The picture is a Kodak, black and white, small 1x3 of two young girls. They are on scooters wearing swishy net dresses and appealing smiles. Who are they? That’s my cousin Rosemary in front; taller, poised and beautiful. Me, I’m behind her with my arm cocked and looking impish.
My mother’s handwriting speaks volumes: Rosemary and Sheila, 5 years old. Although we lived 30 miles away, we were the best of friends. Imagine that. The picture documents 74 years of friendship. While we aren’t riding scooters we still have the special bond.
When Rosemary visited me at my home in Sun Prairie, one of our favorite places to play was under a gnarled apple tree. My mother would spread an old tablecloth on the grass and provide us with a snack and a glass of milk. Meanwhile Rosemary and I would pick our favorite colored hollyhocks to make our “flower fashion” dolls. I chose pink hollyhocks to make my doll have ruffled dress and a white blossom would become her parasol. Rosemary usually gave her doll a lavender dress and a pink parasol. Then Mom would fill a tin tub with water so we could float our hollyhock dolls as if they were parading around in a fashion show.
I stared at the old photo and thought, Can you go home again? If home is where the heart is … the answer is yes.
I hadn’t been in Wisconsin for almost 20 years. It was time for a visit with Rosemary who now lived in Sheboygan. Even though I hadn’t been in my home state for almost 20 years, I decided to make the trip this past summer. Very early one July morning, I flew out of Los Angeles International, bound for Milwaukee. After dealing with the confusion of changing airline terminals, tedious lay-overs and the aggravation of misplaced luggage, I arrived in Milwaukee around midnight.
Rosemary’s son-in-law, Joe, met me at the terminal and drove me from Milwaukee to Sheboygan. I was exhausted. Rosemary immediately showed me my bedroom.
After a sound sleep we had our coffee and we talked and talked. Even though we emailed each other, it wasn’t the same as our face to face interaction. Her home was warm and comfortable. She loved her complex. I love it too. The first thing I noticed were the lawns. Rolling green swatches of grass blended into one another with nary a fence rail to curb their progress. The grassy slopes seemed to welcome neighbors to walk across the green carpet to share gardening tips.
The neighbors with dogs had a certain ritual. They would stop and visit while the dogs did their business. “Don’t forget the potluck on Saturday,” cried her next door neighbor. Her dog, Sami, a rat terrier, was very protective of his mistress. It wasn’t until the third day that she warmed up to me and let me pet his sleek head.
In the meantime our cousin, Jeff, the family historian, drove down from Appleton to help us shake the family tree. We began to exchange old stories and information about our Sullivan ancestors.
Rosemary’s daughter, Lynn, joined us. She smiled at me and said, “Sheila looks like she could use a bratwurst break about now. A brat will give her the energy to help us shake the family tree.”
“Truer words were never spoken,” I said. And no sooner had I endorsed this savory suggestion, Joe and Lynn went out, purchased the meat and brought it back for all the hungry family tree shakers.
When we started to research together that day, I learned how difficult it was to trace the Sullivans in our family because several ancestors had married Sullivans from another clan.
Jeff and Rosemary and her sister Cathy actually found a relative with the surname of O’Sullivan in Drumlave Adrigole, County Cork. My contribution that day was to share one of my father’s favorite jokes. When I was about 8 years old, I asked him, “Why aren’t we O’Sullivans?” He replied, “We don’t go by O’Sullivan because we couldn’t afford to keep it up.” My father’s blarney implied that the O’ was reserved for a hoity-toity group of Sullivans.
Sightseeing in Sheboygan brought back memories, especially when I spotted a water tower. “There’s a water tower! You have a water tower,” I cried. My cousin Joe smiled at me. “Yes, it stands on those spindly legs, a pot belly tank which proclaims SHEBOYGAN for all to see.” Growing up we had a water tower up the street from us proclaiming SUN PRAIRIE. Besides distributing water, it served as a reservoir.
As we approached Lake Michigan’s shore drive I could smell balmy air, see the little fishing boats and the magnificent red lighthouse at the end of the jetty. Families were enjoying the beach but only a few brave teens were making mad dashes into the icy cold water. For a town of 50,000 I was surprised when Rosie navigated not one but two rotaries.
Later we joined Rosemary’s granddaughter Rene for a Friday Fish Fry at Angler’s. Wish I could package the aroma. Friday night and the beer and the laughter abounded. Everywhere around me were smiling people, running children and patient parents. The very familiar community feeling took me back to my childhood spent in the tight knit community of Sun Prairie.
On my last day in her complex, I discovered a beautiful and ornate bandstand. It looked practically brand new just waiting for the band members to assemble. This really took me back to my home town. A free concert was held (I believe) on Friday night. There would be a group raising money by selling ice cream cones and having a traditional cake walk.
I left Rosie and her family with a grateful heart — and full stomach. Wandering through the Milwaukee airport in search of some souvenirs of my visit, I came across a small shop that advertised: Cheese Curds for sale. That box of curds looked like the perfect souvenir. In my opinion, nothing says “Wisconsin” like cheese curds. Look it up — curds go with whey.
Sheila Sullivan Moss began working in the newspaper business in the summers when she was 13 for her dad on his when she worked summers for her dad on his weekly newspaper, The Sun Prairie Star Countryman (now the Sun Prairie Star). She received her bachelors of science degree in journalism and education and a master’s degree from the UW-Madison, where she met her New Yorker husband. They moved to Los Angeles where she did PR for the PKU Newsletter for Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles and for the Los Angeles Community College District. Sheila returned to teaching and retired in 1992 after more than 20 years. A widow now, she finds her two adult sons, Aaron and David, daughters-in-law and four grandchildren keep her going.