“It is refreshing to read about (a childhood) that was so full of love and laughter. I only wish that the book hadn’t ended so soon.” – Allison Collins, the Paperback Pursuer
“Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl” is up on my bookshelf where I keep all the books I enjoy re-reading, and that’s the highest compliment I can give it.” - Mark Pearson, host of Public Television’s “Market to Market” and co-host of the “Big Show” on WHO radio in Des Moines
“If you have ever milked cows, made hay, dressed chickens, wondered about Santa Claus, or had your dad shush you at the noon dinner table while the weather and markets were on, you’ll identify with these situations. Carol isn’t afraid to get personal in the telling.”– Lee Kline, farm broadcaster, WHO Radio
I have not set foot on the farm in ten years, but I drop in today on a whim. This land does not belong to our family and it has not for three decades. After my parents sold the home place, my contact with the land of my childhood was limited to catching the first glimpse from the highway when we topped a hill, pointing it out to my son or husband as we sped by on our way to the town where my parents have lived since.
As I climb out of the car, I am greeted by the familiar—the warm smell of manure hangs rich on the air; the clear call of a cardinal plays across the silence; a hilltop breeze caresses my face. Leaning back against the car, I breathe in the place.
The man who now farms the land greets me warmly. I know him. His parents were neighbors when I was a kid. When I was 14, I babysat for him and his older brother and sister. This man lives and works on the farm, though he works the land of other farms as well. His wife works at a nearby hospital.
I wait while the farmer, sitting on the bench outside the back door of the house that was new when I was five, pulls on manure-caked boots and speaks with pride of the many acres he farms. He stands, settles a sweat-stained seed corn cap on his head, the bill angled to shield his face from the sun, and we head toward the barns. On the way, he acknowledges with an apologetic half-gesture that the farm isn’t kept up as well as when my dad owned it.
I nod. “You have a lot on your hands,” I say.
As we walk, I look around and am saddened. The aging barns stand humbled by peeling paint and missing boards. Beef cattle look out of place to my eyes as I recall the once state-of-the-art dairy barn where we milked our cows. The farmer and I find neutral ground, talking about a barn taken in a wind storm, a now useless pit silo built by the man who had the farm before him. Inevitably, our talk turns to weather and planting crops.
“If it’s okay, I’d just like to look at the fields,” I say, grateful when he has to leave me to check on a cow calving in the barn.
“Sure,” he says. “Look around. I’ll catch up with you later.”
Walking toward the west, I step across the mud puddles of a wet spring and remember squishing my bare toes in similar puddles. I don’t know what I think I’ll see in the field, but I am drawn there.
I put the buildings so wanting for care behind me and stand in a pasture where I used to chase butterflies. Closing my eyes, I tip my head back to catch the sun, stretching out my hands in an unconscious plea. I am open to memories rising out of the earth, pulsing through my body with a force so unexpected and strong, I struggle to stay balanced.
I see my sisters and me chasing across the field, vying to see who will make it first to the wooden steps of the stile spanning the fence, who will be first to reach the one-room schoolhouse where I took the first eight years of my schooling. I see a tree with low limbs that I remember scrambling up just in time to escape a marauding cow. The hills where Dad took us in search of a lost cow and her new calf rise up before me. The blackberry brambles where Mom urged us to fill pails with berries she would bake into pies tug at my memory. I remember carrying milk and making hay, butchering chickens and planting the garden. All that work! It causes me to chuckle. Putting kids today to work like my folks did us would cause people to gasp, ‘Isn’t that abuse?’ In truth, at the time, the work seemed more like play.
This land of my childhood releases sweet, long forgotten memories and brings me back home. Home to the farm. Home to my family. Home.
Chapter 1 – Country Hospitality
“How about a little lunch before you go?” Mom smiled at Uncle Frank and Aunt Minnie, as she stood up and headed for the kitchen. Seeing me curled up on the floor reading by the heat vent in the kitchen, Mom looped me into helping get lunch on the table. “Carol, run get a quart of peaches.”
