May 30th is the 150th anniversary of celebrating and remembering deceased veterans. It began in 1868 as Decoration Day to commemorate the soldiers slain in the Civil War, and later those lost in the Spanish-American, World War I and World War II. As a child in the 1950’s, we celebrated the day in quaint ways that seem almost relics from another century. I remember Decoration Day (as we called before 1971) as a more solemn and communal occasion than it seems after changing its observance from a fixed date to the end of a three-day weekend on the fourth Monday in May. Along the way, we may lost much of the communal solemnity.
Decoration Day always occurred during the most glorious weather southern Minnesota can offer. A time to honor the dead at a season of new life. The trees were leafed out, wild phlox and geraniums bloomed in the woodlands, orioles and meadowlarks trilled from the fencerows and cottonwood groves. This day meant two things important to this schoolboy: my little sister’s birthday and the last week of classes before summer vacation.
My memories of our small-town Decoration Day celebration began with the sale of buddy poppies in the Rexall drug store, the Ben Franklin dime store and other shops. Veterans of World War II sold them to raise money for comrades disabled in conflict. At the age of 10 or 11, I couldn’t explain why I bought one except everyone expected me to. Like going to church, I did it because–well–everyone else did it. It was part of being an American to wear this icon of remembrance and sacrifice.
On this day, the merchants of Janesville hung out flags and there was a parade led by the VFW honor guard carrying the American flag followed by the drill team marching along, the sun gleaming off their chromed helmets and the barrels of the Springfield rifles on their shoulders. Behind them came VWF Women’s Auxiliary and the high school band playing patriotic songs for this solemn occasion. If there were speeches, I don’t recall them but they weren’t things boys remembered.
Decoration Day meant a trip to the Janesville Cemetery on a knoll a mile east of town. In the days leading up to the celebration, families raked the ground over the graves, mowed the new grass and decorated the headstones with flowers (real or made of paper), and small American flags. Our family went to the cemetery with Aunt Faith to visit her father’s grave. On the headstones I saw many familiar surnames, the ancestors of my classmates and school chums. Even as a boy, I felt a palpable but still inexpressible link connecting me to those lying beneath the headstones.
Almost every man I knew when I was a boy had served in World War II in some capacity. Uncle Walter, our neighbor’s brother, lost an eye fighting the Japanese. Our dentist served in the cavalry (without horses), mother’s cousin was a B-24 crew chief and my uncle Rob ran an Air Force fighter communications network in China.
Mrs. Wegge, our sixth-grade teacher, prepared us for Decoration Day. I recall learning the first stanza of the famous poem, In Flanders’ Fields, written in 1915 by a Canadian soldier amazed to see the brilliant red flowers blooming in the hellish no-man’s land churned and pocked by shells:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
The poem’s elegiac meaning made little impression on me until the summer of 1961, after I graduated from high school. I visited Flanders in Belgium as part of an air cadet exchange with other NATO countries. Belgium is one tenth the size of Minnesota and a battleground during much of its history. Flanders lies north of Brussels, Waterloo, the site of Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, lies just south of it and Bastogne, a major battle of World War II, lies to the east. During that month, our Belgian Air Force hosts showed us historic sites from many wars. We laid a wreath at the tomb of the unknown and our contingent sat atop the hull of a tank destroyed in the battle for Bastogne, sixteen years before. I returned home from Belgium amid a national mobilization for conflict with the Soviet Union over access to Berlin. War seemed very close.
The grief of the Civil War, the Great War and World War II touched virtually every American community and nearly everyone knew of a family that had lost someone. Congressional declarations of war and shared sorrow once mobilized the nation into a common effort. For 30 years, compulsory military service gave young men a common and transformative experience and every family a direct stake in going to war or opposing it.
John F. Kennedy’s call to “ask what you can do for your country” has lapsed with time. The abolition of the draft and reliance on a wholly professional military has made serving one’s country an option, a choice but not a shared responsibility. I fear this change has made us numb to the conflicts ostensibly waged for our protection. And with this disconnection, we may lose our understanding of Memorial or Decoration Day as a time of comunal remembrance.
Good Friday? As a boy, I wondered why they called it good? What was so good about getting killed? As a ten-year-old in the 1950’s, I took certain things for granted because adults didn’t encourage questions about basic assumptions. And besides, we lived on a farm and I had other, more immediate things to do—like feed the chickens. That’s just the way things were.
Our family shopped in the Minnesota village of Janesville, population 1,100. It had a stoplight, a town cop, a volunteer fire department, a public school and one of every necessary commercial service: grain elevator, drug store, coffee shop, gas station, furniture store-funeral home, hardware, dentist, doctor, veterinary, butcher, beer joint, five and dime, feed and hatchery. There were three active churches: Trinity Lutheran (Missouri Synod), St. Anne’s Roman Catholic and St. John’s Episcopal.
In those days, your particular denomination defined you and your associations socially much more than it does today. Your church reflected your ethnic origins, beliefs, state of spiritual salvation (as seen by others) and whom you might marry. The German immigrants and their children attended Trinity Lutheran, the children of Irish and Polish immigrants went to St. Anne’s and the Yankees, like my family, belonged to St. John’s Episcopal. Ecumenism wasn’t in anyone’s lexicon and a “mixed marriage” was an anathema, a kind of cultural treason that could get your exiled from the family.
The Missouri Synod church was a particularly strict and conservative sect. When boys were invited to join the town Scout troop, the Lutheran pastor said “no!” because—God forbid—his boys might come into contact with Catholics! To keep the children faithful, the church had an elementary school (grades one to eight) conveniently located across the alley from the public school. We farm kids lived on adjacent to each other and rode the yellow buses to our respective schools.
During recess on winter days, we public school boys took on the ‘Dutchies’ (for their ancestry) in epic snowball wars across the alley. We organized. Those with the strongest arms threw and the rest of us packed ammunition. It didn’t matter who threw first. The tribal response always came in force and dense salvos of hard-packed snowballs flew back and forth. Sooner or later, someone laced snowballs with pebbles. Tears and blood followed. When the bells rang, the day’s war ended and we returned to classes gloating over our victories. Later, we boarded the buses and sat with the foes we fought so viciously earlier in the day. No one held a grudge.
Despite our sectarian prejudices, Lutheran, Catholic or Episcopal, we reverenced Christmas, Holy Week and Easter. That said, we had no ecumenical services until after Vatican II, and then only on a limited basis. Instead of ecumenism, and despite the narrower opinions and preferences of that time, we gave each other space to observe holy days and ceremonies without interference or criticism.
Everyone celebrated Christmas in a cheery and quasi-secular way but Good Friday felt different. It passed as a subdued afternoon, as if a storm brooded, and adults said little and children were shushed. Whether by custom, ordinance or informal agreement, Janesville shut down between the hours of noon and three o’clock. The bank, drug store, five and dime, grocery and even the bar closed to observe the hours when Jesus suffered on the cross and darkness covered the land. Many of us sat in our respective churches, our altars bare, the crosses draped in black veils and listened to the Gospel lesson about betrayal, death and forgiveness—the same Scripture in each church. During these hours of sober self-examination rose the prayers asking forgiveness of our sins.
Now, looking back from a half-century on, I know our differences in ancestry, ethnicity and prejudice blinded us to what we shared in common. Maybe that’s why it was a good Friday. In those three hours, we were of one spirit in reverence for something we held in common even if we refused to recognize it. These days, three hours of publicly shared and reflective silence could help us all see something greater good we share lying just beyond our immediate prejudices and passions.
Thanksgiving occupied a special place in the year on our Minnesota farm and marked the end of the crop year. During the eight months between April and November, we tended the fields; tilling planting, cultivating, harvesting and then plowing. Every day, we minded the sky for the perils of the season—late spring frost, heat waves and drought, cloud bursts and flood, hail storms and early snow. Any one of these could wipe out a season’s labors. Most years, we sprinted through two months of fickle autumn weather as it slid from summery to wintery, picking corn, plowing stubble and culling the livestock before freeze-up and snow. After Thanksgiving, we relaxed a while.
Our first on-farm Thanksgiving occurred in 1947 and the last one in 1997. I was four years old that first year when my mother roasted a goose and cooked the garden vegetables she raised. November snow fell early. Five acres of corn remained unpicked and the stubble stood plowed. Both must wait until spring. The cars didn’t start for several days. Yet, my urbanized New Jersey parents were grateful. They pulled up stakes that April to go farming in southern Minnesota despite the absence of agricultural experience. They were still in their twenties and still immortal.
We lived in a draughty house in need of paint. Rusty barbed wire fences kept livestock away from the house. Small hillside fields bordered with weeds ringed the slough in the center of things. A line of woods marked the winding river half a mile away. Nothing about this place predicted prosperity. But come it did. Drainage and tiling turned the slough into rich bottomland. Contoured fields arrested soil erosion, check dams formed small ponds and the woods improved under professional management. Wherever he could, dad planted trees and created niches for wildlife. Year by year, the farm became more productive of corn and wheat, deer and pheasants, songbirds and ducks.
My mother shone in glory on Thanksgiving amid the roasted turkey, green tomato mincemeat pies topped with hard sauce, roast carrots, mashed potatoes, silky gravy and cranberry sauce. Cousins and aunts from town joined our table and afterward the adults played bridge and children played Monopoly and Parcheesi. For many years in the 1950’s, the television station ran The Wizard of Oz on Thanksgiving. We loved the tornado scenes.
As my siblings and I grew up and married, our spouses and children replaced the cousins around the table. But some things didn’t change. November is still the grayest month in Minnesota—cloudy, cold and damp. At times, depressing. On Thanksgiving mornings, Dad and I still went outside to do some light chores, such as splitting and hauling firewood while mother, sister and wife finished preparing the food. Out came the good china, the monogrammed silver and crystal. These familiar roles and routines gave as much comfort as the food. A confirmation. We knew who we were, where we were and why we were thankful.
When all was ready, we bowed our heads and dad said a grace over the important things. Then the platters and bowls circled the table and our plates vanished under piles of mashed potatoes, slices of turkey, peas and smooth gravy. Looking out of the windows, I saw our newly plowed fields stretching to the river. Sometimes snow dusted the furrows and sometimes not. Yet the cloudiness never dampened our gratitude. We had the fields, the palpable connection, the umbilical between our livelihood and abundance.
We celebrated the last on-farm Thanksgiving in 1997. Mom and Dad were retired, no longer immortal but as lively as ever and wiser for their experiences. Arthritis crippled my mother at 80 but she was still a game chef. Dad and I still went outside to finish some chores, fewer now than in years past.
Thanksgiving, between helpings of turkey and pie, I realized this was the last time I would sit at this table and see the furrows, black and rich, awaiting spring. Gazing out and across the fields, I saw for last time the farm as it had formed me. Come spring, a crew would seed the fields with prairie grasses and plant clumps of oaks. This pleased dad but I felt melancholy—like the death of a friend—the permanent loss of intimacy with the living soil that had long sustained us.
Was I thankful? Yes, always! But I was more than thankful. I felt grateful and my gratitude grew from our intimate relationship with the soil. Dad thought of loam as magic stuff, a community of organisms that, with the sun, released life-building nutrients to produce fields of corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa. He held the soil as in a trust. Now, he was retiring the fields he retired.
Gratitude comes with humility and humility comes from recognizing you aren’t so self-sufficient that you don’t need the aid of anyone or anything. We are all part of an interdependent web of life. Our soil neither promised nor gave us a crop unless we collaborated with its organisms to produce it. We were married to the loam and tended it so it could tend, feed and sustain us.
I said a bittersweet goodbye to the farm that Thanksgiving. After 20 years, I still miss the palpable fulfillment of feasting in sight of newly plowed fields dusted with snow. I still miss feeling connected to a plot of soil I worked to produce corn, soybeans and wheat. I miss the spontaneous gratitude that comes when we were spared the worst of the weather. Or, if we were struck, gratitude for our recovery from it. Most of all, I miss the sense of life living with the land and not off the land. And with that, I miss the simple joy of life lived knowingly along the tenuous margins of security. Thanksgiving on the farm taught me humility that prepared me to be grateful. On this day, a slice of humble pie still satisfies the soul.
People who knew my father often said I was the ‘spittin’ image’ of him. And there was some truth to that. We walked with similar gaits, we were similar about the eyes, though his were blue and mine were brown. Beyond that, however, we diverged. Dad was an extrovert while I enjoy solitude as much or more than company. Since the advent of DNA tests, ‘spittin’ image’ takes on a new meaning.
For a long time, I ignored the offers to send my DNA to the genealogical company to learn about my ancestry. My family tree is well-documented back to England in the 1630s. I recall my shock and disbelief when I discovered my father’s earliest ancestor (Abraham Newell) and my mother’s, (John Livermore) arrived in Boston on the same ship. They were English Puritans fleeing the persecution of Archbishop William Laud. They must have become acquainted during their three-months voyage before landing in Boston and going their separate ways and intermarried Puritan descendants in New England and New York. The last immigrant to marry into my family came from England in 1814. My parents married in 1941, uniting two families who voyaged together 305 years earlier.
I gave in, ordered the kit, spit into the tube and sealed the sample inside its mailer. Why am I spending $79 for this? I wondered. What can it tell me about my ancestors that I don’t already know? I sent it off, confident of the results: a preponderance of British DNA with soupçons of French from the invading Normans and maybe a drop from the marauding Danes.
With surnames liked Searle, Christie, Livermore, Baldwin, Cook, Eliot, Stewart, Smith, Wheelock, Wood, Douglas, Taylor and Warren, I had no doubts my family originated with the English and Scots. Searle is one of the commonest of English names–like Anderson in Minnesota. My extended family tree included only one set of Dutch ancestors and that one very recent. We came from what was called ‘good Yankee stock,’ a phrase better fitting the bull of highland cattle. What they meant was, we were white Protestants from Britain or maybe the Netherlands.
Six weeks later, when the email with my results arrived, I opened the link to see a colored pie chart before me. Things aren’t always as they seem and neither am I. A large lemon wedge—41%—said West Europe (France, Netherlands), an apple green wedge—19%—said British (English, Welsh and Scottish), and a gray wedge—40%—said ‘Other.’ That’s me? Not what I expected!
And what’s in the ‘Other?” That category included 18% Irish, 11% Scandinavian, 7% East European and 2% (possibly) Italian. In the State of Minnesota, it’s useful to claim some Scandinavian ancestry. Call it street cred. Besides, it’s good for my marriage since my wife’s great-grandparents emigrated from Norway.
What does this mean in the end? Or doesn’t it mean anything?
Regardless of what the DNA tells me about my past (and it’s fun to speculate and wonder), my identity is determined by where I live, whom I live among, the language I speak and the cultural norms that guide my thoughts and actions. You and I are creatures of the present time. Our strains of DNA entered our family lines long before recorded history when the coastlands and rivers were the crossroads for traders and raiders, for people seeking refuge from other groups or finding good land for crops. The Saxons, Frisians, Franks and Gauls settled in Britain before the collapse of Rome. Migration and trade after that deepened the mixture. The various genetic strains represent peoples and cultures that, like yeast in bread dough, are invisible but inextricably bound up with the mass of flour and water.
Unless our ancestors and immediate family lived in extremely isolated communities, it’s probable our DNA contains many contributions from varied sources over time. Were it possible (and I wish it were), you and I might look back in time to see our common ancestors and their struggles or even the moment when they received the genetic link that binds us now. I know that moment was there—is there—but we can’t see it.
How you and I see each other has more to do with culture and language than invisible DNA. Yes, we may notice differences in racial traits at first but, unless either of us is a bigot, we aren’t likely to linger for long on skin tone or the shapes of eyes and noses. We will be listening to expressions of values, ideas, opinions, humor among many other traits. You and I will know the other by our demeanor; whether we smile or glower, act kindly or harshly, with modesty or egotism. These things will quickly tell us whether we are apt to be friends.
I have no idea where my most ancient origins began. My veins don’t run with the ‘pure blood’ from any group—and it’s likely yours don’t either. Though we are free to interpret our past as we choose, there is at least one over-riding lesson we can draw from our DNA. Racial purity is a lie.
You and I probably share a relationship much closer than we may suspect because it isn’t obvious on the surface. But if we pay attention to our DNA, we can’t sustain the fiction that we are so different from others as to put them in a separate category. There is no ‘other;’ there is only ‘us.’ Our DNA makes us children of many fathers and mothers; at the level of our DNA, we are the ‘spittin’ image’ of each other.
To most people, June 6 is D-Day but, in my family, it’s Mom’s birthday. Born Janette Elizabeth Christie in Montclair, New Jersey, she would be 100 today had she lived. Why do I pay special attention to her birthday 17 years after she died?
A century mark is a reminder of our connections forward and backward through time. My mother knew people who had fought in the Civil War, and sailed on schooners; her father gave her rides in open cockpit biplanes, and she watched men walk on the moon. She grew up at the end of WASP era of social prominence in her grandmother’s Victorian house where domestic servants cleaned, cooked, gardened, and kept an eye on her. Her family ‘summered’ by Lake Piseco at the Irondequoit Club in the Adirondack Mountains where she learned to fish for trout and shoot a rifle. A bright student, she skipped a grade, spent her 13th year in France with her aunt and uncle, and returned home, a francophone. Thanks to her grandmother’s generosity, she graduated from Simmons College, a private institution that prepared women for the professions. She chose library science, and her peers chose her as president of the student body. Although she graduated with highest honors, we knew nothing about that until we wrote her obituary.
“Just call me Jane,” she said as her introduction; Janette Elizabeth appeared only on legal documents. Jane is a solid, everywoman name that fit her well. It doesn’t sound snooty and pretentious, like Janette. She married in 1941, and passed the war in New Jersey. Afterward, she, my father, and her brother bought a farm in Minnesota, although neither man had any experience. She agreed to this—provided the house had central heat and an indoor toilet. Over parental opposition, they pooled their life savings and bought–sight unseen–280 acres of eroding fields, sloughs, cut-over woods, a sluggish river, and shabby buildings. On April 10, 1947, Jane, my Dad, my sister and I arrived in Minnesota at the play they called ‘The River Farm.’ Never did I hear her utter a regret over trading the wealth and status of Montclair for life on a Minnesota farm.
She kept the farm accounts, cooked, raised children, drove tractors as necessary, fed lambs with a bottle, gardened, and canned vegetables. She hosted meetings of the University’s Home Extension Service. Jane knew who she was and easily made others comfortable regardless of their background. She wasn’t afraid to ask questions of better-informed farm women with 9th grade educations. Jane simply engaged them where they were and went from there. She made fitting in look easy, focusing on values rather than possessions. After she died, we discovered fine silver and crystal I had never seen stored in the basement. It was like her to think the silver platters from Tiffany’s were out of place in a Minnesota farmhouse.
