“During weather like this you can hear the corn growing,” Grandma Nila says, her elbow resting on the open window as she drives past cornfields rippling over the gentle hills. She’s driven this route, from her house to the cheese factory, for 75 years. A stout woman with tightly permed hair and a kind smile, she maneuvers the car with ease. She could probably drive these Wisconsin country roads with her eyes closed.
“Do you think the corn will be knee-high by the Fourth of July?” I ask, smiling at the idea.
“You know with this weather, I think it may well be,” Grandma Nila says. It’s been nearly a decade since I’ve driven these roads or said these phrases. I appreciate for the first time the gentle twang in my grandmother’s voice, the allegro cadence of her sentences and nasally dip of her o’s. I’ve discovered a fondness for the folksy turns of phrase; I finally understand what Grandma Nila means about hearing corn grow. Humidity fizzes in the hot air. I imagine the corn’s roots sucking like a straw hunting for the very last drop of soda. Waxy leaves crinkle like aluminum foil. Corn stalks snap like a rubber glove, and ears grow with an urgent sizzling sound, like the moment before the first popcorn kernel pops. I can finally hear it.
How to Make Cheese Curds Squeak Again Between 3 and 5-day-old cheese curds Place no more than 5 cheese curds on a microwave-safe plate. Wet a single sheet of paper towel, squeeze, and place over the curds. Microwave for 3 seconds. Cheese will be soft and squeaky.
We pull up to the Dupont Cheese Factory and roll down the windows for Charlie Brown, Grandma Nila’s geriatric Shih Tzu. It’s a long aluminum-sided building, part factory, part store, where Grandma Nila and her husband used to sell their farm’s milk. We’re here because they make cheese curds on Thursdays. Stepping inside we see a dozen refrigerator doors and row upon row of cheese. There are stacks of string cheese, wheels of Swiss, and cheddars of all ages; cheeses flavored with rhubarb, Vidalia onion, chili peppers, and garlic. The bags of curds are kept at room temperature in front of the register. I rush forward to grab one and feel that it’s still warm. Cheese curds are irregularly shaped bits of fresh cheese, scooped from the milk before the rest is pressed into blocks. I’m so absorbed that I don’t notice the cashier smiling at me.
“Which one of your granddaughters is this, Nila?” she asks. Grandma Nila laughs and responds that I’m the third youngest of the lot and visiting from Washington, D.C. There’s a note of pride in her voice— she’s told everyone we’ve met today where I live. We rip open the curds as soon as we’re in the car. They’re firm and salty, and squeak like sneakers on linoleum when I bite into them.
I ask Grandma Nila if everyone knows everyone in town. She chuckles and replies that she’s lived here her whole life, so she does. German immigrants have farmed here since 1834 when it was ceded from the nearby Menominee Reservation. To sustain yourself from the land is to know it intimately. Through the muscles you build and the food you consume, it becomes a part of you. It’s not uncommon for indigenous and immigrant families alike to have lived on those same farms for six or more generations. Sometimes it feels like nobody ever leaves. I wonder if many want to.
Chicken and Dumpling Soup whole soup chicken 1 c flour 1 bunch celery 6 carrots 3 turnips 1 tsp. baking powder 1 egg water salt black pepper rosemary bay leaf Fill stock pot with water. Add whole chicken. Crack in salt and pepper to taste. Simmer overnight. In the morning, put the pot in the snow and allow to cool. Skim off excess fat. Chop and peel carrots and turnips. Bring to medium-high heat. With a slotted spoon, remove chicken bones. Add root vegetables and chopped celery (including tops) along with spices to taste. Mix flour, baking powder, egg, and water in a bowl. Season. Bring to a boil and drop in dumpling batter with a spoon. Cover for three minutes, serve immediately.
Driving home, we pass Amish farms with laundry flapping on the line, deer grazing in vast fields of soybeans, and mile after mile of broad-leafed trees. I alternate between asking Grandma Nila questions and waiting for her to speak. I’m acutely aware of how much time I’ve let pass since I’ve seen her. I no longer speak to her son, my father. But that isn’t the whole reason. In high school, I’d resented everything about this town and the people in it. They seemed small-minded, out of touch with the outside world. I looked down on them, thought I was too smart to stick around. I became the first of Grandma Nila’s grandchildren to graduate from college, then the first to move abroad. Not long after I returned, the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread. After years of little contact, I started calling on Sunday nights. Once we were both vaccinated, I decided to visit in person. Now I want to absorb each lesson, each recipe, each memory, to make up for lost time. And because I’m afraid I may not get another chance.
