Building Bridges: An Interview With ‘Leah’

In what seems to be a time of ever-increasing strife, this column is a small attempt to build bridges with our neighbors. The broken bridges and steel-clad social bubbles that keep us apart can begin to mend and thin as we get to know the stories that define each other. In this space I will be interviewing community members of all walks of life from throughout the Voice readership area … may you enjoy meeting them, and may this build bridges for us all. Thank you for joining me on this journey.

Six months ago we began this “Bridges” journey together. So far we have met and heard the stories of five different men and women. Some have family who go back generations calling this area home. Others didn’t come here until they were adults. We have met an octogenarian, and a millennial. A business owner, and a Department of Natural Resources wildlife supervisor. With each of these stories I shared with you their names. But what if what matters isn’t just their individual biography, but their story? What if part of the bridge is hearing a story, hearing someone else’s humanity, and not knowing who the individual is? What if we learned to approach each other as if each new person might be the person whose story moved us?

This month I want to share with you the story of a woman who chose to call this area home 20 years ago. I will call her “Leigh,” but that isn’t her name. I propose that she is any person whose story you don’t yet know.

The journey that brought her to our river valley was not an easy one. Nonetheless she shares with everyone she encounters her strength, her convictions and a hard-working spirit. You may have encountered her. If you find yourself moved by her story, I encourage you to treat anyone who might be her with compassion, respect and maybe even curiosity.

For this woman, coming to a small town in southwestern Wisconsin was an effort to start over in a positive way. To change her karma. In the 13 years between kindergarten and the end of high school, she attended 13 different schools in Milwaukee County. She had seen enough. Her mother struggled with addiction and the family regularly found themselves evicted and in search of a new place, sometimes even finding themselves homeless. They had no phone, no family car, no stability. From an early age Leigh learned to take the city buses, knew how to navigate city streets, made friends and survived. But as she approached adulthood she knew something had to change. And she knew that it couldn’t change if she stayed in Milwaukee. There would always be the pull to take care of her mom. The world in which she had grown up would always pull on her if she stayed. She needed to actively change her life. And that meant changing her address. She made a plan to move to New York City, where no one knew her, and where so many people seemed to go to start over. It sounded new and exciting to this young woman.

Then, right as she was ready to move to the Big Apple, a friend invited her to visit the Lone Rock area, where the friend had family. It was just for a weekend. And it changed everything.

Never before had she been to a small town. She knew that the land beyond Milwaukee had farms, but when she thought about rural Wisconsin, she thought about farmers doing their “farm stuff” and then living like people she knew — coming home to condos and apartments after their farm work was done. The reality of small towns had never occurred to her, and it grabbed her curiosity. People smiled. They waved. And it didn’t seem dangerous. In fact, it seemed wonderful. It presented just the energy she had been looking for. On top of all that, it was beautiful. The family she was visiting took her fishing from the land bridge that divides Bakkens Pond from Long Lake. Looking out over that special place, she knew that she had found where she could start over.

When she first moved here she worked at Roundy’s, but that turned out to be a less than perfect fit, and then someone suggested a local cafe as a better fit for this outspoken, Eastern philosophy-thinking woman. And, indeed, it has been. Now, 20 years later, she is still there. There have been times when she was elsewhere, but the atmosphere in the cafe always draws her back. It is here that she can best express the personality that she wanted to foster 20 years ago. The best version of herself.

Not long after moving to the river valley she saw a man across the room at a party whom she would later marry. Everything about him was right — from the hemp choker with big black beads adorning his neck, to the skateboard he kept close. Their first date, several months later, entailed taking her new puppy, Yana (short for Vatsyana, the Indian philosopher who had given her direction out of Milwaukee), on a hike at the Nature Conservancy in Spring Green. She now knows that you aren’t supposed to bring dogs there, but at the time it was a perfect first date. It was such a perfect place that six months later they found themselves getting married atop those same cliffs overlooking the ancient river valley. 

As they began their life together they briefly returned to Milwaukee, so they could build a relationship together with her family, experience city life and begin to further their education. It wasn’t long, though, before they were drawn back in this direction. With hard work and diligent savings, they were eventually able to buy a house in Mazomanie. Her family was still in the Milwaukee area and his was in this area, and they wanted to be in the middle. Madison was too expensive, and the house in Mazo was a perfect compromise: out one door was Black Earth Creek where they could see fox and deer and feel nature, and out another she could walk to the library. Over time, Spring Green has grown to feel like her emotional base, and Mazo is where her home is and her children go to school. Always the same school, and that is so important.

The natural spaces of the river valley are profoundly valuable to Leigh. They have been, and are, regenerative. She is still inspired by the beauty of the riverway, calling it a wild and free and magical place. It is possible to go out on the river and find an island with no one around at all, and completely feel oneself as just one creature on one planet. And that gives her strength. That is healing.

The Driftless Area holds Leigh with its beauty, the open kindness of its people, the vibrant, artsy nature of Spring Green. But at least as importantly, she strives to give her kids the stability that she did not have. For them she keeps her home here. For them she is the best version of herself. And it is their appreciation, their growth and their safety that makes her happy. Her sadness comes when she fears that they could someday feel toward her what she has felt toward her mother. I saw those tears. But I believe that she has rolled far from that tree. Her children won’t have to feel that pain. This woman is there for her children. She has made this home, and is committed to it for them.

And as she looks around at the community she chose, she feels hopeful that it will keep growing in all the good ways, and that those good vibes will spread outward to fill the river valley. She believes that hate truly has no home here, and that that makes this a good home for anyone.

Jennifer Moore-Kerr is a mom, a free spirit and a barefoot dancer living in Spring Green where she can walk to the river and commune with friends. She can often be found welcoming locals and visitors alike to the Spring Green General Store where she tends the register most days. To suggest ideas for future “Bridges” columns, email jennifermrkrr2@gmail.com.