We all remember our mothers for their meals—famous as acts of love. Jane excelled at mince meat pies, gravies, and was a whiz at turning left-overs into new meals. Ever frugal, she made Christmas ornaments and gifts to save money. But she valued culture and, on Sunday afternoons, she listened to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Besides the St. Paul Pioneer Press, she read the Saturday Review of Literature, worked crossword puzzles, excelled at Scrabble, and read literature. A grammarian, she made certain her children knew when and how to use ‘who’ and ‘whom,’ ‘lain’ and ‘laid.’ She loved Winnie the Pooh, and sprinkled her conversations with phrases like “a little smackeral of something.” A hopeful and intuitive person, she told me, “Don’t plan anything, something good might turn up.”
Whether it was nobless oblige or not, she quietly set about serving others without notice or condescension. She catalogued books at the county library, organized a library for a law firm. As a Civil Air Patrol officer, she served as the squadron’s administrative officer. Ten years after we arrived, the voters sent my father to the Legislature for 12 terms, and Jane became his advisor, critic, strategist, and editor without dropping her other chores. Later in life, she read stories to children at the local library. She filled her life with many roles: wife, mother, grandmother, librarian, advisor, and reader. She was many things to many people but to everyone she was always herself. A simple plaque on her kitchen wall aptly summed up her life: ‘Bloom Where You’re Planted.’
Jane lived at The River Farm for 53 years until her death in October 2000. On that bright autumn afternoon, she lay in her bed, looked out the window, and her spirit drifted across the fields to the river and into the trees beyond. We buried her ashes in the woods near her mother, brother, and aunt. Later, my father joined her. It is a quiet opening on high ground where woodland phlox bloom in June, and song birds call.
“Just call me Jane” was her calling card. She planted her life at The River Farm, and bloomed with values, virtues, mores, and manners that she gave as gifts to her children. Her presence was a gift of unmerited grace, and pausing to recall and celebrate Jane is like a Pentecost, a moment when the fires of love, compassion, and grace rest on us like tongues of flame.
I park my car on the county road and stand next to the mail box. The brisk November wind wipes clean the azure sky, and the sun casts sepia light on the corn stubble, grass, and leaves. From the mailbox I can see our farm in a glance. This is where I first saw the farm as a child. We called the place home for 67 years. Now, with my back to the wind, I take a last, long look good-bye.
My arrival in Minnesota is an eidetic memory, a tenacious image of a passing moment. The rain had stopped but the yellowish clay road is boggy. After days on the road, Dad stops the gray 1940 Plymouth on the shoulder of Waseca County Road 26. The lane downhill to the farmhouse is a slick rut of black mud. I sit in the back seat with my infant sister. Low clouds and pewter puddles add to the day’s gloom surrounding the weathered farmhouse with peeling paint, and the slattern barn in need of boards. The moment we stop among the dark, loamy fields and soggy stubble comes back to me. It’s April 10, 1947. I’m three years old, and this is my earliest memory of home.
My mother’s family followed the sea, and Dad’s pursued business but my parents threw off city life in New Jersey to go farming in Minnesota. Seeking an independent life, they ignored parental warnings about being broke within six months, and entered a partnership with Rob, Mom’s brother. With audacious courage, my young parents invested their life savings, our future, in a farm they had never seen. They couldn’t turn back.
Our place—the River Farm–consisted of a ‘T’-shaped tract totaling 280 acres. Three 40-acre parcels ran south from the county road and intersected 160 acres of bottomland forest and marsh running east to west along the LeSueur River. Sluggish in summer, the river flooded in spring and on this day its water covered half our fields. A low ridge snaked through the woods and ended a mile away at ‘Bunker Hill’ on our south line.
They bought the farm from John Jennison, my great-grandfather, a shrewd, self-educated, small-town banker. He wore dark suits, lived in a three-story Victorian house, and signed his name with a modest flourish. He loved poetry, and I recall him declaiming, ‘Listen my children and you shall hear/ Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere …’.
When Uncle Rob told him which farm we wanted to buy, grandfather asked, “Why do you want that one?”
“Because we like the view,” Uncle Rob replied.
“Rob … you can’t farm a view!”
Dad learned the practical tasks of farming by asking the neighbors ‘dumb questions’ and studying the bulletins published by the Agricultural Extension Service. By ones and twos, he bought cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens. We had a small tractor but for years Dad made do with reworked horse-drawn equipment he bought at auctions. When they closed the books on 1947, the farm earned $2,300 and spent $13,000. “We are really in the red,” Dad said.
We were ‘foreigners’ for a time—Yankee Easterners. In our township of German immigrants and their children, we heard accented English in phrases like ‘come here once,’ and ‘so you did that already now.’ Like all newcomers, we stood out in unexpected ways. We milked the brown Guernsey cattle of the British Isles but our neighbors kept
herds of the black and white Holsteins from Germany. Our tractor, a gray Ford-Ferguson, seemed tiny next to the neighbors’ large green and yellow John Deere’s and crimson McCormick-Deering Farmall’s. Everyone shopped in Janesville at Wiste’s Red and White Grocery, bought feed at the Archer Daniel’s mill, and sold grain at the Huntington elevator. However, on Sundays the Mittelstaedt’s attended St. John Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), the Eustice’s went to St. Ann’s Catholic Church, and we attended St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Despite our peculiarities, we quickly folded into a closely knit rural neighborhood. During lean, post-war years, everyone swapped labor and equipment at planting and
harvest. This unspoken mutual assistance pact lasted until everyone owned all the equipment they needed. We lived securely, and no one locked his doors in case a neighbor needed to use the phone. Three years passed before our phone arrived, a wooden box with a crank. Eleven other parties shared the line and eaves-dropping was expected. Such neighborly intimacy lasted until the 1960s when private phone lines appeared.
Dad treated farm work like a form of play, a puzzle to solve, a game to win. Possessed of a Protestant’s belief in working out his salvation, he found spiritual contentment in tilling the soil. Farming was a kind of religious stewardship. I was about six when we planted the first of many thousands of trees. He told me about the idea of stewardship and leaving the world better than I found it. The earth was like gold to him—something miraculous to be treated as reverently as sacramental elements. Planting trees and preparing the ground for planting pleased him, and he stayed on the tractor until dusk. In the gloaming, on tranquil May evenings, I heard him whistling Broadway show tunes above the murmur of the tractor’s engine, a contented man.
