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 **

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

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

Girls Who Wear Glasses

glasses-girlI’ve been one of the girls who wear glasses since I was 8 or 9 years old. That’s when the good Sisters at Catholic school discovered I could not see what they were writing on the blackboard. So they moved me to a nearer-the-board seat in my third grade classroom and recommended me for vision screening.

I failed the in-school vision test and soon found myself at my mother’s optometrist’s office, where I received my first pair of glasses.

I came of glasses-wearing age in the 1970s, a time of plastic frames in an assortment of both mod colors and earth tones. I selected frames based on fashion, and my mother verified with the doctor that my selection could accommodate my requisite lenses, as they approximated Coke bottle bottoms (the euphemism for thick lenses at the time). Throughout the ’70s and ’80s as I kept up with fashion, my frames kept getting bigger, and thus, my glass (yes, they were glass) lenses kept getting heavier.

So I appreciated when lighter-weight plastic lenses became available. As technology continued to develop, even my former Coke bottle bottoms could be transformed into not only lighter but thinner plastic lenses that by the late 1990s could be adorned with thin metal frames.

Throughout my adult life, I’ve usually needed a stronger lens prescription every two to four years to accommodate my changing vision. And over the years I’ve become less concerned with frame fashion, instead opting for function. My first question to each glasses salesperson is, “What frames will work with my lens prescription?”

That again was my first question to the sales rep last week, when on my 55th birthday I selected frames for a new pair of bifocals (excuse me, “progressive lenses,” so called for all you older Baby Boomers who can’t accept your increasing age or diminishing eyesight). I chose not from the designer frames section (too expensive) nor from the discount rack, though I wish I could have purchased low-cost frames. Luckily I found suitably functional frames at a middle-of-the-road price point.

I don’t mind wearing glasses; I like to see clearly. I’m not interested in contact lenses. I don’t even like eye drops, so why would I willingly put little plastic disks into my eyes? So a girl who wears glasses I will continue to be.

Laura Sternweis

P.S. For the record: It has been my experience that boys do make passes at girls who wear glasses. More so in my 20s. Now, not so much — except for that one guy to whom I’ve been married for nearly 29 years, which suits me just fine.

Book Junkie

“The Bitch Is Back” was the last book I finished reading in 2016. “The Millennial Mindset”* was the first one I finished in 2017. The latter was a research account from two professors of communications and public relations on just what those Millennials are thinking. The former featured eloquent commentary from women in midlife, sharing, as the editor states, “the wisdom of enlightened middle age and about happiness.”

millennial-bitch-booksAs you may have gathered from the two book titles, I’m a nonfiction reader for the most part. I read about culture and politics, humor and home decorating, among other things. I read for my amusement and education, sometimes at the same time.

Full disclosure: I’m a book junkie. At any given time I’m working my way through about a dozen books or so, picking up whichever one sparks my interest.

I’m also cheap. I support my habit by frequenting two libraries — my local public library and the research library at the university where I work. I visit their “new books” shelves nearly every week, checking out whatever grabs my attention.

Occasionally I buy books. Sometime I even pay retail. But I am more likely to acquire them used, via library book sales.

I read online as well, but it just ain’t the same. I want to hold the book in my hands, feel the paper, smell the ink, and keep my place with an odd bookmark.

Midway through 2006 I started keeping track of the books I read. I’m a list maker and a goal setter. My goal is to read at least 24 books a year. For a book to make the list, I have to have read it cover to cover. No skimming.

In case you’re interested, here’s my 2016 book list. If you need something to read, I recommend them all!

