Thursday, December 22, 2016

Holiday Farm Gatherings--Phubbing and Face-to-Face Chaos

Some holiday rituals are frozen in analog time, and a gathering at our old farm homestead confirmed that, as of now, our clan has not joined the “dī tóu zú” tribe. Apparently the Chinese use that term for those with “perpetually bowed heads.” Their lowered gaze is constantly looking at a smartphone, and they are oblivious of those around them. At our annual gathering, you couldn’t afford to have your head down because you might miss out on the food, singing, card playing, and grab-bag gifts—or you might get run over by a herd of small kids on some type of toy mission. 

Maybe the setting keeps the event rooted in the past. Forty or more gathered on a farm that has been in the family since 1856, and at this time of year the Midwest landscape can be stark—especially when a polar vortex has crept down from the Dakotas. With the sun out on a sub-zero day, the frigid beauty includes frost-lined fences and expansive fields perforated with frozen corn stubble. Snow-tinged pine trees add to the holiday effect on my brother’s farm, and across the road—down a narrow, winding lane—my parents’ white house and red barn nestle in among groves that include two epic trees. The tall, scraggly cottonwood and the ancient, mushroom-shaped oak have lost their leaves, but they stand defiant in the winter glare.

The small creek between the two farms has ice forming on the edges, but it still meanders along to the bigger creek in the north pasture. Beavers have constructed a dam this year—the best we’ve seen in some time. Gnawed saplings and worn trails show their process; the still water behind the dam provides a place to store food and hide access to the dens they have in the banks.

If dangerous temperatures had not set in, we would have taken the kids out in the afternoon to see the dam—and to go sledding down the hill in the pasture. Even in winter the farms provide hay lofts, creek beds, and snow drifts enough to make up a type of old-school Pokémon Go setting—plenty of adventures and discoveries without the hassle of having a digital device in hand.

On this cryogenic day, the action was inside. The kids (all under ten years old) were tactile, and that meant using more than just their thumbs. They built forts with cardboard building blocks; they played restaurant with plastic kitchen and food items; and most gratifying for some of the elders, a few of them played with the old red barn. “Hey, where are those little bales of hay?” a four-year-old asked. He wanted to use the wagon to transport hay back to the barn where he had positioned plastic cows and horses. Sometimes a batman figurine or a green army tank wandered into his barnyard, but the youngster is a city kid, so he’s allowed to do some creative farming.

A large, plastic airplane and a detailed model of the Lusitania both ended up flying around the main room, but no one was hurt, and because of the crowded conditions, the kids didn’t throw balls or launch nerf rockets on this particular day. Most of them did stop the chaos long enough to join in as my sister played carols on the piano, and the kids paid attention during gift time when they received stockings filled with everything from silly putty to Pez dispensers.

Of course the digital world did show up. Parents held up smartphones long enough to take photos and videos. At one stage my brother walked around with a large iPad because his son and family were Skyping from Germany. To use Merriam-Webster’s 2016 word of the year, it was surreal—like a movable portrait floating calmly as we sent our chaos to their smaller chaos thousands of miles away. The youngsters thought nothing of this communication miracle. Some of us elders remembered crackling phone lines and postmarked aerogrammes of the past.

Digital tech has its place, but on this day no one used computer games or streaming football to commit phubbing. Why snub others by staring at a screen when the intergenerational tumult around us was so much fun? Farms have traditionally been fertile ground for gatherings of families and friends who hold their heads up and interact face-to-face. And it no doubt takes place in plenty of urban settings too. Even in this brave new cyber world, many folks have resisted “dī tóu zú” membership, and they belong to the “we see you” tribe.

** Click here for a previous blog about traditional kids' gifts--and farming the carpet. 

** And click here for a look at farm kids on snowbound days--the cabin fever app.  

by dan gogerty

Monday, December 5, 2016

One-room Schoolhouses--the Link Among Generations

Stories, tall tales, memories, embellishments, laughs, and tears—all things you will hear when reminiscing with my Grandma Jeanine. She knows how to add in that extra spice to make a story intriguing, but she also leaves you wondering what’s true and what’s embellishment. Her stories of the one-room school house have had a deep impact on me. They highlight the connection between my ancestors and link me to my Great-Grandma Cookie.

