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Memoir and Identity

An Interview with Loren Schmidtberger, author of The Beginner’s Cow: Memories of a Volga German from Kansas

by Hayden Wilsey

Writing a title for a text that looks at the intimate moments of your life is hard to do. Why did you name your memoir “The Beginner’s Cow”?

“The Learners’ Cow” is what I called the first memoir-type essay that I ever wrote. The circumstance under which I came to write it when I was nearly eighty years old will help explain why, later on, I chose “The Beginner’s Cow” for my book’s title.

Mary, my wife of forty-seven years, had just died and I took it hard. I hadn’t cried very often in my life before this, I told a grief counselor, who then asked if I wanted to talk about one of those earlier times. I declined, but later found myself thinking about the time in my childhood when I had cried very hard.

It was when our family finally sold Old White Face, one of our milk cows, the one my older siblings and I learned to milk on—our “learners’ cow,” as it were. She was an easy milker, a gentle cow, which is why she was assigned, in succession, to the you, most recent child in our family to join the milking rotation. I bawled my heart out when I saw her hauled away.

I wrote up the sad experience in an essay and showed it to the grief counselor, who encouraged me to continue writing. I heeded her advice and began to write the collection of autobiographical essays that would eventually become my book. “The Learners’ Cow” was then replaced with “The Beginner’s Cow,” a title that casts a broader perspective and connects the many beginnings throughout my life—from learning how to milk a cow to beginning the process of writing these memoirs.

Incidentally, that very first essay (in slightly revised form) appears in the book as the chapter entitled “Old White Face.”

Your stories provide a lot of insights into your cultural roots as a Volga German growing up in Kansas. What did your Volga German heritage give you to think about as you wrote your memoir?

My Volga German heritage was not something I specifically set out to mine while writing the essays that became this book. I did not try to illustrate the traditions, Roman Catholicism, for example, and practices that were especially dear to us Volga Germans. I just tried to create an accurate representation of events in my life that I can still recall and that might be of interest to a reader.

In my earliest memories of ethnic identification, I first thought of myself as German, that being the language I heard and spoke more often than English. Then I thought of myself as German-Russian, or just Russian. I heard people from outside our community mispronounce it derisively as “Rooshun.” So at the time that I was first experiencing my Volga German heritage, I felt embarrassed and apologetic about it. Then in college I became defensive about it. Then, probably during my three years in the military, I lost all sense of ethnic heritage in defining myself. Through much of my life I simply defined myself as husband, father, professor, and in that order.

In the course of writing my essays, I discovered that, for all the years I have lived in New Jersey and New York, I am still, at heart, a Volga German from Kansas.

You taught for fifty-one years at Saint Peter’s University in New Jersey, where you are professor emeritus. What was the biggest lesson you learned as an educator?

I can’t decide between two lessons, each of which is really big:

  1. Listening is an undervalued form of communication. You are not listening if you are talking.
  2. Don’t take yourself too seriously. No child ever dreams of becoming president of the faculty senate.

Now that you’ve written your memoir, what is one piece of advice you would give someone who is interested in writing their own memoir?

Don’t start tomorrow. Start today. And be sure to back-up your document, indicating the date and a few-word-description of its contents, into a folder.

You let your readers in really close to some important moments in your family’s life, memorializing your siblings and parents by writing about them. Did any of them get to read parts of The Beginner’s Cow as you worked on it? What do you think they would say about The Beginner’s Cow if they read it today?

Glad you asked. My parents would be proud, I am sure. Only Jean, the oldest sibling, died without being able to see any of the essays. She would have loved them. From the beginning, I sent many of them to my siblings. My sister Alvina, who died in 2009, saw only the first few, but that included the one in which I quoted extensively from her own memories about our dad. I recorded “Penance on the Prairie” on a cassette for her, along with a harmonica solo by me—she was herself a good player—and her children played it for her at the hospital in Oregon. My sister Armie lived to read a few dozen. She too got treated to a CD and a song we used to sing in German. The staff in her hospital in Seattle enjoyed it too. Armie herself had sung a beautiful soprano. Virgil and Alvin read all the ones set in Kansas. They relished them. Alvin was mostly blind at this point, so his granddaughter Amy read them to him. She really liked them too, as did Virgil’s son, Gary, who still urges me, from time to time, to “Keep writing!” My sole surviving sibling, Janice, read and made some very astute suggestions about the manuscript, which I adopted.