From Lefse to Lutefisk to Matzo and Challah... and beyond: Iowa Culture

I'm getting anxious to go to Iowa for Christmas. While roaming around in my writing files late last night, I found this. "I come from a meat and potatoes family. Sunday dinners of fall-apart braised roast beef and mashed potatoes. Like my grandpa and my granddad, I ate my potatoes yellow with butter and heavily dotted with pepper. Mom's home canned green beans, frozen corn, and baked squash rounded out the dinner. Plus sliced, white, buttered bread.

In fact, I come from a meat and potatoes state. Over 20 years ago, while driving home from Luther College one Sunday morning in the fall, my ’68 Ford LTD broke down on the hills south of Decorah, Iowa. Through the rear-view window, I could see steam rolling out the back of the car. The car cost me $200; I had paid more for my first camera. Within minutes a young farmer pulled up behind me. He knew a mechanic that might be willing to come out on a Sunday to tow the car in and fix it for me. The mechanic came and loaded up my car; the farmer offered to take me to his house where I could wait with his wife while my car was fixed, so I hopped into his pick-up truck.

A whiff of Sunday dinner hit me when he opened the door to his house. His wife was pregnant with their first child. Dinner was ready and pleasant words to the effect of “you might as well eat with us” were spoken in the Iowan farmer way and were followed by grace. And fall-apart braised roast beef and mashed potatoes. How ironic that this couple had the same Sunday dinner as my family! Two hours later, the young farmer gave me a ride to the shop, and I was back on the road.

At Luther College, I was surrounded by blondes with blue eyes. The student population was largely Lutheran and of Scandinavian decent. I hopped in whole-heartedly and ate up this beautiful culture. During the holidays, I added a Norwegian tradition to our family’s Christmas. I boiled potatoes not for dinner but rather to mash with flour, sugar, a little salt and a splash of cream. Pulling enough dough off to roll into a pastry resembling a tortilla, I dry-fried it in a cast iron skillet. When it came out, I buttered it, sprinkled sugar and cinnamon on it, and shared this amazing culinary phenomenon with my family. Lefse.

I joined in with the Norwegians as they joked about lutefisk. Though I had never seen, smelled, or touched this gelatinous dried, then soaked “delicacy.” I wasn’t even sure if it was real. My most-worn earrings in college were traditional Norwegian Solje, made of silver with plated gold dangling spoons that were meant to reflect evil from the wearer. I didn’t wear it for protection, but it was the first combination of silver and gold I wore years before that was fashionable.

Studying Judaism my junior year of college introduced me to another wonderful but truly foreign culture. The books my professor assigned brought the Jewish culture to life. In particular, I remember First Encounter by Bella Chagall, who was born to a Hasidic family in White Russia and who was the wife of the painter Marc Chagall. Through a series of short stories from a child/youth's perspective, Chagall opened up a window to her life in the early 1900's. The book's theme of family was relatable, but the celebrations and traditions of her Jewish culture were eye opening -- and beautifully foreign.

In my senior year at Luther, I traveled to London, Paris, and Amsterdam during January, Luther's "J-term." That trip confirmed it: I was a culture junkie. Seeing people born like me from a womb but through language, food, and beliefs -- life -- they were so different from me, from one another. My infatuation with different cultures was intense. As I traveled, I naively wished I had my own culture. One as vibrant as the Norwegians and the Jews.

Then I hit a wall at the age of 43 that turned my perspective upside down. In June 2009, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I would go through a year of surgeries, radiation, and chemotherapy. During that time, I made a choice not to travel – fearing germs when my immune system was weak. I wouldn’t be flying to Iowa during treatment. Not for Christmas. Not for Easter. Not until June 2010.

Through those 12 months away from Iowa, I realized that lefse and lutefisk nor matzo and challah would ever be at the core of who I was. Rather, the stoic, stubborn, practical nature of being an Iowan would give me the leverage to “do” that year. Finally, I found my cultural core, and it was well supported by Mom's braised beef and potato dinner. As my hair grew back in the spring, I realized my culture as an Iowan was one of the many across the globe, just as complex and rich."

I wish you love, peace, and joy as you celebrate this season with your family!  Many blessings to you as you enjoy your traditions and celebrate your culture!

(An aside: Mom, if you're reading... I'll be home just after Christmas; you can count on me.  Please have snow... you can skip the mistletoe, but perhaps have braised beef waiting for me!)

Tolerance of Cow Manure Between Your Toes

When I promote my stories on social media – Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest – I know that I will get a good handful of followers to click on my story if I use this picture of Mom and Dad’s barn: People love it.

I look at the photo and think about 48 years of stories that could be written about this barn.  Now, having 9- and 11-year-old sons and living in the city, I have stories bubbling in my head with a common theme: tolerance.  Of fresh cow manure between your toes.  Of picking up eggs from underneath a mean setting hen.  Of keeping two paces ahead of a mean, nasty, spurred rooster.

When I take the boys to Iowa, my senses keenly pop open looking for experiences that get close to these.

Lately when I shamelessly post the picture of this beautiful barn, I have a flashback to a winter when I was around the same age as my sons.  And the setting was near the barn, specifically at the hydrant.

The base of the hydrant is surrounded by straw insulation to keep the pipes from freezing.  When the temperature drops and stays below freezing, the insulation can fail.  Back then there was no water heater in the tank.  A  pipe with a little basin at one end hooked over the hydrant and a long tube ran through the gate to the water tank.  The pipe was shaped the same as the one my grandpa used to smoke.  If water froze in the base of the hydrant, it needed to be manually thawed so the cattle could get water.

The etching on my mind: I was standing on the south side of the hydrant facing the barn.  Dad stood on the north side of the hydrant with his back to the barn.  It was late afternoon and Dad was using a blow torch to thaw the hydrant.  The sun was sinking, the temperature was too cold, and the wind chill was spectacular.  And I stood there helping.

However, I have absolutely no recollection of how I was helping.  After the sun sank, then perhaps, I held a flashlight.  The memory is so visceral I want a winter coat to protect me from that crazy cold.  We were out there for well over an hour.  Me standing, watching.  Dad silently, stoicly working.  I can’t imagine I was much help.  The cold ate at me as I hoped Dad would give up and call it a night.  He didn’t.  I remember thinking, “I’m not helping at all.  Why can't I go in the house?”  But I couldn’t move.  My feet stood firm next to my Dad.  How could I walk away and leave him out here by himself?

Last week, an Iowa opportunity arose in Massachusetts.  After a loud squabble in the back of the van on the drive home from school, I confiscated the iPods.  I sent Will into the house to do homework, and I took Liam outside with me to take down dead evergreen boughs and unwrap the 10 strings of 100 lights from them.  I was so hot that I didn’t ask, I didn’t use manners, I told:  “You are coming outside to help me.”