I was not yet six years old when Dad, short-handed at haying, asked me to steer the tractor and hay wagon. ‘Oh boy!’ This was a rite of passage into becoming a ‘big boy.’ Although I had often steered the tractor while sitting on Dad’s lap, now I would do it on my own. After he hitched the tractor to the hay wagon and loader, I sat the tractor seat, he set the hand throttle, shifted it into gear, and I steered the rig across the field. While I looked through the steering wheel to align the radiator cap with the windrow of hay, Dad forked the hay onto the wagon. I drove
tractor after that a year before I went to school and learned to read. By the age of 10, my chores included feeding the chickens, collecting the eggs for sale, pulling weeds in soybean fields, and hauling manure, picking up bales, and plowing stubble. As ‘big boy’ chores mounted, I looked for ways out of them.
A creek from our neighbor’s pasture emptied into 50 acres of marshy ground at the center of the farm. The marsh lacked an outlet and the soil didn’t dry out until mid-summer. This struck Dad as a waste of good land and, like a missionary among heathens, he set out to ‘redeem’ it. During the summer I turned nine, soil conservation engineers peered through their transits and drove a line of stakes through our marshy ground. When the dragline arrived, I spent days mesmerized by its work as the huge bucket opened a mile of ditch to the river. After that, a bulldozer shaped the dirt into a levee to keep the river’s floods from our fields. Our project was but one of a greater change reshaping the face of southern Minnesota. In every township, draglines turned winding creeks into straight channels. Bulldozers erased oak groves, brush patches, potholes and sloughs to make way for more fields of corn and soybeans.
No one foresaw that adopting hybrid seeds, fertilizers, and newly reclaimed land would result in bumper crops that depressed prices for corn and wheat. To make up for lost income, farmers planted even more acres, further lowering prices. By the end of the 1950s, we and many others enrolled some of our fields in the Federal ‘Soil Bank’ program to cut surpluses. Ducks and geese changed their migration routes, bluebirds and plovers lost their nesting areas, and it’s been years since I have heard a meadowlark on the farm.
In this small corner of Waseca County, I lived among people whose varied origins and talents shaped my later life. My mother passed on many of her upper-class social graces. She had a college degree as a librarian, spoke French, and encouraged my artistic and literary efforts. Dad focused on teaching me practical skills on the farm in counterpoint to Uncle Rob, a charismatic artist whose idealism never matched Dad’s tenacious persistence. Rob left us after several years to pursue more quixotic adventures.
The Mittelstaedt’s became like a second family to us. Heinz, a German immigrant, had a booming voice, a twinkle in his eye, and his shrewd mind made good use of his limited education. Gertie, his generous, broad-hipped wife, set extra places for us at her table without a fuss. Once, she made room for my sister, uncle, and me at her Thanksgiving dinner when a sudden blizzard trapped my parents in town.
During adolescence, I became a disciple of Ed Iversen, a retired U.S. forest ranger and regular companion on fishing trips and pheasant hunts. He taught me woodcraft, fly-fishing, and introduced Dad and me to canoe trips in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters. Opinionated and testy, I could only do things his way or the wrong way. Under his guidance, I learned the elements of ecology and forest conservation, an influence that later led me to write a book on wilderness protection.
Aunt Jeanette and Uncle Geza lived nearby. She had retired from medicine, and he retired from labor arbitration to be a gentleman farmer. A Hungarian Jew, he spoke five languages, played concert violin, and dabbled in writing history. He inspired me to think critically saying, “The mind is a wonderful place to play” over chess games. He was right.
Dad served 12 terms in the Minnesota Legislature while farming and improving higher education was his passion. To advance his goals, he hosted annual summer sweet corn parties for legislators, college officials, and others who wanted to improve Minnesota’s public colleges. Over buttery sweet corn from our field, the guests chewed on ideas, formed friendships, and built a coalition that state colleges into a system of state universities. Though I was then a disinterested teen, I absorbed many lessons in the art of coalition building I would one day need in my career.
I attended a vocational boarding school beginning at the age of 14. An indifferent student, I saw little point to the classes in agronomy, arc welding and carpentry, history, English, and biology. Years later, after college and graduate school, during a career at Cargill, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, and Second Harvest Heartland, I often drew on the practical lessons and insights learned from the neighbors, and the vocational classes. If nothing else, hours on the tractor seat made me tenacious.
Dad’s active farming ended in the fall of 1961. He rented the fields to a neighbor, took up selling life insurance, and had an auction shortly before I went to college. The stocky auctioneer stood on a wagon and pointed his cane at a plow parked nearby. “C’mon boys, $300,” he called in a rapid sing-song. He tapped the with his cane. “$300. Gimme three, gimme three, three … I see four! Who’ll gimme four-fifty, four-fifty, fifty, fifty …” One by one, the buyers claimed their prizes and we turned a page on the farm.
Many years later, in 1997, after Mom roasted the Thanksgiving turkey and my wife made the pies, the whole family sate table, and looked at the newly fallow fields stretching to the dark trees along the river. We had just finished our 50th harvest. Our last. My parents had managed to ‘farm a view’ that was now covered by a conservation easement. From now on, The River Farm would produce wild grass and trees, not corn and soybeans. The news filled me with unexpected melancholy. I feared the absence of the seasonal rhythms of planting, cultivating, and harvesting would severe a visceral link between the fields that had sustained us and an abiding sense of gratitude.
In the following decade, Dad breached the levees and tile lines, restored wetlands, and planted trees. Despite his good stewardship, I felt increasingly disconnected from the farm as it became something different from the childhood grange that had formed me. Mom and Dad stayed on the farm until the end of their lives. Now they rest across the river on the ridge near a granite boulder among the bloodroot and wild phlox where they used to camp and watch the migrating songbirds. There was a tenacious majesty to their persistence in ‘farming a view’ and bringing about a landscape that reflected their vision. They never described their intention concretely yet they worked at fulfilling it with silent determination.
