Assignment: Why I would never be mistaken for Santa Claus
I would never be mistaken for Santa Claus. I am more the Santa Lucia type. In fact, when I was a little girl with long flaxen locks, I was actually cast as Santa Lucia in my public school Christmas program. It was really a sight to behold. I was probably in first or second grade. My school was in a small town, just a few hundred kids all together in grades K thru 12. So all the grades had a part in the Christmas program; in the choirs, or the orchestra, or the nativity, or the north pole scene … and that year I got to play the role of Santa Lucia.
So who is Santa Lucia?
Santa Lucia has been honored and celebrated internationally for the last 1,700 years as a saintly virgin who used her wealth to help the poor.
Santa Lucia trusted absolutely that she was doing the right thing by following God and dumping her loser fiancé, even though without him she had no means of support.
Santa Lucia was tortured and killed by the establishment when she refused to walk in lockstep with gender and cultural expectations.
So out of the cold dark Nordic winter comes a holiday bearing her name and bringing the light.
Fast forward 1,700 years or so… a little Minnesota girl 6, maybe 7 years old.
Long thick blond hair to the middle of my back.
Dressed in a full-length white satin robe (these were the days before flame retardant fabric), white satin robe with a cute little red sash and dress-up shoes that didn’t fit right.
A dark school gymnasium with a couple of spotlights; overcrowded with parents, teachers, and students. I take my place at the back of the gym.
Someone perches a rigid Styrofoam floral ring wrapped in some kind of greenery with seven white tapers stuck in it, on my little tow-head.
I hold my breath and stand motionless as someone else flicks their BIC and lights each candle.
And then I carefully teeter down the aisle toward the stage as the high school choir sings some angelic Christmas song somewhere north of the key of mice.
I didn’t think of a thing of it at the time … totally trusting that everything would be ok … but years later I asked my Mom, “What WERE you thinking? Didn’t that sound a just a teensy bit dangerous to you?” She quipped, “Oh honey, I didn’t really think much about it at the time. You were fine.”
And yes, I guess I have to admit, I was just fine. And yes, it was truly a sight to behold.
Come to think of it, there is something really child-like about the audacious trust required to embrace the message of Christmas and a little tiny light that can pierce the darkness.
There is something mysterious about the pure trust you need to really “get it” when you read about the birth of a baby in some backwater town in some fly-over country who turns out to be the Savior of the World.
Not the magic of Santa Claus bringing you your every little heart’s desire, but the unflinching faith of Santa Lucia that everything is going to be just fine — in fact, it’s truly going to be a sight to behold.
Santa Lucia was a sweet little Italian girl who moved to Sweden to help the poor. Well, that’s not entirely true. Santa Lucia is sometimes referred to as the “Bringer of Light” and is the patron saint of vision. There are numerous legends about this young martyred saint. She really didn’t move to Sweden but her legend did.
The Festival of Santa Lucia begins before dawn, on the thirteenth of December which under the old Julian calendar was Christmas Day and the longest night of the year. The custom is that the eldest daughter in each household comes to her sleeping parents, dressed in a long white gown tied with a red sash, and wearing a crown of lingonberry leaves in which are set seven lighted candles. In her hands, she carries a tray of steaming hot coffee and “Lussekattor”, which is sort of a saffron breakfast roll. Awakened by the lights and the singing, the parents arise and eat the breakfast served, thus ushering in the Christmas season.
And what parent wouldn’t jolt awake at the sight of flames shooting from their little girl’s hair!
Scandinavian tradition holds that in Värmland, Sweden, a white-clad maiden, wearing a crown of burning candles, brought food to the starving villagers on the shores of Lake Vänern. No one knows how long ago the tradition began, but it was so far back that the festival of Santa Lucia was marked by a notch on the primitive “primstav” which is a calendar stick, the precursor of the modern day calendar. From its beginnings in Värmland, the customs honoring Santa Lucia have spread throughout Sweden, and then to the rest of Scandinavia. Today, the festival is celebrated in schools, hospitals, businesses, and towns; each of which has its own Lucia Bride and festivities to mark the beginning of Christmas.