Grandma Jeanine (left)--with siblings--and the one-room school.
“It was like we were one big happy family,” my 80-year-old grandmother states. She recalls having six teachers during her time as a student—grades 1-8—all women. Grandma Jeanine explained her favorite games to play at recess, and only a few match my elementary days. “We played Annie-I-Over—where we threw a ball over the schoolhouse and had to run around to the other side to catch it—fox and geese, red rover, and ring-around-the-rosie.” She smiles as she recalls fun times up on the school hill.

Grandma filled our conversation with her memories of those days sitting in a one-room schoolhouse with other students, ages ranging from 5 to 13. She also spoke of the time her father caught her smoking cigarettes and the time she fell through a hole in the barn haymow. But at school, she grew up fast and became responsible—even helping teach the younger students. The education she received was one like no other, she told me, and it prepared her for what was to come in the future.

My grandma graduated from Elgin High School and moved to Rochester, Minnesota, for nursing school where she started a trend of her own. My aunts, cousins, and mother all followed my grandmother into the nursing field. It’s safe to say if any of us grandchildren are sick we are in good hands.

But I decided to take another path—education—one that would link me back to the generation of my Great-Grandmother Marie Cook. My cousins all called her Grandma Cookie because every time we came to visit she would have some sort of treat waiting for us. Great-Grandma Cookie was once the one-room schoolhouse teacher, and Grandma Jeanine tells the story of how Marie came to be the schoolteacher—but also how she came to be my great-grandmother.

Great-Grandma Cookie and Merlin.
It was custom that the schoolteacher would stay with families that lived closest to the schoolhouse. That family would spare a room, prepare meals, and do laundry for the schoolteacher through the duration of the school year. The Cook farm was one of the closest homesteads to the schoolhouse. Each year the families would rotate hosting the schoolteacher—my favorite bedroom in the 6-bedroom Cook farmhouse was the room we called the teacher bedroom. It was yellow—my favorite color—and located at the top of the stairs.

The Cook Farm has been in the family for more than 150 years—a heritage farm that has been passed down through five generations. Back when she started teaching, Marie Burke (soon to be "Great-Grandma Cookie") was staying with a couple who had no children down the road from the Cook Farm. The man who would become my great-grandfather, Merlin Cook, had just taken over the farm at the age of 21, and he loved to tease the schoolteachers.

Marie Burke was the first schoolteacher to catch my great grandfather’s eye. Since the Cook Farm was the closest to the schoolhouse, Marie would have to walk to the Cook Farm to secure a pail of water for the water cooler. When Merlin knew she was coming he would play tricks on her. He would wire the handle to something so she would have to unravel it, or he put grease on the handle so when she was pumping she would get grease all over her hands.

Eventually my great-grandfather’s tricks paid off, and Marie allowed him to take her on a first date. It was around Christmas time when the two decided to be married. My great-grandmother would have had to give up her job as the one-room schoolhouse teacher—once a women married she was not able to have a teaching job. Merlin and Marie got married secretly and kept it a secret until the end of the school year so Marie could continue teaching. When people asked my great-grandfather what he’s been up to, it was his favorite thing to say he’s been sleeping with the schoolteacher—little did they know he was telling the truth.

The link among the generations is one that I will always cherish. I am proud of my aunts, cousins, mother, and grandmother who have entered into the nursing field, but I am also excited to bring back the generation of teaching. Even though I won’t be teaching all subjects in a one-room schoolhouse, I’ll be teaching about agriculture, and that is where my passion lies. We won’t be playing “Annie-I-Over” in my classroom, but I hope we do create a learning family like my great-grandmother did.

By Hannah Pagel (ISU junior and CAST admin. asst.)