I wanted to play in the barn where Daddy and my brother were milking cows, but nighttime darkness held our farmyard in its grip. Closing the backdoor of our farmhouse, I found my sister Betty and demanded, “I want you to take me to the barn.”
My thirteen-year-old sister looked up from a comic book and answered in a huff, “You’re eight years old. Go to the barn by yourself and quit being such a big baby!”
I returned to the backdoor again. The yard was very dark, even with the yard light turned on, a single light bulb on top of a pole between the barn and house. Freshly fallen snowflakes sparkled in its light. A shadow moved. Panic made me freeze in place and wonder, “Is that a wild animal? Will it attack and kill me if I go out there?”
Common sense made me reason, there weren’t wild animals in our yard during the day. Then I realized the moving shadow was just a tree branch swaying in the wind. I really, really wanted to be in the barn! Throwing all caution to the wind, I ran as fast as I could, screaming all the way to the barn’s entryway, the milk house.
Instead of getting brighter, as the morning progressed, the sky darkened and thunder growled ominously in the distance. Looking out the kitchen window, the overwhelming greenness worried me. When I was 23 years old, the air had appeared greenish before a tornado picked up one end of my mobile home. Realizing that an earlier rain shower had enhanced the vivid color of the new maple tree leaves and a freshly mowed lawn, I relaxed. Weepy, blue clouds on the horizon suggested more rain was on the way.
My daughter Tammie joined me at the window, commenting, “This would be a good morning to have a sleep-in. I love lying in bed, listening to distant thunder and the patter of rain on the roof.”
Putting my arm around her shoulders, I reminisced, “Grammie Altmann loved nighttime thunder storms and rain. She said lying in bed listening to them made her feel cozy and happy. Do you remember that her birthday was today, the 15th of June?”
Nodding, Tammie acknowledged, “Yes, I know. If she were alive, this would be her 117th birthday. Grandpa Jacob’s birthday in July would have been his 118th.”
Instead of going into the barn immediately after supper, I zoomed around the farmyard on my half-sized bike. Fast as I could pedal, I toured the main circle driveway and the back circle driveway between the machine shed and old house. Around and around I went. The minute I heard the the Surge vacuum pump in the barn turn on, I dropped my bike on the lawn and trotted across the yard to the milk house.
I loved being in the barn; the sound of the cows mooing, slurping water, sighing, the creak of their hooves as they shifted their weight. During milking chores, the barn cats came out looking for spilled milk. I liked sitting on the haymow stairway near the milk cans, playing with the mother cats and listening to the radio.
As far as I know, no one has taken credit for being the first person to install a radio in their cow barn. On our farm, it was my brother who placed a radio on one of the large overhead beams and plugged it in. Having music while doing chores made the work more pleasant. We joked about how the cows probably enjoyed listening to the music, too.
We weren’t wrong about that assumption. Since then, studies have found that cows listening to music with a slower tempo have a greater milk production than cows exposed to fast-tempo music. Most of the music that WDLB, our local radio station provided in the late 1950’s and early 1960, was perfect for that. Researchers think fast-tempo music stimulates adrenaline secretion which interferes with milk letdown.
Clumps of green blades dotted the flowerbed. Some of the leaves obviously belonged to crocus and hyacinths that were soon to blossom. Other clumps belonged to either daffodils or mystery lilies. I wouldn’t know for sure until the daffodils sent up stems and buds.
This flowerbed had looked completely dead when the winter snow melted. Then the first small green shoots pushed their way up through the cold, wet ground. I marveled at this miracle despite having seen it happen each spring of my life. How tenacious the small bulbs were! How badly they wanted to live! How inconceivable it was that they were able to wake up and start growing again after having been frozen solid for months on end!
Flower bulbs were not the only things growing in the yard. Swollen red buds tipped the maple tree branches. Despite a chilly spring, leaves were sure to follow soon. Blades of grass in the lawn were pushing up through last year’s brown thatch. The lawn mowing people were sure to follow soon, too.
