THIS FEBRUARY MORNING, with spring still months away in Minnesota, I crave a landscape flush with color. Snow gone. Spring flowers popping. Grass greening. Trees budding.
I think we all need a glimpse of warmer, sunnier days after a wicked weather week across much of our country. I feel, especially, for the people of Texas. The unseasonably cold weather of ice and snow wrought incredible challenges with no power, broken water lines, even death. I feel for anyone living in Texas.
Even though we’ve endured a lengthy stretch of subzero temps here in Minnesota, it’s just cold. Not destruction. Not heartache. We can manage and function and mentally remind ourselves that this won’t last forever. Temps are already rising.
With those thoughts, I searched my files for photos of spring flowers. To brighten your day. To bring you joy. To remind you that in every season of life, we face challenges which stretch and test and grow us. But we can, and often do, come out on the other side as better people. More empathetic. More understanding. More grateful than ever for life, even if it’s sometimes hard.
We push through the difficulties, often with the support of loving family and friends, to bloom color into the world. Or at least that is my hope.
BE ASSURED THAT MINNESOTA looks nothing like the photos above right now. Snow layers the land in a landscape devoid of color. Under the snow and decaying leaves, spring flowers await warmer days when the frozen earth opens to the sun and sky.
I APPRECIATE DR. ANTHONY FAUCI. He’s been a strong, calm, unwavering source of factual information about COVID-19 since the pandemic began. I trust him. As director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, he speaks as a scientist, and also as an individual and official who cares deeply about others. He speaks truth, with no interest in self-glory. He never compromised, even in the face of public criticism from the highest powers.
Fauci impresses me as a man of incredible character. Or, as the awardees stated, “speaking truth to power.”
When I consider this scientist and all he’s done for the health and well-being of not only Americans, but also the global world, I consider how his expertise is still dismissed by some. Too many really. Just recently I walked away from a conversation in which the value of wearing face masks was questioned. Dr. Fauci’s name was mentioned. Although I voiced my disagreement, I realized it held no weight to these individuals. So I walked away.
I am walking away more and more these days from people. Generally not people in conversation, because I’m seldom around anyone long enough to carry on a conversation. But walking away from people in public places who refuse to either wear face masks or who do not wear them over their mouths and noses. Those numbers are increasing, and I just do not get it. Walk into any grocery store in Faribault and you’ll see them—the non-maskers, the half-maskers. Even some cashiers are half-maskers and, when I see that, I call them out. I figure they owe it to customers to protect and respect them if they want their business.
When I pick up the local daily newspaper, I see photos of people grouped together, unmasked. And when I turn to the sports page, photo upon photo upon photo shows half-masked athletes. It’s disheartening. Disappointing. I am weary, too, of the political rhetoric over mask mandates.
I want people to do the right thing. Just wear a face mask and wear it correctly. Or, as my nearly 5-year-old granddaughter told her little friend recently, “It goes over your nose and mouth!” And, yes, she wears a face mask as does her little brother, who just turned two. If preschoolers can mask properly, so can adults.
For the 15 minutes or half hour or hour adults are grocery shopping or whatever in public, they can wear a mask and wear it correctly. Hanging around your neck doesn’t count. Nor does wearing a plastic shield without a mask meet CDC guidelines. The CDC now recommends double masking for added protection. I don’t know what it will take for people to understand the importance of mask-wearing. A locally-targeted marketing campaign. Public service announcements. My granddaughter accompanying me to the grocery stores in Faribault with her masking message.
Masking, and masking correctly, is about keeping all of us healthy and safe. Me. You. Your friends and neighbors and loved ones. Strangers. My granddaughter. And it’s about common sense and believing scientists, like Dr. Anthony Fauci.
AFTER AN ENDLESS STRETCH of subzero cold, relief is in sight. By Friday, we could see temps reaching the 20s here in southern Minnesota. Finally. That will feel downright warm after recent daytime highs not even reaching zero, temps plunging into the minus 20 degrees range and windchills as low as 50 degrees below zero.
During Arctic snaps like this, we complain a lot, warm up the car, crank up the furnace, bundle up and venture out when necessary, and even when not. After all, we have an image to maintain of hardy Minnesotans.
Secretly, and not so secretly, we dream of warmer days. Days at the lake for some. Fishing from a boat rather than an ice shack on a frozen lake. Camping. Walking outside without concern for frostbite.
