Vermeer's The Milkmaid

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?

Carol Bodensteiner, milk maid

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  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.


Tweet @CABodensteiner



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.

Shirley Showalter


  1. Sadie Showalter on October 23, 2013 at 8:28 am

    As both of you recall your “country girls” experiences, it reminds me how I also have ties that I have not given much thought too, since I mostly have focused on being Amish. There are things that come up to tie me to my country background. I remember when the new baby chicks would be delivered, and the excitement to come home from school , seeing and hearing the little peeps. There was something so refreshing, new to see the little chicks. There was also a smell that went with it which I think were the heaters for each group of chicks. I can remember having to fill the water jars which were glass quart jars turned upside down on a lid with feeding area!

    Of course these little peeps grew up and then I would deal with trying to get the eggs out from under them if the eggs were not easily available.

    Would love to read Growing up Country.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on October 23, 2013 at 4:31 pm

      We used quart water jars to feed baby chicks, too, Sadie. This is exactly why I love memoirs – one memory leads to another – and for us farm kids, a lot of those memories have a lot in common.

  2. shirleyhs on October 23, 2013 at 8:42 am

    Now that you describe this memory, I recall it too! And you are illustrating exactly the principle of “the tie that binds” Carol wrote about above. I forgot about those water jars until your memory jogged mine. Now I see them clearly.

    Also, memoirs that share some, but not all, of our childhood DNA, teach us that what we thought was “Amish” or “Mennonite” might just be “rural” or “Swiss-German” or “midwest” or all of the above. This is a particular hazard if we have sectarian backgrounds, but it can happen to anyone who has not had broad exposure to others by reading many kinds of books.

    Thanks for getting the conversation started, Sadie!

  3. Richard Gilbert on October 23, 2013 at 8:56 am

    Well, my connection to the country is complicated, since my father lost our farm when I was a boy, but I married a country girl! Kathy learned to work hard and get things done. Unlike me, she didn’t romanticize farming, yet supported me as I farmed for over a decade. I marvel at that, since it included sheep midwifery and bottle baby duties, not to mention stressed-out me. But then, her father had been a farmer, her town’s postmaster, and ran a farm-based manufacturing business. You can read my micro essay about her at the Brevity site:

  4. shirleyhs on October 23, 2013 at 9:43 am

    I’ve been wanting to meet Kathy, and now I have. I’m sure you know how much kinship I feel with her, both through you and through my own memoir.

    Thank you, Richard, for sharing this link. I hope lots of people click on it. Since I happen to know that Kathy is also the president of Otterbein University, I am curious about the connection between farm childhoods and leadership. Jill Ker Conway (former president of Smith and a beautiful memoirist) grew up on a sheep ranch. Ruth Simmons, president of both Smith and Brown, grew up a sharecropper’s daughter. My guess is that the number of women “country girl” leaders is a significantly larger number than the general population. Today less than two percent of the population lives on farms. And the children growing up on corporate farms are having very different experiences than we had.

    • Richard Gilbert on October 23, 2013 at 10:01 am

      Right, Shirley. The five Krendl girls and one boy were all deeply involved in caring for animals and planting and tending crops, which paid for their college educations—two went to Harvard as first-generation college students—but the scale and mechanization of farming today is at least reducing numbers of such farm kids, if not the involvement of kids still on farms.

  5. Sherrey Meyer on October 23, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    Unfortunately, I have no ties to the country but I love hearing about it from my husband and his siblings in their many and widely varied stories. And now I’ve connected with a couple of country girls.

    Carol, what a lovely essay on universal themes and the ties that bind us together. I’m looking forward to reading your memoir soon (so, I need to win this copy!).

    Shirley, your memoir is mirrors many things in my life but I grew up Methodist, not Mennonite, with many of the same struggles you write about. More in my upcoming review!

    • shirleyhs on October 23, 2013 at 3:52 pm

      Sherrey, if you married a country boy and listened to his stories, you were ready for connecting to a host of country girl bloggers. Thanks for your interest and encouragement all along the way.

      I look forward to hearing how your Methodist past compares to my Mennonite stories. Blessed be the tie that binds!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on October 23, 2013 at 4:40 pm

      Sherrey, when you married a country boy, you became one of our sisters. My mom was a town girl when she married Dad. She told me when they got married, she was determined to be the best farm wife she could be. And she succeeded. Good luck in the drawing!

  6. Marian Beaman on October 23, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    When I think of my country roots I think of acreage and animals. My dad, a farm equipment dealer, had two plots of land in Lancaster County where he/we planted corn and tomatoes, which earned me the nickname “Tomato Girl.”

