Our Week in the Heartland

We just returned from a one week trip to the Heartland. We drove our Hertz rental car from the Minneapolis airport to Baldwin, Wisconsin. The next morning, we relaxed in the wonderful, huge jacuzzi and swimming pool at the Cobblestone Hotel. Eventually, we drove to the Baldwin Care Center to see my favorite cousin and “adopted” father figure. James was able to speak to him and express his genuine love and gratitude for treating him like a son all these years. I managed to pray the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy and sing the last three verses at his bedside the day before he died.

My favorite childhood memory was our trip to Lake Elmo, Minnesota where we visited Uncle Charlie and Tanta Elise on their dairy farm overlooking the lake. Tanta Elise’s father had a bakery in Germany and his daughter was a fabulous baker and cook. The living room in the farm house had a picture window overlooking Lake Elmo, with beautiful house plants, and antique furniture. At four in the afternoon, Uncle Charlie and Cousin Bob came in from the barn for coffee, summer sausage, cheese, crackers, and delicious German coffee cake. No one can make coffee cake like Tanta Elise!!!

When R.T.Ax died, the winter of 1986, I appointed Cousin Bob as my new father figure. R.T. was my hero. I put him on a pedestal. Cousin Bob took his place. When each of his many grandchildren got married, I booked a plane ticket to the Midwest and attended most, if not all, of the Zwald weddings in Wisconsin.

Back in the days when I was a young bride in the sixties, we drove out to their new farm outside Hammond, Wisconsin. We walked outside from the farmhouse to the barn to look at the huge, beautiful milk cows who were listening to music on Cousin Bob’s radio. The temperature was twenty below zero!! There we were: two California transplants, and me, a former Iowa farmer’s daughter turned city slicker!!! Bob told me that his Aunt Lena, my grandmother Ax, loved those huge, big milk cows!

One year, the cousins threw a Zwald family reunion. I was so happy square dancing in the haymow of the barn that my cheeks began to ache from smiling so long and hard!!!

Those were the days, my friend. I thought they would never end.

So, the second to the last trip to Wisconsin was for the wedding of Annette. But before I remember her wedding, I want to recall the day she put me on the huge tractor and told me to back it up!!! As an artist, I can never forget that visit. We arrived at the third farmhouse. Cousin Bob and Mary had moved off the original farm and into another farmhouse a couple miles away. We arrived just in time for making hay. All the cousins, and by this time, there was a hand full of them, were out in the beautiful hay field gathering the bounty of God’s blessings. It was one of the most beautiful sites of my life which I will never forget.

Now, I will recall Jame’s introduction rite into the Zwald family. We drove up to the Zwald farm outside Hammond, Wisconsin from our eighteen acres outside Baldwin, Kansas. Cousin Bob and his grandson, Andrew, (named after Uncle Charlie and Gramma Lena Zwald Ax’s Swiss father, Andrew Zwald), had just gone fishing in Cousin Bob’s little boat. The fish were small and still had their heads on. Jame’s job was to cut off the heads of the big pile of fish while Cousin Mary looked on. Well, James passed the test and became one of the family! We ate the fish for supper and it was delicious.

That was one of many, many fabulous dinners we enjoyed around Mary and Bob’s table out on the farm. You see, this brat, i.e., yours truly, moved from Iowa to San Francisco when she was twenty. I went back to see my Dad and Mother every year, except on the years Dad and Mom came out to California to see me. So, every time I came to visit my parents in Iowa from California, I always flew to Minneapolis and stopped by the Zwald farm before we drove down to Ventura. Each time, Mary would invite one, two, or three of her sons and their wives and we would all sit around the table talking and eating up a storm. Those were the best memories!!! Mary always made her son’s favorite foods. It was a tradition to not have one, but two roasts: one pork and one beef. Then, there would be a fabulous fruit salad, a jello salad, perhaps a cabbage salad, mashed potatoes, gravy, dumplings, green beans with bacon, rolls, ice tea, and dessert. There was always scrambled eggs for breakfast prepared with tiny bits of bacon and toast made by the head of the household!!!

Afterwards, we would do the dishes. Mary would wash and I would dry. I never asked my mother for advise once in my life. But, every time I would do dishes with Mary, I would tell her my current problem, she would give me wise advise, and I would listen to her. She became my mother figure, although I always thought she was too young to be my mother and was really just a good friend.

One time, when I was down to eight dollars in my pocket and jobless, without a husband, Bob and Mary drove into my little farm lane south of Lawrence, Kansas. I had an interview that day at Strong’s Office Supplies to sell art supplies. Mary prayed for me and I got the job. Then, we all sat down to a bowl of split pea soup.

One year, they drove out to California and visited Annalisa, my daughter, and I in our Queen Anne Victorian in Nevada City. I set the table in the garden with the Sierra Nevada foothill trees and boulders. We had candlelight and who knows what we ate.