However, the origins of this tradition are not in Scandinavia, but in Syracuse on the island of Sicily around 304 A.D. According to the Sicilian legend, Lucia’s mother, a wealthy widow, had been miraculously cured of a serious illness. Lucia was a devoted Christian and in thankfulness, she persuaded her mother to distribute her wealth to the poor. So by candlelight, the mother and daughter went about the city secretly ministering to the poor of Syracuse.
Lucia had an absolutely audacious trust that she was following the will of God and was doing what was required of her; using up her resources to minister to the needs of the poor. In that culture and in that century, if you were a woman without a dowry, you really didn’t have a future. Also in that culture and in that century, Christianity was illegal and those who believed were persecuted for it.
The pagan young man to whom Lucia was engaged, took a dim view of her distributing her dowry to the poor, and outed her as a Christian to the ruler who ordered that she be arrested and tortured. Miraculously, neither boiling oil nor burning pitch had the power to hurt Lucia, and so they gouged out her eyes with a fork and slayed her with a sword. Lucia was just 21 years old.
Accordingly, throughout the Nordic north, on the morning of the December 13th, the white-robed maiden comes out of the night with her burning crown of candles piercing the darkness. In honor of her martyrdom, it has long been Scandinavian custom to donate money on Lucia Day to institutions working for the blind.
So who is Santa Lucia?
Santa Lucia is celebrated internationally for the last 1,700 years as a saintly virgin who used her wealth to help the poor.
Santa Lucia trusted absolutely that she was doing the right thing by following God and dumping her loser fiancé, even though without him she had no means of support.
Santa Lucia was tortured and killed by the establishment when she refused to walk in lockstep with gender and cultural expectations.
So out of the cold dark Nordic winter comes a holiday bearing her name and bringing the light.
There is something really child-like about the audacious trust required to embrace the message of Christmas and a little tiny light that can pierce the darkness.
There is something mysterious about the pure trust you need to really “get it” when you read about the birth of a baby in some backwater town in some fly-over country who turns out to be the Savior of the World.
Not the magic of Santa Claus bringing you your every little heart’s desire, but the unflinching faith of Santa Lucia that everything is going to be just fine. In fact, it’s truly going to be a sight to behold.
This is based on a story my dad, Donald Huseth, tells about himself. It takes place when he was four or five years old, living on the family farm in west central Minnesota in the mid 1920s. Over the 80 years since, he has wondered where he would have gotten such an idea, as of course there were no TVs, radios, or magazines in the house at that time.
My heart was pounding in my throat. I could barely hear my footsteps for the sound of rushing blood in my ears. I knew I’d catch them this time!
Holding my breath, I tried to make my steps as light as feathers, to keep them from hearing me. Slowly I made my way across the creaky floorboards of the old porch.
They couldn’t fool me. I knew what they were up to. Ma and Pa, my sisters and brother were all inside. The sun was setting and the amber glow of the windows looked warm and inviting.
They couldn’t trick me. I knew that the minute I left the old farmhouse they’d push a button that made everything fancy inside.
When I closed the door behind me, I knew they pushed a secret button in a hidden place—and out came the crystal and the china. Out came food with names we couldn’t even pronounce. Out came fine dresses and high-heeled shoes, suits and ties like the bankers in town wore. Chandeliers made of gold and pearls lowered out of the ceiling. The imported linen drapes replaced the feed sacks tacked to the window frame. Even the floors were covered with carpets in rich colors. Our homemade rickety furniture was replaced by overstuffed brocade chairs and couches. The dining room table was hand-carved and highly polished. An oil painting hung above the fireplace. A grandfather clock kept perfect time in the corner. Tick…tock… tick…tock.
They couldn’t fool me. I was certain that the minute my little feet hit the driveway heading for the barn, my Ma would sit down at a grand piano in her fancy dress and play Chopin. The girls would read to one another from leather-bound classics. My Pa would sit at a roll-top desk, smiling as he counted his money—because there was enough of it! Then they would all gather around the dinner table, eating prime rib and lobster, using perfect manners, visiting and laughing. Even my big brother would have something nice to say.