Grandma Nila doesn’t know when her family immigrated from Germany. Her grandfather, my great-great grandfather, didn’t speak German. Her father died when she was young, so she was raised by her mother who worked as a waitress. My grandfather, who died before I was born, grew up on a farm not far away. She tells me that she vowed never to become a farmer’s wife, but when she met my grandfather, she didn’t mind one bit. She liked how they got to spend so much time together, playing three games of cribbage over coffee each morning after milking. She didn’t like how it was hard to take vacations or stay out late, but that got better once the kids grew up and could help with the farm. They traveled together across the west.
I ask her, “Who asked out who first?” She laughs and responds that she orchestrated their first date. They went dancing. She was the better dancer. He kissed her first. They were married for 26 years before he passed away. She’s lived alone, on the land they farmed together, ever since.
Rhubarb Jam 5 c. cut up rhubarb 3 c. overripe strawberries 5 c. white sugar 2 pkg. strawberry Jell-O ½ c. water Boil rhubarb, white sugar, and water for 5 minutes. Turn off heat and add pineapple. Boil 10 minutes, remove from heat and add Jell-O. Stir until dissolved. Put in glass jars and seal with wax. Refrigerate when opened.
Grandma Nila lives in a small cottage on a one-acre plot dotted with gardens and mature trees she’s cultivated over the decades. As we unload the cheese and Charlie Brown, we notice a pail of strawberries left by her Amish neighbors. She hands me one to try. It’s almost burgundy and velvety soft. I can taste the sun in its burst of juice. Sitting down to a simple meal, whole- wheat bread and sliced cheese, raw snap peas fresh from her garden, venison summer sausage made by my uncle, and a scoop of ice cream with overripe strawberries for dessert, we chat easily and watch birds at the feeder while we eat.
This is how I learned to identify birds growing up. A dog-eared “Birds of Wisconsin” field guide lays on the table, but Grandma Nila rarely references it. She knows them all as old friends. We alternate calling out their names as they land at the feeder, interjecting our regular conversation to welcome them to the dinner party. Junco, cowbird, and blue jay crowd out the suet until a red-headed woodpecker shoos them away. I call out “bluebird!” and Grandma Nila corrects me. It is, in fact, an indigo bunting. Flocks of goldfinches, a pair of cardinals, a tiny bouncing nuthatch, and a parade of swallows all make appearances. After Grandma Nila tells me about how she recently knocked a chipmunk off her feeder with a broom, I don’t mention it when he sneaks up for dinner.
“These are the things people don’t make time for anymore,” Grandma Nila says sadly, as we take a break from our after-dinner cribbage game to identify what we decide is a juvenile house wren. “None of my great-grandchildren play outside like you used to. When you drive through town in the winter you used to see kids outside building snowmen and playing. Now everyone stays inside on their phones.” I think back on the time I spent at her house growing up. Picking handfuls of clover to feed to the neighbors’ cows, letting them lick my hands with their sandpaper tongues. Summers spent on hands and knees digging stones from garden beds, winters carving trenches in the snow, and muddy springs retrieving buckets of maple sap while my uncle boiled syrup over an open flame. Throughout it all, Grandma Nila was there, teaching in the matter-of-fact way born of spending her whole life in peaceful places.
Corn Roast 8 sweet corn in husks Kosher salt 1 c. unsalted butter Black pepper Peel back one side of each ear of corn slightly and soak corn in a pail of heavily salted water. Heat the grill. Remove corn from water and shake. Put corn on the grill, rotating until done. Peel back husk and serve with butter, salt, and pepper to taste.
As the light fades outside Grandma Nila’s window, the rolling cornfields glowing orange in the setting sun, I remember how trapped I felt by this place. Now I realize that’s what happens when your roots run deep. We continue to play cribbage long into the night, counting cards into sums of 15, just as we’ve done my whole life, like she used to do with my grandfather, on the land that sustained us all. To belong here is a blessing and a limitation. To leave is a privilege and a loss. It worries me to wonder what will happen when my Grandma Nila is gone. Have I learned enough to teach?
When I leave my Grandma Nila’s house, I’ll take her gifts with me. She’s already filled a canvas bag. Amish granola, rhubarb jam, recipes hand-written in cursive, vintage photographs, cheese curds bought fresh on a Thursday morning, and most special of all—a half gallon of homemade maple syrup. I’m so grateful for these treasures, reminders of my grandma’s lessons. They’ll follow me to each place I call home. You don’t need to be rooted to have roots. Some things, some places, you carry with you. I’ll always know you can hear the corn growing.
Megan Ewald is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University M.A. in Science Writing program, an environmentalist, and a returned Peace Corps Volunteer. Growing up with deep roots in Wisconsin, she currently lives in Washington, D.C. and draws inspiration from the people and places she loves. Find her on Twitter at @ewald_megan and at http://www.meganewald.com/.