The Karen Carpenter Connection

In the mid 1970’s my close High school friends and I listened to a lot of Karen Carpenter at our slumber parties. Slumber parties were a big part of our social life. We drank soda and ate frozen pizza, the kind that tastes pretty close to what the box would taste like, if you baked that. It was terrible in hindsight, but we did not know it, because it was before the age of pizza delivery. We sat on the floor and sang to Karen’s songs, especially our favorite, “We’ve Only Just Begun.” We sleepover7had high hopes for our futures, even though we had no idea what that would entail. We dreamed of romance, but, surprising for our age, we were pretty set on going to college and finding our own way in the world. We loved the farm life, but by 16 we were tired of the rock picking and chores. Maybe we just needed new sights; of course I miss the farm now. We did not appreciate how awesome farm life was at the time.

My vivacious, smart, and fun cousin and good friend in High School, Laurie Millner Menke, and Mary Joe Wimmer, Marilyn Gerwing, Linda Faust and Dorothy Weber were all a big part of our Karen Carpenter loving circle. Laurie was actually a professional quality singer and could really belt it out at our slumber parties. She was amazing and usually had the lead in any musicals and skits. She graduated from St. Ben’s and sang for many weddings and has been in plays over the years.

Laurie Millner

Laurie Millner

She came back to Buckman for my wedding and sang. I had a big Catholic wedding with three priests officiating. My uncle the priest, my cousin the priest, and the parish priest, who was good friends with my Dad. When you get married by three priests the marriage sticks real well. We will be celebrating 30 years of marriage next year. Everyone at the wedding had goose bumps when Laurie sang the Ave Maria. Some of my law school friends still talk about that singer and that song, after all of these years. She did a great job and the song was really moving. She has since built a career and raised a family and it is fun to keep up with her shenanigans on Facebook. She still is a fun loving and talented gal.

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Mary Wimmer

Mary Jo had big dreams of joining the Peace Corps and she did and spend time in Africa. She met her husband there. They then raised their family and built their careers here in Minnesota. She has a beautiful and loving soul and that has never changed. I love seeing how her family has grown over the years and to see how successful she is in her business.

Marilyn Gerwing

Marilyn Gerwing

I saw Marilyn working at the Minnesota Zoo many years ago and unfortunately a few years after that I found out that she passed away from a severe diabetic complication. It is incidents like this that make you renew your ideal to live life to the fullest, as you never know how much time you have.

Linda Faust

Linda Faust

Linda was extremely bright and was wise beyond her years. She was also artistic and the kind of person that never once forgot to do her homework. She was the voice of reason and the go-to-gal when you needed a well thought out decision. Obviously she is still the wisest. She was the one person who was smart enough to move out of the Minnesota weather and now lives in warm and sunny New Mexico.

I lost track of my good friend Dorothy for a while, but she too graduated from college, had a family and a career, and lives in the city. Dorothy and I went to all kinds of parties in high school and luckily never got into anyreal trouble. Well there was that one beer party in the woods that we had to run from when the cops showed up, but we never got caught! There also was that little fender-bender on graduation day, and luckily the police did not see the empty Boones Farm wine bottle that we drank at the Skunk River dam in the afternoon to celebrate graduation. Oh, and there was that car owned by my brother’s friend Frank Shermers that we called Victor. He had used an Axe to chop a hole in the top of the car sleepover6to make a Sun Roof and someone had put a goat in it all night so it smelled bad. We took that car to the drive in movie one time and when Frank pulled the back seat out and put it on top of the hood to sit on during the movie. We almost got kicked out. The Movie Theatre manager asked us if someone had died in that car. When we agreed to put the seat back into the car, he let us stay. At this point you probably think I am making this stuff up but I am not. It is all true. We did have some fun back then. I wish we would have had cell phone cameras. We would have a picture of Victor the car. I would frame that.

We once staged a sit in to protest the cafeteria food. The School administration could not see why we did not like the cut up hot dogs in tomato soup poured over mashed potatoes. I wish I was exaggerating, but that was a meal we had every week at school. Back then we were not thinner because we had healthier food at school, we were thinner because the food was so bad you only ate enough to survive. The protest did no good at all. Our parents just all told us to knock it off because there are starving children in Africa and we should be grateful for what we have. That was the end of it. The food stayed the same.

Say what you will about Facebook, but all of us are overly busy nowadays. The time since I graduated from High School has flown by. If not for Facebook, I wouldn’t be able to keep up with these fun people. They were a big part of my life in Pierz, Minnesota, up until we all graduated in 1976.

