Lesa Knollenberg
freelance writer in
madison, wi

These are my people

Summmer 2019


These are my people, the folks in this photo. It was a tricky photo to take with all the goosing and kibitzing and snickering, but on a hot summer day recently I tried to get them to stand still, knowing even then that I was trying to capture something elusive, something a camera lens would never see.

These people are a collection of my memories, personified. The cuties second from the left are my parents; the rest are aunts, uncles, and cousins. They came from Nebraska to visit the old ranch we’re trying to make new, and while Hubby made gin and tonics and gave tours, I took stock.

All the hot days I spent at their places when I was young came rushing back to me. I’d have much preferred staying home with a good book, but each summer I sat in their pickups, facing backwards, watching my parents get smaller as they waved me off encouragingly. The pit in my stomach rode with me along Interstate 80 until we were at their country homes, where I followed their routines, fell in love with their ranch animals, and adored my cousins. We slept in sleeping bags on the floor or tents in the starry yard or in carefully washed sheets in bunk beds. Their kids taught me a new brand of tough and their daughters were the sisters I always wanted.

Of the four houses represented here, I’ve snuck out of three of them. One had a big tree next to their daughter’s bedroom window, an easy shimmy out the second floor. Another was easier: we left in the light of day and blithely snuck into the local pool. With boys. I felt the joy of rebellion for the first time as we dried our hair out the car window; just enough miles to dry so we wouldn’t get caught.

Their houses were both similar to ours and different. Each couple fed me and my brothers, put us to chores, braided my hair. We learned how to dig post-holes, paint a fence, scoop manure. We got very good at pushing steer, and I can tell you from experience how cold the water gets in a freshly-filled horse tank. They also taught us how sing harmony, make the most of the county fair, and appreciate the pure joy in a homemade cinnamon roll.

It’s a testament to my mom and dad’s adventurous spirits as parents that I’m as familiar with musical theater as I am with tent camping and downhill skiing, and our summer ranch stays were just another experience. Or so I thought. The hard earth of western Nebraska grounded us and melded into our suburban life, cementing my parents’ values and informing the foundation of our childhood. We discovered we were cowpolks at heart, buying cowboy boots and listening to Chris LeDoux. One of my brothers even declared he’d name his firstborn “Tuff Highway.”

These folks were at my high school graduation and when I got married, they came from a state away. They fussed over me and danced and kept my parents distracted from the momentousness of the day, recalling jokes and stories with laughs I could hear across the ballroom. And as usual, the day ended with a good gin and tonic, a big hug, a tearful goodbye.

I thought of them again this winter, still in the learning phase of this rural living. My city cat has become a country cat, showcasing his dormant hunting skills. One particularly snowy week his bounty contained a small mouse, a larger mouse, and a shrew. He left them laying in order of size at the back door with such pride. I couldn’t stand to see them, eyes closed and little vermin paws sticking in the air, so I put on my boots and went to bury them, saying a prayer for each one as I packed them in the snow. Soon the dog nudged at the little snow caskets, unearthing them with his nose. I tried again, bunching all the little bodies together like the circle of life in a one big snowball, but the snow was slick and they kept falling out the bottom, body parts sticking up like they had one last thing to say.

I stood there with my mousy snowball, looked up at the sky and had to laugh at the absurdity of it all. It’s both surreal and significant, this caring for furballs and farms and foundations. I’m just beginning to appreciate the complexities all these folks have taught me through the years: live by the seasons, care for what is yours, delight in the simple, and most importantly, don’t forget to laugh.