Our twinkle lights looked awesome in our 100 inches of snow this winter.  I had put a whole afternoon into putting them up.  Now, the transformation away from winter was more laborious.  I gave Liam a bough to unwrap.  “How do I do this?!?”  Start at one end.  “I’m never going to finish this!”  Keep going.  “OK, I’m done.”  No you are not; we’ll work on this one together.  “Look, now we’re done!”  No we are not; now we move to the front.  “More?”  Yes.

The boughs in front came down much easier.  As I freed each set of lights, I sent it with Liam to put it on the deck at the back of the house.  With only two sets left to untangle, Liam said, “Am I done now?  Can I go in?”  No, hold this string of lights.  It was a bundle of lights that really didn’t need to be held.  I needed his feet held to the ground to see the end of this project.  Liam held it, not knowing why he needed to hold it.

Scraps of needles scattered all over the steps.  I swept with a big barn broom and told Liam to pick up the little clusters of needles on the ground.  I watched as he scuffed them into the snow.  “Whatever you don’t pick up now, you will be picking up after the snow melts.”  He uncovered them and picked them up.  I pulled the dead wreath off the door.

We carried the wire cutters, broom, lights, boughs, and wreath away from the front.  “OK, I’m done!” No, not yet.  Wisps of steam escaped from his ears.  In the garage, I found the spring wreath.  I gave it to Liam to carry to the front door.  I told him it was a crown, and he put it on his head.  “OK,” I said, "turn it any way you like and hang it on the nail.”  He did.

“Now, every time we come home and you see our front door, that wreath will remind you how much you helped today.”

Liam comments on the wreath every day.

 (There will be some aspects of growing up in Iowa that my kids will never know, no matter how often they visit.  The whole "chicken experience" is one chasm between my farm experience and theirs.  The Fowl Story is not for the faint of heart.  If you ever helped your family butcher chickens, it might give you a chuckle!)

The Missing Gift

My time is divided between merry-making, play date booking, and looking for that bag. You know the one… The perfect gift found for a special person. In October. That was three months ago. And eight hiding places ago. The cookies are baked. The tree is up. The Christmas get-togethers are happening. But it’s two days til Christmas. I need to find that bag. It has one of the best gifts in it. It was actually shopped for. Not a rush what-do-you-want-and-I’ll-go-buy-it gift. It is one of those hey-this-is-perfect-for-my-nephew kind of gifts. Wait… how big is the bag? I seem to recall buying more than one thing that day. Or did I? Or… did I decide against that gift at the last minute? Crumbs. Now I’m looking for a bag that I’m not sure even exists.

Heading to the basement, my shoulder swishes against a red bag hanging with the coats. What is that? Oh, glad I found that one! Not the one I’m looking for, but one I will be looking for shortly.

I need to take inventory, pull all those cryptic Christmas lists together, and get some wrapping done to see if I’m missing anything. Holy ka-lu-la! I haven’t gotten Dad’s gift yet! I’m not driving by the Welcome Inn in Elizabeth, Illinois, this year on the way to Iowa, so swinging in and getting four orders of his favorite ribs is out of the question. And, my Amazon prime 2-day shipping is worthless at this point.

Has Dad dropped any hints? “I just want all my kids home for Christmas.” No hint there. “Man, it is cold outside. I got my long-johns on and my john-johns on top of my long-johns on.” I’m not doing long-johns again this Christmas. “Well, these are just fine! There’s nothing wrong with them!!” Dad probably has two pair of bib overalls lying in wait for the old ones to fall to strings. “Where are my half-pants?” There’s no sentimental value in getting him a second pair of Dockers when he rarely needs to wear half-pants.

How can the Christmas tree twinkle so calmly while my mind is whirring? Worrying about that gift. Aha! The cookie table is behind me. “I haven’t had a single cookie this year!” Probably not true, Dad, but thanks for the hint! I’ll start with a cookie tin. Then, if I put my thinking cap on – and mentally don my long johns and bib overalls – I’ll wonder the aisles of Ace Hardware as would a farmer. Slowly looking for that “Well, I’ll be….” kind of gift.

May you find “that” bag and the perfect gift. Soon.

(Did you read about the drone that landed in my hair?  Yes, really.  My writing is based on factual events... really.  Here's Happy Day After Thanksgiving!)

Summer Dirt

Summer brings dirt. I love dirt. I love dirt more than summer. Next to the barn, I've knocked down a weedy mess so I could plant a red climbing rose bush next to the old stone wall and the peeling window frame. My shovel slid through that dirt as if the ground was a chocolate cake. That's what a decade of decaying leaves will do for a little piece of Massachusetts: make it feel like a little bit of Iowa.

Some of the boys' school friends spent the afternoon at our house yesterday. They came freshly laundered; they went home a mess. Some of the happiest little messes ever. Between the sprinkler and the fort, jumping on the trampoline and crawling under the trampoline, they were summer's best. Streaked with sweat and water, covered in dirt, and exhausted. The only thing missing was the trace of watermelon juice running down their inner arms, creating a dried river bed contrasting the day's dirt adhesion with slightly cleaner skin created by the juice river.

"Why do I need to take a shower?" Because now I'm the Mom who washes the sheets. And I remember the days when my mom with four kids didn't always push the showers, but at least made us wash the river beds from our arms and the Iowa dirt from our feet.

Thanks, Mom, for letting us get dirty. I'm sure it built-up our immunity system and all that. But really, it was just wicked fun.

(Different places, different dirt...It's hard to beat rich, soft Black Dirt.)

The Farmer in the Family

I had a minor surgery last Hump Day. As it was late in the day, I stayed overnight in the hospital. Bill came to get me in the morning. With the general anesthesia still clouding my brain, this is the first story I recall from Bill that morning. Bill woke up at 5 a.m. to go to the bathroom, and he saw a tarantula. I don't have all the details etched in my smoky mind, but both times he saw it -- at 5 and a bit later when he woke up -- it was tucked into a tight corner and he couldn't get it with a fly swatter or a glass , so he pulled shut the bathroom door. It was a bee that had bumbled its way into our house. I told Bill I would take care of it when I got home. "No, I can do it."

This happens every year. The first year, after finding three or four bees upstairs, I had a pest control guy come out. He assured us that the bees we found were simply hitchhikers that hopped a ride on someone's clothing. I don't buy it for a minute. Here is the problem:

With the plunging cold temperatures gone, rhododendron droop has subsided, and this is the view from outside our dining room window.  The rhododendron is below a second floor spare bedroom window.  This giant beauty is nestled outside the portion of our house that was built in 1880.  Big bumble bees love these blossoms.  They roll in the blossoms like pigs in shit.

And I'm convinced that in a pollen-drunken state they meander into a little hole in the old wooden window frame upstairs, get dazed and confused in the thin walls, and of all that enter, perhaps four a season end up inside the house. Then, far away from that sweet nectar and after the treacherous journey to the inside, the biggest one will meet an Englishman in a bathroom at 5 a.m.