After we left High school everyone went their directions and I would have lost track of everyone. These people had a profound impact on who I am. We shared some great times and some great dreams. I think we pushed each other subconsciously to be better and to dream big. We had only just begun to live, as the song goes. There were bright lights and promises. We scattered to the wind to follow our dreams. Each person touches us and our life. It is nice that we can reflect back and sometimes reach back, when our busy lives allow it, and rekindle some of those friends from long ago.

Joan and Kae’s Excellent Adventure

I graduated from St. Scholastica in Duluth, in 1980, with a degree in Nursing and started my first job as an OB/GYN nurse at St. Paul Ramsey Medical Center, now Regions. My good friend Kae Honeman graduated that same year. I had met her in the college dorm on my first day, in my JoanCalifornia1981afirst year of college, at St. Cloud State, where I had done my general education credits before transferring to St. Scholastica for Nursing. Kae was a fun loving soul. We were part of a dorm floor of fun loving girls in their first year of college. Back then we could drink in college and it was the 1970’s, so need I say more. We never got into any serious trouble, but I do recall a Friday night where Kae pierced my ear with a hot needle and an ice cube. There was some liquor involved. I still have that extra earring spot just on my left ear and I wear one earring proudly in it, as a daily remember of those wild and crazy years with my college girlfriends.

A few years after we both graduated we decide to go on a road trip adventure. We flew into SanJoanCalifornia1981n Francisco where Kae’s brother lived, and stayed with him touring around the city for a few days before renting a car and driving down the Pacific Coast Highway for 10 days. We had no agenda other than to end up in LA to fly back to Minnesota. It was good to be young and free. We had no worries, only 10 days to enjoy and meander our way through some of the most beautiful scenery in the country. So off we went, tunes blaring and driving the cliff roads along the Pacific Ocean. I wish we had had cell phones in those days. We would have a lot more pictures of the beauty of that trip. Alas, technology was not as advanced. In fact we were gone for 10 days and not once in that time did we call our parents or any relatives and that was perfectly acceptable back then. That would be unheard of now, where we are used to communicating on almost a daily basis if we JoanCalifornia1981bwant to. Back then long distance phone calls were expensive.

Fairly quickly in our trip we ended up in Big Sur with its ocean cliffs and mountains. We stopped in a little town for lunch at a local bar restaurant among the large pines. I still remember the cool moist air and the smell of those trees. We ended up staying and talking with the locals and hanging out all day, playing pool, laughing and telling stories. People we had never met before became very close in those few hours. We ended up staying overnight and the next day hopped in our car and were off again on our adventure. When we saw beautiful beaches we stopped to swim, like in Monterey and Pismo beach. We stopped at the Hearst Mansion in San Simeon and toured Santa Barbara. We made our way stopping to eat when we were hungry, drinking wine JoanCalifornia1981hand getting hotels when we were tired. We passed LA after stopping at a few beaches and Sea World, making our way toward San Diego to spend a few days.

We decided that we wanted to visit Tijuana Mexico. After all it was the 1980’s and you did not need a passport. However, I am not sure why we thought, as two women in their twenties, that this was the safest decision. Nothing bad happened, but it makes me judge our stupidity level. We were told not to bring purses because of pick pockets and we were told not to drink the water. With that information we walked across the border. We shopped and bought sea shell wind chimes and tequila, and poor Kae sprained her ankle walking around on the cobblestone streets. Of course me being the nurse, I said we can make this feel better if we just got an ace wrap and wrapped it up. We looked for a “drug store” (pharmacy). Imagine the looks IMG_0887we received from the locals when we Minnesota girls were asking for a “drug store.” It took us a few strange looks before we realized what we were asking for and changed our request to a “pharmacy.” We were lucky we did not get arrested, but we found our pharmacy and with a lot of gesturing to get over the language barrier, were able to buy an ace wrap and keep Kae going.

Having shopped as much as we wanted, we retreated to a local restaurant and bar and ordered margaritas. After all we had to try margaritas in Mexico. After drinking about half of them, we realized they were full of ice and we had been warned not to drink the water or the ice. By that time, we figured the tequila would kill anything in the water and we must have been right because we did not get ill.

On the way back across the border, as I was standing in line, tired from the days activities and with a little tequila under our belt, I suddenly realized as I saw everyone pulling out their drivers IMG_0884licenses for ID, that I only had a credit card on me and no ID of any kind. After all, we had been told not to bring a purse, so I only took cash and a credit card in my pockets. I was panicked as I thought I could not get back into our country without ID, and it was getting dark by now. Kae being the ever calm and reassuring one said “You don’t look Mexican. You will be fine.” At the time, I thought the statement was ridiculous, but it turned out to be true in the 1980’s. I got to the border guard and explained that we had come shopping for the day and were told about the pick pockets and that iIMG_0886s why I had no ID. I am sure I was sweating by this time and looking real nervous. These are all bad things around border guards. The guard laughed and said “no problem” and let us through.

