Add to My MSN


Mary ConleyDear friends, 

Do you still get to visit your childhood home? I’m 73 and the youngest in my family. My parents have been gone for several years, and the farm where I was raised was sold long ago. We just passed it on the way to visit relatives a few days ago, taking in all that has stayed the same, as well as the changes. I always look forward to seeing it, but then so many emotions start flooding in, I tear up, and almost wish I hadn’t. If I could, though, I know without a doubt which part of the farm I would love to relive again. Even for an hour or so. The railroad track.

A few years ago, I decided to write short stories of my life to pass down to our children. It surprised me how many of those memories involved the railroad track.

Our farm was in the Little Sioux River Valley 1 1/2 miles south of Washta, Iowa, and the track ran parallel to the farm, highway 31, and the hills. I wrote about walking on the rails and ties, and riding our pony in the safety of the surrounding ditches. There was an exciting summer my cousin, Gary, and I spent Sundays in the slimy water under the trestle witnessing the gradual change of tadpoles. We always acknowledged to each other when we heard the sound of the train that passed once a day, and I often waved to the friendly men who pumped the handcar checking the track between Correctionville and Washta. Occasionally, a black man helped repair the track; he was the first person of color I had seen in small-town Iowa.

And, it was while wandering along the railroad track as a young girl that I looked at the hills and decided there must be a God who made it all.


A small trestle just like the one by our farm. Photo: Roxy Lang Photography

Mostly, I remember the many hours herding cattle along the track on the hot, dry, summer days of July and August. The pastures had been grazed bare, but there was plenty of lush grass and tall weeds along both sides of the track. It was my job to take the cows down the lane and along the track to the next farm, turn them and head back. Cows are sneaky and there were many scary moments. If it were not for my trusty dog, Shep, it would have been impossible to keep them off the road, turn them towards home, and then back down the lane and through the gate to the barnyard.

Although herding cattle required my full attention, there were so many distractions such as beautiful wildflowers in bloom, and birds nesting in the grass and singing their special songs. Can’t you almost feel the soft winds and warm sun making me drowsy? Cars passed by now and then, and trucks with guys who honked and stuck their arms and heads out the window to wave and whistle. (No air-conditioning in vehicles in those days.) I was quite shy with my grubby clothes and windblown hair, but I wondered what they were like. Were they young or old? Were they already married? Cute? Would it be fun to date them? Would – OH, NO! There go the cows!

As adults, we often drove back to visit my parents on the farm. I can still picture our four children leaning forward to see who could be the first to spot their grandpa’s silos as we rounded the bend. On one of those trips, much to my horror, we noticed the railroad track had been ripped out and the ground graded smoothly in its place. To me, those tracks had been as permanent as the hills, or the winding Little Sioux River bordering the opposite side of our farm. It was part of my identity. How could they? They didn’t even ask me. It was so very sad.

Yes, if only I could spend even one hour back along the railroad track.  

I guess I just did!

* Check out my last blog on How and Why You Should Write Your Memories!


Mary ConleyDear friends,

I am not a writer. I know because I’ve read good books! I am a blogger, though, and I’m just now getting used to saying that. For a long time when people complimented my blogging, I always felt as though we were talking about a third person. In today’s post I want to tell you about how I first started writing. It was a few years ago, and my goal was to record several stories about my childhood for my children. I think you should, too, and I’ll soon tell you why.

“Not me,” you say? You can’t spell or punctuate or you don't have good sentence structure? Doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you get it down and in your own words. You don’t want your story to sound like someone else’s life, anyway. How do I know? I read it in a book, and that is what gave me the courage to start. I also know from the following experience:

I received a fairly lengthy note from my sister-in-law, Wilma. A FIRST! It was a rare thing, indeed. I felt so privileged that she had written to me, I was nearly floating around the house. Then my husband, Larry, started reading it, and pointed out the errors. It made me so mad. I didn’t care about those errors; I was just happy that she had written to me. Furthermore, because she had written in her own voice, I could just about hear her talking to me as I was reading her note. I treasure it!