Heart pounding in my ears. Sneaking across the rickety porch. Holding my breath. Who did they think they were? They couldn’t fool me. I grabbed the doorknob and turned it. For an instant, it stuck. I grabbed it with both hands and burst through the door. “Ah ha!”
But no. There stood my Ma, at the stove, in her faded house-dress, stirring the stew in a black cast-iron pot. My sisters setting the table. My brother grousing about the price of a bushel of corn. No china. No crystal. Not even a tablecloth. Stew for dinner. Again.
The next morning, I left the house to check on the baby chicks in the coop. So yellow. So soft. Peep, peep, peep, peep. I wished they could just stay this age.
Suddenly I heard it. The faint sound of a piano. I looked up at the old farmhouse. The door was shut tight. The curtains were closed. The house had been built to stand against the Minnesota cold many years ago, and now it sadly needed a coat of paint. I was born in this very house four and half years ago, and I knew it’s every nook and cranny. I couldn’t help but wonder: How could they hide something as big as a piano?
I began to sneak towards the house. The strains of Chopin got louder and louder. As I crept up the porch steps, I thought I heard laughter coming from inside. A window had been left open and the breeze parted the curtains. I crawled on my belly across the porch, afraid I’d get a splinter. I gripped the window sill with my chubby little hands. I knew I’d catch them this time. I popped up and peered through the window.
Argh! Too late! They must have seen me coming and pushed the button just in time. Beyond the feed sacks, I saw only the same old dim ordinary interior. Foiled again!
Day after day that summer, I would try different doors…different windows…different plans to try to catch them in the act. But I was never quite quick enough. I never did catch them red-handed.
But I’ve always known the truth. They couldn’t fool me.
On February 15, 1998, just two months and four days after a diagnosis of lung and liver cancer, my Mother, Darlene Huseth, passed from this life into the arms of Jesus. I recall the following phrases, so that I might never forget the pain and the joy of those last months together. These days created a richness between family members she had been crafting since we were born. Each quote brings to mind a story of our last precious days together in this world. Just as the pendulum swings both ways, the pain of this chapter must be faced to reap the joy and the clarity of Mom’s message to us. She left a well-lit path for us to follow: one of integrity and honesty, of commitment and toughness, of faith and good judgment, and most of all, of fun and of love.
November, 1997 “Darlene, I heard you have pneumonia. I’ll bring a meal. How about some nice turkey soup?”
December 11, 1997 “The tests show a mass on my left lung and some spots on my liver. We are going to Rochester for further tests and a second opinion.”
At Mayo Clinic “What do you mean, you don’t have my mother’s records?! The clinic in Minneapolis assured us they’d send them!”
“Well Darlene, as your oncologist, I can only say that it could be this. It might be that. It looks like this. It could respond to that. You may have six months or a year. Every patient reacts differently. No one really knows for sure.” [We just want solid information. We just want to know what to expect. Talking to doctors feels like talking to their attorneys–like they have been forbidden to give a straight answer. They know exactly what to expect, but they won’t exactly tell us. Must we rely on bootleg information from friends in the medical field?]
“Darlene, the tests are back…”
“Doctor, I’ve been thinking. I’ve watched friends my age go through debilitating treatments for cancer. For what? Maybe an extra 18 months of misery? I’m not so sure I want to undergo treatment if the outcome is inevitable.”
“It’s a good thing, Darlene, that you feel that way because this type and location of cancer won’t react to chemo or to medication. We can try radiation, which will not cure it but may only shrink it temporarily.”
Back home again “We have had a good, long life together. We have had some good times and some not so good times. I’ve done some good things and some things that were not so good.” [Silence and then tears, but not her tears.]
“Yes, Donnie, and you know I have forgiven you for those things.”
“Whatever happens, I want you kids to know that your Dad has been an excellent caregiver. He has been so good to me. While I’ve been sick, he has had to do everything, you know. He has been so good to me. I want all you kids to know that.”
At the doctors office “Wow! Any history of diabetes? Your blood sugar is over 400. Get to the hospital right away! Someone can bring your things later.”