  • We’re Just Like You Only Prettier: Confessions of a Tarnished Southern Belle, by Celia Rivenbark
  • Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox, edited by Joanne Cronrath Bamberger
  • Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik
  • Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl, by Carol Bodensteiner
  • You’re Going to be Dead One Day: A Love Story, by David Horowitz
  • Country Living American Style: Decorate, Create, Celebrate, by Hearst Communications Inc.
  • The Jesus Cow: A Novel, by Michael Perry (fiction)
  • The Bee Cottage Story: How I Made a Muddle of Things and Decorated My Way Back to Happiness, by Frances Schultz
  • Absolutely Beautiful Things: Decorating Inspiration for a Bright and Colourful Life, by Anna Spiro
  • 300 Cottage Style Decorating Ideas, by Better Homes and Gardens
  • Me, My Hair, and I: Twenty-Seven Women Untangle an Obsession, edited by Elizabeth Benedict
  • Hurts Like a Mother: A Cautionary Alphabet, by Jennifer Weiss and Lauren Franklin (fiction)
  • Sarah’s Seasons: An Amish Diary and Conversation, by Martha Moore Davis
  • Open Letter: On Blasphemy, Islamophobia, and the True Enemies of Free Expression – by Charb (Stéphane Charbonnier), (A Posthumous Manifesto by the Editor in Chief of Charlie Hebdo)
  • The Atheist’s Bible: An Illustrious Collection of Irreverent Thoughts, conceived and edited by Joan Konner
  • Lovable, Livable Home: How to Add Beauty, Get Organized, and Make Your House Work for You, by Sherry and John Petersik
  • The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo
  • The Nones Are Alright: A New Generation of Believers, Seekers, and Those in Between, by Kaya Oakes
  • Downtown Chic: Designing Your Dream Home, from Wreck to Ravishing, by Robert and Cortney Novogratz with Elizabeth Novogratz
  • Campus Sketches of Iowa State University, by Velma Wallace-Rayness (1962 edition)
  • After You, by Jojo Moyes (fiction)
  • The Joy of Leaving Your Sh*t All over the Place (parody), by Jennifer McCartney
  • The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, by Gil Troy
  • Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide, by Michael Kinsley
  • Difficult Conversations: Craft a Clear Message, Manage Emotions, Focus on a Solution – by Harvard Business Review Press, 20 Minute Manager series
  • Who Is Hillary Clinton? Two Decades of Answers from the Left, edited by Richard Kreitner
  • The Wit and Wisdom of Downton Abbey, by Jessica Fellowes
  • My Life on the Road, by Gloria Steinem
  • Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger
  • Leading through Language: Choosing Words That Influence and Inspire, by Bart Egnal
  • Blue in a Red State: A Survival Guide to Life in the Real America, by Justin Krebs
  • 101 Reasons to Love the Packers, by David Green
  • The Bitch Is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier, edited by Cathi Hanauer

Laura Sternweis

*The complete title is “The Millennial Mindset: Unraveling Fact from Fiction,” by Regina Luttrell and Karen McGrath.

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

Past Christmas Present: What a Doll

walking-doll-croppedA duct tape collar keeps her head from falling off and her legs are strapped together, never to walk again. Other than that, my 50-year-old dolly is in pretty good shape.

I got her from Santa for Christmas 1966. A Mattel “Baby First Step,” she really was something special. When the crevice in her back was loaded with two D-cell batteries and her “on” switch was flipped, this doll could WALK! She was amazing.

I took good care of her, so much so that the following year, when I took my dolly to kindergarten for show-and-tell, my teacher said she still looked brand new. However, I played with her a lot back then, and as will happen with well-played toys, eventually she played out. Her walking mechanism broke, her legs came loose at the hips, and her plastic-shoed feet deteriorated. I got older and dolly was dismissed, forgotten at the back of the closet.

One Christmas in the mid 1980s when my dolly and I were in our 20s, my mother went on a doll rejuvenation spree — cleaning and redressing several of my sisters’ and my dolls, including my formerly walking dolly. So I reclaimed her, and she’s been back with me ever since.

Today you can find Baby First Step dolls online, even new in the box for upwards of $150 on ebay. Those poor dolls. They were never loved like my dolly. Mine’s not for sale. She’s a precious memory marker for me, not only at Christmas, but all year long.

Laura Sternweis