Back to the “why” you should write your stories. Again, learning from experience, it is bound to be so much more than just passing down your life to your children. The act of writing, itself, may become therapy. For free! At least it did for me. It helped sort things out and made me realize something very important.

My family was wonderful in many ways, and very dysfunctional in others. What writing did for me was to revisit even the difficult times. I often stopped my typing to wipe the tears. Sometimes, I sobbed through it, or discontinued until another day. Then, I eventually applied forgiveness where needed. One of my stories was a letter I wrote to my dad, talking it all out. In the end, I told him I forgave him for all his anger and the sadness it caused. This may seem ridiculous since he was already dead, but it helped. My big surprise, though, was how I realized all that my parents had sacrificed and done for me. What started out as writing some of my childhood stories for my children, turned into gifts for me of forgiveness and thankfulness.

Maybe you don’t want to put yourself through any of those emotions. Well, don’t write those stories, then. I didn’t in the beginning. Tell your children all the fun and happy experiences you had. You’ll find yourself smiling as you type! I wrote about my dolls, playing on the railroad track, the arrival of baby chickens, riding our pony, being sent to the principal’s office, girls' basketball, typing class, 4-H, Mom sewing all my clothes, adventures with my cousin, Gary, and many more. If you can’t type, don’t give up before you start. Your family will inherit your very own authentic handwriting. My recollections range in size from just a paragraph to three pages.


1956/57; my memories of playing six-man Iowa girls’ basketball.

I’m quite sure ideas are popping into your head right now while you are reading this. Quick! Jot the topic down and you can get back to it later. One memory will most likely trigger another and soon you’ll have a whole list to work from. Larry “plans” to write his childhood stories, and he often mentions that he wants to tell about how the boys played marbles at recess and every chance they got.

I do feel I should warn you about something else I read in a book. Someone, probably a sibling, will tell you that your story isn’t accurate. It may not be, since everyone experiences things differently, especially if you were very young. Don’t let your feelings get hurt. Maybe they are the ones who don’t recall the details correctly. Don’t worry about it. Memories are just that, what you remember, and you can tell them so! Hopefully, you’ll enjoy reminiscing together.

One more thing: Don’t forget to write about your emotions. I learned this from Larry’s mom. She left a diary which we all read. It had a little historic value, but was completely devoid of any feelings concerning the situations, even when their house burned down. Not only was it boring, but it left us with so many questions. One could get the impression that they didn’t have emotions back then, similar to how the old sepia portraits make us wonder about our ancestors. I remember my elderly Aunt Golda telling me that after stiffly posing for those lengthy sittings, they would all burst out laughing! Ever since she shared that memory, I visualize it whenever l see one. Can’t you imagine those sober, colorless people transitioning off the photo paper into a fit of laughter?! Don’t make your readers wonder. Capture the emotions of what happened. They want to know you were a real live human being with feelings, just like them! Are you ready to begin?!


Mary ConleyDear Friends,

Mark Twain said there is a great deal of human nature in people! I have a perfect example I want to share with you. It was a week before Christmas that year (before 9-11), and I was on a three-hour layover in Atlanta, on my way to Pensacola, Florida, where our son-in-law was stationed in the Air Force. It was a special trip because I was going to help with the arrival of a new grand baby. Leaving my coat at home in frigid Omaha, Nebraska, I eagerly looked forward to my first visit to sunny Florida during the winter. I purposely overdressed in my new Christmas attire so that my young grandchildren, Joshua and Katie, would see me come off the plane in a cheery red dress.

While exiting the first plane, a man in front of me complained, "You can’t even go to hell without stopping in Atlanta." I, however, was almost thankful for the lengthy layover as I sat crocheting a pair of blue booties. I scolded myself once more for not making them before the rush of Christmas preparations. Now, if they would only turn off that annoying, repetitive message about not leaving luggage unattended or with a stranger, I would be able to concentrate on the pattern.