Aunt Minnie rose to follow Mom. “Let me help you get it on the table.”
In the few seconds it took me to run down to the fruit cellar and back up the stairs, Mom had put a pot of coffee on to brew, laid out lunch meat and cheese with homemade bread for sandwiches, arranged a tray heaped with dill, sweet and beet pickles, and was filling a bowl of cottage cheese. At Mom’s direction, Aunt Minnie lifted the good plates—the ones from the set of pastel pink dishes Mom received as a wedding present in 1942—out of the cupboard and placed them around the kitchen table. She found the silverware we used every day in the drawer by the sink.
Even though the dining room table was at the other end of the kitchen, we only used it when we had company for Sunday dinner. Lunch was at the kitchen table where we ate all of our family meals.
I handed over the quart of bright yellow peach halves Mom canned in thick syrup and brought out to serve guests. Flicking off the seal with a can opener, Mom poured the peaches into their special pink bowl, the bowl that matched the good dishes. As she motioned me to fill a plate with brownies topped with a sprinkle of sugar, Mom slid a large silver serving spoon into the peach bowl and called out, “Lunch is on the table.”
Mom could put a full meal on the table faster than I could form the idea of a meal in my mind.
“Lunch”—a meal served anytime between breakfast and dinner, dinner and supper, or supper and bedtime—looked every bit like a full meal but wasn’t served hot. Lunch was automatic when we had guests, whether the guests were invited or not.
Relatives like Uncle Frank and Aunt Minnie dropped in to visit on Sunday afternoon. We had lunch before they left. Friends showed up to play cards on Friday night. We had lunch before they went home to bed. Women came for a Homemaker’s meeting, Mom served lunch. Even if our guests had eaten a full dinner or supper meal only hours before, we still served and guests still ate lunch. And it wasn’t just us. When we went visiting, we were served lunch. Any visit by anyone to our farm, any visit by us to any other farm was occasion to set the coffee pot to perking on the stove and to bring, at the very least, a plate of cookies to the table. This was farm hospitality.
Beyond satisfying any real or imagined hunger pangs our guests might have, serving lunch provided an unspoken signal that it was time for people to go home so we could go out and do chores or go to bed. No one ever missed the hint that it was time to leave. How could you be offended when your hosts sent you on your way with a full tummy?
Nor would you refuse an offer of lunch. The general rule was that if lunch was offered, you settled in at the table, shared neighborhood news, and ate.
It’s fair to say that not all lunches were created equal. Visiting some neighbors and having lunch was a treat akin to getting candy at Easter, the food was so amazing. An older neighbor who lived a couple miles east of us topped the list in this category, and what she served was even more amazing to me because of her stove.
Edna Hoffman cooked on a wood-burning cookstove so big it filled the end of her kitchen. She fed the fire in the cookstove with pieces of wood her husband George had split from logs and piled in a wood box near the stove. Though electricity was available in rural Iowa by the mid-1940s and most families had abandoned cookstoves at that time, Edna swore by hers and kept it as long as she was on the farm, well into the 1970s.
That cookstove offered a fascinating array of doors and burner lids. Flames danced behind each door, under each lid. A small cupboard above the burners was a warming oven, a cozy place to remove the chill from plates, to keep a side dish hot while other dishes cooked, or to rewarm dinner rolls. Mom gazed with envy at that warming oven each time we visited Edna’s kitchen and remembered it fondly decades later.
Only a cookstove expert like Edna could manage the variable heat of open flames to turn out culinary magic. One time she presented a Baked Alaska combining white cake topped with ice cream that hadn’t melted even though it came right out of the oven beneath a mountain of meringue tinged a perfect brown. Another time, light-as-air cream puffs came out of her cookstove. Filled with ice cream, topped with fresh red raspberries, and drizzled over with chocolate syrup, those cream puffs were as good as any dessert I’d eaten up until then or have since
We visited other neighbors more often and with mixed results when it came to lunch. It was on one of these visits that I learned an important lesson in hospitality.