Mary Beth Writes

In the next few days, as we slide into Christmas, I am going to reprint four interviews I wrote for the Racine Journal Times, years ago.  

From December 3, 2005


Perhaps you've heard the story that goes with this season.  It includes in its cast of characters; some shepherds, an innkeeper, travelers from afar, and a young mother. These persons are acclaimed for their endurance, compassion, and wisdom. I'm going to talk with some local persons who are the above - shepherd, innkeeper, traveler, and mother - to see what these characters might say to us today.

If you want to locate a person in Wisconsin who spends a lot of time outdoors taking care of animals, forget shepherds. Look for a dairy farmer.         

 Jim (he doesn't want me to tell you his last name) is an easygoing older guy with skin that has sort of weathered to oak veneer, and white hair that swirls around his head in the shape of a seed cap. He's the kind of man who, if you asked him for the shirt off his back, would give it to you while joking that it's dirty. 

"I was born the oldest son and grandson into a farming family. Our family goes back to German immigrants who started farming right here in 1848. When I was a boy my grandfather lived next door so I learned farming from him as well as my own dad. 

 "I never liked school as much as I like farming so in 8th grade, when my dad needed more help, I quit school.  By the time I was 21, I was married to my first wife. Together we farmed and raised 8 kids till she died of cancer when she was 49.  That was a hard time. 

"A few years later I re-met a woman I'd liked back when I was a teenager. Her husband had died also. We married each other a year later and have been together since.

"I remember my mother telling me these two things about married life. One was that I should never compare my wife's cooking to Ma's. The other was that the kitchen would belong to my wife and I should not say anything about how it gets run."

I laugh.  There's enough general relationship wisdom in those words that I could just shut up shop and go home now.

I ask what it's like to work outside for most of one's life.

"I never minded weather much.  You get used to it. When it's 90 degrees, you just put on your straw hat and get a bottle of water and go. Sometimes in cold weather I'd get off the tractor to walk alongside it with my hand on the wheel, just to keep my feet from freezing. 

"In nature everything has its realm and you learn to respect that.  I never tried to cut corners because it seemed to me that if you did things right, it would come out better in the end.

"For instance, some farmers, in bad weather, wouldn't go to all the work of taking their cows outside every day just to turn them around an hour later and bring them back in. But I figured I need to stretch my legs every day, a cow must feel about the same.         

"I remember when hybrid corn came in the 1950's. You could plant those seeds and every plant would be exactly the same. Yields shot straight up. Even so, I'd rotate my crops every single year to keep from needing much fertilizer or insecticides.  It takes several years of working a piece of ground before you know it, so you've got to be patient while you learn what you need to know.  Once you know it, it will stay with you, and you'll do alright.

"My father-in-law told me that if everyone else is having a good year, then you ought to have a good one, too.  But if everyone's having a hard time, it's okay to have a poor year."

I've been pondering that all week; that standards for success don't have to be status symbols or material stuff, but simply making sure we work hard enough to keep up with the general welfare of folks around us. 

 Jim goes on. "If you get to harvest and you can't seem to get everything done, then you got one of two problems. Either you planted too much or your equipment isn't big enough."

 Boy, that addresses the hectic quality of many of our lives. Have we taken on too much to do or do we need to enlist more help?

"I worked with workers from other, poorer countries over the years and learned this. I could see with my own eyes how fast and hard they worked and how they took such good care of their families. I saw that I didn't ever want to see myself as better than any man who works hard. 

"We used to volunteer a bit at a soup kitchen where we were supposed to close the doors after a certain amount of people had come in to eat.  I learned that I wouldn't do that.  I won't shut a door in front of anyone. 

"Life is always changing.  You've got to expect that and not get upset at it all the time."       

Jim, who is in his middle 70's, still works 30 to 60 hours a week.  I ask him why. 

There's a twinkle in his eye. "I'm saving for my retirement."

He stops a moment. "I never minded working.  If a person gets to work hard at something that satisfies them, what else do they need?"


Really enjoyed this and also the pdf with the photos and seasonal comments. When I see an email from you, I go to it first and read your new postings -- little bits of joy in my day that I appreciate. Connecting with you has been one of my gifts this year. Blessings and merriment to you and your family now and always.
Mary Beth's picture

I really appreciate you saying so!

i love reading people’s “stories”. Really enjoyed this one.

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A-Z M is for Aunts


Reprint of old column from 5/22/2004 

Happy Mother's Day to all the women who raised us! 

This was my all-time favorite moment from the "Friends" TV show. It's a few hours after the birth of Ross's son (not with Rachel) and all the friends are meeting the baby for the first time. Monica, Ross's sister, holds her newborn nephew tenderly, tears in her eyes with awe for this new life in her family.


This was first published May 10, 2002

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were talking with our kids about the best and worst jobs we have had. I said picking asparagus was pretty boring. My husband didn't like the day he was a taxi driver. We both love writing when it goes well, we get a lot done, people tell us what clever people we are, and we earn lots of money from it. These aspects of writing come together about once a, well … I'm sure it's right around the corner.

My daughter prodded, "Come on, Mom. What's the best job of your life?"

Dark River

The photo is the Platte River in Nebraska. This post was a newspaper column for the Racine Journal Times in 2003.


Dark River

"I think us here to wonder."  (From "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker.)

The day was one of those glorious October days when the sun blazed through gold and crimson trees; the incense of burning leaves perfumed the air. It seemed a shame to go inside simply because night was coming on.

"Let's take the canoe out on the river tonight."

Where Heritage is Found

Last week I spoke with a woman who  is working to support MayaWorks.

I sent her this writing I did back in 2006.


I stayed several days with the Sepet family, a very cash-poor Maya family that lives in the altiplano, the mountains of Guatemala.  These people were so intelligent, gracious, strong, and hospitable.  

This adventure happened during my second day with them.

Quarantine Dairy #669 A Rerun


I have a lot of projects to get through today. I wrote this in 2006 when I worked at Target for six months. I still like it.


This week I saw an inspiring sight.  I saw a little kid completely lost in his imagination. 

Car Accident & Not Buying the Farm Today

My friend Karen texted last night that she is okay but she had been in a car accident in the afternoon. A driver had not stopped at a stop sign, thus plowing into Karen’s rear driver-side door.

Her accident reminded me of one I was in with my son years ago. This is the newspaper column I wrote about the event.

Hold a good thought for Karen today, okay?  She texted this morning, rather poetically, “I feel like I’ve been dragged through a knothole.”


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