At the hospital “They told us they would fax mom’s chart over … that it would beat us here! I’ll take care of this! Give me that phone!” [Solveig, the youngest of five, begins to take charge.]
Back at the doctors office “Miss, is there a problem?”
“I don’t know. I’ll let you know in a minute.” [Solveig thumbs through each x-ray and film, examining them to make sure she’s been given the right ones. She’s been down this road before, and now knows that their word cannot be trusted. She snarls to herself. Getting information from doctor to doctor in 1998 seems to be more difficult than space travel!]
Back at home “Oh, Darlene! We’re sorry about the the news and brought you some delicious soup.” [Meals miraculously begin to appear at the door each evening.]
At the hospital for a radiation treatment “Why yes, Doctor, I am limping. I fell in the hospital last week and bruised my leg.”
“Get down to the admitting room right away! You have a blood clot that could let go any time!”
New Years Eve at the hospital “Darlene, we are very sorry to tell you the radiation is having no effect on the mass. We’ll tap the lung to drain the fluid. We will set up home hospice next week. They’ll make sure you’re as comfortable as possible. You can call on them for anything. By the way, don’t dial 9-1-1. Call hospice instead. When you call 9-1-1 they are required to resuscitate.”
God made us and provides us with all we need to live and die without fear.
The first weeks of January
“If you need anything—anything at all—don’t hesitate to call me. But by the looks of your support system [medical term for a family], I probably won’t be seeing you again. I usually am called back to families who, shall I say, aren’t as well adjusted.” [The hospice psychologist makes us feel as though we somehow are going to make it through this.]
“I’ve taught you kids how to live. Now I get to teach you how to die.” [Mom begins to prepare us for things she knows are to come.]
“Come on over here and let me brush your hair.” “Oh, Mom you don’t have to brush my hair.” “Well, it’s not like I have anything else to do.” [Holly’s eyes are puffy. The tears flow freely that day. The reality sets in that Mom’s days with us are numbered. Mom comforts her middle daughter running the brush through her blonde hair. Sitting at her feet, Holly knows this is a moment frozen in time. She knows in that instant that she will keep this moment in her heart and treasure it always.]
“We brought you some nice hot soup, and some cookies. Let us know if you need anything else … anything at all.”
“We brought an entire turkey dinner, complete with wine. Care if we join you?!” [There is no shortage of food or friends during these days.]
“I am so glad we had that big party for our 50th wedding anniversary. What a wonderful day that was! It was even better than our wedding reception, after all that was mostly our parents’ friends. Our 50th was a tapestry of relationships we had built over the years, just 400 of our closest and dearest friends. What a memorable day that was.”
“Which would you rather say? ‘My mother gave this especially to me’ or ‘This was in my ma’s things when she died.’” [Cleaning out drawers and closets becomes an obsession for Mom during these days. She has certain possessions in mind for certain people, and she wants to make sure they get them. Perhaps she feels this is the only area she has any control over, and she is going to exercise it regardless of our protests.]
“I can’t possibly take your wedding ring now—not like this.” “Well, what do you want ME to do with it?” “It just doesn’t seem right. Wouldn’t that mean you’d be living in sin?” [Mom replied with a crooked grin.] “I am already hooked on morphine, and now I’m living in sin? Hmmm, sounds like more fun than I’ve had in a while.”
“I want you to have this scarf. Remember when we bought it together in Norway two years ago? We looked at dozens until we found this one. Oh, I am so glad we took that trip together! What a memory! That is something we’ll have forever.”
“Has the mail come yet? Someone go check the mailbox.” [God thinks of us always. His messages are often received through the mail in the form of hundreds of cards and letters from friends and family; some long lost friends, some relatives from across the sea, some past co-workers, some everyday next door neighbors—but each note carrying a message of love and prayers and shared grief for our Mother and their friend. Mail call is the centerpiece of each day.]
[There is a peace in the house these days. It is a peace that can only be absorbed by being near Mom for long periods of time. The peace she feels is real, and it is contagious. It is a peace that says for a Christian there is absolutely nothing morbid about the thought of death. On the contrary, it is like getting ready to go visit your very best friend.* The more time we spend with her, the more peace we feel.]
