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Anne Moening


Anne MoeningLife on a Tar Road

Part 1

My home was a small family dairy farm in west central Minnesota. Our farm was a spread of 360 acres of fields, woods and wetlands filled with adventure, mystery and endless possibility.  Home was a cracker box house bursting with life, nine people growing up and growing old in the midst of laughter, tears and infinite compromise.   We bumped elbows at the dinner table but we scattered like seeds once we stepped outside.  We were limited only by our imaginations and mom’s three firm rules:  1.  Stay off the tar road.  2.  Do not enter the pasture when a bull is present.  3.  Return by mealtime.  Within those fairly limitless boundaries we would spend our days in constant motion: hiking through the back pastures, racing up and down the driveways on our bikes, rushing through chores to have more time for play.  My memories of stillness are few:  lying in the snow and watching the northern lights, cradling a newborn puppy, reading a book in the nook of a tree.

I was child number 6, daughter number 5, with two brothers as the bookends of our sibling assembly.  My early memories are of being sandwiched between two sisters in a double bed, while my other two sisters shared the second bed in our room.  As the youngest, I had the smallest voice, and had no authority to complain of my cramped quarters.  I had one drawer in the dresser, one foot of space in the closet.  But it was enough. I did not need more.  I had school clothes and everyday clothes and two pairs of shoes.  Many of my clothes were hand-me-downs and my third pair of shoes was the soles of my feet.  What I wore was the least of my concerns.

Having four older sisters means one of two things:  your belly aches from laughter or your head aches from arguing.  Fortunately, we were the giggling kind.   Yes, we did our fair share of fighting, but my memories ring with the sound of laughter.  We coined the phrase “weak with laughter” and used it whenever we were unable to walk, talk or breathe because we were overcome with the giggles.  The “no laughing at the table” rule was established after too many meals where our food was left untouched and our older brother was left annoyed from our incessant giggling.   Even our neighbors noticed and would ask our parents why we laughed so much:  What was so funny anyway?
Unlike most children today I did not grow up with a phone attached to my ear.  We had rotary phones for a little too long, and I will always remember Francis Meyer listening in on the party line.  To my great dismay, I did not have the luxury of lengthy phone conversations with my school friends because those calls were long distance and expensive.  I was always apprehensive of answering the phone because without the benefits of caller id or an answering machine, I inevitably picked up when the vet or the implement dealer called.  Then the pressure was on to document a nearly verbatim message of vital and unfamiliar information.   Upon delivering the scrawled message to my mom or dad I would be grilled about the details I had innocently glazed over.   What did he say about the twisted stomach?  The mastitis? The hardware?  (“Hardware”, by the way, is not what is purchased from your local store.  It includes heavy, sharp objects ingested by a cow that can cause serious stomach inflammation.)

Our farm was isolated by the standards of most. The nearest dot on a map was Padua, population 15.  However, if you included the suburban areas, it was the epicenter for a community of 200.  Padua was a catholic church, a church hall, a pub, 5 houses and a cemetery.  The nearest town of any real size was a 20 minute drive away.  I learned early on that isolation translates directly into the need to plan ahead and be prepared.  Lists of groceries and supplies needed from town were made on a weekly basis.  If we ran out of any necessities between trips, we went without or we called the neighbors to borrow the required ingredients.  Borrowing the quintessential cup of sugar was not a drive thru experience.  It was a time to catch up with our neighbors: to talk, to complain, to connect.  It was community building at its best.

The actual trip to the grocery store was an event that required “school clothes”.  It was a love/hate experience each time mom granted me that leave of absence from the farm.  I loved it because it meant that I was able to go somewhere with a real stoplight, a mainstreet of stores and traffic consisting of more cars than tractors.  It also meant of course, that maybe, just maybe, mom would splurge on a small treat for me.  The downside was the actual trip to the grocery store where we would often fill TWO carts with items.  How embarrassing.  And to make matters worse, the gigantic pack of toilet paper was always on the top in the most highly visible space. 

Fortunately our huge gardens guaranteed that we never had to add a third cart.  We grew up eating organic before organic became the latest trend in healthy eating.   At the end of the growing season our cellar was bursting with crocks of carrots, jars of pickles, and bushel baskets of potatoes.  The freezers were stocked with peas, beans and corn, all of which were hand-picked, prepared and packed with care.  My favorite days were those of apple pie and strawberry jam.  An early start in the morning guaranteed enough pies (around 30) and containers of jam (around 40) to last through the cold winter months. We didn’t do all of the work: The bees worked diligently packing their honeycombs with sugars that we spun into sweet, golden honey that was savored on our morning toast.

Until the age of 21 I thought that the ice cream man was merely a work of television fiction.  My mom always warned us to not believe what we saw on TV and so I didn’t.  What I did believe in was Arnie, the Schwans man.  This tall, gangly German, who was my mom’s second cousin, religiously delivered two-gallon tins of ice cream every two weeks.  While vanilla was a given, we would spend hours debating the benefits of other flavors so a final decision could be made in time for his next delivery.  If we weren’t home, Arnie would just let himself into the basement and deliver what he thought we would like into one of our two large deepfreezes.  Talk about service.

Thanks to the constant shifting of tectonic plates on the earth’s surface and the effects of erosion, we were burdened with the annual rite of rock picking.  This task was not for the light-hearted.  After donning our everyday clothes, some optional sunscreen and cotton work gloves, we would head out to the fields riding on a wooden trailer that was pulled behind “Little Red”.  The ride alone was enough to bruise a tailbone, and it was a beginning suitable to the hours of backbreaking labor that would follow.   The instructions were simple, yet the task so exhausting:  Carry a five-gallon bucket.  Fill with all rocks that are larger than your fist. When the bucket is full, deposit contents on trailer.  Repeat until you are told to stop. That could be two hours or more, depending upon the weather and the sheer number of stones that the earth revealed after the winter snows had melted.  We always returned home coated with dirt from head to toe due to the wind that inevitably swirled around us.  Our exhaustion was bone deep and Arnie’s ice cream never tasted so good.

Fortunately, Sunday was truly a day of rest.  Roused early from bed to attend morning Mass, we had the rest of the day to ourselves.  Mom spoiled us with homemade cinnamon rolls for breakfast and a delicious dinner (a.k.a. lunch) of chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, vegetables, sweet rolls and apple pie.  Most of this meal we had raised ourselves and I took great pride in knowing that my contributions were valued.   

My dad’s favorite activity was the Sunday drive.  Any one who desired an adventure would pile into the car for a drive to an unknown destination.  The afternoon hours were spent slowing and stopping to observe the neighbors’ crops, the damage from the recent storm, and the state of the road itself.   More than once I cowered in the backseat of the car when I realized that this long, dusty gravel road was not a road, but a driveway that ended in a yard filled with strangers.  Inevitably these people had, at most, three degrees of separation from my parents.

Looking back I cannot help but think that my childhood took place in a time that held its breath.  As children we were given the freedom to make mistakes, to follow our curiosities and to solve our own problems.   Adults were present, but usually in the background, so sometimes we learned the hard way.  I have the scars to prove it and the wisdom to know better next time.  This early independence paired with authentic responsibility and a multitude of caring relationships shaped the person I would become.