When I got home from the hospital, I walked upstairs right by the bumble bee -- he had made his way to the stairs. "Oh, there's your bee," I stated as I walked by him. "OK, I'll get it... How many times do you think I'll need to hit it?" "Well, I don't know, Bill. It's a pretty big bug. What do you think?" No answer. Bill reappeared with a fly swatter and gave the bee a big thud on the head. And the bee bounced toward Bill. "It came after me!" "It didn't -- it bounced off the stairs from the impact of the fly swatter." Basketball is not a popular sport in England, so I didn't bother to use the term "rebound."

At the top of the stairs, the bathroom door was still shut tight with no apparent crack from which the bee could have escaped. Bill approached the door armed with the fly swatter in ready position. As he touched the doorknob, I stung him in the back with my finger. Oh my goodness, the poor Englishman hit the ceiling! And I found the sore spots from a belly laugh so soon after surgery.

Yesterday morning, the story came full circle. In our barn loft, we are experiencing squirrel hell. I fully anticipate writing the Squirrel Saga, but often times I can't write until the trauma subsides a bit, and we've been at it for weeks now. In the here and now, we have live squirrel traps on the roof of the barn and upstairs in the barn loft. They need to be checked daily. We can see the one on the roof, but we need to go up to the loft -- into the corner farthest from the stairs --and check the other one.

So here's yesterday's deal from Bill: "One of my colleagues at work had a bat in her bedroom. As she put it, there are girl jobs and there are boy jobs. And the bat was a boy job. As I see it, going up to the loft to check that squirrel trap is neither a boy job or a girl job. It's a farmer's job."

As Grandma Murphy would've concisely put it, with a sharp sting in the words:

Damn it.

Small Wild Animals

Growing up as the oldest of four on a dairy farm, I held down the fort in the house while Mom milked cows morning and night.  Dad worked second shift at a meat processing plant so that we could survive on the farm, which usually left Mom with the twice-daily milking of our small Holstein herd. Watching my siblings must have been uneventful, or I’ve just mentally blocked that part of my life, since I don’t have any significant memories of those days.  Well, except for two incidents involving wild animals in the house.  And on the farm, any animal in the house was wild because animals lived outside.  All of them, including cats and dogs.

The first incident was when I was around 10 years old.  One evening, my sister and I saw a mouse run along a wall in the kitchen.  Post high-pitched screaming, we decided to take care of it before Mom came in from milking the cows, for we couldn’t stand the thought of it running around for another hour.  We found a snap-trap, put some cheese on it, set it, and pushed it near the mouse-path.  We moved to the mouse-free living room and waited – half hoping nothing would happen until Mom come into the house.  But there it was… SNAP!  We flew to the kitchen and immediately hopped on chairs and screamed, watching the mouse flop around in the trap.  My story ends here; I continued screaming apparently with my eyes closed.  I don’t know if my sister, or Mom, or perhaps even my baby brothers, scooped the trap into the dustpan and launched it outside the back door.  I only remember the noise of the incident – our screams and the snap – and my approximate size relative to the chair I was standing on.

One winter evening, when I was around the same size, a larger rodent disrupted the house while Mom was milking.  The faint smell of a skunk grew so intensely and so quickly, I was absolutely positive the animal was in the house spraying.  Panicked, I got coats on my sister and my brothers and hustled them out the back door, around the corner of the house, and 30 yards across the barnyard toward the warm lights of the barn.  I popped open the upper and lower barn doors and the warmth of the cows washed over us.

Ahhh, safety.  Surprising Mom with bundled up kids, I explained about the skunk in the house.  Mom’s incredulous look spoke to me before her voice.  The strong smell had taken my imagination to a place of undeniable realism.  Standing in the barn, it dawned on me that there had never been a skunk in the house before this.  And, that I had just taken my sister and brothers ever so close to the skunk’s path by trudging them to the barn.

I learned from those lessons.  Similar events have taken place in our current house with Bill and me.  I take care of the mice; they are still cute creatures to Bill.  Getting his American citizenship didn’t change his feelings toward mice.  He’s still English through and through when it comes to rodents and spiders (aka: scoop and save).

The one time we both thought there was a skunk inside the house, I took the kids upstairs to our bedrooms and sent Bill in search of skunks in the basement.  On second thought, it may have just been me that was convinced there was a skunk in the basement.  Convinced that our basement door must have been left open.  Yeah... pretty sure that was just me.

Yet, Bill took the helm and went scouting for skunks.  And came back without rabies.

(Bill is an Englishman; we had very different childhoods -- Uncovering the Real England: Spiders paints one picture of the way we view life, particularly bugs.)

Burnt Bacon

The last batch in my kitchen has a 50-50 chance of burning. Cookies... pancakes... bacon. I don’t cook bacon on the stovetop, too messy. If I plan well enough in advance, I like to bake it in the oven. Otherwise, I microwave it. I’ve microwaved bacon often enough to usually get that nice, brown, crispy state on the left side of the plate. The right side of the plate is when I thought it needed to be just a bit crispier, so I pushed the 2-minute button on my way to the eggs in the skillet. It was the last batch of bacon. I nearly swooned when I opened the microwave. Simultaneously, the smell of Grandma Murphy’s farm kitchen whooshed over me and Granddad Mills' words rolled triumphantly off my lips, “When it’s brown it’s cooking, and when it’s black it’s done!” A vision of Grandma’s black iron skillet on the stove followed. Then the microwave plate landed on the counter next to Liam.

“I’m not eating that. And black is not done. It's burnt.”

“You’re not eating that: I am. And black bacon is just crunchy; it’s not burnt.”

And it's a delicacy on bread with lots of catsup.

And you would never say ‘I’m not eating that’ to Grandma.

And you would sit next to Granddad and eat blackened food, happily crunching away, just like he did. Fully thankful for the hands that prepared it.

My memory often lapses, but smells and tastes can take me to places in the past over and over again.

(So...Would you eat the bacon on the right?  By the way, have you met my grandparents? Memories of them still keep my life in perspective.  And, just for kicks, here's an old bacon story.)

An Early Iowa Christmas

After a good two-week reprieve for Dad, he and I headed back to Iowa by train while Bill and the boys flew. Our plane and train left the airport and station at the same time: noon on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. I received a text 2 ½ hours later from Bill: “I see the Sears Tower! I see the Sears Tower!” The train hadn’t yet made it to western Massachusetts. Another text from a gas station, “In Iowa bet you wish you were here!” I received this one while Dad and I were having a bite to eat in the snack car. I mustered up a great reply, “Having a beer! Bet you wish you were here!” An hour and half later, Bill was having a beer. Alas, 31 hours after departure Dad and I rolled onto familiar Iowa roads. Many times on this trip my Iowa culture was juxtaposed with my ever-changing “me” culture. Friday night after Thanksgiving, we went to see the movie “Frozen.” Then, five cousins worked on their own Olaf snowman with the bit of snow left on the 4-wheeler course.

Iowa Olaf faced east and stared at acres and acres of cornstalk-stubbled, snowy farmland.  In Massachusetts, we can go to movies and make snowmen, but not with cousins.  And Olaf’s horizon wouldn’t be so wide.  And an Olaf built in our backyard in Massachusetts wouldn’t meet his demise by a 9-year-old driving a 4-wheeler.

Yes, I said “4-wheeler."  Quads.  Grandpa, uncles, and cousins tied the six-foot long toboggan to the big 4-wheeler and whizzed around with three kids on the back.  Occasionally, one cousin (Liam) was dumped off without the driver (Grandpa) realizing it until he circled back and, seeing the lump of kid on the ground 20 feet in front of him called out with a laugh, “Liam!?!?”  On the smaller quad, Will’s hands were welded to the handles.  In complete, independent control of this machine, Will zipped around looking for snow bumps to jump.  This must be the same exhilaration he gets when skiing down mountains and making giant circles on the high bar.  He thrives on speed and control.

On the calmer, more nostalgic side, a highlight of my trip (and not so climatic for the Malcolm boys) was when we helped Mom put up the Christmas tree.  I want the story of every ornament.  When and how did it come to be?  And this year, this little niche at the back of the tree spoke to the irony of my ever-changing culture:

I too have sets of the crocheted red and gold 6-foot string of beads my great aunt made years ago. Just like Mom’s sets, they circle my tree and remind me of my grandma and her sisters, and the stories surrounding this now-gone generation. And at the root of those stories are the similarities and differences among the five sisters I remember, with the funniest stories coming from their differences.

As for the Santa ornament in this shot... No, I don't see myself ever having a shot-gun shell Santa on my Christmas tree.

(From Christmas in Iowa, I went back to Massachusetts --  to my life as a Rat on a Wheel.)

Overnight on the Train

The Boston cars were at the front of the train. We walked a couple hundred yards until a conductor pointed to metal stairs we could climb to enter our car. I remembered LILO from college, Last-In-Last-Out, a supply system. Cost accounting, perhaps? Dad and I found a seat quickly, thanks to the boarding call of seniors able to go through the boarding gate to the platform before the general public. It wasn’t luxurious. It wasn’t new. It didn’t have WiFi. It wasn’t for business people traveling from Boston to New York City. It was for lugging people 1,600 miles. It was a vinyl nest for 23 hours.

At 9:32 p.m. we pulled out of Union Station. Lights would stay on until 10 p.m. then they would be dimmed, except for the aisle lighting. I walked to the bathroom and, through seeing the various passenger sleeping configurations, I learned what a flight attendant would have helped us with. “Dad, push this lever and the foot rest comes down. There must be a lever to make the leg rest pop up, too – like a recliner.” Several passengers had pulled the leg rest up to be horizontal, aligned with the seat. If on her own, a person could create a small bed out of a two-seat-leg-rest up combination. I couldn’t envision the farmer or his daughter trying this maneuver. But the leg rest could potentially make sleeping more comfortable.

By 10 p.m. most people went out with the lights. I looked at Dad. He was wide awake trying to imagine what he was seeing as the dots of city lights and dark country swept by. Until 1 a.m. I played Solitaire and looked at Dad, looking out the window. Then with my travel pillow around my neck and the aisle lighting shining in my eyes, I catnapped, waking up occasionally to look at Dad, who was still looking out the window.

At 5 a.m., I woke up to see Dad, looking out the window. “Did you sleep?” Shaking of the head. His “good morning” was, “We are only in Ohio!?!? We’ll never make it to Boston by 9:30!” Oh, dear… “Dad, we don’t get into Boston until 9:30 tonight.” Dad looked at me a little bewildered, perhaps waiting to see if I was pulling his leg. I nodded, confirming arrival time.

Well, it was too late for him to sleep, for the choice to take the train meant Dad could see the countryside. And now that daylight was here, Dad looked out the window, giving his imagination a break as the sunrise illuminated what he was seeing.

(After Dad's two-week vacation with us in the Northeast, it was time to head home for An Early Iowa Christmas.)

Union Station

(The first part of this story is "How did your crops do this year?") Union Station.  After a bite to eat and reading a few newspapers, Dad and I zig-zagged down an escalator and through a crowded hallway to our boarding lounge.  I led the way with an occasional glance to make sure Dad was still with me.  I turned the last corner, looked behind me, and he wasn't there.  A silly jab of panic as if I had lost my 2-year-old swept over me.  I backtracked 20 yards to find him perched against a wall with that tight-lipped tough stoic look awash on his face.  The look I see in my bathroom mirror every morning before I take a shower.  Dad thought I was checking things out, and he didn't want to get wound up in the coil of people who were waiting for another train.  Confirming that our lounge was pretty empty, I coaxed him to follow me again.  With over an hour before we could board the Amtrak train that would take us to Boston, we garnered three seats in the lounge.

Eight small children were taking advantage of the wide open space before the 23-hour train ride.  Three moms, no dads, sat waiting.  Dreading?  The tolerance for what was OK was uncertain between the moms at first.  Then one mom loudly pulled the oldest boy, probably around 7 years old, for some antic.  “Go look at that wall!  And don’t look at me!”  A bit later, a train station employee brought back a 3-year-old little girl from down the hall out of another mom’s sight, saying something to the effect that it wasn't safe – for other passengers or the little girl.

Four well-dressed 60- to 70- ish-year-old women came in chatting loudly.  From their bewildered looks, they weren’t sure if they were in the right lounge.  The briskness of their language and accent left me labeling them from Eastern Europe.  A family of Mennonites – mom, dad, and three older girls – sat in a corner of the lounge.  The calico dresses, pinafores, and squared, starched white bonnets identified them as Mennonites, not Amish.  The Amish women who live near Mom and Dad wear solid colors and softer, non-angular white bonnets.

A young white woman with a ukulele sticking out of her backpack sat on the floor, casually drinking a can of beer.  A young black man with dreads, a quiet voice, and an unidentified accent approached her and her ukulele.  Within seconds of the ukulele coming out, she was leading a mini-music session with eight kids clustered around her, each wanting a turn with this exotic instrument.  They argued over turns.  “Just make sure everyone gets a turn.  Play a little bit then pass it around.  Share.” Her voice was soft and idealistic.  Had this modern-day young hippie seen three of the boys practice punching one another, per Mom’s direction?  These boys practice survival more than do sharing.  Yet, the ukulele jerkily made its way around the circle of kids.

On his own, a middle-aged Amish man, looking more conservative than the Mennonite father, entered the lounge.  A 400-pound man came into the lounge and sat down.  People cleared around him.  His clothing didn't cover his stomach and the body odor would surely get worse during a 23-hour train ride.

The rest of the cast filtered in quietly, nearly unnoticed.  Many carried pillows and blankets.  Couples of all ages.  Young men traveling together.  Some pierced and tatooed.  And some not.  Young women traveling together.  All looking at their personal devices more than at one another.  Older women traveling in pairs, already looking tired.

Just before boarding call, three young nuns in full habit whooshed into the lounge.  Their round plain faces were framed by a layer of tight white starched material then loose black fabric flowing over the strict white.  With their presence, we had all been blessed.

This tiny microcosm of humanity, including a farmer and his daughter, crowded the boarding gate facing that one thing we all had in common at this moment: a long train ride east out of Union Station.

(Our journey continues in Overnight on the Train...)

"How did your crops do this year?"

“How did your crops do this year?” Stunned, my dad thought this 30-something woman, a stranger at the small Iowa airport was pretty intuitive to walk up to him and ask this question.  “I guess she recognizes a farmer when she sees one!” Dad said of the Illinois native who now lives in D.C.  She too is a farmer’s daughter.

I wonder what she noticed first: Clean work boots and pin-striped bib overalls?  The sleek black jacket with the small Pioneer seed corn symbol stitched on the left chest?  The black Garst seed corn cap?  Or the plain black mock turtle neck under the bibs?

All in all, Dad was one spiffed-up farmer with these black dress clothes blending seamlessly with his bib overalls and work boots.  Dad looked sharp.  He could have been going to a farm convention in those clothes.


Sunday morning started early for me in Indianapolis.  I was up at 4:30 a.m., after a 3-day conference there, so I could catch a plane to Chicago and then another to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where Dad was going to meet me at the airport.  His day started the night before; he didn’t sleep much Thursday night.

At 10:50 a.m., I deplaned in Cedar Rapids and said “hello” to the other farmer’s daughter.  Then Dad and I got on the road in his little Colorado pick-up truck to Chicago: a 4-hour drive ahead of us.  We were going to catch a 9:30 p.m. train out of Union Station that would take us both to Boston – a 24-hour journey on the rails.  Dad was heading East to spend two weeks with us.

After getting lost and driving in circles trying to find a Cracker Barrel in Davenport, we calmly made our way to a parking spot at one of O’Hare airport’s remote parking lots.  Driving the Midwest grids between Iowa & Illinois and recognizing north & south 4-lanes around O’Hare felt like putting on a familiar glove.  I don’t have a glove like that in Boston.  Yet.

We parked his truck.  “Now what?” asked Dad.  My first thought was to follow the crowd.  We moved our bags and suitcases to a bus-stop shelter.  “We haven’t done this before – we need to catch a taxi.  Does a shuttle run through here?”  I asked three people in general.  One man, on his way to Singapore, became our guide – after a brief conversation.  “So,” he looked at Dad, “you’re going to Boston.  How do you feel about seafood?”  To which Dad replied, “I love a good burger.”  Laughing aloud, “Now that’s an Iowa farmer!!”  He watched us board then the bus shuttle, then helped us onto the tram, and directed us out onto the platform at the international terminal, the first tram stop.


We stepped off the tram and looked around for an elevator.  “What are you carrying that for?” asked an airport employee.  That was a suitcase without wheels, I was unsure if he had ever seen one this size before.  “Wait here,” I’ll find a cart.  I shook his hand and thanked him as he directed us to the elevator which would take us to the lower level where the taxis were waiting.

The elevators opened and the international terminal felt familiar.  How many times had Bill and I returned from visiting his family right through those gates?  Three men were facing west, standing quietly, murmuring prayers.  The terminal bustled, activity driven by chaos.  I was reminded that walking on the right is part of our American culture.  People moved in the direction they needed to go.  I dove into the crowd, glancing behind me hoping that Dad would stay on my heels. “Are we close to the door?” Dad asked.


“How long have you been driving?” Dad asked.  The upbeat taxi driver replied, “It will take about 30 minutes with Sunday evening traffic.”  I said, “How long have you driven a taxi?”  “Ohhh, about five years.”  “Where are you from?” I asked.  “Nepal, where Mt. Everest is.  I’ve been here about eight years.  I love Chicago!”  Then it dawned on me.  Dad was asking about the cabby’s ability to drive, a kind of pretest to help Dad judge how tightly he would need to be holding on.  I was asking about the driver, his culture, his life.  “There you go, finally, here!” announced the driver after a very smooth drive, free of any aggressive maneuvers or heavy braking.


With four hours to wait, we walked into Union Station and found a table.  I felt electric; after all, the only place I had gotten us lost was in Davenport, Iowa.  My part was done; now we relied on the train.

Dad looked ashen. “I just realized how very strange this must all be to you, Dad.”   He nodded as he ate his Chicago hotdog.

(Meet the characters at Union Station...)

Corn's On!

What will you do or did you do on your 70th birthday? At dusk on the eve of Dad’s 70th birthday, Will, Liam and I were helping Dad pick sweet corn.  We would be “doing corn” the next day, on his birthday.  In the corn patch, which was probably 100 yards long and 20 rows deep, Dad picked corn and filled 5-gallon buckets while I couriered full buckets to the Chevy S-10 and emptied them into the truck-bed.

The corn stalks shot way over our heads and were thick enough to hide Dad in the middle.  I followed his voice to find him and exchange my empties for his full buckets.

The boys and I over-exaggerated the steps we took over the electric fence. It lined the perimeter of the corn patch and was about 6 inches off the ground. The fence stopped the raccoons from entering the patch. If a raccoon family had a midnight feast, then invited their friends to come the next night and the next, a good chunk of corn would be stripped from the stalks in a matter of a couple days.

Shortly, this conversation between Farm Dad and City Girl ensued:

“How many buckets have you emptied?” Dad asked. “I don’t know, maybe 8 – 12,” I guessed. “Haven’t you been counting?” he asked. Then a flashback: yes, for some reason, I should’ve been counting. “No.” “You haven’t been counting?” “No, you didn’t tell me to count.” “We always count, so Mom has enough for 100 pints.” “Oh… well, I haven’t done this in 15 years – I guess I needed a reminder to count.”  Then good-naturedly, "Why, Linda Kay... I can't believe you didn't count."

At dusk...we had more than enough for 100 pints.  We had a truck-load.

 It sat in the drive overnight, and early the next 70th-birthday-morning, Dad and I started husking corn...

...and the boys joined us.

 Amateur corn-picker that I was had dumped corn haphazardly into the truck-bed covering the whole thing. Soon realizing I had goofed up the shucking system a bit, I reshuffled all the corn to the back of the truck to where we could reach it, making room to toss the corn husks and silks to the front of the bed.

“I bet I’m the only one in my school who has done this!” Will said, as we filled the coolers with corn.

Four coolers of corn on the cob equal 100 pints of corn kernels for the freezer. Once we had lined the coolers up in the dining room, Dad’s job had ended for the time being, and Mom took over.

Mom and I lined the kitchen table and floor with newspaper, and set up a de-silking station on one end of the table and an area to cut the corn off the cob at the other end.

Maureen, Mom’s friend since high school, arrived with her grandson and the setting was complete. It was time to “do corn.” The three boys used dish towels to brush off the corn silks... Maureen, Mom and I could start stripping kernels off the cobs.