I entered the US without any ID of any kind and on top of it all, I had a shopping bag full of crap, like a Mexican blanket and the shell wind chime all neatly wrapped in paper by the Mexican shop owners. The border guards did not even bother unwrapping or looking into the packages. I could have had 10 pounds of hash or cocaine in there and they would not have known. They checked nothing and let me through on my word. It was clearly a different time.

We finished our trip and had dinner in LA on our last night in California. We flew back tired, but having a real taste for more travel and more adventure. Even though we both became busy over the years with our careers and then families, we shared that road trip in the 1980’s that we can reflect upon fondly. It wove courage, problem solving skills, fun and a taste for adventure in the fabric of our very being. We did not have a lot of money back then, being just out of college, but I am glad we took the time and money to explore our world together.

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My Mom Has Skills

My mom is one of the most competent people I know. She has never been afraid to try anything, and in any situation, she always seems to know what to do. Even though she is in her eighties, she can work her cell phone to text her children and grandchildren, and she can even send pictures. She is on Facebook and can navigate her computer better than many people who are a lot younger than her. She has really kept up with the new technology.

19dWhen I was growing up, she sewed our clothes on the farm, kept a clean house, and could bake the best bread and pie. She cared for the farm animals and her family as if she had advanced medical training. My brother once dislocated his shoulder playing Tarzan in the big barn, and when he came screaming into the house she grabbed his arm and snapped the shoulder back into place and he went back to playing. Growing up we believed she could do anything.

She has many talents, but she has always had a knack for caring for both babies and animals. After I had my first baby, she came to help me within a few hours of our return home from the hospital. Even though I had been a Labor and Delivery nurse for seven years, the baby and I were both crying within an hour of being home. Between hormones and exhaustion, I really needed her. She barely had her coat off and she sent me for a nap, while she rocked my baby to sleep. I invited her into the operating room with my husband and me for the c-section birth of my third child. We have always 2been close.

She is legendary with my kids when it comes to animals. They know she kills spiders with her bare hand and is not afraid of anything. My kids tell the story of one particular Thanksgiving at our house. Mom and Dad were there, and lots of relatives. The house was full and loud with pre-dinner activities. The kids were pre-teen and running around playing.  While setting the table and cooking the meal, the kids accidentally let the parakeet out of its cage. It was a mild mannered bird, except if you tried to hold it. Then it was a crazy biter and they referred to it as birdzilla. They were afraid of it. Mom suggested that the kids just pick it up and put it back in its cage. They were insistent that one could not touch it, because it was a biter. My mom just laughed and told them it’s just a little bird, as she swept it up so quickly the bird did not have time to fly or know what happened. To the surprise of everyone, she had it in one hand with its little head between two fingers. The kids were in awe as she did not flinch; while it was biting her all the way back to the cage. She just talked to it in a soothing voice.

When we were growing up on the farm she cared for our farm animals, and taught us to help as we got older. She tended a large garden and we grew a lot of our own food. She was the one who almost always said yes to our pet requests. She brought home a little baby house dog for us when we were very young, and we all agreed on the name Sparky, with her help.

IMG_0764She brought him home and set him on the floor with us, as we sat around in a circle. I think I was only about three at the time and my sister was six and my brother was five. She told us to be very gentle and she showed us how to pet our new puppy, so as not to hurt it. She was such a good teacher. Giving us the knowledge and know how to take care of him and yet not hurt him, even if it was by accident. She showed us how to put a mother cat at ease by petting her and talking calmly to her, reassuring her that it was OK for Mom to hold her kittens and show them to us. Animals were at ease with her.

50aA few years later she let us get a larger outdoor farm dog when our cousin’s dog had puppies. We were convinced that the one puppy wanted to go home with us after playing with them. She made sure we were responsible to feed him. Forgetting to feed him and give him water was not an option. She made it clear that the animals depend upon us. We ended up being very close to that dog. He was never more than a few feet away from us as we played on the farm.

