It’s been said that if you enjoy what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. As if being a Holstein Rectum Ranger is not rewarding unto itself, I always walk away enlightened by the herdsman, hired hand, or farmer. Especially at the Haack farm.
Rolling east over the hill on Holzhueter Lane, I’ll wave at Russ Dahl turning into his drive with a spreader empty of leftover round bales and Red Angus fertilizer. In my head, I’ll be repeating the day’s quote from Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill, or the origin of Superman, tendered by Ryan, sure I’ll never forget it. Ryan once shared that when he has a good thought comin’ on, he’ll stop milking just to write it down.
“Ah, so you don’t forget,” I surmised. “Yeah, and to make room for the next one.” On his suggestion and necessitated by an accumulation of birthdays, I dry my hands and pull out one of the half-dozen drug-company notepads I keep in my console.
On Friday January 20th, 2017, the topic was quilting.
It’s not that we had bored of exchanging hair and skin care secrets, but for the same reason that we were doing his herd check on a Friday: with no ongoing arrhythmias or murmurs as a warning sign, Ryan’s aunt Beth had passed away suddenly. She was fifty-nine years old: three years past the age the thirteen Parrell sibs silently fear; their father died at fifty-six.
Serendipitously, or by the Grace of God, Beth’s daughter had given birth a month early. She was able to spend three weeks with her first grandchild.
Beth worked for the State of Wisconsin and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Without a lick of formal schooling, she was their go-to Information Technologist. With thirty years seniority, and faced with training a generation of colleagues pre-occupied with the next ping, engaged in Snap-Book, and looking to be spoon-fed, she retired in June 2016. Ryan’s mom, Cathy and aunt Beth share the same git-‘er-done and social butterfly genes; in six months at home she had the house painted, carpeted, roofed, and re-sided. Since walls don’t talk and the dogs only listen, she was ready for people and productivity, so she took a job with the village of Black Earth doing office and computer work. Rumor has it there was someone in her office she didn’t already know… once.
I had just one aunt, but I suspected the void is no less when you have more aunts than elementary school teachers. I asked what defined Beth. Ryan is known for his contemplative pause. His response can come in the space of two cows, or two separate farm visits. This time there was none.
Sheila had already caught me on Pinterest; I was down to my last man-card. Be overheard in a free-stall barn talking about quilting, and next comes the Newberry knife. (Google it if you dare.)
For the next six cows, there was silence.
If I have a skill, it is sleeping. When it comes to bedclothes, the Princess and the Pea, I am not. In 1988, a grieving family brought their ten-year-old St. Bernard to the Brush College Animal Hospital. A splenic tumor had rendered him lifeless and painful. They donated the blanket he rested on; the very sight would be too much for them. It may not have always matched perfectly, but that teal-green, queen-sized comforter followed me from home, through eight years at the University of Illinois, and across the Cheddar Curtain.
As Ryan and I worked our way through the cow barn to the heifers, we became enamored with the whole idea. It’s been said the best thing about firewood is that it gets you warm twice. So, what about a quilt?
Looking to be respectful, I asked Ryan if his mom would be willing to talk about her time spent quilting with Beth.
“In forty-two years, I’ve never known my mom to pass on an opportunity to talk,” he assured me.
Beth’s father, Martin Parrell, was told his heart wasn’t good enough for the United States Army. His parents sold the family farm to his brother, thinking he wasn’t strong enough for a life of milking cows, cleaning barns, and baling hay. Not to be so much as deterred, Martin bought his own farm (literally over the hill and through the woods from the Haack farm). He and his wife Mary farmed and raised thirteen children, the eldest being Ryan’s mom, Cathy. She learned to play Cowboys and Indians with three younger brothers. She was seven before Beth was born.
I had this Little House on the Prairie vision of mom, grandma, and the Parrell sisters huddled around a roaring fire in the old farmhouse on River Valley Rd. With frozen fingers, and a cast iron pot on the wood stove, they meticulously stitch together stray pieces of fabric. Meanwhile, Pa and the boys are dragging logs with a team of horses, and splitting and stacking wood, against a raging blizzard.
Not so much.
Eldest sister Cathy was in St. Mary’s School of Nursing when the brood of middle girls were in elementary and junior high school. She was known as that girl who shows up on weekends. By the time Beth’s first daughter, Paige, was born, Cathy was on number three. Popular wisdom in those days advised that kids be woken in the middle of the night to be fed, and Beth confessed she was exhausted. A nurse, big sister, and working mother, Cathy calmly assured her it was ok to let sleeping babies lie.
Martin and Mary Parrell have a hundred and five grandchildren. When the grandchildren began to start their own families, the aunts came together. The gift registry at Kohl’s just wouldn’t do.
In advance of every niece’s or nephew’s wedding, Pat, Donna, Beth, and Cathy would pick a pattern, collect the material, and gather in someone’s kitchen on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. They’d cut, stitch, sew, and talk. There were times when the last stitch had barely cooled when the couple said, “I do.”
For the first time in thirty-five years, the sisters became friends.
Wedding quilts may have been the beginning, but Parrell girls are more productive than a Chinese shoe factory. Cathy raised six kids, milked cows, fed calves and drove combines on the farm. (One famous autumn, she picked corn until she had broken water.) She also worked as a full-time nurse. She and her sisters made quilts for the family, and also to give to the police department, homeless shelters, and hospitals for children who were victims of abuse, neglect and tragedy.
Project Linus is worldwide organization that collects hand-made quilts to give to any child in need of a hug; many with life-threatening congenital diseases, including childhood cancer. They’ve donated thousands of hours, hundreds of quilts, and heart.
For a kid to close his eyes on a day’s troubles wrapped in a garment made by the hands of strangers who care is warmth you can’t buy at Bed, Bath and Beyond.
Bloomingdale’s sells duvet covers made of 400-thread-count batiste cotton, and comforters of hand-plucked European duck down. They’re guaranteed to keep a couple warm… for the price of a reliable used car.
But after “’til death do us part,” clinking glasses, and the chicken dance, when a newly wed couple comes to rest beneath an aunt Cathy, Pat, Donna, and Beth quilt, they do so wrapped in the warmth of the family that embraces their union.