“Our most memorable experiences are probably what we had with our kids,” Dan says, as Faye nods in agreement. Faye tells me about taking the boys on Ragbrai, a weeklong bike ride across the entire state of Iowa every summer.
“How long did we do that? Four years?” she asks Dan.
“You took the Suburban, then you had that camper I made,” Dan says. “I stayed home and did the chores and stuff,” he tells me.
“The first year we had a tent. And that was the year we had six or nine inches of rain and everything was wet. I had an old suitcase, and it had a red lining. And the clothes …” Faye laughs, remembering, “they all got dyed. And of course the kids packed their feather pillows, and they got all wet. And we had a tornado drill … ” she drifts off, momentarily lost in thought. “You remember those things,” she says wistfully, as the grandfather clock in the hallway chimes.
Faye grew up in South Dakota with a carpenter for a father. “We lived in ten homes by the time I was ten. We would buy a home, and he would remodel it.” Her dad was flipping houses in the ‘40s and ‘50s, long before it became a program genre on HGTV.
“Was it hard?” I ask, thinking about how disruptive moving to a new house every year might have felt.
“You just didn’t think about it.” I see Faye’s pragmatism in my mom and her siblings, all of whom were born and raised in Iowa. A little bit in myself too.
“What advice would you give yourself as a teenager?” I ask her.
“I was young – I didn’t have to do anything.” She laughs. “It was just different. I don’t know what I would have said. I was the youngest of eight, and I was spoiled rotten.” We talk about the difference between growing up on a farm, as Dan and their children did, versus growing up “in town,” as she did. In those days, farm kids had a lot of chores. I’m sure they still do.
Faye’s oldest sibling was 23 years old when Faye was born. Of her seven brothers and sisters, only one brother is still living. He has prostate cancer – the same thing their father had. One of the siblings died of a stroke; the other five died of some form of cancer.
“Do you go to the doctor more frequently, given your family history?” I ask gently.
“I get a physical and a mammogram every year,” she says. Faye turns 71 this July.
“Are you concerned?”
“When you get aches and pains, you think about it. You always think about it, but you can’t dwell on it.”
Faye took a job at a local food processing plant when her youngest child, Susie, was nearing high school age. She felt that she needed to help out more – or help out in a more meaningful way. “I think we had about twenty insurance policies at one point, between crop, building, car and health.” So getting health insurance was a big help.
Her shift on the line would start at 6 a.m. – an hour or two earlier if she was working in Quality Assurance. She moved into QA after hurting both shoulders, one of which was already damaged from an eight-foot fall off the bean truck 30 years prior. She can’t use her right shoulder at all now. “We did rotator cuff surgery, but that didn’t work, so I had shoulder reversal surgery three years ago. I was the only person it didn’t work on!” She chuckles. Faye’s not one to dwell on these things, and a bum shoulder clearly doesn’t slow her down.
Faye cooks for 50 people every Thanksgiving. Christmas and Easter are big too – their family alone counts for 43 people, including spouses and kids. I ask about her most treasured possession, but she thinks more in terms of memories than possessions. “There’s been a lot of good ones: Thanksgivings, Christmases, breakfasts ….”
I press her to think about a favorite possession, and she points to a wall in their family room, covered in framed photos of the grandkids:
There are eight of us around the table for supper tonight: Steve, their oldest son, his wife Julie, and three of their six kids, came over for this home-cooked meal of roast, mashed potatoes, and a Chinese chicken salad that Julie made.
The beef, so tender and savory, and the mashed potatoes — absolute bliss for a carb lover like me — were both crock-potted to perfection as we got to know each other all afternoon. The soft dinner rolls have the perfect hint of yeast. It is so delicious that I seriously contemplate going in for seconds, but refrain myself — our America cake is still coming.
Chris, Dan and Faye’s second son, his wife Christine, and three of their seven kids join us for dessert. Christine is a reporter for the weekly newspaper, and came over to Dan and Faye’s earlier to interview me (me!) about The 923 Oak Project. More on Christine (and my regional press debut) to come.
Faye serves the iced chocolate cake — flipped out of the baking pan onto a tray, so that New England is now in the Northwest — with vanilla ice cream, scooped out of a big gallon container – just like the kind my parents bought when I was growing up.
“So I get to eat Florida?” Dan smiles, receiving a peninsula-shaped portion of chocolate cake.
Faye finishes handing out cake and ice cream to the table and sits down to an empty placemat.
“You’re not having any?” I ask.
“I gave up dessert for Lent,” she says.
Unbelievable. The woman happily consents to bake a cake at my request, but refrains from eating any.
Not me. I sample our chocolate collaboration. Just like the rest of the meal, it is yummy (if I do say so myself). But I suspect most of the food consumed at this table — even if it’s right out of a package — tastes extra good, just because of the people around it.