Building Bridges: An Interview With Grandma Sugar Cookie

Marilyn Williamson

“Grandma Sugar Cookie” is how Marilyn Williamson is known to her family. I had the honor of meeting this soft-spoken kind woman, and her husband, Jim, via Zoom with the assistance of her son Steve, over an early morning cup of coffee. They had apple caramel cinnamon rolls that Steve had picked up for the occasion. I enjoyed them visually!

Marilyn was born on a farm in Highland in September 1934. Her father, like many farmers of the time, rented the land he farmed. Before Marilyn was born the family had moved several times to different farms. Her mother would scrub out the new farmhouse, move in their cook stove and their beds and make it home for her growing family. By the time Marilyn was born, the last of eight children, they had settled on the farm in Highland and would stay there the rest of her childhood. And by the time she was old enough to help with the milking, her dad had invested in milking equipment so that her job was just cleaning the utensils. The way she tells it, she got off easy being the baby — all she had to do was haul water into the house to heat it (on the cook stove), bring the hot water to the barn, and then clean the milking utensils instead of actually milking like her older siblings had done. I couldn’t help but wonder how many kids today who grumble about loading a dishwasher would find that “getting off easy?!”

Marilyn spoke of the hard work for her mother of running a farmhouse with no electricity or indoor plumbing. But she also spoke of fun. And neighbors. And community. She told me what it was like to grow up during a time when neighbors gathered together to help one another during threshing time. At times, I felt like I had stumbled upon a fairy tale I had only read about previously. A time when neighborliness meant something quintessentially beautiful. Her stories of the children playing and the neighbors all working together to bring in each other’s crops sounded magical. She remembers that time through her childhood eyes … remembering the sense of everyone coming together. Those experiences, I imagine, helped teach her the value of adults helping each other, and the safety and pleasure of being a child held in that community.

At 18 Marilyn left Highland to marry Jim and move to his farm in Muscoda, 15 miles away from the farm where she had grown up. While she never quite grew to love the mosquitoes in the river valley, she quickly grew to love the land that Jim so thoroughly loved. An early date between the two of them consisted of Jim taking a young Marilyn to one of his favorite spots, “Writing Rock.” When she saw the hill he wanted to hike up she thought, “I’ll never make it up that hill,” but he said they would just take their time, so they gradually hiked up and all of a sudden there they were on the top! She imagines now that their names are still scratched in that rock, 68 years later. 

Jim bought the farm he had grown up on from his father, and settled there with his bride. It is perfectly nestled between the hills, and the bottoms. Marilyn’s voice always took on extra warmth when she spoke of Jim’s love for the land. He loved to hunt in the woods, hike in the hills, and work the land. Their nine children were born there. They lost one child at 9 months, and the other eight were raised there. Their son Steve now lives and farms there with his family. Raising her babies on that farm in the river valley took all of her time. But it was good time. She was always busy, always cooking, always taking care of them. The children played, they hiked in the hills, they stayed clear of the road, sometimes they hiked down to the bottoms, not so much to the river, but it seems they were always exploring outside. And she didn’t worry about them. They were always together and watching out for each other. Marilyn was thoughtful about how different parenting seems to be today … she just didn’t worry about her kids the way that parents seem to now. The kids helped out when they were needed, and otherwise it sounds like they kept themselves busy doing kid stuff. I was struck by the calm with which this gentle woman spoke of raising her eight children. She felt that if something happened while they were out, there was always somebody to come back and tell her … the kids enjoyed what they were doing, they had a lot of fun, and that was what mattered.

It seems, however, that times have changed. And that makes Marilyn sad. She sees “No Trespassing” signs on land that used to seem boundless. She listens to stories of what some call “helicopter parenting,” she witnesses farmers all owning their own equipment. The neighborhood gatherings to share food, fun and hard work seem to be gone. The traipsing over land without concern for boundaries is a thing of the past. But when Marilyn muses about these things that make her sad, she closes with “neighbors are there for you when you need them, I guess, that’s the good thing.” Finding, and sometimes creating, the good seems to be yet another knack Grandma Sugar Cookie has.

Her reaction to what she saw as declining neighborliness was to create a community pancake breakfast with the maple syrup made by Jim in their woods. She and Jim had built a cabin up in their woods in 1976, and they wanted to share their bounty. So, they began a tradition that is carried on now by their grandson, Jacob. When they started she had a four-burner stove in the cabin: one burner for the coffee, one for the sausage, and two to put the griddle on for the pancakes. Over time they graduated to a larger griddle, but there has never been electricity or running water in the cabin. Just a gas stove, hard work and lots of generosity. At the peak they have over 100 people up for their pancake breakfast. It isn’t for a fundraiser, they don’t charge anything for it, it is just to share their syrup with their neighbors. To share community. She remembers those breakfasts as the best of times.

It was clear to me that Marilyn is someone who values family, hard work and a sense of community. I imagine that sitting on her porch with a cup of coffee and a sweet roll, or better yet, a homemade sugar cookie, and hearing her stories would be a delight. If visiting with her over Zoom left me with a warm feeling, I can only imagine the kindness of an in-person visit!

These last months have been hard. Marilyn has lost two siblings and three friends. She can’t gather with the people who make her happy. They have a new great-grandchild whom they haven’t met. Her monthly card-playing gatherings can’t happen. She has always had somebody to help make her sugar cookies: first her own kids, then her grandkids, and now her great-grandkids. Making them alone just isn’t the same. But not once in the time I spent with her did I sense bitterness. She wishes people would wear their masks and stay safe. And, in the meantime, she will do her part, and, my guess is, find a way to create and share good.

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..