While my beloved Uncle Mike is long gone, the memories of the lilac bush which grew on his farm remain. I think of him each May when Randy brings me clutches of lilacs. It’s a sweet tradition. Loving. Appreciated more than a dozen roses, although those are lovely, too.
When Randy walked through the back door a few days ago with lilacs, I was surprised. Not that I should have been. He does this every May. I appreciate his thoughtfulness. I appreciate that he takes the time to gather these flowers for me at the end of a long work day.
There’s something simply sweet and precious about his remembering, his recognition of how much I value this heartfelt gift of love.
Breathing in the heady scent of lilacs each May, I remember my bachelor uncle and the gnarled bushes, heavy with purple blooms, that embraced his front porch and held the promises of sweet love never experienced.
He invited his sister-in-law, my mother, to clip lilacs, to enfold great sweeps of flowers into her arms, to set a still life painting upon the Formica kitchen table, romance perfuming our cow-scented farmhouse.
Such memories linger as my own love, decades later, pulls a jackknife from the pocket of his stained jeans, balances on the tips of his soiled Red Wing work shoes, clips and gathers great sweeps of lilacs into his arms.
Museology Museum Services of Minneapolis also deserves recognition as lead contractor for the project. I was first contacted by Museology in January 2020 about inclusion of my rural-themed poem in this exhibit focusing on Lyon County and also reflective of the surrounding area in southwestern Minnesota. I feel incredibly honored to be part of an award-winning exhibit that connects people to the history of this rural region.
MALHM awards were also given to historical societies in Anoka, Carver and St. Louis counties and to the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery. Susan Garwood, director of the Rice County Historical Society in Faribault (RCHS), earned the 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award for 30-plus years of service to organizations across Minnesota, including the RCHS, Northfield Historical Society and the MALHM. The award recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions and demonstrated leadership to Minnesota’s history community on a broad scale.
The state-wide Alliance serves some 500-plus local history groups throughout Minnesota with a basic mission “of connecting people to nearby history.” It also provides peer-to-peer support and aims “to raise the quality of work in the local history field in Minnesota.”
A time existed when I didn’t appreciate history or history centers like I do now. My shift in appreciating history came when museum exhibits changed. When they became more personal and interactive. When an artifact was not just something encased in glass, but an object with meaning, purpose, depth. When living history became a standard. When stories became part of the story.
That brings me back to my “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother.” After I posted on Tuesday about the poem’s inclusion in the Lyon County exhibit, my cousin Diane emailed a 1958 photo of my parents. And while I’m not sharing that image here, I will tell you that I was overjoyed to see a different side of my parents other than as, well, simply parents. They were young and clearly blissfully, joyfully in love. Diane also shared that her parents and mine would often attend dances together, leaving the kids with Grandma. As one of the oldest, Diane helped look after the babies, including me. I’d never heard that story or seen that black-and-white snapshot. To receive both now—with my dad long gone and my mom in failing health—was a gift. Such a gift.
I hope my poem, inspired by my mom, yet representative of all the hardworking farm women of the 1950s and 1960s, is also a gift to those who read it. I hope those who read my words, who view the accompanying photos, will reflect and feel gratitude for these strong rural women.
I shall forever feel grateful to my mom and to the rural region which shaped me and continues to inspire me today in my writing and photography.
I feel humbled and honored to have my poem, inspired by memories of my hardworking farm wife mother, in the Lyon County Historical Society Museum’s newest semi-permanent exhibit, “Making Lyon County Home.” The exhibit opened in January. Its purpose, according to Executive Director Jennifer Andries, is “to share stories, artifacts, and photographs from Lyon County after World War II and to inspire residents and visitors to share their memories and experiences of growing up and living in Lyon County and the region.”
I grew up in this prime agricultural region, some 20 miles to the west on a dairy and crop farm near Vesta in Redwood County. I knew Marshall well back then as a shopping destination. A place to buy clothes, shoes and other essentials. But even more, I understood rural life decades ago because I lived it. I witnessed, too, how my mom worked hard to raise six children on our family farm. Before marriage, she attended Mankato Commercial College and then returned to her home area to work an office job in Marshall. Like most women of the 1950s, once she married, she stopped working off the farm.
My poem honors her in a poetic snapshot timeline of life beginning shortly before she married my farmer father. Saturday evening dances. Then rocking babies. Everyday life on the farm. Challenges. And finally, the final verse of Mom shoving her walker down the hallways of Parkview.
