you turned your head to the right.

There’s a lot I remember about that spring break. We packed 6 girls into our hotel room with a kitchenette and one bathroom. We ate cheap — bologna and hot dogs from the 7-Eleven down the street. We rationed our money so we could afford more important items — barroom cover charges and beer. We drank a lot and danced a lot and partied with guys from other colleges. Forget the frat boys from our bus — we wanted no attachments to follow us back to school. We stayed out late, cavorted in the ocean, fell asleep on the beach, and cultivated a fine sunburn.

I’d never been so far from home before. Sometimes I walked alone along the beach to contemplate that fact and wonder what my future would hold — as I did the day the woman with the Bible walked up to me, read some scripture, and asked me a question.

Of all my memories of that spring break 35 years ago, standing in the ocean with the woman with the Bible is the most vivid still. So maybe I did spend spring break with Jesus, at least part of the time.

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

Me and Friendship 7

me-and-friendship7 My space fever began in first grade, when I read about John Glenn’s historic space flight the year I was born. I was impressed by his orbit of the Earth on Feb. 20, 1962, and by his spaceship, Friendship 7. What a great name! Evidently space exploration was all about making friends, not enemies. I liked that idea, as I learned about this Mercury mission from the easy-reading book in my classroom.

I watched Apollo take-offs and splash downs throughout the 1970s. I drank Tang and ate Space Food Sticks, just like the astronauts I read about in my parents’ LIFE magazines. I even wrote a report on the solar system for the fourth grade science fair. (I still have my second-place ribbon.)

I remember Skylab and the Space Shuttle Challenger, but as adult life intervened, I lost track of the space program. My space fever went dormant for many years.

But a 2015 trip to Washington, D.C., renewed my interest. That’s when my husband and I toured the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. As we studied all the rockets and satellites and space suits and moon rocks, a particular spacecraft captured my attention. There was Friendship 7, right in front of me! I got as close to it as I could, and begged my husband to please take a picture of me and my spaceship. My space fever was coming back.

The symptoms returned gradually — an International Space Station update here, a SpaceX launch there. With recent news reports commemorating the 55th anniversary of John Glenn’s Mercury mission, my space fever is full blown — with no cure in sight.

Laura Sternweis