One year, we flew out to the Midwest to attend Nate’s wedding. The wedding reception was held at Angela’s family farm. The old white farmhouse, lawn, trees, and view were heavenly. James and I danced on the lawn to “The Tennessee Waltz”, my Dad’s favorite song, to the music of an accordian. Big Rich gave us a blessing from heaven while we danced to his favorite music.

Sarah’s wedding was also special. We stayed in Baraboo, Wisconsin and watched Cousin Bob stand outside the church patiently waiting for the arrival of his daughter, Ruth. He was like the father in the story of the Prodical Son.

I liked Tom’s wedding. I even got to go out to the farm where his bride grew up. Cousin Bobby picked me up at the Cobblestone Hotel, after he enjoyed a swim with his grandchildren and we drove out to another wonderful dairy farm. The dairy herd was beautiful. So was the bride.

Amy’s wedding was in Stillwater, a town I remembered from my childhood, when the cousins lived in Lake Elmo. I enjoyed the tour Greg gave us through the town where we saw all the beautiful Victorians.

One year, James and I stayed at the beautiful Victorian bed and breakfast in Hudson, Wisconsin when we went to see the Zwald cousins. It was the Christmas season and the tree and decoration filled the beautiful inn. We also stayed there once in the summer. We walked down to the German restaurant on the main street. Inside, I found a German magazine with a map showing Schwann, Germany, the tiny village where Lena Zwald Ax, Richard Zwald, and Charles Zwald were born and baptized in the Reformed Church in Conweiller. I visited the Herr family in the sixties when I was young and thin. I returned years later with my daughter and two grandchildren.

When Dad and Mom made their first trip to Schwann, Alwina took them upstairs and showed them clothes in the closet that Gramma Lena Ax had sent them during wwii. Some times, they would take our friends, Rosmary Winkler and Hans Moser with them from Switzerland when they would visit our Herr cousin in Germany. Rosmarie visited our farm as an exchange student when I was about eleven. She and Hans spoke in German to the Herr family, translating for Dad. She became very close to Cousin Alwina Herr. They live in an apple orchard near the origianl Winkler farm house where Rosmarie grew up outside Zurich. I also think of Rosmarie as a mother figure. I became good friends with her nephew, Maximillian Winkler. Hans Moser, her husband, did research for Dad and found out that Andrew had a sister and brother who did not marry living on the original farm in the Swiss alps in the Canton of Bern. Andrew Zwald, my Dad’s grandfather, went from Switzerland to the Black Forest in Germany to buy cattle for his boss. After dinner, he said he wanted to meet the cook, as he liked the food. The rest is history. They got married. Had Richard Zwald, Uncle Charlie, and my grandmother, Lena Zwald, and immigrated to Garner, Iowa. Jerry Zwald lives on the home farm in Garner, Iowa, on highway 69 south of Garner on the way to Klemme where I was born. His father’s name was Lloyd. His uncle’s name was Kenneth. The famous rusty tractor that was restored by Cousin Tom and Cousin Bob was found in the grove of Lloyd’s farm. Nate and Tom sat on each side of their Grampa Bob Zwald, age 101, as he drove it in the tractor parade!

The Herr family had about five sons. Frank took us for a ride with a horse-drawn carriage through the Black Forest which is on the edge of the German villages. Jurgen told me that I was related to almost everyone in the village of Schwann, where Gramma Zwald Ax was born, but it would take too long for him to explain all the relatives.

On my first visit to my German cousins, we had also visited the Mercedes factory in Stuttgard. On my first trip to Germany, as we drove by the houses with vegetable gardens and grape vines in the front yard, I felt at home. Also, I felt right at home in the restaurant with built-in wooden benches and country style chairs like I found in Sausalito, California. My first visit, we had cold, fruit soup for lunch. When we arrived at the Cousin Herr home, Alwina prepared pork chops and went to the cellar to open a bottle of German hard liquor.

Years later, when we visited her with my daughter and grandchildren, she served us a wonderful breakfast and had Easter presents for my two grandchildren. We had a five course luncheon at Jorgen’s home cooked by his wife. Then, we had Gramma Alwina’s homemade cake at Martin’s home, followed by the ride through the Black Forest. We ended the visit with a cold supper at Julia’s place. The father gave land to each of his sons. On the land, they each built their own home. Before Jurgen died, he showed me a photo of the house that was built for his newly married daughter.

Jurgen, his daughter, and grandson all visited me at Annalisa’s home near the German border in the Alsace region of France. I prepared a chicken dinner for my German cousins. We gave gifts to the new grandson and to Jacob, my youngest grandson, to celebrate the anniversary of his baptism.

Cousin Bob’s mother, Tanta Elise grew up in Germany, too, and Bob and Mary visited her parent’s home on their trip to Germany where her Dad had a bakery.