It was probably the red dress that first caught people’s attention, then they would see that I was a gray-haired grandmother crocheting booties, and smile at me. A little girl and her mother stopped and chatted. Then the mother asked me to watch their bags while they went to the restroom. As a woman, I understood how difficult it is to manage everything plus a child in one of those small stalls, but then another person observing us asked me to watch his, also. It became a job. All of a sudden, I was watching three people’s bags at the same time! All those black carryons began looking the same, and I was concerned that I might lose someone’s luggage! It became difficult to concentrate on my crocheting so I gave up and decided to continue after boarding the next plane.

I laughed to myself at how several people had ignored the constant warning on the intercom. I thought, if I ever need to look trustworthy, I'll just wear a red dress and crochet booties!

blue blanket

This is a more recent photo of this gray-haired grandmother crocheting! I have on red, and I’m crocheting a blue baby blanket. Do I look trustworthy?!


Mary ConleyDear Friends,

I believe each generation thinks theirs is a more difficult time to raise children. I remember the decade that teens started using drugs for the first time, and unprepared and distraught parents wrote in to a popular advice column saying that if they had known what was in store for them, they would never have had children.

One of the difficulties of raising children at the present is technology. Although it is wonderful, it is also a source of conflict, causing parents to have to put up safe guards and time limits on the computer, having to make their children go out and play, and demanding that phones be turned off during meals and other times.

Watching the news can cause concern about this present generation for sure, and it is no wonder from what I've observed while shopping. Who would believe that educated people would let a little child talk back, swear at them, or hit and kick them? So many times, I would like to say to a mother that I could give her a little hint I had learned along the way that would turn that whole scene around. I wonder what would happen if I did? Would she be relieved to get help, or tell me where to get off? On the other hand, I have observed many of my piano students over the years and know that there are parents who work hard at raising healthy and happy citizens.

I've found an exciting part of getting older is watching our own children become parents. One of our sons said that he hadn't realized when he was first handed his infant son, he would instantly know he would die for him. Yes, what a blessing, and now we get to watch THEM do the parenting!


This photo of our nine grandchildren was taken a year ago.

I find it difficult to remember the cute things my own children did or said, but have several memories about my grandchildren; probably because I repeated them so often to my friends! I would like to share two memories of examples of good parenting that made me proud to witness.

On the lighter side: The children had taken me out to lunch for my birthday. Little Charlie made a face of dislike about the water. His mommy said that some restaurants put lemon in the water. Charlie said, "I hate yemon." Mommy told him hate was a strong word and he could say, "I don't like lemon, or, I don't care for lemon." Daddy said, "Shall we practice that Charlie?" Charlie said, "I don't yike yemon!"

Serious parenting: We have nine grandchildren, and they have always liked each other and gotten along even though they are strung out in age. But one Christmas Eve a few years ago, it was well past young Charlie's bedtime and he was tired. I didn't see it happen, but he evidently wasn't being nice to older cousin Molly. Mommy and Daddy took Charlie upstairs and had a little talk. When Charlie came back down, he went to Molly and told her that he was sorry. Instantly, Molly put her arms around him and said, "I forgive you."

Doesn't that make your heart feel good? There is hope!



Mary ConleyDear friends,

Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying, “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Since tax time is coming up, I rather like what Margaret Mitchell wrote in her book, "Gone With the Wind," "Death, taxes, and childbirth! There’s never any convenient time for any of them.” Well said, but I’m actually wanting to chat about what we used to call a funeral, but now often refer to as “the celebration of life.” I think you know that this is going to be one costly celebration unless we embrace the emerging way to go out without a bang.

Nothing stays the same in this world, and just as the small bookstore and the family hardware business, it is my opinion that the traditional funeral home may also be on the way out. Here is what I’m hearing that people are doing or plan on doing to escape the funeral home’s exorbitant costs. In a nutshell, to save the most money, be cremated and scattered.

Now I will be more compassionate. There are all kinds of changes you can make to that brief statement to fit your desires and still save money. I’ll try to write about as many as I’ve heard about and thought through. The main thing, though, is to bypass the funeral home.

The gathering: You can do this in your place of worship for little or no cost, or perhaps at a lodge or town hall. These choices may be more conducive to visiting and reminiscing. You can still have photos displayed, slides shown, and your eulogy or exciting life history read. Since my parents, aunts and uncles, and four out of five of my brothers have already passed (bowing of head), I would like mine to be in my own home with perhaps an open visitation one day, and a private family funeral the following day. Unless, or course, my residing place has been a nursing home.