Whenever I write poetry, especially about life in rural Minnesota, I find myself deep within memory. Visualizing, tasting, smelling, hearing, even feeling. Although I took some creative license in penning “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother” (I don’t know that Mom ever drank whiskey or danced at the Blue Moon Ballroom in Marshall), it is primarily true. She met my dad at a dance in southwestern Minnesota. She washed laundry in a Maytag, baked bread every week, made the best peanut butter oatmeal bars…
I expect many who lived in this rural region in the 1950s-1970s can relate. Says LCHS Director Andries of my poem: “It is a good fit for the exhibit and fits with the agriculture section and the role of farm wives and mothers. The poem itself goes beyond just the agriculture area. I feel many people can resonate with the poem with the sense of being carefree while we are young but at some point we all have responsibilities but that doesn’t mean we lose our carefree spirit.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Tom Church, former managing director of Minneapolis-based Museology Museum Services, lead contractor for the “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit. Church first contacted me more than a year ago about using my poem. He said then that the poem “offers a nice snapshot of the era and setting we’re trying to evoke in several places within the exhibit and will fit well with our story.”
I appreciate stories rooted in a strong sense of place. The new exhibit features themes of natural landscape, agriculture, education, industry and community. For example, the devastating and deadly June 13, 1968, F5 tornado in Tracy centers a display with information and oral histories. How well I remember that disaster. The 1980s farm crisis focuses another section. A late 1950s era kitchen fits the beginning time period of my poem.
Although I have yet to view the exhibit, I hope to do so this summer. And even more, I want my mom to know how she, and other farm women of the era, are honored via my poem. I want them to see themselves in my words, to understand the depth to which I value them. My mom, through her selflessness, her hard work, her kindness, her love, her faith, helped shape me. Today, as Mom lives out her final days in hospice, her memory and cognition diminished, I feel a deep sense of loss, of grief. But I hold onto the memories of a mother who read nursery rhymes, gardened, and, before I was born, enjoyed carefree Saturday evenings out with friends. Dancing. Laughing, Delighting in life.
FYI: The Lyon County Historical Society Museum, 301 West Lyon Street, Marshall, is open from 11 am – 4 pm Monday – Friday and from noon – 4 pm Saturdays. The “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit was partially funded by a Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage grant. The exhibit is semi-permanent, meaning artifacts and stories can be rotated to fit within the themes.
Ode to My Farm Wife Mother
Before my brother,
you were Saturday nights at the Blue Moon Ballroom—
a bottle of Jim Beam whiskey in a brown paper bag,
Old Spice scenting your dampened curls,
Perry Como crooning love in your ear.
Then motherhood quelled your dancing duet.
Interludes passed between births
until the sixth, and final, baby slipped into your world
in 1967. Thirteen years after you married.
Not at all unlucky.
Life shifted to the thrum of the Maytag,
sing-song nursery rhymes,
sway of Naugahyde rocker on red-and-white checked linoleum.
Your skin smelled of baby and yeasty homemade bread
and your kisses tasted of sweet apple jelly.
In the rhythm of your days, you still danced,
but to the beat of farm life—
laundry tangled on the clothesline,
charred burgers jazzed with ketch-up,
finances rocked by falling corn and soybean prices.
Yet, you showed gratitude in bowed head,
hard work in a sun-baked garden,
sweetness in peanut butter oatmeal bars,
endurance in endless summer days of canning,
goodness in the kindness of silence.
All of this I remember now
as you shove your walker down the halls of Parkview.
in the final set of your life, in a place far removed
These past few days, especially, of sunshine and 70-degree temps have sprung spring. To see buds forming, to hear birdsong, to feel sun upon skin…oh, the joy.
On Saturday evening, as the sun set, Randy and I followed the asphalt trail that winds along the Cannon River in North Alexander Park. It’s a favorite place to walk. Uncrowded. Beautiful.
I love the way the trail curves around trees.
I love how the river draws my eyes to view reflections and to appreciate the ducks and geese which populate this waterway. The quacking of a lone mallard pulled me to river’s edge. I observed how the water trailed in a lengthy V as the duck paddled across the still surface. Poetry seen, not written.
Across the Cannon, the iconic Faribault Woolen Mill focused my eyes as it reflected in the river. And I thought of all the blankets woven here, the history of this place.
At the Cannon River Dam, aside the trail, I noticed how the dam walkway seemingly follows a straight line to the historic mill. Sometimes it’s about perspective, pausing to consider a place in a different way. I challenge myself, in my photography, to view my surroundings creatively. While I created, people fished, a popular activity along this stretch of the Cannon.
The river absorbed the pink tint of twilight. Soft. Muted. Another poem to photograph.