One time, when we were visiting Cousin Bob and Mary, there was a huge downpour of rain. Cousin Bob was driving us home in his car. You could not see two feet in front of the car. He kept driving and by the grace of God, we did not go off the road and arrived safely at their farmhouse. When we got home, could hear the sound of water in the house. Cousin Bob opened the cellar door and a huge rush of water was pouring into the basement. His famous words were, “It could have been worse!”

One visit, Mary had to help with the voting in the little white country school down the road. So, Cousin Bob had to babysit Cousin Sue. Much to my delight, he took me to his coffee joint and I got to have breakfast with his farming buddies. It was the ultimate gift from my hero!!! We sat around the booth talking farm talk. Then, I turned to Cousin Bob and said after so many marriages, when he walked me down the aisle and gave me away, it stuck!!!! He turned to me and with a very serious look said that I had no choice when he gave me away!!!!! We had been married in the white, wooden country church that used to stand in a cornfield north of Grampa Bill Hampel’s rented farm in Clear Lake. As a child, I had attended a 4-H meeting in that old school house down the road from Grampa Bill’s wonderful brick farm house. Later, it was moved to the south shores of Clear Lake, Iowa. I wore my grandmother Bessie Hoyt Hampel’s wedding dress that she had sewed, (like Kay Zwald), for her own wedding to Grampa Bill. The flowers came from Aunt Tyke and Mom’s garden. Annalisa sang “Amazing Grace” and the pastor from Immanuel Reformed Church in Klemme, Iowa, where I was baptized, officiated at the wedding. James wore my Berkenstocks, as he forgot his shoes; I wore my neice’s shoes as I forgot mine. We swam in Clear Lake after the wedding reception at the old stone shelter house.

One visit to my Zwald cousins, Cousin Bob took James and I to Lake Elmo, Minnesota, to see the old, beautiful farm overlooking the lake. Then, he took us out for coffee at his favorite place in Lake Elmo, and showed us all the old photographs hanging on the wall of farms and farm equipment.

It was never enough to enjoy a fabulous meal that Mary cooked whenever we visited. I remember one Christmas season when she passed after dinner, a platter of chocolate covered homemade candies better than See’s Candies in California. Cousin Bob always gave us a tour to all the family farms and then to the cheese factory and past the farm that raised elk.

He encouraged us to take the scenic route to Iowa and drew me a map. He always had to draw me a map to go to the family farms, airport, or church. One time, he and Mary took us on a trip down the Mississippi River road and we had lunch at our destination near Tippin. One time, he encouraged us to drive up to Northern Wisconsin, so we camped out at Soda Springs, WI along the lake shore, where Aunt Winnie and Uncle Bob Pritchard had a hotel years ago. We took a great boat ride on Lake Superior and ate smoked salmon. Aunt Winnie and Uncle Bob also owned a farm in Wisconsin that was on the farm tour and open house years later. Bob and Mary knew the current owners.

The sweetest memory was when we came to visit and he and Mary gave up their bed and Amish quilt and let us sleep downstairs in their bed. That visit, Cousin Bob must have known that James was tired. He sat him down in Mary’s recliner chair in the living room after Sunday dinner and covered him with a blanket! It can’t get any better than that!!!! No wonder James loved him like a real father.

I always planned our visits for a Sunday, not to miss going to the Reformed Church with Mary and Bob in Baldwin and having a family Sunday dinner. After my conversion, I would drive over to Hammond for an early mass and then “fly” down to Baldwin to attend church serves with Bob and Mary at their Reformed Church. Stephanie had her wedding in that church.

One year, Bob made James eat a lot of corn on the cob. Cousin Bob said that it was a little late in the season, but to put a lot of butter on it and it would taste good. One year he gave me some sweetcorn seeds that I still have on my altar in California.

So, God told James, (in whatever way He communicates with James), that if he wanted to see Cousin Bob, he had better hurry out to Wisconsin. I had given up all travel due to a problem in both my knees. I did not think I would ever see Iowa nor Wisconsin and my family there again. Somehow, I got the courage to give it a try. We landed in Minneapolis on Monday. We saw Bob on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. On Friday, we drove down to Forest City, Iowa, as there was no room in the inns in Mason City, Clear Lake, and Garner. We got a call on Friday morning and Irma told us that “Gramps” had died that morning. God bless his soul.

As Merideth Willson wrote in his beautiful song, “May the good Lord bless and keep you, whether near or far away…………….” We love you, Cousin Bob. Thank you for pitch-hitting for us two scallie wags, who needed a loving father.
God bless you, Mary. May the good Lord look after you and all your wonderful children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. You guys are the best. The dirt may be better in Iowa, but my Zwald cousins TAKE THE CAKE!!!! Love always, Sue and Jim.

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