We haven’t been to my parents’ cabin in Wisconsin in a few years, but it is delightfully unchanged, for the most part. The colors here are so soothing and rich, like I’d never seen green until I visited the Midwest. The cabin is on a smallish lake about halfway between Chicago and Minneapolis, where my husband and I used to live. It’s a log cabin (half log? The interior walls are smooth) with steps down to the water and cozy river rock fireplaces.
Their house is beautiful, but one of the main attractions is the culture in this area of the country. My family is from Illinois, which is certainly the Midwest, but up here it’s MidwestPlus. Like, Wisconsinites hate people from Illinois so much they call them “FIBs” for “Fucking Illinois Bastards,” because they all come up here to vacation and there are also rumors about terrible driving and general rudeness, but I cannot confirm those accusations as my family are mostly good drivers who keep their rudeness confined to uncomfortable family gatherings.
Rural Wisconsin is a country all it’s own, with equal parts quaint and backward. For every little shop with antiques and homemade wares, or farmers marker with Amish folks selling the best pickled green beans you’ve ever tasted, there’s a bar that offers “midget wrestling.” There aren’t a lot of backward things, but the few that exist are extreme. I would wager a significant number of the residents here think the former president will be reinstated in August because Q told them so, but they would also go out of their way to feed you a hot meal if you were in need or toss you a beer from their boat to yours (unless you’re from Illinois, in which case you can GTFO).
The Midwest is a special place, where a combination of whipped cream, pudding, and cookies is called a “salad,” and tater tots go on top of cream soup casseroles, but around here they are also producing award winning cheese (Carr Valley cheese is available at Spec’s in Texas!) and fantastic beer and brats. At the local grocery store there is an entire aisle for Jell-O molds. Macaroni salad here is sweeter than cake, and local wine is an alcoholic juice box. Our favorite delicacy is obviously the fried cheese curds, and although it may cause you intestinal distress to eat a battered and deep fried piece of cheese, it really wouldn’t be a trip to Wisconsin without them.
Today we took the kids to Country Bumpkin’, which is an outdoor farm-themed playground with animals you can pet and feed. My kids are city dwellers, and where they live a lot of the bugs and creatures are deadly, so it’s taking them a while to get used to seeing bugs that are just a nuisance. They will shriek when they see a spider and my dad will tell them it’s fine, that spider is harmless! My kids look at him incredulous, like, “excuse me, sir, we do not simply let spiders go on their merry way in El Paso, we kill them with poison on the spot.” So a farm with lots of insects and the smell of manure took some adjustment, but by the end everyone was happy and exhausted, though no one wanted to feed the aggressive goats, and the one donkey was keening and wailing in an off-putting manner, and come to think of it, maybe it’s me that isn’t farm material.
I’m sad we lost a day here with our travel debacle, as it’s really a special place. There are a lot of benefits to having your parents work incredibly hard their entire lives so they can retire wherever they want, but one of the perks is getting to visit them and exposing the children to different parts of this country. In years past we’ve taken my son to the local store up here to practice milking a cow on the model in the middle of the dairy section, and we’ve taken both boys to the cheese shop to watch the professionals make huge vats of their famous mixed-milk cheeses. Maybe next year we’ll take them to see gators in Florida (assuming we are invited back after the shameful things I said about the state) and add to their seashell collections that were started on this trip.
The one thing both places have in common is the remarkable group of friends my parents have curated over decades of travel and relocation across the globe. In Florida, there are couples they met in Switzerland, Hong Kong, Russia, Peoria, and Naperville all living in the same general area, and everyone they met in Illinois is strong-armed into buying a house on the lake in Wisconsin so my parents have more people to play pickleball with the following season. These are quality friendships, too. When we arrived in Florida we were greeted by a huge pile of borrowed toys dropped off by one friend, and the next day another friend came over and gave my children, whom she’d never met, wrapped gifts including a handmade blanket!
I was here the day my parents moved in to the cabin about ten years ago, and a friend who already lived here brought over a full meal for us and offered to help unpack. That kind of care is something special. When we got to Wisconsin this trip, we decided we had the wrong size air mattress for my daughter and I was mentally preparing for the long drive to the nearest store to find a replacement when my mom activated the Grandma Phone Tree and located several options within a few minutes, as well as sheets and spare life jackets for my kids who had grown a lot since their last visit. Oh, and our lovely neighbor dropped off a huge bag of chocolate chip cookies, and the next day someone else arrived with a delivery of fudge. My parents often say things like, “it’s hell to get old,” but honestly I think they’re doing okay. Apparently the lady with the fudge often lets herself in to my parents’ cabin and leaves cream puffs in the fridge while they’re out. I’m pretty sure mild weather, boat rides, good friends, and a fridge that’s always stocked with desserts is my retirement dream.
I’m not great at maintaining friendships, and often think of bringing someone a meal or offering to help out, but then I worry I’d be too pushy, or they’d hate my food and wouldn’t know how to tell me to please never bring over dinner again. The way the people my parents have chosen to surround themselves with care for each other is really inspiring, so next time I think I’ll just phone a friend and say, “I’m coming over to help you repaint your living room, and I’m bringing a tater tot hot dish so preheat your oven.”