January 19: “Happy Birthday, Ma! We all wrote letters to you for your birthday, telling you on paper what is hard for us to choke out.” [Reading these letters from Dick’s family is one of the only times I saw Mom tear up.]
“My, you are really a good looking young man!” [The well dressed, Tom Cruise looking oxygen man, explaining the new machine to Mom is taken by surprise and blushes.]
“Which book should we read from tonight, Mom? The Great House of God or I’m Thinking of You?” “They are both my favorites. You choose tonight.”
“Oh Mia, what would we have done without you? We are so glad you are here.” [Her oldest daughter traveled from her home in Indiana to be with her mother during these precious weeks.]
“Yes, tell them they can come; but just two at a time and only for 15 minutes.” [No matter how weak she feels, she never tells anyone to stay away. Regardless of their intentions, she knows they are not coming to visit a shut-in or bring a casserole. She knows that God sends them to her so that she can minister health to them, a beautiful spiritual health that usually sends them home reeling.]
[They say that in the moments before a man dies, he often sees a vision of his wife standing in the door waving him in from the snowstorm. But when a woman nears her moment of death, she sees her mother bidding her welcome.]
The first weeks of February
“Mom, were you there when your mother died?” “Yes, it was February just like it is now, and Solveig was a baby, not yet a year old. Your Grandpa Tody was out, and Ma was lying on the couch, very weak. Your Dad was holding her hand. The baby started to fuss, and she told me I should to tend to her. Just as I walked out into the kitchen with the baby, my Ma slipped away. Your Dad was holding her hand. He cried and cried. He loved her so much. They were so good to each other.”
“I am not going to cry! I am not going to cry! Not in front of Mom! Not every single day!” [Mia stands in front of the bathroom mirror admonishing herself to be tough. As she returns to her mom in the living room with dry eyes and a perky smile, she is struck by just how well the new baby monitor picks up even the slightest sound from the other end of the house. So much for her tough facade!]
“You know, there is a certain excitement about being this close to someone who is going to see heaven so soon.” [As she gives Mom her last haircut, Bonnie from St. Bonnie, chatters away. With tears in her eyes, she gives Mom the nicest haircut she has had in a long time.]
I continue to pray for a miracle until it is certain that God has another plan for you.
“Squeeze my hand, Ma, squeeze my hand. Ohhhh, you’re strong today. Very strong! Do you feel good? Do you feel better? I think you’re stronger today, right, Ma?! Right?!” [Her second son, Dick, is still in denial about the terminal part of his mother’s condition. Positive thinking and enthusiasm only go so far when dealing with this adversary, this invader called cancer.]
“Ma, how am I going to know how to live without you here?! How can I make it through each day without our morning phone call? You are so damn strong! How can I ever be that strong?! We get our strength from you—we get our emotion from Dad—but we get our strength from you. I don’t want to cry, but I just can’t help it! I am so damn mad! You, of all people, should not have to suffer. You should not have to endure one minute of pain. You of all people!” [This is a turning point for Dick. The floodgates have opened, and it is a good thing.]
“Cry. Go ahead and cry. It is good to cry. You are going to miss me when I am gone. Go ahead and cry. It is good to cry.” [Again, she ministers to us. She gives us permission to begin to grieve.]
“Yes, that’s the one. In The Presence Of God is the song I want the choir to sing at my funeral.” [Mom’s eyes fill with tears as she listens to the demo tape.]
“Hi, Grandma! I want you to see this. I am writing a book for you. So far I only have the dedication written. Want me to read it to you?” [Dayna made a special trip to show Grandma her words.]
“Is that Karl on the phone? I want to talk to him. Karl, I just want you to know how much I love you and appreciate you letting Mia come up here for so long.” “Oh, that’s ok. I love you too, Mom.” “But, Karl, I love you more.” “You know, I think you might be right. I think you do know the true meaning of the word, LOVE, better than anyone I know.” “Good-bye now.” [Short of breath now, all her conversations are brief and to the point.] “Good-bye.” [That was the last time Karl and Mom spoke.]