And if I’d had my zoom lens on my Canon EOS 20-D, I would also have photographed the two bald eagles following the river like a road map. I never tire of watching these majestic birds.
As day edged closer to night, Randy and I retraced our route back to the van. A bit farther down the trail, teens packed basketball courts, their raucous voices rising.
To the west, the sun glowed fiery orange like an exclamation mark ending a glorious spring day in southeastern Minnesota.
THE OFFICIAL ARRIVAL OF SPRING today seems reason to celebrate, especially here in Minnesota, the land of long winters. Or, as my California-raised son-in-law once thought, Almost Canada.
From here on, daylight lengthens. And, after this past pandemic year, I’m thankful for the seasonal transition into more sunlight and resulting warmth and melting of snow. That said, this is still March and in Minnesota that likely means more cold and snowy days.
But, as we ease into spring, I feel a sense of renewal. Warm days with temps in the 50s and near 60, like those predicted for this weekend, are freeing, uplifting and promising.
Farmers, I expect, are itching to get into the fields, although it’s way too early for that. I still think like the farm-raised woman I am, connecting seasons to the cycle of planting, growing and harvesting. That will always remain an important part of my identity and continues to influence my writing and photography.
Flash back to 10 years ago and you can read that influence in a poem I penned and submitted to the Roadside Poetry Project. In four lines, each with a 20 character limit, I wrote a spring-themed poem that bannered on four billboards in Fergus Falls. It’s the most unusual spot my poetry has ever published.
Designed “to celebrate the personal pulse of poetry in the landscape,” according to then Project Coordinator Paul Carney, my poem truly fit that mission. I wrote from experience, from a closeness to the land, from a landscape of understanding.
While the Roadside Poetry Project, funded by the Fergus Falls College Foundation, no longer exists, my poem endures in the legacy of my writing. To have written about spring from the perspective of a farmer’s daughter celebrates my rural Minnesota prairie roots. And spring.
To watch that 22-year-old Los Angeles poet stand before the nation’s capitol, before the new President and Vice President and so many others, and hear her deliver her poem with such passion filled me with hope.
Hope themed her poem. If you missed hearing Gorman’s poem, I’d encourage you to seek it out online and listen. Poetry, when read aloud by its author, takes on a depth missing if simply read silently to one’s self.
Gorman’s poem complemented, reinforced, the hopeful messages I took away from the day through speeches, songs, prayers and actions.
Words—like unity, resilience, strength, faith, respect, possibilities, together—resonated with me. Words that will write, as President Joe Biden said, “the unfolding story of our great nation.”
And part of that story will be the words of a young poet, who inspired hope on January 20, 2021.
RIVERS, STRONG AND MIGHTY, flow through our state. The Mississippi. The Minnesota. And here in my county of Rice, the Cannon and Straight Rivers.
Here, on these waters, early inhabitants traveled via canoe, traded along river banks, built flour and woolen mills. And formed communities like Faribault, Northfield, Dundas and Morristown, all with waterways that run through.
Rivers are as much about nature as they are about our history. Like railroads, they helped to shape our towns and cities. And today, while no longer of the same utilitarian use, they remain valuable assets.
I am naturally drawn to water, as I expect many of you are. There’s something about water—its power, its motion, its almost hypnotic quality, its soothing sound when rushing over rocks. It’s like poetry flowing into the land.
Even in the depth of winter, a river—whether iced over or still running—draws me near. To listen, like poetry read aloud. To view, like words of verse written upon paper. To photograph, like an artist and poet and writer who cares. And I do.
To walk or pause beside a river is to appreciate art and history and nature. I feel connected to the rivers that trace like poetry through the landscape of southern Minnesota. My home. My place of peace and contentment when I walk beside the waters therein.
TELL ME: Do you have a favorite river? If so, please share why you appreciate this waterway.
I learned of this honor only recently via Northfield Poet Laureate Rob Hardy. A gifted poet and tireless promoter of poets and poetry, he submitted the collection to the debut contest sponsored by the Minnesota Library Foundation, Minnesota libraries and Bibliolabs.
According to the MN Reads MN Writes website, the new contest is designed “to recognize community-created writing and to highlight the central role that libraries play in providing support for local authors and the communities they serve.”
I crafted my poem, “Life at Forty Degrees,” in response to Hardy’s 2018 call for submissions to an anthology of “poetic living wills.”
The content of the poetry collections is summarized as “poems (that) deal with death and dying, with the things that make life meaningful in the face of death, and with the legacies that the poets hope to leave behind or have received from others before them.” My poem, about hanging laundry on the clothesline, focuses on the legacy passed on to me by my grandmothers.