I haven’t lived at The River Farm for nearly 50 years but I have never left home completely. None of us do. The farm I remember, the one that haunts me, is the farm of my youth where each field presented a distinct face, depending on the crop and the season. I still see the oats turning amber in July with thunderheads coasting along on the horizon. On long-shadowed August evenings with cricket songs, I see corn standing next to velveteen alfalfa hemmed by the woods lining the river. In this promised land of memory, the scene is more artistic than agricultural. This is the farm I where I grew up, and where I still grow up.
As a youth and young adult, I was too green to appreciate the dismal prospects of this soggy tract with its draughty house and battered barns. Now, 70 years later, I am amazed at my parents’ tenacious grit in bringing this run-down farm to a productive peak and then, after 50 years, expanding their vision to turn the fields and woods into a landscape wilder than it was when we arrived. It looks as if we had never farmed it. This morning I came to the farm to hand the keys to its new owners. After a brief history of the place, and a few minutes of small talk, I wish them well as I leave the house.
I get out of my car by the mailbox, the spot where Dad stopped the car in 1947. We held title to this land for 67 years but the land possessed us more than we ever possessed it. This tract of southern Minnesota soil belongs to someone else now but it is still my family’s home in the geography of my heart. My parents, neighbors, and friends still live there in memory. Their words point my way forward, like cairns on a trail across level plains. With my face to the sun and back to the wind, I need only close my eyes to see the farm again as a three year-old because time is fluid and memories flow easily between 1947 and now.
As a boy, I waited eagerly for many things. Waiting generated anticipation, hope, and impatience for time to pass swiftly. Waiting tested my self-control, and I learned to distract myself from the object of my attention. When you are a boy, and you think a day of waiting is an eternity, it helps to have something else to do.
Despite summer’s many delights on our farm, I longed for mid-October. Nothing delighted me like the shorter days, colder nights, the half-harvested fields of corn, the frost on the grass, and the pastel sunsets. Why? Because the seasons for hunting pheasants and ducks began in October. At the age of 13 or 14, I had no qualms about taking the lives of sentient creatures. I waited for glorious day when I could blast them out of the sky with a single shot.
Pheasant season opened in mid-October, and on that day my mother prepared lunch for the usual gang of hunters. Besides my father, there was John, our banker; Irv, who ran the feed mill, and his son Buddy; Doc, our dentist; Ed, the retired forest ranger, and me. We gathered in the house about 11 a.m., filled our plates with sloppy Joes on a bun, potato chips, a pickle, and a soda or coffee—the traditional opening day lunch. The dogs—two Weimaraners, and a setter—waited outside.
Our clock struck noon. Time to go. We heard muffled ‘booms’ in the distance where other hunters shot at birds. Each of us shrugged into our canvas hunting jacket, picked up our shotgun and stepped outside to start the ‘drive’ or sweep across the fields. Dad organized everyone so two men walked the sides of the cornfields and the rest of us spread out between them with the dogs.
State law limited each hunter to killing three rooster per day, and no hens. Holding our shotguns across our chest at port arms, we crashed our way into the cornfield. I heard the flutter of wings, followed by ‘Hen!” No shots. Then another flutter and the ‘BOOOM!’ of someone’s 12 gauge. And so it went all one opening afternoon in the mid-1950s. We spent hours working through each cornfield and weed patch where pheasants hunkered close to the ground.
I was about 15, and our gang had hunted most of the farm, and were walking back toward the house for coffee and cookies. We walked seven abreast across a hayfield, each man about 50 feet from the next. Easy walking there because the alfalfa was barely ankle height and offered no real cover to hide a bird. The afternoon was about spent, and so were we. We walked along, talking, with our guns slung casually over our shoulders. Suddenly, a rustle of wings. Cackling. A rooster shot out of the alfalfa at the far left end of our line. It flew six feet off the ground and 30 feet in front of us. The pheasant’s wings beat frantically, its neck stretched straight out, and its bronze feathers gleaming in the late afternoon sunshine. Pheasants always appear easy to kill on the wing.
“I got ‘em!” Ed yelled. BOOM! but the bird kept flying. As the rooster flew along our line, each of yelled, “I got ‘em!” BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! As the terrified bird flew faster. One by one we fired until the cock reached the right end of our line, soared upward a few feet, cleared the top of some brush, and vanished in our woods. Nary a feather did we touch. We stood in place, mouths agape. No one said anything. Then Ed laughed, a sneezy, nasal laugh. A laugh of self-mockery. We caught it and laughed until we wept, laughed until we gasped for air. The bird made a fool of us all. It was worth waiting for.
Besides pheasants, I waited for the ducks. Waterfowl fascinated me until I was obsessed with them. When I could, I stalked the riverbank in hopes of flushing a mallard, or went over the ridge to a pothole hoping to bag at least a blue-winged teal. The greatest prize, however, would be downing a Canada goose.
At that time, the Canada geese were non-existent in our area. The only ones we saw were the northerners migrating south ahead of the Canadian winter. Some men I knew spent a lot of money to hunt them farther west. That was out of my boyish league. Someday, if I waited, I might afford it.
I bagged all the geese I could ever want one November day in the late 1950s. A steel gray overcast covered the sky and the chilly north wind foretold wintry weather ahead. Dad and I were picking the last of the corn when I heard something and looked up. High above us, I saw a skein of geese winging south. Then another line of geese, and another.
All day, hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of geese passed over our heads. I wanted to hunt, then and there, but they flew too high to reach them with my shotgun. Hour after hour, they moved in long undulant lines, in skeins of rippling birds honking, cackling, and muttering as they rode the the hard north wind. They traveled in large flocks of Canada geese, snow geese, blue geese, and the smaller brants.
I had never seen so many geese before, nor have I seen that many in the years since. Each year I waited and hoped I might see such a migration again. Before going to bed that night, I stepped outside in the windy darkness. They were still there, high up, calling, cackling, honking on ahead of the winter gales. It was a moment of wonder that has lasted a lifetime.
In these days of digital communication, it is a rare and joyous occasion when I receive a hand-written letter. It is far more personal than a typed letter of cold, perfectly-formed characters lying inert on stark white paper with a signature scrawled at the end. But even these have more intimacy than an e-mail or—worse—a text message of ‘LOL’ or ‘OMG.’ No. Except for face-to-face, person-to-person conversation, handwriting is the only form of communicating that conveys the innate character of the other person as an integral part of the message.