“Dawn, this lace and pearl piece was worn on the wedding gowns of the first daughters in our family beginning with my mother. It is now yours.” [Darlene’s oldest granddaughter accepts this precious heirloom.]
“Nick, I want you to have this solje I bought in Norway. You must only give it to the girl you marry. And you may only marry someone as nice as your Grandma.” [The Norwegian Solje is the traditional and beautiful sterling silver jewelry worn with the national costume, the bunad, often at weddings and other special occasions. It means “sun-catcher” because it has many tiny spoons that reflect the rays of sunlight.]
“I have so many great memories of Grandma’s house. Remember the surprise drawer in the red bedroom, where we got to choose one treasure to take home every time we came for a visit?” “One thing? You only took one thing?” “Why yes, of course, didn’t you?” [Dawn loved choosing the one special item each visit to Grandma’s house. Dayna smirked remembering how she somehow ended up with more the one allowed treasure at each visit.]
“Make sure you and your Dad wash the living room curtains while you are here. They need washing, and it takes two tall people to re-hang them when they are wet. Promise me you’ll take care of that next week before you go home, okay?” [The living room curtains and valance were custom-made from Danish embroidered lace and sheer fabric. We had shopped for them together after she saw similar ones in Norway in the 1970s. She made me promise never to tell Dad how much they really cost. They were VERY lovely.]
“What do you need? Do you need anything? How about something to eat? Do you need some more medicine? How about some fresh water? How about …? Do you want …?” [We all circle her endlessly, trying to find the key to her comfort. She is so polite in her answers, but sometimes she has that look in her eye, like, “Just leave me alone – I don’t need anything – really!” Sort of like that famous line from the movie, Midnight Run, “I’ve got just two words for you….Shut the eff up.”]
“I can’t breathe! I need to sit up. My side hurts. I need to lie down. Get the frozen peas … my neck is so stiff.” [Her complaints are few and far between. When she does complain of pain, we soon learn to multiply by a factor of four to know how she is really feeling. Trying to manage the various pains is like trying to put an octopus to bed. What worked yesterday isn’t working today.]
“I love all you kids so much. You have all done such a good job with your lives. You are such good kids and have married so well. Carleen has done such a wonderful job with those children. And Larry is such a good husband and father. Mark is so good for Holly, I am so happy they found each other. And Pat, oh how we thank God for Pat, who could be better for Hans. And Karl at home with the boys, not many women could go away and leave their kids and their home in such good hands. He is a good man. All you kids have done so well, I am so proud of each of you.”
Valentine’s Day weekend:
“I feel there is a little child in the house.” [Mom sits in her blue recliner with her three daughters hovering around her. Where once there were little children in and out of the house all the time, there haven’t been ‘little’ children here in months. Her children, yes. But we are no longer little. The hospice nurse explains that it is very common for patients near the end to sense the presence of a little child. It is almost like a little angel, waiting to escort them to the next world.]
“I’m not sad because I am dying. I am sad to leave you, but I’m not sad to be dying. Thank goodness it’s me and not one of you. If it were one of you, I’d be very sad plus I’d have to be in charge.” [It is good Mom is going first before any of her children or her husband. That way, we get to wait on her hand and foot instead of her having to care for us. That way, she does not have to endure these feelings of despair and helplessness, watching one of us battle some relentless disease. We’re thankful that she gets to go first. In a strange way, that is her reward. Great is her reward.]
“Let’s make coffee and exchange Valentines. So what if it’s the middle of the night.” [The tenderness between Mom and Dad has entered a new dimension we have not witnessed before. The pain and anxiety come to her in increasingly intense waves, and it is Dad she asks for when it is at its worst. They now communicate on an entirely new level, a level it took 53 years to build. Sobs shake his frame as Dad reads aloud the Valentine he chose for her.]
[Friday night is a very difficult night. No one gets much sleep. Up at midnight making coffee and breakfast, reading valentines, Mom spends the rest of the night in the recliner so she can breathe more easily. By morning her tailbone and neck are sore from sleeping in one position. Dad plays solitaire by the kitchen table until she is asleep and then retires downstairs to dig through old 8 millimeter home movies. Watching them must have been a comfort to him in those quiet hours before dawn. By this time, we begin to abandon the diabetes testing and treatment. It no longer seems relevant. Managing the pain and soothing the anxiety become our top priorities.]