As sure as the sun rises and sets, we realize that this cold spell won’t last forever. That winter will end…come April.
It was an unusually frigid February day in central Minnesota with the temp hovering around zero as we gathered at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Buckman. Over the course of more than three hours, memories imprinted upon me. Memories shaped in part by a global pandemic, which affected the ways in which we could be comforted. Randy and I declined hugs and handshakes. There would be no luncheon, the time of one-on-one visits. No getting together with siblings, at least for us, either before the funeral or after.
Yet, simply being together in the same building brought comfort. Comfort came, too, in flowers and music and Scripture. Like the words of Ecclesiastes 3:1-14, read by my sister-in-law Rosie. When she read a time to embrace and a time to refrain, I thought, how fitting for a funeral during COVID-19.
Images seared into my mind—like the lowering of the casket lid over my father-in-law. Or the surprise of seeing my then preschool-aged son in an image atop the casket spray. He was perched on the seat of his grandpa’s Ford 9N tractor in a photo I took decades ago.
Many times throughout the service—especially during the farewell chant and song of angels welcoming Dad into heaven—I focused on the heavenly angels painted on the ceiling high above the altar. What a gift the artists and craftsmen of this aged church left for mourners. Art comforts.
So does music, especially music. “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” and “The Lord is My Shepherd” and “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” and many other songs filled this massive church with the most beautiful, heavenly music performed by musicians in the balcony. St. Michael’s has incredible acoustics. Randy and I suggested to his classmate Janel prior to the service that perhaps the musical team could play a polka or waltz in honor of Dad, who so enjoyed both and who also played piano, organ and accordion (not the concertina, as the priest noted). My sister-in-law Vivian shared with me later that the hymn “Whispering Hope,” played before the casket closed, was a popular waltz at wedding dances in the area and was a favorite of her parents. I love nuances like that which personalize a funeral.
As I sat through the service next to Randy on an uncomfortably hard straight-back pew, physically-distanced from family, I determined not to cry. I didn’t want to cry into my mask. I considered how surreal this felt to experience a funeral during a global pandemic. And how surreal also to experience a funeral during Minnesota’s longest cold snap in nearly three decades.
We dressed for the weather, wearing long johns under our dress pants. Randy told me his dad wore long johns often back on the farm so this extra layer of warmth seemed another fitting tribute. Before heading to the cemetery, we slipped out of dress shoes into snow boots.
And then, once grandchildren slid their grandfather’s casket into the hearse for the short drive to the cemetery, mourners followed by foot, crossing Minnesota State Highway 25. A church officiant stood half-way into the traffic lane, bundled for warmth, purple mask covering his face, holding a pole with crucifix atop as traffic waited out of respect for us to cross the road. It was a strong visual moment for me. The red pick-up truck parked curbside contrasting with mourners dressed in black. Waiting vehicles. Masks and stocking caps and bald heads (among those who chose to brave the elements minus head coverings). The priest in his, oh, so Minnesotan red buffalo plaid coat and matching ear flapper cap. An icy parking lot with occasional welcome patches of gravel. And then, the final steps across the snow to the burial site.
As my nieces and nephews carried my father-in-law’s casket, I felt the heaviness of grief. The cold of death, balanced by the promise of eternal life. Grief and joy.
And then, in one last act of love, we each stepped up to pull flowers from the casket spray to lay upon the casket. I chose a red rose, not yet blackened by the cold, placed it on the shiny grey surface. And then, with my mittened hand, I patted the lid twice in a final farewell to my father-in-law.
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.
HOW ARE YOU, dear friends? I don’t ask that question without expecting an honest answer.
Perhaps you’ve had a really difficult week. Like me. One filled with concern for those you love. One of endless texts and emails among family. Worry. Awake too early. Feeling stressed.
Or maybe everything is going great. And that’s good. Life is a mix of rainy days and sunny days. Or if I put that in the context of winter in Minnesota, days with snow and days without snow. Days when temps are well above zero and days when they are unbelievably cold. Like the weather predicted for the next week.
But let’s put all that aside right now and focus on flowers. Yes, flowers. When I awakened too early the other morning and couldn’t fall asleep again with pain pressing upon my head, neck and shoulders, I prayed. And then I pictured flowers. These flowers. Aren’t they lovely?