I treat a hand-written letter, with its pen and ink, as a huge gift of someone’s time and affection. Such letters begin with someone’s desire to tell me something. Their heart’s desire becomes a thought, leading to an impulse to pick up a pen and sheet of paper. And then their fingers grasp the pen, their hand moves in obedience to the commands of their head and heart. Ink flows across the sheet of paper, across the watermarks, across time and space in distinctive cursive lines, a weaver’s tapestry embracing me in thoughts and emotions.
When the postman leaves the envelope in my box, I open it with feelings of expectation, of joy, a feeling of being chosen, special, because someone made the effort to write a message to me instead of banging it out hastily on a computer. Their fingerprints, their DNA, is on the paper, in the words as much as the ink. Handwriting is to the essence of personal communication what scent is to the identity of a flower.
Even without a signature, I know who wrote the letters in the family collection I curate for eventual donation to the historical society. My grandfather’s letters—hastily typed on cheap paper with two fingers of each hand—link skipped letters together with inked lines. His typed-over errors are interlaced with written corrections and annotations. Grandpa’s handwriting was as hasty as his typing because all must be done yesterday. He could never get to the mail box fast enough.
My Dad wrote the way he walked, worked, and swam in strong, graceful pen strokes slanted forward along even lines. His autography has a rhythm as visually distinctive as his walk. He wrote factually, reporting, narrating and describing the look of things, the course of the action. His extroversion shone through with nary a trace of personal reflection. It’s a writing style he learned from his father, a newspaper editor, and then honed as a sports stringer in high school and college.
Mom’s writing slanted back on itself in open loops. Her hand moved across the page in short bursts, pausing now and then to think, ponder, then back up and rephrase. She wasn’t given to reportage; she wrote repartee, playing with the ideas and words as if in direct conversation. That’s how her mind worked, that’s how she talked, that’s why people loved her. She often sprinkled French words and phrases here and there in letters to her brother and aunt. That’s the mark of an educated woman from an upper class family, ‘n’est pas?’
My uncle—Mom’s brother—seldom penned a letter but when he did, he drew his words more than wrote them. He was an artist who held his pen between his thumb and fingers as if it were a brush and then dabbed the words on the page with a idiosyncratic calligraphy in keeping with his other eccentricities. Like my mother’s letters, he wrote informally, as if living in the moment, writing for emotional effect rather than merely relay information.
Schools stopped teaching cursive penmanship several decades ago and contemporary college students don’t write cursive and many can’t read it. This is a problem for those who need to read handwritten documents. I learned to write cursive in grade school but my daughters didn’t. My eldest writes by printing in a distinctive style and so does my younger brother. My own writing has assumed a distinctive form and style over the years. Though distinctive it is legible—at least when I’m not in a hurry. Like my father’s hand, my writing slants forward, it’s patterns rhythmic but the letters are sharper and as much drawn as written.
In my work as a historian, I have read thousands of letters written by hundreds of people. No two scribblers have the same style. Each one has penmanship that reflects their personality—at least I associate the personality with the autography—which is how I know the deceased. And that brings me to what we are losing in the age of digital communication. (And you may say—oh, there he goes, talking about ‘the good old days.’) Communication written by hand conveys something that writing by a machine can never convey. When my Dad was a legislator, he often dictated personal letters out of convenience. The ‘personality; that came through dictation wasn’t the one I knew from handwritten letters.
When I want to express what is deepest inside, I must write in longhand. The kinetic connection of fingers, hand, arm, brain and heart releases whatever truth lies waiting to be told. Typing or writing on my laptop throws a veil over my feelings and my expression is weaker, more qualified, less true. Only in writing longhand can I write what is most true.
You may disagree but, before you do, try writing longhand and notice the difference in what you feel, and the power of the words you use to say it.
My earliest memory is the day Dad parked our car on the soft shoulder of Waseca County Road 26. It’s April 10, 1947. I’m three-and-a-half years old, my sister is 11 months, my dad is only 26 and my mother is 29. These young adults from New Brunswick, New Jersey, are staking everything on farming in Minnesota. They are audacious but they don’t think so.
This venture has deep roots. My mother’s family has lived in nearby Janesville since the 1870s. Her grandfather was the banker, assembled the farm, and gave it to his three daughters. One of them, my grandmother, died a decade before so her share went to my Mom and uncle. Now they intend to make our life on this land. And will.
I sit in the car’s front seat, a 1940, cream gray Plymouth sedan with a crushed front fender and broken headlight. Two days earlier, on the Indiana Turnpike, an on-coming car lost a rear wheel that bounced across the median and hit us. The windshield is grimy but I can see all right, and look down the lane toward our new home.
County Road 26 is made of clay covered with gravel and passes our farm on high ground. Melted snow and spring rains have made the road is a soupy mess of ruts. The uniform overcast makes the sky look like a gray flannel sheet. Pewter-colored ditch water and puddles reflect the sky. Fallow fields with slick furrows resemble charcoal. Last year’s grass, patches of weeds, and cornstalks seem ashen. I remember gray.
Dad opens the car door, pulls on four-buckle overshoes, and shrugs into a jacket. Slowly, he slips and slides his way down the muddy lane, past the half-dead willows, past the barn with its dim coat of indistinct paint, and enters the weathered farmhouse beneath the leafless oaks.
Mother waits in the car with my sister and me. Mom is quiet and wears a long face of concentration. I will come to know that expression well. It isn’t fear but the calculation of all the unknowns and contingencies she might face.
A tractor’s purr catches my attention. Dad and another man, my uncle, drive toward us towing a trailer filled with straw. Chains on the tractor tires clink like merry sleigh bells in the dreariness. With everyone settled in the trailer, we roll down the muddy slope to our house.
The main room seems huge to me. Pieces of furniture rest in great piles – sofa, bedsteads, bureaus, and chairs – amid crates of china, boxes of clothing, and my red tricycle. Faded wallpaper and sagging plaster don’t catch my attention as much as the hulking, pot-bellied stove crouching in a corner, like a sooty bear, waiting to pounce. I’m afraid of it.
After a quick inspection of the cold house, we drive to Janesville and stay with some cousins. When we return, the potbellied stove waits outside for the junkman, the toilet and shower function inside, and the kitchen is ready for my mother.
They name it The River Farm.
Over the years, as we work the land the land works us. We drain the marshes, tile the low ground, dam the gullies, straighten the creek and plant trees. And then, when we are done with active farming, we breach the dikes, rip up the tiles, and planteoaks and prairie grasses where soybeans once grew. Dad was never happier than when on his farm.