    And there were animals too: I never had my own little lamb, but my Aunt Ruthie did, and I loved that wooly beast to pieces. We tried to adopt some smaller “pets” though. My sisters and I found some wee rabbits in the field left by their mother. I remember feeding them with cow’s milk from doll-size baby bottles but to no avail. As a teenager, I was hired help one summer gathering eggs, feeding chickens and steers, and tending the garden for a farm wife pregnant with twins.

    Thanks to your featuring Carol on your blog today, I discovered that I too am connected to her via the Lincoln Highway which runs by Lancaster Mennonite School, the location of my first teaching job. Your two-for-one idea is a great twist of book giveaway contests, Shirley and Carol!

    • shirleyhs on October 23, 2013 at 4:00 pm

      Marian, I was sure you would find connections. I think I have all your locations in my head now. You illustrate yet one of the many ways country people worked the land — as owners, renters, and some combination of both such as your father had. Also, thanks for adding the varieties of jobs available for young people. Manual labor was respected and expected then in a way that few young people today, except perhaps immigrants, know. Thanks for the comment.

  7. diane on October 23, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    looks like a great book. maybe i’ll win one!

    • shirleyhs on October 23, 2013 at 4:01 pm

      Hi, Diane, hope you’ll be lucky. I know you’ll enjoy. Thanks for playing!

  8. Randy McNeal on October 23, 2013 at 3:24 pm

    I spent many summers “working” on my grandfather’s farm: mowing the hay, stacking the hay bales, feeding the cows, and collecting eggs. I didn’t realize until I was much older that the chores I was given came from the category of anything that couldn’t be messed up. I got a sense of accomplishment from the work and enjoyed it almost as much as the feasts that were held at dinner time which came at noon and not 7 pm like at home.

  9. Elfrieda Schroeder on October 23, 2013 at 5:30 pm

    If it had not been for Communism and WWII I most certainly would have grown up a country girl, milking cows. There is a wonderful photo of my husband’s mother and her sister as teenagers milking cows in Poland. It is displayed at the Steinbach Mennonite Heritage Village and also at the Mennonite museum in St. Jacobs, Ontario.
    When we came to Canada after our years as refugees in Germany and Paraguay we had the privilege of spending many happy hours on my great uncle’s farm. There I first sat behind the wheel of a tractor, fed horses and learned how to run the milk separator. For a town girl this was really special.
    I would love to read your book, Carol, so I’m hoping I’ll win it! I’ve certainly enjoyed Shirley’s Memoir, it’s a winner in my estimation!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on October 23, 2013 at 5:54 pm

      You have a great story to tell yourself, Elfrieda! I can relate to how special you felt doing things on the farm. Driving a tractor was a rite of passage for farm kids much as driving a car is for town kids. There’s a chapter in my memoir titled Making Hay. That was my first time at the wheel. Thanks for sharing your country story. Good luck in the drawing!

  10. shirleyhs on October 23, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    Elfrieda, thanks for entering the drawing. I know you would like Carol’s book and hope you get to read it one way or another. I also look forward to hosting my interview with YOU on my blog next week. What an incredible journey you have been on. I’m so glad to travel alongside you in your golden years.

  11. Kathleen Pooler on October 23, 2013 at 7:29 pm

    Dear Shirley and Carol, I love this discussion of universal themes and all the ways we connect. I didn’t grow up as a country girl but I married a country boy and can appreciate the hard labor, connection to Mother Earth and the fruits of a bountiful harvest that goes along with being a farmer’s wife. Priceless! I’ve read and reviewed both of your delightful memoirs so you can withdraw my name from the drawing.

    • shirleyhs on October 23, 2013 at 8:44 pm

      Kathy, so sweet of you to comment and to support, again, both of us as fellow writers. Thank you. And greetings to your country boy in this season of harvest. Looking forward to watching you reap the harvest of all the relationships you have built with other writers as you complete your own memoir.

  12. Priya on October 23, 2013 at 9:53 pm

    My nani, grandmother of mother’s side, was a farmer. She grew rice and had some cows. I didn’t grow up in her country. I once visited her at the age of 8 and was amazed by the wide field of rice. I’ve never forgotten that feeling. To remember her I would love to write about her life. I live in Holland and she lives in South America. This book would be a great introduction to memoir writing.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on October 24, 2013 at 9:41 am

      Priya, I’m excited to hear that reading this post has inspired you to think about writing about your grandmother’s life as a farmer. Writing the stories would be a tribute to her, a valuable connection for you, and a gift to future generations. Your visit to her when you were eight is a great place to start. You can tell I’m enthusiastic! I believe so much in capturing our everyday stories. Thanks for commenting.