“I dreamed about Paul Huseth’s mother last night.” “Hilda? Well, how is she?” “Why, dead, of course.”
“Look, there is Grandma Tody! Rewind it. Look, there she is…can you believe she didn’t spill that cup of coffee?” [Saturday afternoon, the living room is filled with bodies sprawled this way and that, watching the home movies Dad found the night before. Right in the center of the room is the blue recliner with Mom sleeping a sound yet fitful slumber. Her color is changing. Her eyes are changing. Images of our dearly departed move about the screen along with little children–those children, now grown, and sprawled about the room. Are we are trying to torture ourselves, watching these flashes of care-free days? We laugh and cry as the grainy figures scurry across the screen in fast motion. Christmas. Birthdays. Vacations. Another decade. Another place. Another time. The same family. But today we try not to move in fast motion. We try to slow the clock’s ticking in hopes of holding this enemy called cancer at bay. But the clock is relentless. It just keeps on ticking, no matter how hard we brace ourselves against it. It just keeps on ticking. Ticking.]
“Do you think my husband could sleep with me tonight?” “Why sure, Mom. After all it is Valentine’s Day.”
Sunday, February 15 “Mia, call all the kids. Tell them to come today. I want the blue cotton dress. That one right there! The COTTON one! THAT cotton one!” [Guests are coming. She wants to be presentable.]
“Tracey, if you are coming sooner or later today, could you please make it sooner? We want you to talk to the nurse. You know what we need; you speak the nurse’s language.” [Our longtime neighbor and family friend was a nurse.]
“Why yes, she does have a cooler cotton nightgown. I’ll get it.” [DUH!! That might help with the night sweats she’s had for weeks! HELLOOO!!]
“Why yes, we do have a fan.” [Why hadn’t WE think of that?! We don’t have a clue, do we? What would we do without Tracey’s nursing degree?!]
“Give Alex his Magic Quilt today.” [The Magic Quilts were handmade by Mom for each grandchild for their high school graduation. It was guaranteed to have a prayer in every stitch, and guaranteed to make you feel better after snuggling up in it.]
“Thank you Grandma, I love you.” [Teenage boy tears— the worst kind.]
“Everybody, come in. Let’s pray together.” [It looked like a Norman Rockwell painting as we all crowd around her bed, praying and weeping.]
“Everybody out! Two at a time! Two at a time!” [Time and space have become distorted, but she is still in charge.]
“Why are you listening to that baby monitor? Is it good for you to listen to this?” [With tears streaming down their cheeks, the grandchildren hover around the monitor.] “It’s terrible, but we can’t stop…we can’t help but listen to what is going on in her room.”
“Give me the baby. Is the baby OK? I don’t want to hurt the baby.”
“That’s not a funny joke. Why do they think that’s funny? It’s not!”
“Am I really a Christian?” “Do I really have cancer?”
“All three of you are pregnant now, right?”
“I’m so hot.” “I am so chilled.”
“I can’t seem to get any air.”
“Is it time for more medicine?” “I need more medicine.”
[Inadequate supply of oxygen to the brain is causing confusion. Fluid filled lungs are causing panic. Inflammation of the liver is causing a sharp squeezing pain. Increasing doses of morphine are given in an attempt to suppress these symptoms, but it’s not working well enough. Mom is now in and out of a fog, while the biggest battle of her life is raging within her. Regardless of how ready the mind and the spirit are, the body fights to hold on. It is excruciatingly painful to watch. We all feel so helpless.]
“Pastor is here. Everyone come back in. Please pray Pastor, that all this commotion leaves my head.” “You know Darlene, Satan never gives up. And he works hardest on those he can’t have.” “The Lord is My Shepherd. I shall not want. He leadeth me besides green pastures. He leadeth me besides green pastures. He leadeth me besides green pastures. He leadeth me besides green pastures …. ….”
“Jesus, come and get me! Why doesn’t He come? He’s not coming, is He?”