She and my dad still fish a lot in their boat, and she has learned to run their GPS and fish finder with great ease. She can even trouble-shoot and change settings as she needs to, depending on the lake they are on. She is good at fishing and loves traveling. She and dad have been everywhere in their RV, and she has been the navigator for them through mountains and in large cities.IMG_0394

My mom was as strict as she needed to be, to keep us from getting into trouble and making sure we did well in school and respected our elders. I distinctly remember my mom sending my brother and me out to weed the corn field after she caught us shooting homemade bows and arrows at the playhouse door while our sister was inside. She came and got us after an hour or so and made us promise never to do anything that dangerous again. She had to deal with a lot of shenanigans.

She had a lot of tolerance for our love of pets. Once when we were pre-teens we visited the elderly farmer next door and came back with a box covered with a towel, and carefully carried it into our kitchen. We walked very gently, and my mom had just finished putting dinner on the table and could see that we had what we thought was a treasure. She came over and asked what was in the box, knowing she probably would not like the answer. We giggled and pulled the towel off showing six puffy yellow baby geese. We told her our neighbor Lawrence had given them to us and we were going to keep them in our room. She rolled her eyes and without hesitation said you cannot keep them in your room, but she did not say we had to take them back. She told us they have to be under a warming light and she helped us set it up in our kitchen, until they were big enough to go outside. I loved those geese. They were like watch geese. They were very loud when someone drove into the yard.

IMG_0762Likewise she let us keep a horse from that same neighbor when we convinced her that it kept coming to our farm because it was lonely, because Lawrence told us he was getting too old to ride it and he said we could have it. I had my own calf every year to bottle feed and we had chickens, baby pigs, and once she let us get a chinchilla. She helped us nurse a pigeon back to health after it hit a window and hurt its wing. She helped bandage its wing and showed us how to feed it oats until it was healed enough to fly. Mom taught us to milk a cow and how to pick chicken eggs. She taught us how to give medicine and vaccinations to calves, and once in a particularly cold rainy spring, she brought a newborn calf into the house to save it. It was in bad shape and would have died had she not dried it out by putting it into a large box and warmed it up with an old bonnet hair drier.IMG_20140318_0043_NEW

Mom could fix our ouchies with a kiss, and she could fix the bailer when it broke. She always looked good, and even though she had all of us, we were clean and well behaved in church on Sundays. Her house was clean and we were well fed. She accomplished it all and kept up with the farm. Looking back on it, I do not know how she did it all.

Mom was good to us in tolerating our curiosity, and she has always been good with her grandchildren in teaching them kindness and care of animals.   My mom taught us to be gentle and to care for soft, small helpless things in this world that depend upon us. We all have called her often over the years for advice on kids, puppies, baking, fixing things, and just to talk when we were stressed.

I have only fond memories of growing up on the farm with her, all of us running barefoot, playing with the animals and eating tomatoes right out of the garden. Mom showed no fear in how she approached any project and we have tried to show her same confidence and competence in our endeavors. She taught us independence, self reliance and she had confidence in us that we could accomplish anything.  IMG_20140302_0048_NEW (2)

My Wild and Crazy Dad

My dad was a fun guy when we were growing up.  There was nothing he would not try at least once and he never met anyone that he did not like and everyone liked him. He was a positive guy with a positive attitude. He is still fun and still positive, even though he is in his Eighties.

He grew up in Montana originally, and then his family moved to Buckman, Minnesota.    Dad was very talented musically.  He could play guitar and when he sang he sounded like Johnny Cash.   He actually played in a local band with a woman who played accordion and concertina and IMG_0507sang and they had a drummer. He quit the band when we were young and I think the staying up late on weekends in the local bars playing music became a problem for a guy taking care of a young family. However music was always part of our family activities.  We even had guitars along when we were camping. Yes, we actually did sing Kumbaya around the campfire with our cousins.  Everybody had a lot of kids, so camping was a few adults and then a boat load of kids that were all different ages. Everybody got included in everything no matter what age. Those were fun times!

He and Mom raised us on a beef cattle farm by Pierz, Minnesota, in which they took great pride.  My dad’s main job was driving truck for a road construction company and he drove everything from the large belly dump trucks to hauling heavy equipment. Many times he had to be gone during the week, living in our Winnebago travel trailer and coming home on weekends. So my Mom, a strong woman of German heritage, and we kids took care of the farm and cattle during the week. Beef cattle were fairly self sufficient in the summer.  Towards the end of the week we would have made plans for our family adventures.  We went camping, swimming and boating.  Dad got a large truck tire inner tube at one point and blew it up and we took turns trying to IMG_0510stand on it while swimming in the local lakes. He was with us the whole time trying to stand on it too. We all took a lot of dunks in the lake before we mastered that.

