Woster: Isolation then and now


My siblings and I shared an extended email string recently about some of our times as kids on the farm when blizzards would cut us off from the rest of the world for weeks at a stretch.

The topic came up, I suppose, because we’ve all been staying home as much as possible while the virus rages. A virus isn’t a blizzard exactly. You can’t see it driving snow across the feed yard or building drifts up the side of the granary. It’s out there, though, and so we are inside.

Our email exchanges started before the Easter weekend snow, so that wasn’t a factor. I guess we were eager to break the routine of hanging around the house, even if it was just to talk to each other. I felt a momentary guilt, thinking of those times growing up when I’d act as if there was nothing I’d less rather do than interact with one or another of my two brothers and two sisters. They say home is the place where, if you go there, they have to let you in. If so, siblings are the people who, in the world of a pandemic, almost have to respond if you finally do engage with them.

My kid sister, retired after a long career as an English teacher at South Dakota State, started things. She’s fourth of the five siblings, and she has developed a tendency to think deeply about her roots, her sense of place and her family. She and her husband moved to Minneapolis not long ago, to what I’d call a high-rise not far from downtown. That’s a whole different world from a dry-land family farm in eastern Lyman County. I can see how the clustered urban setting would encourage reflections on a childhood in a place where nothing was as abundant as empty space.

Six years separate the four oldest of us. We were born between summer of 1940 and winter of 1946. Our youngest brother came along in the fall of ’51, a year before we moved to town. He missed most of the shut-in on the farm experiences. That’s unfortunate, because he’s keenly observant of the world around him, observant in the way of poets who not only see what is but also have the ability to put what is into feelings. He’d have had much to say about five weeks of looking out a west bedroom window and being unable through blowing snow to see the hulking old barn just across the farm yard.


See, if I looked out that window, I’d see huge snow drifts that reached to the top of the garage, and I’d imagine gliding on my Flexible Flyer down that drift and halfway across the township. My big sister, a nurse, likely would peer through the window for a glimpse of our dad, who’d gone to the barn to milk the old Guernsey and pitch hay to the other cattle. My big brother, the eldest of us and the stockyards guy, would look out and remember when the Jeep stalled short of our lane as our dad tried to get him and his sister home from school through a sudden blizzard. Dad made it, barely, dragging my brother, carrying my sister and vowing with every labored step that his family would never spend another winter alone on the prairie. We didn’t. By the next winter, we were in town, and Dad was driving to the farm on days when he could get there.

It was years after the stalled Jeep incident before our mother told me the story of the harrowing walk home, of her tense vigil at the kitchen window and of the decision to leave the farm for school years in town. She described the day so vividly, I found myself wishing I’d been paying attention when it all happened. Her story made me see things I’d ignored. The recent “reply all’’ emails with siblings did the same, giving me glimpses through their eyes of a world I had lived in without really seeing.

If this lasts long enough, I might find out what it was really like in the old days.

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