“Our voices were tools on the farm,” my friend Marilyn Hoegemeyer writes in her recent memoir, “Listening to Corn Grow: My Childhood on a Nebraska Farm.”
She shouted to get the hogs moving, to call the milk cows in for milking. With arms waving, she yelled “Hiyah-Height!” to sort the beef cattle and get them up a chute and onto a truck for the trip to Omaha’s stockyards.
I knew her as a soft-spoken adult, close to my age, and as a careful, gracious editor at the Star Tribune.
Now I know her as a 1950s farm girl.
“We shouted at will when we played and when we worked. … Dad shouted instructions to keep us going and to keep us safe. … And when he was irritated at us, at hired men, at another equipment failure, at life in general, his worst epithet was ‘God bless America!’ said in such a loud, angry voice it made you quake and hope his anger wasn’t directed at you.”
Few of the students who find themselves in my UND writing classes come from farms. That’s not surprising, given farm consolidation and the emptying of much of the rural countryside. But one or two will perk up when I read a favorite poem about haying, about two boys lying in a field of timothy and vetch after a hard day, listening to a lonely whip-poor-will lament the setting of the sun. Those students off farms know the scene, the birdsong, the perfumed air. They will remember when they are 60 or 70.
Memoir is a tricky undertaking. You have all the challenges of memory, of course, and the risk of self-indulgence. In this day of fairly easy self-publishing, I’ve started to read many memoirs that, by page 10 or 25, prove to be just not very interesting.
It helps when you know the writer. I worked for a time with Abe Winter, a sportswriter at the Herald and later sports editor at the Bismarck Tribune. His “Memoirs of an Unknown Sportswriter (Except in North Dakota)” tells knowingly, enthusiastically about three decades of athletes whose names I recognize.
The man loved his work. In a 60-hour stretch in 1978, he covered a UND-Minnesota exhibition hockey game in Minot, listened to a UND-NDSU football game on the radio as he drove to Eveleth, Minn., for a UND-Gophers rematch, then drove overnight to the Twin Cities to catch the Vikings and Packers. His account includes a mass of names, detail and quotes, including from the broadcast of the Vikings game.
Marilyn Berg titled her 2016 memoir “Mother Had Moveitis.”
“We lived in 10 different houses in my childhood,” she wrote, in East Grand Forks’ “Point” neighborhood and later in Grand Forks. “Each one had something better than the last – like an indoor toilet, an extra bedroom, a better furnace.”
Marilyn inscribed the copy she gave me “From my heart,” and there is heart indeed in the pages of poems, prayers and stories. My favorite, titled “The Ride,” begins:
Riding in the Tractor Cab,
What joy and excitement for a child
Of a caring Farmer;
Strong arms cradling,
Sharing dreams and prayers
For a good crop.
Another area memoir that is most valuable, I suspect, to family members and good friends came from the late Enoch Thorsgard of Northwood, “Enoch’s Saga: Horsepower to Satellite in a Single Lifetime.” Cattle breeder and self-proclaimed “most conservative state representative,” he was one of my favorites when I covered the Legislature in the 1970s. Read Enoch’s account of his youth, parents, early work and other lessons, and you have a better understanding (if not acceptance) of the conservative North Dakota mind.
Another favorite, though not exactly a memoir: “Dark Bread and Dancing: The Diaries of Sue Rawson, 1906-2006,” edited by her daughter, Rosemary Rawson. Sue was born and raised in Pettibone, N.D., and throughout her 100 years recorded the thoughts and minutia of daily life. “In many ways Sue’s life is unremarkable,” the editor says. “In others it is the story of every woman who evolved through the amazing history of the Twentieth Century.”
I asked friend Laurie Hertzel, books editor at the Star Tribune (and author of a fine memoir of her own), about the difference between memoir and autobiography.
“Memoir is impressions, experiences, anecdotes, emotional response to events, and perhaps is not always factually correct – NOT because the writer made anything up (or at least they SHOULD NOT) – but because it is the writer's memory. Mary McCarthy in her wonderful 'Memories of a Catholic Girlhood' writes her memories and then at the end of each chapter corrects herself with facts – why things could not have played out the way she remembers. It’s really wonderful.”
So is Marilyn Hoegemeyer’s memoir of butchering chickens, churning butter, learning to drive a stick, and haying.
“The sweet smell of the new-mown hay swirled around you in the breeze and, when the bales were stacked up in the haymow like pyramids, you could see what you had accomplished.”
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at email@example.com.