When we were teens, my Dad bought a boat and a pair of water skis and we all learned it.  Dad was first to try since it was his idea.  He mastered it in no time and was skiing on one ski.  We had a lot of fun with that boat in the 1970’s. He was always encouraging us to try new things and he always exuded complete confidence in our abilities. My mom was the same way and taught us to drive tractors and ride horses. She went along with all of our shenanigans.

We were the first in the neighborhood to buy snowmobiles, also in the 1970’s, and we used an old cover of a washer to pull behind the snowmobiles with a long rope like a snow saucer.  I amIMG_0508 surprised we survived that swinging around in crazy fashion through our snow covered farm fields.  When our neighbors and cousins got snowmobiles we would have large get togethers in the woods and start a campfire, roast hot dogs and drive snowmobiles at night.

For big family adventures  we planned vacations around farm work and Dad’s road work. I remember we went to Colorado in a long weekend by driving all night long.  When we reached Greely, Colorado, there were lots of young people driving and walking along the roads for a concert in town.  We experienced the beauty of Colorado and had great family time together.

IMG_0509There were very few things that my dad did not try and very few that he did not master.  He and Mom were excellent dancers, and he taught me to polka with him too. My grandpa, his dad, spent a lot of time at our farm too.  Grandpa and Dad built us a teeter-totter that not only went up and down, but also around.  It was dangerous looking back at it, but it was really fun and no one got seriously hurt.  They also built us a harness for our German Shepard dog. We hooked him up to the red wagon, with one of us sitting in the wagon and the others driving bikes in front of the wagon, and that dog would run like his tail was on fire down our long driveway giving the kid in the wagon the ride of their life.  The dog loved it.  When we brought out the harness he got all excited.

My dad is still an adventurous guy.  Even though he is in his eighties, he likes to travel with their RV and go fishing and camping. He and Mom still attend fun community and church activities, go out to dinner, and play cards with friends. He is still as fun as ever and still finds friends no matter where he goes.  He has taught us to be accepting of everyone, to explore the world, show kindness, be adventurous and not be fearful to try new things. Life is a gift.

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Adventure is in the Genes

I came to the conclusion that we all get our spirit of adventure in an honest way.  My parents, who are now in their eighties and have been married for over 60 years, were putting on th34aeir adventure pants long before REI invented them.  They were married in their early twenties and started off their life together with a three week driving adventure to Yellowstone, the Canadian Rockies, and Colorado.  They made a big loop, taking their time and traveling in a mint green Buick. They have awesome pictures to remember the event and I have attached some of them.

They looked so Fifties, with my Mom’s rolled up jeans and Dad looked like James Dean.  Extremely handsome and more importantly, they were both fun and adventurous. My Mom 37balways said that they each gained 20 lbs (exaggeration also runs in the family) from eating so many potato chips and malts while on vacation.

They have never shied away from adventure and in fact embraced the unknown and unexpected when traveling.  Mom and Dad have been to every state and most of them more than once over the years.  They have been to China, Japan and rented an RV and took a driving trip around Australia.  They took a cruise through the Panama Canal and drove the road to Hana in Hawaii.  Even though they were farmers from Pierz, their world was very large.  They are still active getting together with friends and going fishing and traveling with their RV.  They just don’t go as far anymore.38a

Their lust to see the world goes way back. In 1947, Dad and his only brother and parents traveled out West through the mountains in a 1942 Plymouth.  He did most of the driving, his brother read the maps and did the navigation, and his parents sat in the back seat – even though he was only 16 years old at the time and the mountain roads were gravel and narrow. You could not have paid me enough to sit in the back seat of a car while any of my 16 year olds had control of the car on Mountain roads. My grandparents had complete confidence in my dad and his abilities, and he lived up to their expectations.

35eHe bragged when we were young that he got his driver’s license from the Postmaster in town when he was 12.  The only test was the Postmaster asking him, if he could drive and he said “yes” and so he was given a license.

My grandparents also traveled a lot.  When I was growing up they took driving vacations every year and sometimes flew to their destinations. They went to Florida and brought us back a letter holder that had flamingos on it and sea shells.  My parents still have that letter holder. They also brought us a sea shell that they taught us to hold to our ear to hear the Ocean.  I still have that sea shell.

46aMy grandparents and parents gave us a gift. They showed us that travel is fun, that the world is a big and beautiful place and they taught us not to fear the unknown, but to embrace it.  They taught us to use our time on this earth wisely and to never waste an opportunity to enjoy our time off.  As simple as the lesson seems, so many struggle and worry about work more than it deserves.  The work will get done. We are not here to work our lives away. Time is your most valuable commodity. Take control of your time and seize the moment to enjoy your life!