The magic soon wore off the de-silking process. The boys took breaks when there was nowhere to pile the silk-free corn and came back when we called them. They were all such troopers finishing the de-silking, it was tough going at times, but they did it.

I had seen those piles through the eyes of a 7- and 9-year-old. I remember vegetables and fruit that needed to be cleaned, stemmed, broken, cut-up – they were monstrous. Here, much like walking beans, was the true-grit of farming. Of growing and freezing our own food.  Of sticking to a task until it was finished.

Mom’s job shifted once we had big pans of kernels. They needed to be blanched for three minutes...spread out to cool in front of the fan, then loaded into pint-size freezer bags that were labeled with “2013.”

Maureen and I kept cutting as Mom followed the circuit of those final processing tasks.  Aunt Alison arrived later in the afternoon, "I heard you were doing corn.  I thought I would come up and help."  Aunt Alison stepped into the blanching, cooling, bagging circuit with Mom.

Towards the end of the afternoon, Liam walked through the kitchen. “BLAH! YUCK! What did I step in???” Ah, yes, that feeling of sweet, sticky corn milk on the bottom of your foot and the dragging of newspaper along with you as you try to walk away from it.  My “doing corn” memory and his “doing corn” experience were now complete!

“Mom, there just aren’t many kids who have done this, right?" Will asked again.  "We picked it, husked it, cleaned it and bagged it! We did it all from beginning to end!”

Having the "corn on” during our Iowa summer visit was a gift to this Farm Girl and her family.

Happy 70th, Dad.

(Yet another hot, humid summer memory... When the headlights came looking for me.)

Walking Beans

Dad turned 70 in August. We flew home to celebrate with him; a weekend at my sister’s was planned after several what-shall-we-dos were considered. In the end, it was his words at every Christmas that finalized our decision: “I love seeing all my kids and grandkids together.” We arrived a little early on Tuesday, the day before Dad’s birthday. Driving out to the farm and nearing Dad’s first bean field, I saw his truck parked in the level ditch. Together with my sister-in-law and nephew, Dad was walking beans. Pulling weeds. I nearly wet my pants, for we had just rolled into a real farming experience!

My sons’ idea of farm is so different from the reality of the farm-life that I grew up with. The farm has changed over the years from a dairy farm to a beef farm with no other livestock. No more chickens. No more butchering chickens with your cousins. No more collecting eggs. No more pigs. No more twice-daily milkings. No more holding cow tails. No more warm cow barns. No calves sucking on fingers. My visceral knowledge of “farm” is very different from my sons'.

In their computer game Minecraft, they showed me their cows. “Watch this, Mom!” Will collected a bucket, walked up to a cow, bumped her on the hip, and his bucket filled with milk. Shocked, I said, “You know it doesn’t really happen that way, right?” I was answered by an eye-ball roll. But really, he knows where the udders are, but he doesn’t know the process of moving milk from a cow to the table. Will hasn't smelled, seen, heard, felt, and tasted that experience.

Walking beans to cut volunteer corn and weeds out was my first paid job. I had many others (see About Me for my bucket list lived), but getting up at 4:30 a.m. to be in the field by 5:00 a.m.: a visceral memory.

I wheeled our car into the ditch. “They are walking beans!” I shouted. “There’s Grandpa!” my boys shouted. “They are walking beans!” I shouted. “There’s our cousin!” my boys shouted. “They are WALKING BEANS!” I shouted.

We joined the bean walkers. After walking one loop, I said, “Well, I have groceries in the car. I need to get going.” And the boys wanted to stay. I drove away, knowing they would need to finish the field before Grandpa brought them home. This wasn’t a dairy barn where they could test that hip-bump, but those were real weeds they were pulling.

My giddy smile lasted all the way to Mom’s.

(On occasion, I get to take the farmer East... "How did your crops do this year?" was the beginning of one such journey.)

When the Headlights Came Looking for Me

The humidity of the last couple weeks reminds of the two times in my life I recognized the headlights coming down the gravel road as Dad out looking for me after dark. Thirty-two years separated those two summer evenings. The first time I was 17 and a senior in high school. I wasn’t home by the time I said I would be, but I wasn’t getting into trouble. I ran into a friend, started to chat, and lost track of time. Once on the gravel road leading to our house, I recognized the headlights and Dad recognized mine. We both slowed and rolled down our windows. “Get home.” That’s all he said. Remembering that evening still sends waves of guilt through me.

The second time I was 45 and had the boys with me in Iowa during a hot, humid summer visit. We had been in town picking up a few groceries and visiting my brother and his family. When we left town, I told my brother we were heading to Mom and Dad’s. It was so brutally hot I had picked up a gallon of ice cream at the grocery store for our neighbors. I thought they might enjoy a little cool treat the next day, but as I was driving down their gravel road at 8:30 in the evening, they were all still up and sitting outside, begging for a slight breeze.

I braked, reversed, and pulled into their driveway. My friend Mary saw it was me and walked over to the car. “I thought you might like some ice cream. I was going to bring it over tomorrow, but since you’re still up…” “Oh, my gosh, thank you so much!” The word “ice cream” put a cool energy into everyone: one of the kids disappeared into the house and came back with several spoons, and they passed around the gallon of vanilla ice cream.

The boys and I plopped on a picnic bench to visit. We had just stopped at Dairy Queen so didn’t need another helping of ice cream. Liam studied everyone eating ice cream then broke his silence and pointed at Mary’s brother-in-law, Ben. “Hey, are you from Little House on the Prairie?” Fortunately, it was pass dusk so no one could see my cheeks burn red. Ben wore a long beard, plus suspenders and a work shirt very much like Pa’s. “Yes, Ben does look a little like Pa from Little House on the Prairie, doesn’t he? But he’s not. Mary and her family are Amish, and they dress differently than we do.” As I was explaining away, Ben interjected, “Oh, do you read those books? We love them!” As it happened, we had been reading them – and making homemade butter.

Liam and Will went off with a few of the kids to look at the kittens. A few minutes later, Liam came back to show me a kitten. He had a firm grasp of it. Around the neck. I jumped up to save it. “Sorry, he’s never held a kitten before!” I explained, drawing a few puzzled looks. “Really? Come here, Liam, let me show you how to hold a kitten,” Ben offered. In seconds, Liam was cradling his first kitten in the nook of an arm, petting it with his other hand. How to hold a farm kitten is innate when you are 5 years old and live on a farm.

With full darkness settling in, we said good-night. We got into the car, cranked the AC, and headed down the road. And there were those headlights. I was 17 again. We met. We rolled down the windows. “Where have you been?” “At Mary’s.” “We have been trying to call you!” “Oh… My cell phone was in the car. I didn’t hear it ring. Sorry, Dad.”

Sorry, Dad, but I was in one of my favorite spots: visiting with friends without a cell phone or a computer. We started to chat and lost track of time.

(Another hot Iowa summer memory: Walking Beans.)

