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


Half a Juice Glass of Beer

half a juice glass of beerMy Dad did not drink much alcohol — a small glass of wine with Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, a brandy slush with company on a very rare evening. Seldom was there any booze in the house. Beer? Maybe if my parents were hosting a family gathering and my uncles were expected guests.

Dad knew that alcohol would not help his stomach — he had an ulcer or the potential for one. So he did not drink routinely. But on a hot July day, after a particularly long, hard bout of baling hay, my Dad would drink — half a juice glass of beer.

During college I spent my summers home on the farm. One summer day in the early 1980s, we had started baling right after the morning milking. The whole crew of us had been involved, in the field, on the bale wagon, in the hay mow. When we went into the house for noon dinner, Dad took his place at the table. Mom was finishing the last-minute preparations for the meal. That is when my Dad asked me to pour him “half a juice glass of beer.”

Slightly shocked by his request, I found a stray can of beer in the refrigerator. I poured half a juice glass for him, and I believe I drank the rest. What sticks out in my mind is that half of a juice glass of beer that my Dad had. And that was it, that was all he had, for the entire summer.

I haven’t baled hay in 30 years, but I do drink beer. And on a hot July day, I just might raise half a juice glass of beer to my Dad.

Laura Sternweis

The Third Call

alarm-clockAs every dairy farm kid knows, cows have to be milked at least twice a day.* That means morning and night, and when I was growing up, the morning milking required being in the barn by 6:30 a.m. We lived in an old two-story farmhouse and all the kids slept upstairs. Mom and Dad’s bedroom was on the main floor. Dad’s alarm would go off around 6 a.m. He’d get up, get dressed, and start water boiling for coffee. Next he’d come to the foot of the stairs and give the first call: “Laura, Russell, Nancy, Neil — get up!” Then he’d head back to the kitchen for breakfast.

Sometimes that first call produced the desired results and all four of us would come on down. If the results were less than 100 percent, and often they were, Dad would come back for the second call: “Time to get up!” The second call would bring down the stragglers most of the time. But when two calls weren’t enough, Dad would come back one more time. When he had to make the third call, it was not pleasant: “Get your ass down here!” And we did.

I can’t speak for my brothers and sister, but I never really got in trouble for needing the third call. However, I knew I’d disappointed my father. I knew I hadn’t held up my end of the farm family bargain. I’d also shortchanged myself. By the time I got downstairs, Dad already had finished his breakfast and left for the barn. I missed that early morning kitchen time with him. And time with my Dad I did not want to miss.

Laura Sternweis

*Some dairy farms have switched to three-times-a-day milking.

To a Farmer and His Assistant

mom-dadWhen I wrote my mother’s obituary in March 2004, I didn’t know I’d be writing my father’s a year and two weeks later. Marguerite L. “Marge” Sternweis, 73, died on Sunday, March 14, 2004, after a two-year battle with cancer. Donald J. Sternweis, 75, died March 30, 2005, from many causes, but all linked to Parkinson’s disease.

They were born in 1930, Don in March and Marge in July. They grew up on dairy farms barely five miles from each other, but first met at a dance hall when they were 17. She graduated from Spencer High School in 1948 and then worked at the Sexton Drug Store in Marshfield. He graduated from Marshfield High School in 1947 and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Farm Short Course in 1948. He worked briefly for Hub City Foods before joining his father on the farm.

At age 20 they married and began farming with Grandpa and Grandma, taking over the operation in 1956. Mom wanted a big family and she got her wish. She and Dad had seven kids with a 17-year spread from oldest to youngest. I’m the one in the middle.

Dad was the farmer, but Mom helped with everything from milking cows to driving tractors, as well as preparing meals not only for her family, but also for a large assortment of hired men over the years. She always said she wasn’t a “farmwife,” because she wasn’t married to the farm. She called herself a “farmer’s assistant.”

In 1989 they moved into a new house they built just down the road from the old farmhouse. Dad didn’t really retire; instead, farming became his “hobby” and he continued to be involved in the farm with my brothers for several more years.

He got sick first, diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Then she was diagnosed with cancer in her salivary gland. Of all the strange places to get cancer, particularly in a woman who never smoked, chewed tobacco, or seemed to have any vices whatsoever. He took his meds and she had chemo and radiation. But Parkinson’s gradually slowed his movement and his ability to communicate. After her cancer came back and no more chemo or radiation would help, she made sure to get him placed in a care center with staff who could tend to his needs. She visited him there a few times before she went into hospice.

The farmer and his assistant were a team, partners for life. Maybe the real surprise is that he lived a whole year and two weeks without her.

Laura Sternweis