The burial: I’m sure you have already heard of myriad places someone’s ashes have been strewn. They can be buried, too, but this adds to the cost. We already have plots my father gave us in a beautiful well-kept cemetery in our home town of Washta, Iowa. We will pay for a headstone, but the bonus to cremation is that our bodies can easily be transferred to that site without charge. And if (ha, ha), our children ever visit us there, they will find graves of our extended family from both sides. I can just about see them excitedly calling out to one another as they find one family tombstone after another. I heard recently, that in some places, you can even have a family member dig the grave to save money. I guess that might happen if they are hard up for a little more inheritance. Or, you used up all your savings in a nursing home and left them nothing for such things.

The coffin: Forget it. Years ago, we went to the gravesite service for one of Larry’s brother’s and there sat a little wooden box about the size of a large jewelry box. At least that is how I remember it. Cremation was new to us, and when I saw that little box, I don’t know what came over me, but I got the giggles and almost had an aneurysm burst right there trying to contain myself! Our friends recently went to a funeral where the woman, who loved to fish, had her ashes put in a large colorful bobber! The point is, you can be put in anything you want to be buried in, thrown out to sea, or to stir up a little conversation at your visitation! Maybe we should go choose something right now while we’re thinking about it. You know, like some people choose their favorite suit or dress ahead of time.

So, is there anything left to pay for besides that fiery furnace? Maybe the death certificate if it didn’t come with the cremation, I’m told, but you will save thousands. As usual, you can find all that information on the web, or leave it for your family to do; that and cleaning out the years and years of stuff accumulated in your house! Its payback time!

On a lighter note: My sweet friend, Roxy, wants her ashes scattered out among their trees. I told her that if I’m still alive, I will spread wild flower seeds around her. Isn’t that a happy thought?

Quotes I hear my husband, Larry, saying:

– Every day above ground is a good day!

– Don’t take life too serious. You aren’t going to get out of it alive anyway!

– Larry also sometimes honestly mistakes the word funeral in place of wedding. When corrected, he says, “They’re the same thing!”

– Lately, he has been fond of repeating a Woody Allen quote: “It's not that I'm afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens.” He thinks that is so funny!


Mary ConleyDear friends,

Although it is early February, for some of us it is time to kickstart our gardening. Usually, for me, this only means planting onions from seed, but for the first time, I’m also going to start sweet potato plants from scratch. Well, from sweet potatoes!

What a proud mother/grandmother I am to be able to get my information about starting and growing something from my daughter's, blog called The Chicken Dumpling Gang. Amy and our granddaughter, Molly, not only grew their sweet potatoes, but first started the slips from the previous year’s harvest. Then Molly turned it into a 4-H project, receiving a blue ribbon.

I started on February 3 using sweet potatoes that my son, Perry, grew last year. He got them from Amy, so they are a family affair. If you purchase yours from the supermarket, be sure to buy organic or they may have been coated to prevent sprouting. I used half gallon jars filled with water, and skewered the sweet potatoes close to one end so most of it is submerged. I didn’t have skewers so my inventive husband brought up a box of plastic Pick-Up-Sticks!

sweet potatoes 

Side Track: Larry, my husband, is always nice enough to read my posts before I send them in. He doesn’t find many or all of my mistakes, but I feel safer knowing he’ll catch something important before I completely embarrass myself. Anyway, when he gets to something like “my inventive husband,” he gets stuck on that phrase like a scratched record (if you’re old enough to know what that means) and reads that part over and over until I yell at him! He never tires of it! From now on, you can imagine that whenever I say something nice about him!

Back to the sweet potatoes. First you will see roots growing downward, and then shoots growing upward toward the air and sunshine. Those shoots or slips will be the future plants, so when they get to be 6 to 12 inches, break them off and put them in water to grow roots. It will take about two months before the slips are ready to be planted in dirt, and the soil should be at least 8 inches deep. Remember that the vines will sprawl, but they will also be beautiful! Amy and Molly harvested 40 pounds last year off just a few slips started from two sweet potatoes.

kitchen sink 

Keeping watch!