Moonshine and the Law

I come from a long line of rule breakers, so of course I became a lawyer. Yes, my grandfather and his brothers and sisters, in Pierz, Minnesota, in the 1920’s were known for making some of the finest moonshine in the country. More than once we heard stories about them having to hide from the Feds during prohibition. Well, they were German so it was excusable. What good German could get along without some beer or moonshine on a regular basis?

They were a fun bunch even into their nineties and they actually did not hide the fact that they made moonshine during prohibition. They told their stories in an almost bragging fashion. There is only one sister left now, and she will be ninety nine soon. If you would use my great uncles and aunts as a study on longevity, you would have to conclude that rule breaking and drinking moonshine equals a long and FUN life.

Moonshine still from 1920s

Moonshine still from 1920s

They told one particular story where it is said that my grandpa and great uncles, who were all in their late teens and early twenties at the time, blew out all of the windows in the house while running the still in the basement. As the story goes, my great grandma was quite angry, because they had to go to different towns and just buy one window at a time so as not to raise suspicion at any one particular mercantile store. The story in hindsight is hard to believe because everyone in Pierz, it seemed, was of German heritage and many of them were related and probably bought the moonshine from my grandpa and his brothers, so exactly who would turn them in is not known.

They lived a couple of miles outside of town on the family farm running a dairy operation. The farm is still in the family and the original house is still there, but has been worked on and kept up nicely over the years. My grandpa also claimed that at one point during prohibition, two of his brothers had warrants out for their arrest and had to hide in the back woods of the family farm, until they received word from town that the Feds had left, not being able to find them.

They were a big happy family with a strong devotion to the Catholic faith. They would never miss church on a Sunday or eat before communion, but they made brew in the bathtub and risked Federal prison. It is a funny contrast when you think about it. It seems in hindsight that they chose which rules had to be followed. It could not be that they simply disagreed with prohibition. I am sure there were many rules in the church and elsewhere that they did not agree with, but yet followed them.

It had to be something specific about Prohibition. They clearly did not recognize the Federal Government’s ability to regulate liquor. They had to have a sense that the Federal Government had no right to make Alcohol illegal. This is an interesting concept in rural America in the 1920’s. They were farmers who raised their chickens and pigs and milked the cows, and planted and harvested their crops, and they made homemade bread and sausage and they raged against the man. I love it in hindsight. They were the original Rule breakers in the family and they passed down a sense of self confidence and the ability to question authority and question the main stream. Just because it was the law did not make it right.

Through their stories they passed down the ability to think for ourselves, and to enjoy life and the pursuit of happiness. It is these qualities that are embedded not only in our fond memories of them and their stories, but in our very genes that has helped us as their grandchildren and great grandchildren to be very successful in many ways. The descendants are doctors, accountants, successful business owners, nurses, a judge, teachers and one of my most fun cousins Don Millner, became a dentist, but now owns a successful winery in Kimball Minnesota. It is interestingly named after the moonshine making family and known as the Millner Heritage Winery. It is a really fun place to visit. We went with one of our BFC’s (Best Friend Couples) a couple of years ago and had an awesome Sunday afternoon drinking wine and exchanging stories with Donny. The wine is some of the best around and he has won many awards.

Family reunions on this side of the family are a full contact sport. You really have to train for it like a marathon and possibly wear ear plugs. They are loud, and in your face fun! You cannot go to this reunion without having a great time. This is a group that still drinks moonshine, just to be nostalgic and is proud of our rule breaking, outlaw heritage. The family is now spread all over the country, but we usually come back to our roots in Pierz, every few years to continue to hand down the stories that are a part of our very nature and heritage and raise glasses in honor of our grandparents and great uncles and aunts. They all taught us the simple, but important lesson of work hard and play hard and, of course the importance of family.

Simpler Things, Simpler Times

I am a middle-aged attorney/shareholder and division leader in my firm. I make good money. I have three wonderful children, a husband of 15 years and a big house in the Northern Suburbs of Minneapolis. So why do I miss the farm?

I grew up on a small beef cattle farm in Buckman, Minnesota. I picked rocks every spring as soon as I was strong enough to lift the small ones and I weeded the garden, baled hay and helped to care for the animals. We worked hard, but we also played hard. Animals were everywhere: cats and kittens, pigs and piglets, chickens, geese, dogs, a horse and of course lots of cows and calves. Life, death, and reproduction were a part of our every day life. My memories are filled with long summer days, running and playing in the creek by our house and building forts. I can still feel the sensation and exhilaration of taking a hot shower and dropping into bed totally exhausted after a hard day of baling hay. There is no bed that ever felt better and no sleep that was so restful.