Scrabble Grandma

My grandma, Mom’s mom, has started her journey Home. Grandma is 95 years old. She was ill in April but beat two rounds of lung infections and then a bout with an intestinal virus. Today, her body is tired. My cousin calls Grandma “Apple Grandma” because they often made apple pies together. I remember making pies with Grandma too. But, to me, she is “Scrabble Grandma.” After Sunday dinners is when the Scrabble board would come out. With a dictionary.

The shadow of time smoothens over the Sundays as they progressed through the years from her Scrabble tile rack shared with me; to my Scrabble rack shared with her; to our individual Scrabble tile racks with a bit of help at the end of the game; to pretty fierce competitors each manning our own tile racks right to the end of the game.

Through my year of breast cancer, I savored the moment when Grandma and I could sit across the table and play Scrabble again. But by the time I traveled back to Iowa after all of that, Grandma’s Scrabble days were done. Since then I have looked at Scrabble boxes with selfish anger.

Until spring break when the boys and I went back to Iowa for a belated Easter celebration. With the dinner dishes done and adults wandering around at loose ends, I found Mom’s Scrabble box, dusted it off, and rallied together four players: my sister-in-law, my sister, my mom, and me. When those letter tiles jiggled in the bag, they drew my three nieces to the table: 6-, 5-, and 2-year-olds.

Our game in April was not about the biggest word or the most points. It was about a 2-year-old counting and pulling tiles; a 5-year-old dumping the rack as she rearranged tiles; and a 6-year-old reading the word aloud that was to be played the next round. And I realized what incredible patience Grandma drew from a very deep well as her grandkids’ small fingers rummaged through her Scrabble rack throughout the last 40 years.

Grandma’s 10 fingers weren’t present at the table in April, but 70 fingers from three generations were carrying on that Sunday afternoon tradition.

Triple Word Score for 48 points, Grandma. “Heaven,” with the “H” on a Double Letter Score. May the Scrabble board be waiting.

(Grandma passed away four hours after I wrote this.  We went to Grandma's Funeral -- a whole other story that will make you smile.)

Spring's Gate Girl

In Iowa over spring break, I volunteered to be Dad's gate-girl one chilly morning. It's not a glamorous job. I just needed layers of clothes, jersey gloves, and good boots. Knowing the difference between an electric fence and a barbed wire fence was also helpful. Call it innate Iowa wisdom: You grab electric once as a child, and the knowledge stays with you for life.

This was my vehicle for the morning. I got to drive the Ranger, which I thought was pretty cool.

...Until I gave it some gas. Then it was darn cold. Although it was a sunny morning, the temp was 40 degrees and the wind was gusting at 20+ mph, throwing the relative temp to around freezing.

This was Dad's farm implement for the morning. The skid-loader.

Each vehicle was well-suited for each of our jobs. I had easy on-and-off access to open and close gates as we made our way to the field where the cattle were eager to eat. Dad's had a loader on the front to scoop silage from the pile and dump it into the feeders.

After 15 minutes watching Dad drive back and forth with load after load of silage, I realized Dad was driving the Cadillac. I was driving the Ford Pinto. Dad's was encased in windows with a heater and had slick tracks that let it glide over the mud and slop. Mine had wheels that slipped into and shuddered in the slop, reminiscent of the golf cart on the bog. (Remember "How about an 8 Iron?" ?) So, I made tracks a little like this.

Yet even with my under-insulated, spinning jalopy, I loved it. In my Ranger, I circled the cows and baby calves. Most are Angus, but there are a few few white-faced Herefords. Taking pictures is tricky as the Angus are solid black. If they are standing together, they photograph as one furry blob.

But up close...

...huggable little blobs of fur.

Thanks for letting me drive the Pinto, Dad.

(As luck would have it, my boys got to experience Walking Beans in the summer after my Gate Girl spring.)

Simple Squid Dinner

For dinner Monday night, I had leftover ingredients from the weekend to work with: a bowl of very ripe tomatoes, an onion, some garlic, two lemons, a handful of linguine, a bottle of Chardonnay, and one-and-a-half pounds of squid.  The squid was leftover from the paella Bill made Saturday night. I rustled through my on-line recipe box looking for an easy tomato-white wine sauce that I had made a few weeks ago. With a quick search for "squid," a stuffed squid popped up. Upon opening the bag of porcelain sleek & glossy white squid tubes, I decided stuffing them would be a ridiculous endeavor. I would just quickly chop them up. A deconstructed squid dish. (Think Indiana Jones, in battle with a whip when a quick shot just seemed to make more sense.)

Thankfully, all the skin, ink, and cartilage was gone before said squid entered our house. I was left with long white tubes and long purple tentacles. I chopped the squid tubes into calamari rings and threw them into a strainer to rinse. I picked up the tentacles, some 4 - 6 inches long, and put them into the strainer as well. It was right about then that I thought, "I'm a heck of a long way from Iowa."

I didn't have time to soak the pieces in milk to tenderize them. I didn't get the meat tenderizing hammer out because I didn't want squid juice squirting all over my clean counter and floor. Rather, I decided they would just need to tenderize as they simmered away in tomatoes, onions, garlic and wine for a half hour.

As the ingredients came to a happy simmer in the pan, I took one last peek before putting the cover on. Puzzled by the bizarreness of these little creatures, prepared by my Iowa-born hands, smothered in a Creole-infused sauce. Would my granddad have eaten these? He loved fish, but this was a far-cry from beer-battered bullheads. Would my dad knowingly eat these? (Dad had unknowingly eaten them as we ordered fried calamari once while he was visiting. We didn't tell him the source of the nice rubbery, crunchy appetizer.)

The end result was delicious served over rice.  So, do you eat chewy purple legs covered with little suction cups? Please do tell.

(This "recipe" is a little more complicated: Corn's On!)

phone charger cord for the car

(This little ditty was sparked taking inventory of my purse in "This Morning's Office"... ) In Massachusetts, I found the phone charger cord for the car as we left the rental house in Gloucester, so I tucked it in my suitcase to take to Iowa.  However, as I criss-crossed Iowa I rarely had cell coverage.  Not too shocking as no-service had become the norm this summer.  So my always-fully-charged phone rarely worked.  Perhaps T-Mobile is MA-based and can get power through buildings but not corn tassels.

While in Iowa, occasionally  I found 2-square feet to stand in to get 2 bars of coverage.  One of those times was on my sister's porch in the middle of Iowa at 8 a.m. when my phone rang.  "We are calling on behalf of Sprint to collect a bill you have not paid."  Never do I give a credit card number over the phone to someone who calls me.  "I don't have Sprint.  What service is it for?"  "I'm not sure, Ma'am, I just have the amount due that covers two billing cycles."

Crap.  It clicked: I do have Sprint.  At the beginning of summer, two billing cycles ago, I bought a "hot spot" so that wherever I go I can hook up to the internet with my lap top.  That is, wherever I can get cell coverage.  Which ended up not being at the house in Gloucester this summer.  So the magical hot spot went into a cardboard box, in the POD, in our driveway.