  13. shirleyhs on October 24, 2013 at 9:50 am

    Priya, I love seeing comments here from people who live in other countries. I join Carol in her enthusiasm and encouragement to you.

    I loved the way you focused on the connection between wide open spaces on a farm and a child’s soaring spirit, especially a young girl’s, who might otherwise be confined to the four walls of domestic spaces. Novelist Willa Cather understood the kind of awe that endless fields can inspire in a young girl. Glad you know that feeling. It’s a good place to begin YOUR story.

    • Priya on October 24, 2013 at 3:11 pm

      Carol and Shirleyhs, thank you for your lovely comment. I really feel I have to write this story. In the beginning, I thought would be interested, but, now I feel this story will find its own way to be valuable to me and maybe some others. Carol, your writing inspired me to let in my own story. 🙂 Blessing to you.

      • Carol Bodensteiner on October 24, 2013 at 3:37 pm

        I’m so glad, Priya! Your story is definitely part of your grandmother’s story. I learned that as I was writing my memoir. Good luck with your writing. If you need someone to cheer you on, count me in!

  14. Paulette Mahurin on October 24, 2013 at 10:28 am

    My ties to the country is the country girl herself, Carol, whose writing I love. I just completed reading her hist fiction and absolutely loved it. Who wouldn’t want more from this talented author. As far as connection to mother earth country, I am a city born and raised girl but my husband’s roots are pure country with his father growing up on a working farm,and we bring that to our lives with making country in our rural home by planting anything we can get into the ground. Thank you for featuring this talented author and lovely woman.

    • shirleyhs on October 24, 2013 at 1:49 pm

      Paulette, thanks for your visit here and for your endorsement of Carol’s vivid writing. She is fortunate, and deserving, to have raving fans like you.

      The ties to the land come in so many forms. I admire your devotion to planting and harvesting. We have not planted a garden in our back yard here in Virginia, although we used to have a modest one in Indiana as our children grew up. We do frequent the local farmer’s market, however, and we rejoice at a good harvest with them and with you.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on October 24, 2013 at 3:33 pm

      Paulette, you make me blush with your praise! I am so grateful for your support. Thanks for joining this discussion.

  15. Mary Gottschalk on October 24, 2013 at 12:10 pm


    I am not a country girl by any stretch of the imagination, but have loved both your books. The visual imagery and finely drawn emotions make it recognizable to any reader.

    • shirleyhs on October 24, 2013 at 12:12 pm

      Thank you, Mary. That’s a real compliment. I really appreciate it. Lovely to have your comment today.

  16. Barbara McDowell Whitt on October 24, 2013 at 10:10 pm

    The tie that binds me to Carol’s (Iowa) country living is that I, too, grew up on a farm in Iowa, though in my case, we lived on one farm until I was two, another until I was ten, and a third until I went to Park College (now Park University) in Missouri. I can identify with Carol’s Growing Up Country book cover photo. The picture of the six children sitting on a wagon load of freshly baled hay reminds me of the black and white pictures my mother took of my three younger sisters and me, or pictures of us with our cousins who sometimes joined the four of us in group pictures.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on October 25, 2013 at 8:42 am

      Another Iowa girl! Where did you grow up, Barbara? Kids and a hay rack make an unbeatable photo opp. Three of us on the cover are me (middle of the back row) and my sisters. The other three were close friends of ours. Thanks for joining us.

  17. shirleyhs on October 27, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    Barbara, those black and white photos were certainly a major resource for me as I drafted my memoir. I loved meditating on them and searching for details in them that unlocked memory.

    I know you will enjoy Carol’s book and Carol’s blog.

    And let’s stay in touch. I want to learn about how to write about the college years (for me, 1966-1970) from you.

  18. Sue Rowland on November 19, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    Hi Shirley I learned about you from Kathy Pooler. Am enjoying your blog and look forward to reading your book!

    • shirleyhs on November 19, 2013 at 1:56 pm

      Hi, Sue. Isn’t Kathy a great connector? Thanks for your interest in this blog and in Blush. Now I’m off to see what you are up to! Thanks for stopping by!

      • Sue Rowland on November 19, 2013 at 3:08 pm

        Yes, she is a wonderful connector-thank you for taking the time to reciprocate.

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