My heart is in Buckman. The farm was sold many years ago and my parents retired to town. When we visit I always ask my husband to drive slowly past our farm. I have an overwhelming urge to jump from the vehicle and run home. I can’t explain it, but despite the fact that I have not lived there for over 25 years, it still looks and feels like home. How can one place on earth become so much a part of me that despite the years, the education, the job, husband, children and the good times in my current life that I long for it so.

When I graduated from high school, I couldn’t wait to leave for college and see what the world had in store for me. My parents encouraged higher education. To try to better ourselves is still a strong value in our family, probably a result of our immigrant heritage. It at least must have temporarily overpowered our connection with the land.

But, the old adage “You can take the girl off the farm, but never take the farm out of the girl,” is truly wise. Despite my success and happiness, at times I am a fish out of water. Something for me always seems to be missing. It is a grieving process with no closure. It is a fantasy for me to daydream about, leaving the city behind and moving back to the farm. Leaving the traffic jams, the stress, noise and life flying by at hyper speed. I fantasize about getting up in the morning, skipping the shower, hair and make up and instead of the suit, throwing on a pair of jeans and heading out to sit on the front steps to pet the dog with my morning coffee before setting out to feed the animals and weed the garden. Do our relatives and friends who had the guts to stay and preserve their way of life really live like that while we run on in the rat race of the city or is my perception a fantasy? Or, is it that age old problem that the grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence. Do we long for what we don’t have?

I have come to the realization, unfortunately, that my longing is a product of age and greener pastures. Yes, I am getting older. What I long for is an era gone by. An age when times and things were more simple. My relatives and friends on the farm work very hard and worry daily about the joan_simpler thingsweather, the prices of the products, farm conglomerates and how to maintain a living in a business and a way of life that is slowly being choked out.

They run their kids to activities and worry about violence and how to encourage their children to become responsible and productive adults just like we do. I know my fantasy is probably just that, a fantasy. But, I will always envy those who stayed for being able to have coffee on the steps while petting the dog. It took a lot of guts for those who stayed. I will always miss my basic connection to the farm and the memories that attend it.

I miss the era gone by, but also the way of life that still exists. I have learned to attempt to fill my void by living on 2 ½ acres of woods in a busy city. I have dogs and feed the wild birds. I volunteer at the humane society and take my kids out into the woods as often as possible. I plant flowers and vegetables and dig in the dirt.

I will never have the farm back or that way of life, but it is a part of my very being and brings a smile to my face in stressful and busy times. Others from the city may have memories of growing up, but the farm is a part of the very essence of my being. If you see a lawyer with dirt under her nails, it’s me, and I am proud of it.

A Bat with an Ugly Face

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Photo by Jane Wachutka

My grandmother on my mother’s side was one of a kind and everyone in the family could tell stories about her.  She was born to German immigrant parents in Pierz, Minnesota but if you heard her speak you would swear she was fresh off the boat from Germany. She and Grandpa spoke mainly German to each other in regular conversation and my mother had to remind them to speak English when talking to the grandchildren.  We had by osmosis picked up enough words over the years to know when to pass the bread at the table and we knew all of the words that had to do with us being in trouble for bad behavior. She was short and stout and I swear she was born wearing an apron. Grandma embraced her role as a farm wife and loved her large garden and orchard. That is what she called it and it was fruitful despite the poor soil in the area and the short growing season and cold winters in Minnesota. She had a number of varieties of apples, raspberries, blueberry bushes and a pear tree. I never actually saw pears on it, bet she claimed it grew pears.

Her ability to grow, raise and cook everything to not only feed her family of eight over the years, but to utilize everything without waste, in hindsight, is nothing less than astonishing.  She had chickens for eggs and meat, goats for milk, cattle, pigs and geese.  It was a way of life that is mostly history as local farmers have become more specialized instead of having the variety that they had back then. Grandma never said it, but you knew she loved her farm and she loved her way of life.  She greeted us with a big hug and always had homemade pie, which she made effortlessly without any recipe, and chiffon cake. We cousins, and there were a lot of us all around the same age, have fond memories of running loose around her farm in the warm sunshine, playing and sometimes getting into trouble, while our mothers helped with the harvest or canning, or if we were just there to celebrate a holiday or visit. It was a big close knit family and we all lived within a few miles and not a week went by without at least one visit.

She was never trying to be humorous, but my grandma was one of the funniest people we knew.    Grandma could sit in the kitchen, snapping beans talking to our mothers about normal things and it was like watching stand up comedy, except she was serious. I don’t know if it was the enthusiasm with which she could tell a story, or her ability to take normal events and spin them into pure entertainment for the entire crowd. She was genius because it made the mundane work of taking the stars off of a table full of strawberries or shelling a mountain of peas actually fun.