I have flashbacks of seeing "Sprint" in the subject of emails and not opening them because I don't have a Sprint phone.  I thought they were marketing emails... and I have fast delete fingers when it comes to those emails.  I had gone with paper-less billing for my Sprint hot spot.  Realizing that I actually did have a Sprint product and knowing I hadn't paid any bills, I grimaced and gave my credit card number and 3-digit secret code to this man.  Who called me.

Loading up the kids to go to Reiman Gardens in Ames, I felt a pit in the bottom of my stomache.  Even with the realization that I hadn't paid my Sprint bill, I shouldn't have given my card information to that guy.  The best solution for my panic was to contact a local Sprint office and confirm that the call was legit.  "Oh, Ma'am, that doesn't sound good.  What is your phone number?"  I don't have a phone with Sprint.  "Well, there is a number associated with the hot spot -- what's that number?"  That number is with the paperwork, in the hot spot box, in the POD, in the driveway, at our house, in Massachusetts.  "Well, there's no way I can look at your account without that number, Ma'am."  What about my name?  I know my name!!  "Unfortunately, we can't look up accounts by name.  You should probably call our 800 number for help."

I tossed paper and pencil to Will in the back seat and asked him to write numbers down as I repeated them from the Sprint lady.  She gave me two numbers to try.  I dialed the first one that Will had written down.  "Hello..."  Wow, that 'Hello' was way too sultry for Sprint customer service.  "We are so glad you called.  Are you looking for hot, steamy..."  Shock knocks the memory.  The Sprint lady gave me a sex line.  Or did Will write the  number down wrong?  I hit 'end call' and dared not call the second number.  I would go on faith that the collection agency that had called me was legit.

Later that afternoon, I heard the ping for an incoming text.  "Creamy chocolate or hot latina lovers r waiting 4 u.  $25 credit on your first call... or, do you want to SEXTEXT?"  No!  I really don't!!  And why are you sending this to me??  Ohhhh...  My cell number was captured after I called you.  By mistake.

That came in at 4:04 p.m.  "END" went out at 4:05 p.m.  My one and only sextext experience lasted less than a minute.

And to make sure there are no cliff-hangers: My hot spot is still in the cardboard box.  And the collection agency call was legit.

Need more endorphins freed up today?  Try this:  Finders Keepers


Summer Numbers

At the end of this tailspin called summer, I’ve been recalling events in numbers – a little strange because I’m more of a word person.  Short & quantifiable, numbers highlight this Hump Day Short. In the last 30 days, I’ve slept in 17 beds.

After flying 1,600 miles to the Midwest, the rental car had racked up 2,000 Midwest-driving miles at the end of our 14-day trip.

45,143 LEGO blocks were used by master LEGO sculptor Sean Kinney to create a mother bison sculpture on display at the Reiman Gardens on the ISU campus in Ames, IA.  It was one of 27 sculptures in the gardens.  (Click here for pictures of sculptures.)

6 pair of underwear; 1 set of pajamas; 2 capri pants: What I left behind in a hotel room drawer after 1 beautful wedding in the Midwest.  It was shipped to my parents’ house in 1 box that took 7 days to arrive.

Quantillion, quintillion, googleplex.  A number created during a drive through cornfields in Iowa; I think it relates to the numberof corn tassels we saw.

½ of 1 toenail left on my big toe – a result of the 26- mile Avon Walk in May.

ZERO:  How many ears of corn are on many cornstalks in Iowa due to the drought.

ZERO: How many days until school starts.

1 alien space umbrella I was using yesterday made 8 people smile.

A few days rather than a few weeks until we move back into our house – too early for exact numbers.  Thanks, Mom & Dad, for our 1 mantel.  It's a piece of white oak from my grandpa's timber on the old home place, cut down in 1952 and shipped from Iowa to Massachussetts for $40.  Yes, it's so cliche, but... priceless.


Walking to Ada’s last week, I passed Mom & Dad’s neighbors’ house.  Herbert came out, said “hello” then asked why I was carrying two cornstalks.  When I told him it was to keep the mean country dogs from biting me, he raised an eyebrow.  He can raise one eyebrow higher than anyone I’ve ever met.  “Come here…  Take this.”  I had deliberately not picked up a stick, thinking that would be too heavy.  “It’s hickory.  It’s not heavy.  You’ll need it for the house on the corner.”  It was as light as my two cornstalks combined. We walked to the end of his drive and then he walked down the road with me.  I explained I was walking in the Avon Walk Boston in May and was putting in a few miles while visiting Mom & Dad.  “Hmm, I walked two miles yesterday, picked morels.”

I could smell them frying when he said that.  Dad had brought a few home from his travels earlier in the week; Mom fried them in flour and butter.  We each had a tiny serving.  An appetizer.  A tease.

(For those unfamiliar with morel mushrooms… They have a relatively short season and look like sponges.  They are earthy tasting and pretty common in Iowa, but ya gotta know where to look for them.  Any timber with cattle grazing won’t have them.  They sell for $40 or more a pound.  No one I know sells them.  They EAT them.)

Salivating, I say, “Where?”   A question no morel mushroom hunter answers.  The one-word question just tumbled out of my mouth.

“In our timber.”  Right next to the field I had been cultivating in on Sunday.

“Oh.”  Wondering if I could sneak in and pick just a few.

“We must have gotten four pounds yesterday.  But there were snakes everywhere.  Little baby ones.”

“Oh…”  80% chance this was a bluff.  Morel Mushroom Territory Protection Strategy.

“Just little garters?”

“No.  Some other kind.”




“No… Fox I think.”

I had never heard of a fox snake.  90% chance this was a bluff.

“I know what you’re doing.  You’re just telling me there are snakes so I won’t touch your mushrooms!”

“Noooo!  I wouldn’t do that.  I’m not kidding.  There were snakes all over the place.”

He seemed honest.  Sincere.  70% chance this was a bluff.

We parted ways after a quarter mile; he returned home and I continued to Ada’s.  On the way, I met the three dogs on the corner.  They rushed to the road, angrily barking.  I held the stick and the cornstalks high and shouted “Stay!”  They stopped.

Back at home, I told Mom about my encounter with Herbert.  She laughed – 99% sure it was a bluff.

Snakes make me scream.  I could not go morel hunting back there to prove it right or wrong with the possibility of barging in on a snake family.

That afternoon, Mom & I took the boys to a wildlife exhibit featuring Iowa animals.  And there it was slithering in an aquarium tank: a fox snake.  Native to Iowa, it emits a smell like a fox to ward off enemies.

But the sign said nothing about their ability to guard patches of morel mushrooms, nestled amongst bluebells, jack-in-the-pulpits, ground ginger, and the plants that look like little beach umbrellas.  This specimen was at least three feet long.  No regrets in not calling Herbert’s bluff.