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Wisconsin Working Class Love

Mid twentieth century Dutch/German Wisconsin culture wasn’t big on expressing love.

The small-town, working-class people I grew up with laughed easily enough. We endlessly talked with friends and family about goings on of relatives and neighbors. We talked with anyone at all — the checkout clerk, the priest, the random stranger — about our almost always awful weather. Wisconsin was rife with April blizzards and May tornados. Then came summer’s roiling thunderstorms and sweltering hot, hazy, and humid Julys and Augusts. These months were followed by autumn colors ruined by torrential downpours and double-digit below zero winters with waist high snow. Talking about the weather was almost a sacred ritual interaction. In Wisconsin, there was always weather to talk about, with laughter, irony, and lots of shrugs.

When it came to matters of the heart, though, we were shy, even taciturn with one another. Public displays of affection were reserved for crucial rituals such as marriages and funerals. We kids were much more likely to get spanked in public and in private than hugged. We didn’t think much about it because everyone treated their kids that way. Maybe it was the residue of the taciturn cultures of northern Europe. Or possibly, it was because, just a generation or so before, only half of the young in this peasant-stock immigrant community even made it to adulthood. So, it was risky to get too close.

My grandmother was no exception with her children. My mother, in turn, kept hugs to a bare minimum. Hugs were mostly reserved for crying babies. But for me, my grandmother made an exception to her uncommunicative ways. I was the first of her 12 grandchildren. She raised me for a time when I was very young, as my mother needed time to recover from almost dying giving birth to my sister. So, Granny and I had a special bond. Her affection for me was obvious, in the way she talked with me (sweet, rather than scolding), in the lullabies she sang to me in German, in the in the prolific quantities of hugs she gave me (once or twice daily!) compared to anything her children or the other grandchildren experienced. My grandmother’s love, so unreserved, so violating of cultural convention, was apparent to me even as a child and the confidence I gained from knowing that someone did indeed love me, sustained me through some very tough times.

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