Yes, you can skip the above directions and buy plants at your local nursery, but I’m going to watch this amazing process as I do the dishes, and become sustainable in another area at the same time. Happy gardening!

Another side track: I love it when people leave comments. On my previous post, “Happy Happy Happy.” ASantarelli commented that what makes her happy is sitting down to a meal where some of the food comes from their own acreage, and a fellow blogger, Nebraska Dave, said the thing that makes him the happiest is to share his produce with others so that they can know how REAL food tastes. Leave a comment today and make me even happier!


Mary ConleyDear Friends.

Are you happy? If so, what makes you happy? Most of us would put our family and friends at the top of the list, but I’m fairly certain there are other things around us contributing to our happiness far more than we realize.

The beginning of the new year brought suggestions to start a thankful jar or daily journal to help us become aware of the wonderful things we have in our lives that we often take for granted. My husband, Larry, often remarks how he appreciates a nice hot shower, so I’m sure he would include that.

A few years ago, we changed the way we did many things in our city home. We stopped using chemicals to have a perfect yard, and started composting and gardening on a small scale. It is curious how something like that can contribute to happiness, but I know it to be so from experience. We have done these things for so long, now, they have become second nature. Yet, just this week, I was peeling an orange, and had the happy thought, “When some people, peel an orange, they just get an orange to eat. When I peel an orange and toss the peeling in the container by my sink, I also get compost!” I wish everyone could have that feeling of satisfaction from making the rich earth that gardeners refer to as black gold. Kristin Kimball, in her book, The Dirty Life, said of all the things she experienced on their journey, making compost was her favorite. The wonderful thing about it is that anyone can do it.

How about you? Do you get a charge out of reusing things? We haven’t always been a wasteful, throwaway world, and Larry and I often discover examples of wise usage of salvaged material on our little farm. I’m sure the lack of extra money, or time to run into town to buy something needed was a great motivation, but, shouldn’t we always be trying to reuse, repurpose, or recycle?

I just have to tell you of an example we found this past summer. Larry was taking metal electrical conduit off the outside of the loft before we repainted it, and he noticed the conduit was held on by a piece of metal that wasn’t the normal clamp used for this purpose. Upon looking closer, he turned the piece over and realized someone had used a Prince Albert tobacco can that once held tobacco for filling a pipe or rolling cigarettes. We had to admire his ingenuity! He had cut strips from the can, turned it over so the bare metal was on the outside, nailed both ends over the conduit, and painted it.


Larry had this antique can for me to photo!

I want to be more like that person, and find ways to reuse things here and there. This is my latest idea that I recently read about. I save toilet paper rolls, stuff them with dryer lint to make great fire place starters for on the farm. That’s so silly you say? Nope, I just reused two things that normally get thrown away. *If only I used my dryer more so I could have more lint! Now I AM being silly, but you get the idea.


Great fireplace starters from toilet paper rolls and dryer lint.

Share with us about something that makes you feel good to reuse, and be happy, happy, happy!

*For those of you who have read my post on “To Hang or Not to Hang,” you may be wondering how I am getting dryer lint. I still do hang nearly everything and I much prefer it. This winter, however, I have been using the dryer for our king-size flannel sheets as they are getting difficult for me to handle. I also used it for all the bedding after the gang was here for Christmas. As my mother used to say, “Getting old isn’t what it’s cracked up to be!”

Subscribe today
First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Want to rediscover what made grandma’s house the fun place we all remember? Capper’s Farmer — the newly restored publication from the rural know-how experts at — updates the tried-and-true methods your grandparents used for cooking, crafting, gardening and so much more. Subscribe today and discover the joys of homemade living and homesteading insight — with a dash of modern living — that makes up the new Capper’s Farmer.

Save Even More Money with our automatic renewal savings plan!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $5 and get 4 issues of Capper's Farmer for only $19.95 (USA only).

Or, Bill Me Later and I'll pay just $19.95 for a one year subscription!