He died at home and we buried his ashes in our woods at an unmarked place, in a clearing, on a ridge above the river. He rests next to Mom, my great aunt, my grandmother, and my uncle.
I remember this day and its details because this is the place that formed me as much as any place has shaped me. This where I learned responsibilities, developed a knack for making things work, understood rhythms of the natural world, and grew up in a life stripped to its essentials. Everything I ever learned later has a touchstone on this farm, in this community. Now, decades later, I look for and sometimes find in far-away places, people and situations that take me back to the farm and the neighborhood.
But I can’t go back. My brother, sister and I are settled elsewhere and none of us wants to live on the farm. Fortunately, we find a buyer who shares Dad’s land ethic and, with the sale, we all rest in peace. The farm’s title passes to the new owners in October and, on my way home, I drive up the lane and stop on County Road 26 in the spot where Dad parked the Plymouth in 1947. I take a last look down at the house. It’s larger and better now than it was then; and the barn is bright in its crimson coat. In autumn sunshine, the wild grasses shine in bronze and copper, sunlight glints off the pond, and the oaks on the ridge along the river mark my horizon – the rim of my childhood.
In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Pens and Pencils.”
Nothing fills me with greater joy and anticipation that finding a letter in my mailbox, the kind of letter addressed by hand in ink, bearing the return address of someone I know. These days I see fewer and fewer of such missives and I wonder what will happen to the art of writing with intimacy. What will happen to the tete-a-tete created solely for the eyes and heart of another person?
My daughters are now grown, one lives in California, the other in New York, and they communicate mainly by text, e-mail, and cell phone. Yet no message from them gives me as much pleasure as a birthday or Father’s Day card with a handwritten note, often silly, telling me how much they love me, and how happy they are I am a part of their lives. Although I wouldn’t doubt their love if they typed the messages, yet the expression would lack the intimacy, the personal touch of a hand holding a pen, a hand on an arm that is moving carefully to express what is beating in the heart.
As our family’s historian, I work my craft by reading other people’s mail. The oldest letter in our family collection dates from 1847. All are written in ink of various shades, some dark, some faded, laid on paper by different hands. Some of the family wrote with harsh, forward-leaning slants; others wrote with short rounded loops, and still others wrote stems on their letters that rose high and dove low. I have spent many evenings with these letters until I know each writer just by looking at their cursive.
Reading my parents’ letters written in New Jersey just before World War II, I know them anew from their penmanship, the length of the letters, and how quickly they answered them. Mail traveled faster in those days with twice-daily city deliveries. As young adults in love, they wrote constantly, feeling anguished when a letter wasn’t answered within a day.
My mother wrote personal, idiosyncratic letters that was repartee on paper. There isn’t much reportage of the ‘news’ as much as it was a conversation. Sometimes she laced her billets-doux with French phrases. A week after my mother and father met for the first time, she wrote a friendly note describing her ‘new cream gray 1940 Plymouth sedan’ and urged him to ‘come up soon and see it, if not me. I think we could have fun. Forget about the fact that I’m two years older than you are,’ she continued, ‘and you don’t bore me, so there!’ A year later, shortly before their engagement, she wrote what became a prophetic letter to my father while visiting in Minnesota: ‘Being out here is certainly wonderful and it’s really pretty in June. I’ve been thinking I’d like to move out here someday. Maybe I’ll buy a farm and adopt a couple of kids and just move in.’ Seven years later, we moved to a Minnesota farm.
Dad’s family, on the other hand, wrote letters reporting family ‘news’ the inverted paragraph style that read like the copy my grandfather edited as a newsman. These ‘family letters’, typed in quadruplicate with carbon paper, contain only ‘the news fit to print’ for a dispersed family. Even when grandfather wrote a personal letter, he typed it (his handwriting was illegible), much drained of any emotional content.
Among the oldest letters in our family are those written by Samuel Searl, my great-great-great grandfather, an itinerant Methodist minister and a farmer. Largely self-educated, he wrote well-turned phrases in a firm, flowing hand in dark blue ink. In his words I sometimes think I hear him in the pulpit; at other times I’m deeply moved by the intimacy of his letters to Herman, my great-grandfather, who was then a rebellious youth. He began by saying he wanted to devote ‘a few hours of leisure to another chat with you’, and asked Herman ‘what do you mean to do or mean to be, a man or a mouse, a knave or a fool, what heights does your imagination climb to?’ Writing to Herman’s mother, he commented on the boy’s photo, remarking – prophetically as it turned out – that his ‘countenance carries the mark of bold and daring speculations and enterprises that build high castles without climbing the hill of science’.
On my desk I keep a small, note written by my father during the last months of his life. His once strong, and distinctive cursive had shrunk to feebler characters bearing only a faint resemblance to the hand I have known for decades. He closed his short note with: ‘Like the color of this paper, I’m beginning to fade, too.’ His approaching death wasn’t news to any of us. We had talked about his prognosis many times and knew what he wanted. We all knew his death was a matter of a month or two. But the hand-written note, the scratchy lines written in an unsteady hand, spoke volumes and revealed my father’s spirits in ways that words alone couldn’t if written on a keyboard that would have all but wiped away his personality in his last month.
E-mail is a blessing, my Twitter account is interesting, I use Facebook to post pictures, but I feel no genuine emotions emanating from an emoji or thumbs up, or text shortcuts like LOL or OMG. None of these convey the heart of the person who sent them. They are too impersonal and the emotions behind them must be inferred. My point is: When we move away from the pen as the means of personal communication, we place an impersonal veil between us and the person we are reaching out to.
Letters are particularly human creations, and personal, hand-written letters are infused with a tender human quality. It is the tenderness of the heart flowing through the body to the arm, the hand, and finally to the pen as it moves across the paper. Putting pen to paper is to put our hearts on display. Each stroke of the pen reveals the writer; I reveal my personality, state of mind, and the sentiments in my heart that go beyond words. I know my correspondents by the kind of pen, the size of the nib or ballpoint, the type of paper, its color, and texture, and the style of their cursive. Pen and paper and ink are choices the writer makes, and they add detail and texture to how we know each other through letters. These physical characteristics of our correspondence are manifestations of ourselves. They are the human touch.