HE DIED PEACEFULLY Friday morning, two of his daughters by his side.
He is my father-in-law, Tom. Age 90. His death came quickly after a short hospitalization, discharge, sudden change in health, admittance to hospice, then gone the next day.
Now we are preparing to say goodbye in the deep of a brutally cold stretch of weather here in Minnesota in the midst of a global pandemic. Both add to the challenges.
Today, though, I want to focus on Tom and my memories of the man I’ve known for nearly 40 years. A man with a large and loving family, whom he loved, even if he didn’t often openly show it.
Tom has always been surrounded by a large family, beginning with his birth into a blended family in rural St. Anthony, North Dakota, in December 1930. After farming on the Helbling homestead, Tom and his wife, Betty, moved in 1963 with their young children to a central Minnesota farm. Their family grew to nine children, 18 grandchildren and 20 great grandchildren.
As a young child, Tom briefly attended Catholic boarding school, which leads to one of my favorite stories about him. Apparently oatmeal was often served for breakfast. And Tom disliked oatmeal. One morning he stuffed the cooked grain in his pocket rather than eat it, so the story goes. I expect it wasn’t long before the nuns discovered the oatmeal mess and meted out punishment.
Yes, Tom could be particular about the foods he ate. He liked, in my opinion, the strangest foods—Braunschweiger, summer sausage, pickled beets, herring… And, yes, his son, my husband Randy, also likes herring. Shortly before his health declined, Tom enjoyed a few of those favorites delivered to his care center room by a daughter.
Visitor restrictions due to COVID-19 were hard on Tom, as they have been for most living in congregate care centers and their families. But my father-in-law has overcome much in his life, most notably the loss of his left hand and forearm following an October 1967 farming accident. The accident happened when Tom hopped off the tractor to hand-feed corn into a plugged corn chopper. The rollers sliced off his fingers and pulled in his hand, trapping it. As Tom screamed for help, Randy, only 11 years old, disengaged the power take-off, then raced across fields and swampland to a neighbor’s farm. It’s a harrowing story that could have easily turned tragic.
Despite a missing limb, Tom managed to continue milking cows and, in later years, to run a small engine repair business. He also grew and sold strawberries and pumpkins. I remember harvesting pumpkins with him one cold October evening, rain slicking the field with mud. We were drenched and miserable by the time we’d plucked those pumpkins.
It is the creative side of Tom which I especially appreciated. He was a multi-talented life-long musician who played the piano, organ and accordion (until he lost his hand). He could play music by ear and had a piano tuning business. At age 81, he took refresher organ lessons and in 2012 gave an impromptu concert for Randy and me in the small St. Cloud apartment he shared with his second wife, Janice. His first wife, Betty, died in 1993. He treated us to Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Somewhere My Love” from the movie Dr. Zhivago. What a gift to us.
Tom also painted, a hobby he took up late in life. Randy and I have two of his original oil paintings and several prints. They are a reminder of my father-in-law, of his history, of his rural upbringing, of his creative side. I consider these a legacy gift. Valued now more than ever at his passing.
© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling