Part Two | More Childhood, Adolescence; Rice Lake (1971-1981)

My life pivoted when I was eight and we moved to the larger city of Rice Lake, 12 miles to the north. During the time we lived in Barron, my dad had received his master’s degree in music from the University of Wisconsin–Superior. I can’t say I had any awareness that this was going on, but our move to Rice Lake involved his taking a teaching position at UW-Barron County campus in Rice Lake, a two-year school that was an extension of the statewide university system. He would teach there until he retired.

My mother would leave her position as a secretary working in the Barron County Court House, and take a position as a secretary for an insurance agency in Rice Lake. My mother’s mother, Dorothy, also worked in the courthouse. Although she had taught in one-room country schools the years before she married, my grandma had taken a job as a secretary after my grandparents had had to sell their farm due to my grandfather’s stroke at age 42, caused by a rare genetic blood disease.

My mother was 17 when that happened. Up until then, ever since she had learned to drive the tractor at the age of six, she had been key in helping her dad, Alenous, with farming. She left the farm, which had become a place of very high tension, when she married my father a year later and off they went to college.

My dad was one year older than she, so a college sophomore by then, and Peter was born just 10 months later. Though my parents continued to live in the dorms designated for married students—actually old Army barracks—she did not continue in school, despite having been a straight-A student in high school and having long dreamed of getting a degree. Her two younger siblings and my grandmother had kept the farm going as best they could for six years, and then finally had to give it up.

This blood vessel disease, hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia, caused fistulas to form on my grandfather’s lungs, and following his debilitating stroke they’d removed a significant portion of his lungs to get them out. He would walk with a limp for the next 50-some years due to the stroke, need to lie down often to regain his breath, and suffer nosebleeds at the drop of a hat. Two of my mother’s siblings and their children also struggle with this kind of bleeding, but fortunately, my mother didn’t get the disease, so neither did I or my brothers.

My grandparents were strict Lutherans. In today’s vernacular, we would probably call them fundamentalists. Themselves a mixed relationship of Swedes and Germans, which just after WWII wasn’t always an easy thing what with strong beliefs and prejudices on all sides, the only restriction for my mother regarding dating during high school was “he can’t be Italian or Catholic.” In a short write-up my mother gave me about her life, she described it like this:

“I grew up with some very rigid morals. It wasn’t just our house, it was part of that time, although I believe ours may have been exceptionally rigid. It’s hard to even imagine now, but I was not allowed to participate in our Friday gym class “dancing.” Mom came to the school and talked with the principal about the sin of dancing. That was in seventh grade and I remember being extremely embarrassed and very confused.

I could do the square/folk dancing but when it came to ballroom dancing, that was not allowed. So, I’d have to sit on the sidelines, alone, each Friday and wonder what my peers were saying about me. I truthfully just didn’t get it. What could be so sinful about dancing? But you didn’t ask. You were just told.

I supposed, when I was asked to be a Rutabaga Festival Queen candidate and had to decline, that it was because there would probably be dancing involved. The worst of it was, I was told I dare not say my folks wouldn’t let me. I had to make up some other excuse.”

Rutabagas were an important crop for the area in that day. My dad’s family grew them and the town of Cumberland had a summer festival in honor of this Swedish root vegetable that originated as a cross between the cabbage and the turnip. It’s always cracked me up that there is such a thing as a Rutabaga Festival Queen, but I can appreciate that to my mom, as a young girl, that would have been a serious honor to have been nominated for the court.

She went on to share that her parents made no effort to help her participate in afterschool activities. “I wasn’t shunned by the city kids, but there just wasn’t a way to make close friendships because we were never together other than in school…Parents didn’t run you into town for whatever. You went to school on the bus, came home on the bus and stayed there.”

She went onto say this, about being a child of the ‘50’s:

“I walked to the corner (1/4 mile) to catch the school bus. When it was minus 30 degrees, colder than hell, I just put on more clothes, wrapped a scarf around my head. It would have been too hard on the car to start it up and take me up there. The folks didn’t really tell me that, I just knew it.

