Part One | Childhood; Barron (1963-1971)

I was born and raised in Barron County, a humble, rural area in northwest Wisconsin. In high school, I learned from my mom, who was then the Barron County Treasurer, that Barron County actually has more cows than people. Through the years, I’ve shared this tidbit a number of times, as though it explains some things. Exactly what, I don’t know.

Pete and Jeff had already been on the planet for four and two years respectively when I came along. As was the convention of the day, we arrived early in my parents’ young married life. We were unplanned, all of us, but not unexpected. The day I turned 23, I was struck by the reality that if I were my mother, I would have had my third child that day. That was a sobering thought, especially given that it would be another three years before I myself would actually get sober. Had I been in her shoes, I would not have done any better.

From birth through second grade, we lived in a tiny town called Barron, whose pride was being tapped as the county seat. Local legend tells of how back in the day, in the 1860s, the seat—literally a chair carved out of a tree trunk—was stolen from the nearby city of Rice Lake in some kind of crazy caper. Thus, Barron has staked the claim ever since. The population today: 3311.

In Barron County, roughly a third of the population descends from Germans, and 20% or so from Norwegians. My dad, in fact, is 100% Norwegian—his parents still spoke the language, but in an effort to fit in encouraged their six kids to only speak English—and my mom is half-German and half-Swedish. I come by my blonde hair honestly.

Both of my parents grew up on farms, but since my dad studied music in college and went on to become a vocal music teacher, we were city kids. So it was rural Wisconsin, but thankfully we had no cows to milk.

My dad’s parents were Otto and Sophie, and they were still dairy farming when I was young; my dad’s brother, Floyd, had the farm next door. So I spent a few summers hanging out with my cousin Trudy, feeding calves, trying to ride their two seldom-ridden horses, Fluffy and Jules, and at least once, helping make hay. That involved hauling hay bales from a wagon onto a very long conveyor that carried them up to the hayloft where someone else grabbed and stacked them. Lots of itchy chaff and loads of sweat, as I recall. My brothers did real work that they got paid for, but I never even got to drive a tractor. Trudy and I were mostly tasked with staying out of trouble.

My cousin Trudy at age nine.

I recall helping her hand-wash a calf, paying extra attention to the manure-stained white fur on its backside by scrubbing with some kind of bluing agent. We were getting the poor thing ready for showing at the county fair. Trudy was not a fan of the project and cried her way through much of the chore. She wasn’t a big fan of farming in general.

We didn’t remain close as we got further into high school, but for my birthday one year in middle school, Trudy made a fabulous Barbie doll cake for me. Taking tips from her mother, my Aunt Norma, who was a highly skilled creator of wedding cakes, Trudy put a Barbie in the center of a Bundt cake, then decorated the skirt with light yellow stars made from frosting. She also gave me a handmaid pom-pom girl doll in high school, complete with RL, for Rice Lake—the city we later moved to—knit into the sweater. I still have it.

Our days spent tromping through the back forty together are among my favorite memories from childhood. Much later, Trudy and I would be pregnant with our first babies at the same time, and I had visited with her, her sisters and her mom at my parents house in the fall. It was a devastating blow to learn that early the next year, when I was eight months pregnant, she had delivered a baby boy and then died shortly after of a brain aneurysm. She was beautiful through and through.

On the farm, there was one chore that everyone pitched in on that I rather enjoyed: picking rock. We’d walk through the field en masse, picking up fairly good-sized rocks and placing them on the wagon that was rolling along with us. Seems the earth continually pushed these rocks to the surface over winter. Turns out, the field was sitting on a sizable reserve of very high-quality granite, and the company who has since bought the mining rights has turned the back forty into a rock quarry. No one saw that coming. Then again, maybe we did.

Walker: A Spiritual Memoir by Jill Loree

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