I went to sit in a chair on the deck to muse the endlessness of household bills. My daughter Tammie was sitting at the table across from me. She looked up from her phone as I complained, “In the winter I pay for snow to be removed from the driveway and buy fuel for the furnace. In the summer I don’t pay for those things, but then I pay for someone to mow the lawn and have higher electric bills for using the air conditioner.”
Looking at my daughter’s chart, the Nurse Practitioner instructed, “Bring Tammie back to see me in two weeks.”
To access Tammie’s electronic records, the clinic appointment scheduler requested her birth date. Tammie, who was in fifth grade, leaned against me and answered like a small adult, “It’s two, twenty-two, eighty-two.”
Later in the car, I suggested, “Would you like stopping for a treat before I take you back to school?” Tammie’s answer was of course, an enthusiastic yes.
Taco John’s advertisement for Taco Tuesday blared from the car radio. I complained, “Ugh, the words ‘Taco Tuesday’ turns into an ear worm whenever I hear this! It plays over and over in my head.”
Tammie asked, “Could we go to Taco John’s for my treat?” The fast food restaurant happened to be along our route back to school, so I happily pulled into that parking lot. Instead of a savory taco, my daughter ordered a desert taco, which looked and tasted a lot like a chocolate-covered waffle cone filled with ice cream. While eating it she commented on how she liked all the two’s in her birthdate.
My Dad held my one-year-old daughter Tammie on his lap with the familiar ease of a man who had raised seven children. She squirmed, so he slid her down between his knees, giving her a chance to practice standing while being fully supported. Sitting down on the couch across from him, I realized that no one had ever held Tammie that way before.
Tammie has TAR syndrome. (thrombocytopenia with Absent Radius) This is a rare birth defect. TAR causes low blood platelet levels which can cause bruising and bleeding. Radius bones in the arms are always missing, but the hands are fully formed. My daughter’s arms are elbow length. One syndrome challenge that we needed help with were her knees. They didn’t seem to have joints.
My husband sat down beside me and said, “Our doctor told us that if Tammie is ever to walk, she needs surgery on both of her knees.”
Nodding, I added, “He also said there isn’t a local doctor who can do the type of surgery needed. We’re taking Tammie to see a doctor at the Mayo Clinic next week.”
The three-hour drive to Rochester, Minnesota to the famous Mayo Clinic required us to leave home before daybreak on an overcast, early spring morning. Once there, Arnie and I were asked if we would allow interns to be present for Tammie’s exam because, “We don’t see many children with TAR syndrome.” During his exam the doctor demonstrated to several students how neither of her knees were functional.
That year Tammie had surgery on both knees and was fitted with cumbersome, full-length leg braces that were cable-connected to a belt buckled around her waist. She took her first steps when she was two and a half years old. Arnie and I weren’t sure if she started walking because of the braces or in spite of the braces.
The dreams began near the end of my pregnancy. Each night there was a baby, not necessarily my baby, but someone’s baby assigned to me. Each night I’d forget all about the infant. Each night in my dreams there were fires, floods and other natural disasters threaten our wellbeing. However, I never once remembered to pick up the baby when I ran out of the slumberland house to save myself.
One night I took the baby given to me and laid it in a crib in the upstairs bedroom of my childhood’s farmhouse. I immediately forgot all about the little one. A few days passed before dreamland me suddenly remembered. Filled with great apprehension, I raced to the crib and peeked in. Somehow, inexplicably, the neglected baby had multiplied to become three or four smaller babies.
I didn’t need to visit a psychiatrist to figure out why I was having these dreams. Eight years earlier, when I was twenty years old, my husband Arnie and I had had a baby daughter. Christy was born with a rare birth defect and was very sick. To make the situation scarier, I had never taken care of a baby before, not even babysat for one. The idea of taking Christy home scared me. I loved her, but didn’t want to take care of her.
I took my daughter home two different times, but she had to readmit to the hospital after only a day or two because of her ill health. The experience made me fearful of childcare. I was ashamed of how I wanted a healthy baby, not the sick one I’d given birth to. Christy died at two months of age on April 2nd, 1971. My guilty feelings began to grow. I felt like a bad mother.
The “oompah-pah-pah” of the polka band’s tuba announced the small-town music festival long before my husband Arnie had parked our car. The music festival with all day baseball games and carnival rides drew folks from a wide radius in Central Wisconsin. Following the music, we discovered that half of the huge beer tent was devoted to the band and a make-shift dance floor. The band was playing the “She’s Too Fat for Me Polka” and a large crowd of energetic dancers filled the floor.
Moments later, Arnie and I waded through the large crowd gathered around the wood-plank beer bar. Several of Arnie’s high school classmates were leaning against a section where a clear glass pitcher had only enough golden pilsner for Arnie’s glass. One of the young men held the pitcher high over his head and bellowed for a refill over the din of the crowd.
One of the young men said, “Kathy can dance with me while we wait for more beer!” My heart sank. I’d never learned to dance while growing up in the Stratford area. However, most of the young people who lived between Auburndale and Stevens Point where Arnie had grown-up, had their polka and waltz moves down pat.
Feeling the stiffness of my body, the young man shouted over the music, “Just relax and go with the beat.” I hopped when he skipped. He bobbed when I skipped. The couples around us flowed gracefully with synchronized steps and twirls. Getting a firmer grip on me, my partner instructed, “Follow my lead.” Horrified and embarrassed, I felt like a fully loaded H & S gravity box, being pulled around a wet corn field, by a 1949 model M John Deere tractor.
The logs I had put in the furnace several hours earlier were now just a pile of ash with a small bed of red coal glowing beneath. Grabbing wood from a nearby pile, I loaded the firebox until no more would fit. Small tongues of orange flame licked the raw edges of the bottom pieces. The fire was beautiful and smelled wonderfully. Taking a deep breath, I stood silently, not moving, just listening. The fire crackled. I heard my two daughters talking in the living room above. Flicker, my tuxedo cat, meowed and rubbed against my leg. The stress of my busy day disappeared. Feeling refreshed, I closed the furnace door and sprinted up the stairway.
My house is very old. I suspect part of it was built during the 1890’s. My history-loving daughter Tammie and I enjoyed some of the house’s quirky signs of previous inhabitants. We particularly liked the permanent kitty footprints in the basement. I’ve always pictured the farmer who had built the house, getting mad at the cat for messing up his wet cement.
In the mid 1990’s, I came home from work one day to discover my husband Arnie had ripped the back porch off our house. He was using a rented backhoe. When I asked what he was doing, he said he was digging a basement for the large entryway he planned to build in place of the porch.
A lighted garland crowned the archway between the kitchen and living room where a festive balsam tree glittered and twinkled. My husband Arnie and son-in-law Mike sat on the couch next to the tree watching a football game on television. My daughter Niki and I sat at the table in the kitchen. Arnie held six-month-old Jon in his arms while Anne, my two-year-old granddaughter, ran between the two rooms playing with her toys.
A tea kettle on the stove began to whistle. Niki jumped to her feet. Placing a steaming mug of hot water and a tea bag in front of me, she sat down with a cup of her own and commented, “I love the holiday traditions I grew up with, but I would like to have some new traditions that I are my own.”
Taking a bite of Christmas cookie and a very small sip of the hot tea, I questioned, “What sort of new traditions are you thinking of?”
Pushing a library book towards me, Niki launched into a list of ideas, concluding with, “This book had so many good ideas that it was hard to pick which one I wanted to start for my family. The top one on my list is to celebrate the 12 days of Christmas.”
Cupping my hands around the delightfully warm mug I asked, “How do you plan to do that?”
My daughter had obviously formed a game plan. She detailed, “I want to buy 12 very small gifts for each of the children. Then, every night between Christmas Eve and the Epiphany, they will have a package to open.”