The winner of the first-ever Minnesota Authors Project: Communities Create contest will be announced later this month at the annual Minnesota Library Association’s annual conference. No matter the outcome, I feel honored to stand in the “finalist” category with 15 other gifted poets from Northfield and nearby (like me from Faribault).
But this year, because of COVID-19, the mega celebration scaled back, leaving Northfield busy, but not packed. And so we walked around downtown for a bit on Saturday afternoon, after we replenished our book supply at the local public library—our original reason for being in Northfield.
The LOVE mural painted on a pizza place in Northfield drew lots of fans taking photos, including me.
On our way to Bridge Square, a riverside community gathering spot in the heart of this historic downtown, I paused to photograph the latest public art project here—a floral mural painted on the side of the Domino’s Pizza building by Illinois artist Brett Whitacre. (More info and photos on that tomorrow.)
One of the many Sidewalk Poetry poems imprinted into cement in downtown Northfield.
A fountain, monument and the iconic popcorn wagon define Bridge Square in the warmer weather season.
Buying a corn dog…
I was delighted also to see and hear a guitarist quietly strumming music in the town square while people walked by, stopped at the iconic popcorn wagon or waited in line for corn dogs and cheese curds. Several food vendors lined a street by the park.
The Defeat of Jesse James Days royalty out and about.
Among fest-goers I spotted Defeat of Jesse James royalty in their denim attire, red bandanna masks, crowns and boots, the masks a reminder not of outlaws but of COVID-19.
Photographed through the bakery’s front window, the feet-shaped pastries.
Yet, in the throes of a global pandemic, some aspects of the celebration remained unchanged. At Quality Bakery a half a block away from Bridge Square, the western-themed window displays featured the bakery’s signature celebration pastry—De-Feet of Jesse James.
A sign outside a Division Street business fits the theme of the celebration.
For a bit of this Saturday, it felt good to embrace this long-running event, to experience a sense of community, to celebrate the defeat of the bad guys.
Messages related to the Black Lives Matter movement are chalked in Northfield’s Bridge Square.
BRIDGE SQUARE in Northfield. It’s a gathering spot for the community. A place to relax and enjoy music and conversation and even popcorn from the popcorn wagon. Water flows from a fountain. Benches beckon visitors to linger. Colorful flowers spill from large, lush planters. Nearby, the Cannon River roars over a dam. People fish and picnic and walk along and over the river. It’s a beautiful setting of trees and sky and water.
This is a common phrased used in the current Black Lives Matter movement. Chalked names fill the sidewalks at Bridge Square.
The downtown park also provides a place to express public opinion, most recently related to the Black Lives Matter movement. On a recent walk through Bridge Square and several blocks along the River Walk and Division Street, I read the concerns expressed about lives lost, about racial injustice…
A broader view of the names and messages leading to and surrounding the fountain.
Written in chalk were names of the dead. And messages. Powerful. Heartfelt. Even as rain and sun have faded the chalk writings, the meaning remains that Black Lives Matter.
Next to the fountain, this fading portrait of James Baldwin.
Next to Baldwin’s portrait, one of Paul O’Neal.
Chalk portraits of James Baldwin and Paul O’Neal give faces to names that we should all remember. Like Baldwin, an author and Civil Rights activist. Like O’Neal, shot in the back by Chicago police in 2016. And, more recently, the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, sparking nationwide protests, unrest, destruction, and calls for police reform and justice.
Barricades have been set up along this street next to Bridge Square to separate traffic and pedestrians/protesters on a bridge spanning the Cannon River.
The poem I found particularly meaningful in relation to Black Lives Matter and the death of George Floyd.
After crossing a partially barricaded street to follow the River Walk, I paused to read a poem imprinted in the sidewalk as part of Northfield’s Sidewalk Poetry Project. Reading the seven-line poem, the final line—Just breathe—struck me. George Floyd, when he lay dying on a Minneapolis street, said, “I can’t breathe.”
I followed the River Walk, eventually turning onto this footbridge across the Cannon River.
And so I walked, down steps, along the pedestrian river path hugging the banks of the Cannon River. I thought of that poetry and of those names and messages in Bridge Square.
One of many Black Lives Matter signs I spotted in downtown Northfield, this one in the upper story window of an historic Division Street building.
I considered how, no matter our skin color, our background, our education, our whatever in life, that we are all just people. We see beauty. We feel sunshine. And sometimes we share the silence that forms in our minds.