I had to wear long stockings with a garter belt in grade school. In high school, Mom ‘made me’ wear rayon stocking—nylons were a scarce commodity. (Sometimes I ditched them at the door, however.) Girls most always wore a skirt and on really cold days you’d pull a pair of slacks on under the skirt. The stocking business was practical, I suppose, but quite humiliating. The other girls wore bobby socks. Mom had control. I just accepted it on the outside and died on the inside.”

In my father’s recollections about his early life growing up on the farm, he describes it like this:

“We raised chicks in an incubator in the house. Each spring we would go to town and pick up a couple of boxes of chicks and put them in the incubator that was set up in the living room with a heat lamp. It was so fun to watch the little chicks. One time, my brother Duane dang near met his demise when he was fooling around and fell into the incubator killing a couple of chicks. Instantaneous steam shot out of Mom’s ears and Duane thought that life as he knew it was over.

Dad also did his own castration of pigs and—yeow!—that was a noisy time. I had to get the pig between my knees and hold on for dear life while he did the job with a sharp razor blade dipped in turpentine, as a disinfectant. Pigs don’t go for that much!

With my dad, I got to learn how to harness a team of horses, haul manure on a sleigh, back horses and wagons up to a hay loader, cultivate corn, harrow, pick rock and haul a lot of stuff—all with horses. I know I didn’t think it to be a lot of fun at the time but now am grateful for the experience.

One day in early 1950’s, while walking back from some work in the woods, Dad told me about how he had wanted to add on to the barn and keep more cows. There was a sadness to his story because at that time I think he could see that I would soon be gone and…what was the need?

He was milking 16-17 cows, which at that time was pretty good. He took a blow when mom got breast cancer in the mid l940’s and my sister Carol got polio. This involved many trips to the cities in his 1937 Chevrolet, as well as doctor bills. The evening Dr. Lund determined that Carol had polio was a cool fall night. Dr. Lund came out in his new car—the light came on when he opened the door. Goodness, we had not seen that before.

This was in 1945 and we were still using kerosene lamps. The ambulance came and dad rode into the cities to Sheltering Arms hospital and came back the same night. He had a farm to run. I woke up the next morning at daybreak to see from my bedroom window, his tired and bent form loading the cans on the milk cart and going to the barn. He was a tired, depressed man and I think this tormented him for a long time. Mom recovered and lived a long life but died of cancer in 1975. Carol survived but never walked again.

Norwegians are stoic, practical and common sense folks. But they do have a good sense of humor. For example, because of the slow time it took to get the wood stove up to a high heat for frying eggs, my mother would announce, ‘Come have some dried eggs.’ My dad, like his dad, always had a mysterious twinkle in his eye at special circumstances. He could also be mad and ornery and hard to deal with and I think I am like that at times.

If things weren’t going well he could cuss the horns off the devil himself. At other times he was most pleasant and jovial. In church, he always sat on the right side and Mom always sat on the left. I always thought they were mad at each other, but I think it was a condition of a practice of the early church of their youth.

I think my dad’s church was in the beauty of the sunrise and sunset, and the wonder of growing things. He loved the fresh dew of the morning and all the smells of the farm. He loved his horses but I did not realize this until much, much later in life.

I was home from college one fall day in about 1958. He said ‘I shipped the team today.’ I said something really intelligent like ‘Oh.’ I had no sense to talk with him about it and have regretted it ever since. Those two horses grew up with him and he did a ton of work with them. They were a good team and worked well together.

At the end of a hard day we would take off their harnesses, and Cub and Bell would head for the stock tank for a long drink. Then they would graze grass and face each other with their necks touching as if to say, ‘You are special to me and you did a good job today’.”

Walker: A Spiritual Memoir by Jill Loree

Next Chapter
Return to Walker Contents