And happy is good. Even in difficult days that challenge us, there are ways to find joy. And today my joy comes in remembering the gift of these flowers, how they popped color into a February day and lifted my spirits seven years ago. And now again, today.
LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE.Little Town on the Prairie. Both are familiar to fans of author Laura Ingalls Wilder who wrote books by those titles. But what about Love in the Prairie? Ah, not so familiar.
You’ll find Love in the Prairie outside B to Z Hardware Store. An oversized Sweethearts candy box. A Prison of Love. Spots to cuddle with your sweetheart on a sofa or bench. A kissing booth. Photo cut-outs to pretend you are Danny or Sandy from the musical Grease. Lots and lots of fun photo ops.
Well, we never got there. Suffice to say the best-laid plans were thwarted by developing health situations with our parents. Our phones were blowing up on Sunday. And I’d lost my desire to leave Faribault. I’d been awake since 4:55 a.m. and, come afternoon, my energy level plummeted. Randy suggested I nap for a bit. I tried.
As Randy and I walked, I felt my mood shifting away from worry about loved ones to the natural world around me. Bare trees rising above the snow. Others leaning or broken. Black against white.
The river, edged with ice, curving through the woods. Poetic. Artsy. Mostly monochromatic.
I paused at the sound of music, church bells, I thought. Randy pointed to chimes dangling above a balcony at a trail-side apartment building.
We listened, too, to the manic caw of crows circling nearby. I felt like I was in a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” I thought I saw an eagle through the distant treetops, but then never spotted it again.
A bit farther down the path, we paused to consider an aged limestone building. Abandoned. I wondered aloud at its purpose. And the part of me that appreciates such historic structures lamented its neglect.
I noted the abundance of animal tracks in the snow. And human tracks and sled imprints on the hillside.
When the cellphone in my parka pocket jingled, I ignored it.
When we’d walked a distance, we retraced our steps, took a short cut up the sledding hill and then aimed to another city trail, this one along the Cannon River in North Alexander Park. There, masses of ducks flew close to shore near our parking spot. They just kept coming and I couldn’t figure out why.
Randy looked at the paved pathway to traces of smashed bread. Ah, the ducks thought we brought food. We laughed about that and considered that maybe, while we continued our walk, they would swarm our van and leave droppings.
I quickened my pace, anxious to flee the flock of hungry ducks. A few minutes later, we watched them take flight away from the frozen shoreline and land in open water.
We continued through the park, passing picnic shelters packed with stacked picnic tables. Past lone grills enveloped in snow. Past the colorful playground absent of children. And past the vacant ball fields.
The wind cut cold through our bones as we turned onto the park road that would take us back to our van. I felt refreshed, my mind cleared, my spirits buoyed by the simple act of getting outdoors. Away from challenges and concerns. For at least an hour.
RURAL MINNESOTA. For Randy and me, that represents our upbringing, the place of our roots, the land that is part of our personal geography.
We both grew up on farms, in large families—his three kids larger than mine at nine. We both picked rock—he more than me as Morrison County in central Minnesota sprouts more rocks than Redwood County. We each labored in fields and barns and understood the value of hard work and our importance in the farming operation. Even at a young age. That carries through in our strong work ethics and our strong link to the land.
And, though we left our rural communities at age 17, we still hold dear the small towns—Buckman and Vesta—that were such an important part of our upbringing. Both have changed with familiar businesses long gone. Society changed and locals began driving farther for groceries and other necessities.
It’s easy to get caught in the memories, of the back then, of wishing nothing had changed. But it has and it does. And life goes on.
Returning to our hometowns, our home areas, causes me to reflect while simultaneously appreciating that which remains. Cafes and churches and hardware stores. Post offices and bars and grain elevators. These are the community gathering spots that still mark many of Minnesota’s smallest communities, those towns that span only blocks from east to west, north to south.
But more than buildings, people form community. Even in Faribault, where Randy and I have lived since 1982, we’ve found our small town in a city of around 25,000. That’s in our faith family at Trinity Lutheran Church, the “town” that centers our lives. An uncle and I discussed this recently. He lives in Minneapolis. His neighborhood is his community, his small town.
No matter where you live, whether in rural Minnesota or New York City, the mountains of Idaho or the plains of Nebraska, I hope you’ve found your community and place of joy.