Where have I been? Earlier this month we took a little trip to the heartland to visit my family. (Next month, Eric will have his turn.) We returned a couple of weeks ago, but I’ve had a hard time getting my blogging act together. Anyway, I’m back!
I grew up in suburban Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I’m an only child, but I had ten cousins, two sets of aunts and uncles, and two sets of grandparents in town, so although our household was small, I had family around.
Then we moved to Washington State, and my sense of family evaporated. I was 11. I seldom saw my extended family after that. This isn’t a pitch for sympathy—it’s just the way it was, and it felt normal to me because it was my reality. Every now and then, some family members would make the trek out west to visit us, but I never went “back home” until I was an adult. (I’ve called the Seattle area “home” for a long time.) Visits have been infrequent, but as I get older, I’ve been feeling the pull to strengthen—or in some cases re-establish—the connection, especially after my mom passed away in 2007.
Our Lake Wobegon base camp
My family all started out in Milwaukee, but as my generation got older, we spread out … geographically and sometimes physically. My Aunt Jo moved to Rochester, Minnesota, seven years ago to be near her daughter, Bonnie, and son-in-law Tom. So it’s Bonnie and Tom who host get-togethers every few years. My other maternal cousin, Tom, and his wife, Judy, come up from Austin, Texas, and Jeff lives in Oshkosh, Wisc. At 88, Jo is my last relative from my parents’ generation.
Bonnie and Tom live in a lovely home on small acreage outside of town. It’s not in 10,000 lakes territory—it’s in what I’d call oceans of grass. One thing that really struck me on this trip is how much Midwest people love their enormous lawns—everywhere we went. We just don’t see many huge lawns out west.
A turn for the wurst
Since reconnecting with my paternal cousin Kate on Facebook last year, I’d been hoping to meet up with her and my other cousins from Pop’s side of the family. Cousin Deb offered to host a get-together at her 1917 bungalow in Milwaukee, so Eric and I hopped in the car for a pleasant drive across Wisconsin. Something about the rolling green countryside is soothing to my soul.
Mind you, it’s not because I’m a farm girl … I’m strictly a suburbanite. It’s probably because I can detect the scent of cheese in the air. Mmm … cheeeese!
Kate and Deb took us to a nearby marina on Lake Michigan to see Deb and her husband Tom’s 39-foot sailboat. (Kate’s husband is also Tom … how did I manage to marry an Eric?) Deb and Tom’s lives revolve around restoring this beautiful boat and sailing with their yacht club. I grew up with power boating, and I sure miss being out on the water, but alas, I don’t see a boat in our future, even though Puget Sound offers some of the best boating in the world.
I was thrilled that five of the seven sibling cousins showed up for dinner! We had not see each other for 22 years, and before that it was probably another 22—or more. I brought my dad’s genealogy research and a bunch of century-old photos (some identified, many not) for show-and-tell. We got a kick out of deciding which of our ancestors we resembled. “Is anyone from the past generation still alive?” asked Becky. “No,” I said. “We are the old generation.” Kinda sobering. It was so much fun to mingle with everyone, relive memories of our grandparents, and learn what we’ve all been up to. I have a great bunch of cousins!
I love this photo of my grandpa and his siblings. He’s the baby at the bottom of the ladder (too young for pants), which puts the date around 1898.
It wasn’t until we checked into our hotel that night that I realized I had been so busy visiting with everyone that I didn’t get a picture of cousins Dale, Dave, and Becky! How could I have missed that opportunity?? This one from Grandma and Grandpa’s 43th anniversary in 1964 will have to do. Clockwise from back row, left: My dad Carl and mom Jean, grandma Hilda and grandpa Carl, cousins Dave, Sue, Deb, Uncle Don, Aunt Carolyn, cousins Gary, Dale, and Kate, and me. (Becky was yet to be born.)
Here’s how Grandma and Grandpa started in 1921. You can bet that a florist’s daughter would have a spectacular bouquet (yet, Grandma wasn’t smiling, even on her wedding day).
A turn for the verse
My dad’s cousin Charlotte, known to all as Chuckie, was famous in the family for writing poems. (I keep waiting for Will and Kate to call their daughter Princess Chuckie, but sadly, I guess it’s not going to happen.) In my search for archival photos, I found 40 pages of her cringeingly bad but hilarious poetry, through which she poked fun at various family members. Here’s a brief sample—just part of one poem. I suggest a few glasses of wine for prep:
Thomas Julius Roehl came in ’25,
It’s now sixteen years he’s been alive.
He’d fall around without hurting his rump,
For I’ve been told he was pleasingy plump.
His legs like Uncle Carl’s were not bowed,
But he was slightly pigeon-toed.
While roller skating it was a big riddle,
His skates constantly bumped in the middle.
So you can see without his legs up to par,
With wheels on his feet he never got far.
Back in those days it would me please
To see him try out a pair of skis.
Then came the time when whatever he’d mutter,
Would just come out as one big stutter.
But this trait didn’t last so long,
Now with his talk there’s nothing wrong.
Now Tommy, to keep up the Roehl tradition,
Took up football to keep in condition.
Though the signals in his mind he always did clench,
I guess the coach thought him better on the bench.
But that’s not as bad as it could be,
What good is an ornament-less tree.
An empty bench would be a sad place,
So Tommy helps to fill in the space.
Wait, there’s more! Twenty-nine more poems! Want to read another one? … No?
On our return trip to Rochester I was beckoned by signs for Ephraim Pottery. We turned off I-94 into the quaint little burg of Lake Mills, Wisc. Across the street from the courthouse square with the farmer’s market was Ephraim’s Pottery … arts and crafts pottery heaven. My instincts were right. I purchased this plump ginkgo vase as a souvenir.
The doctor and the farmer
We relaxed in Rochester for the rest of the week, ate too much, celebrated our sixth anniversary, and trolled about town visiting local landmarks.
No trip would be complete for us without a dose of architectural history, so we poked around the Plummer House, a magnificent and fanciful 1924 Tudor (Dr. Henry Plummer was one of the founders of the Mayo Clinic, where both of my cousins are doctors). The house, now an arts and event center, wasn’t open, and we were the only ones there, so we had the run of the property. Do you have a tower in your backyard?
We also stopped in at the History Center of Olmsted County, where a farm is home to the Mechanical History Roundtable (guys who collect and preserve old farm equipment). We were excited to take photos of the rusty old farm implements that decorated their field.
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what this is.
Oh, c’mon! It’s a hog oiler! It’s fer oilin’ yer hawgs! Keeps insects away, I gather. Must be where the term “greased pig” comes from.
And of course, who could forget Rochester’s iconic corny water tower!
How bicycles saved a town
We took a day trip to Lanesboro, a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, Minnesota. It’s miraculously thriving, bursting with historic buildings, eateries, bed and breakfasts, and a popular theater company. What in the world makes it tick when nearby towns are nearly dead? Bicycles! The Root River State Trail (a former rail bed, part of the Blufflands State Trail System) runs through town, which brings in tons of people. There’s also river rafting, fishing, cross-country skiing, and in-line skating. This little town is jumpin’! It’s great to see a historic town be so preserved and valued. It’s the biggest tourist destination in southern Minnesota.
And then it was time to go. On our last night at Bonnie and Tom’s, the fireflies came out to bid us farewell … such a beautiful way to end our visit. I love fireflies. We don’t have them out west. I couldn’t take a photo, but this is what they look like in the dark.
Goodbye, Midwest … goodbye, family. I’ll be back in a year or two!