I remember one particular fall day when we all came over to help with the harvest of her garden and orchard.  It was the seventies and she and grandpa were getting older and they needed more help. Grandma’s three grown daughters, our mothers, were helping with the snapping and canning of green beans.  Her kitchen was small in her farm house but that did not prevent this crowd from getting the work done.  Our mothers did the jar filing and the canning, and we older girl cousins, about eight of us, sat around the old farm table and did the snapping of the beans. The guys were all out helping grandpa and doing the actual picking in the garden.

We sat around the table as they brought in bushel after bushel of green beans to add to our job.  My grandma was in charge in her kitchen, or at least she thought so, and our parents were very respectful to let her think she was in charge even as she got older and forgetful. As we sat around the table, long before any iPods or cell phones, we carried on conversations about everything and yet nothing.  My grandma many times was the center of any conversation.  If at any time the conversation lagged someone would get it kick-started again.  At one point my mother asked a simple but loaded question.  In hindsight asking simple and direct questions to my grandma was like turning a switch that got her going on a humorous story.  My mother was genius.

My mom asked what she and grandpa had done the past Saturday night and we could tell by her wind up that it was going to be a dosie.  She, in her heavy German accent started with” Auch…” which if you are not German sounds more like someone clearing their throat than an actual word if it is done right.  You could see her whole body get ready for the wind up and off she went… It started with…“While we were watching the Twins game all of a sudden a big bat started flying around our heads.” Clearly one of the biggest bats according to her story that she had ever seen, and she described it in great detail. She spun her tail giving every detail of how it flew from corner to corner in the room, swooping and diving like it had been hit by the cattle prod.  Her voice became louder and louder and more shrill as she continued.

Like any good German she was telling the story as much with her hands as her words. As the story got better she was restricted sitting behind the table with the beans in her lap.  She stopped what she was doing to stand and swing her arms re-enacting how she and grandpa were ducking and how grandpa was swinging the broom at the bat. But the best part of the story was that she was insistent that this was no ordinary bat flying around the house. She was insistent that this particular bat had the ugliest Shniss (evidently a German word for face or at least she thought so) that she or anyone had ever seen.  It was not only the ugliest schniss she and grandpa had ever seen, but she described it as almost demonic, as if it was sneering at them with its contorted face, as if teasing and taunting them.

The way she described it, it sounded as if this particular bat had an evil plan as it flew around swooping at their heads.  It was clearly no ordinary bat as you listened to her story. They lived in an old two story stucco farm house that had an attic and some interesting dark and creepy crawl spaces upstairs that we had used for hide and seek many times over the years. It was not at all surprising to hear there was a bat in this old house, but to have one that was so evil and had such an ugly face flying around their heads, was a story that had us laughing so hard that we lost track of time and made us not mind our work. The more we laughed, the bigger the story got.

Grandma’s story was getting so big that she now had to move around the areas of the kitchen and her small frame gesturing with her whole body as she was pointing at the upstairs and the bedroom as she was recreated the ugly faced, evil bat’s rampage around the house. As my Mom and her sisters and we cousins listened to grandma’s story, the volume to the collective laughter continued to grow until the room was in an uproar.  But as we laughed at her story and the seriousness with which she insisted that the Bat had such an ugly schniss, she seemed to be even more driven to make us believe that this was no ordinary bat and she worked even harder to convince us of how evil this bat really was.  Her story wound up with grandpa catching it in a fishing dip net and almost getting bitten taking it outside where it, in its clearly evil ways, escaped the net and flew towards the barn.  By the time this was over, everyone was convinced that she believed this bat was the devil itself, she and grandpa had escaped its evil plot and more importantly we were convinced that we had the best and funniest grandma in the world.

Our big family taught us an appreciation for hard work and to find satisfaction in supporting ourselves. Grandma taught us simplicity and the importance of family and that we can find humor in everyday activities. She taught us that nothing tastes better than food we have grown with our own hands and even now so many years later, and being so far removed from the farm, I think of grandma Barbara when I trim the blueberry bush in my flower bed and grow fresh herbs on my windowsill in an attempt to hold on to my past.  It makes me smile and brings back so many floods of memories when I bake those blueberry muffins from scratch with my home grown berries.  It is amazing how a simple woman in her own corner of the earth had created  her own paradise in her orchard and how she could have such a profound affect on so many in her family. We love you Grandma.

blueberry bush