Dairy maids don’t often make it into literature. A.A. Milne placed one in a poem about the King’s breakfast. And Thomas Hardy wrote The Milkmaid about a young woman disappointed in love. My favorite meditation on Vermeer’s The Milkmaid is this one by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s book In Quiet Light. It starts this way:
There is no flattery here: this thick-muscled,
broad-bottomed girl has milked cows at
dawn and carried sloshing pails
hung from a yoke on shoulders
broadened to the task. She kneaded
fat mounds of dough, sinking heavy fists deep
into voluptuous bread, innocent
and sensuous as a child in spring mud.
Evenings she mends and patches
the coarse wool of her bodice, smelling
her own sweat, sweet like grass and dung
in the barn or like warm milk
fresh from the udder.
But what of the milk maid herself? What does she feel? And how does she grow up? And what does she become as a twenty-first century woman?
Meet Carol Bodensteiner, country girl. I met Carol a few years ago online and read her delightful memoir. Carol and I are exchanging posts today. She’s hosting an excerpt from Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World on her blog, and she has written the meditation below comparing her experiences with mine. If you leave a comment below, you will be entered to win her delightful memoir Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl. If you click on the link in orange above, you will see that 64 reviewers give her a five-star average on Amazon. That’s quite a vote of confidence! I hope you enjoy the essay and check out the book. You may just be the lucky winner. If you visit her blog today, you may win a copy of Blush! A two-for-the-price-of-one giveaway.
The Ties that Bind: The Beauty of Memoir
by Carol Bodensteiner
Sooner or later, every writer asks the questions: Will anyone care what I’m writing about? Am I participating in an exercise in self-indulgence? These questions may apply even more so for memoir writers.
Of course, it’s okay to write just for your own enlightenment or for your family to enjoy. But if a writer hopes to engage with readers, the story she tells needs to connect on a deeper level. The story needs to touch on universal themes readers relate to.
As I wrote GROWING UP COUNTRY, my memoir about growing up on a family farm in the middle of the country in the middle of the 20th century, I thought it possible that these were simply stories about my family. That the only ones who would read my book were my mother and any friends who felt obligated.
So no one was more surprised than I when readers began to tell me how much my life stories mirrored their life stories and how much they enjoyed taking a walk down memory lane with me. Not just people who grew up in the 1950s, but also older people who were raising their children during that era and young people who are growing up on farms today.
One 90-year-old woman wrote to tell me in great detail about the 4-H demonstration she did when she was in high school. One 20-year-old girl responded to each chapter in my book with stories about her farm experiences. Women and men of all generations tell me their chicken stories. Who would have imagined that what I’ve come to call “traumatic chicken stories” would be what connects most farm folks!
As a child, I thought the life I was living was unique. Come to find out, others were out there living many of the same experiences, from ironing hankies to milking cows, from 4-H demonstrations to getting bilked by county fair carnies. Growing Up Country was a widely lived experience.
When I picked up Shirley Showalter’s new book BLUSH- A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World, I knew a little about her from our Facebook contacts, but I didn’t expect to find we had so many connections.
We’re both farm girls who grew up milking cows and making hay. We both had strong religious upbringings and struggled with what those teachings meant to us and for us.
Even the Lincoln Highway tied us together. Shirley grew up near the eastern end of the Lincoln Highway. I near the Lincoln Highway as it passed through Iowa on its way west.
Growing up in Eastern Iowa, I visited the Amana Colonies, where people traveled by horse and buggy, ate in communal dining rooms, and made bread in communal kitchens. I always thought these folks were Amish but not so. Reading Shirley’s well researched and documented book, I learned about the Mennonites and their close kin the Amish.
Though Shirley grew up “plain” and I did not, the universal themes in her wonderful memoir parallel many of the themes in my memoir: hard work, family relationships, love, conflicting values, finding your voice.
These universal themes are the ties that bind us together. In the little country church I attended with my family, we sang (in unison) “Blest be the ties that bind …” My guess is that from time to time Shirley’s congregation was singing that same song but doing it in four-part harmony.
How beautiful to experience those blessed ties in our memoirs.
More about Carol:
Carol Bodensteiner is a writer who finds inspiration in the places, people, culture and history of the Midwest. After a successful career in public relations consulting, she turned to creative writing. She blogs about writing, her prairie, gardening, and whatever in life interests her at the moment at www.carolbodensteiner.com She published her memoir GROWING UP COUNTRY in 2008 as a paperback and as an ebook in 2011. She has had essays published in several anthologies. Her debut novel, historical fiction set during World War I, will be published in 2014.
Now for giveaway instructions. To win a copy of Carol’s book, GROWING UP COUNTRY comment below. What tie binds you to the country or to “country girls”?
To win a copy of my memoir BLUSH, go to Carol’s blog and leave a comment. You’ll learn that not all my country experiences were as clean as pouring milk. I also had a live encounter with a tobacco worm.