“I feel hungry. Maybe I could have some Corn Flakes.” [Corn Flakes!! We all jump up and trip over ourselves trying to get to the kitchen, throwing together a bowl of cereal. She eats her Corn Flakes – almost a whole bowl! She seems to be rallying a little!]
“Nurse, when should I change the catheter?” “You probably won’t have to change it. But morning and night, that’s the general instruction. It’s probably in for the duration. I wish all my patients had care like this … families like this. Such excellent care … such love in action.”
“Tracey, where are you going and when will you be back? Oh, just across the street for a minute? Could you make it half a minute? You’ll spend the night? You’ll take the first shift? Great! What would we do without you?”
11:20 PM, Sunday, February 15 “Mia, Dick, Dad … you better come in now.” [Tracey woke us gently. Solveig was already in Mom’s room.]
“She is unresponsive. There is a little thread pulse, but it is fading fast.” [Thank God for Tracey being there with us – she is so calm.]
[Then quietly our Mother just slept away. She breathed slower and slower and slower and then didn’t breathe again. Mom was there when Solveig took her first breath, and now Solveig is there when Mom takes her last. Gathered around her bed, we sob out loud, not holding back, not trying to regain composure. We just sob. Shoulders shaking. Tears falling. Noses running. We sob.]
“She was a good woman, a good wife and mother. There will never be another like her.”
“That isn’t Mom anymore. It’s just an empty vehicle. She’s not in there anymore.”
“She’s with her Ma now who she hasn’t seen in 36 years. That’s the only good part of this. But I’m going to miss her so much!”
“She’s healed now, and free of pain, with Jesus. She can breathe, and she can run. Her ankles aren’t weak any more. Her neck isn’t stiff any more. She can fill her lungs when she laughs. She has perfect pitch when she sings.”
“Hello, Cremation Society? We are ready for you to come now.”
[As they prepare to move the body from her deathbed to their vehicle, we all gather in the living room and promptly get the giggles.]
“Are those two of the strangest looking guys you have ever seen?” “Do you think the night shift always sends one real tall one and one real short one?” “Do you think the short one is really that pasty white or does is he wearing mortician makeup?”
[We should stop giggling, but we can’t. Mom would be giggling too. She maybe is at the very sight of us. ]
“Do you think we should let Mom ride with them all alone in that Suburban?”
“Holly, did they scare you when you saw them standing them in the doorway?” [Holly was by herself at Mom’s bedside when they arrived.]
“Holy shit; did they ever!” [We dissolve into uncontrollable giggling and the tears roll yet again.]
The next morning, February 16: “We can’t forget to wash the curtains this week.” [These are the first words out of Dad’s mouth on his first morning as a widower.]
“I sort of felt like if I kept holding on to her hand, I would feel her spirit travel through me on the way up…but I didn’t. I think she may have floated out through Dad’s room whispering, ‘Don’t forget to wash the curtains.’” [Solveig didn’t leave Mom’s deathbed from evening until she was gone.]
At the Cremation Society Chapel, we read all the memorial verses, but this is the one that got us:
“God saw you getting tired, And a cure was not to be, So He put His arms around you And whispered “Come with Me.” With tearful eyes we watched you suffer And saw you fade away. Although we loved you dearly We could not make you stay. A golden heart stopped beating, You’re now at peaceful rest. God broke our hearts to prove to us, He only takes the best.”
“Sprinkle my ashes over the airport. When you die, your friend, Earl, promised to sprinkle yours there. That way we will be together again one day.” [Dad tells the story of Mom’s wishes for her ashes over and over to anyone who will listen – and breaks down in tears every time.]
“I should have come yesterday, but I guess I didn’t realize how close it was. I guess I really blew it, didn’t I?” [Hans had Sunday commitments and had planned to come over on Monday, but it was now Monday and he was feeling really sad. What a difference a day makes.] “No, no, don’t think that. It really went so fast at the end. There was no way of knowing.”
“Let’s all wear Grandma’s hats to her Memorial Service!” “Great idea! Lets!”
“On the way over here, I turned on the radio to hear some dumb announcer talking about some stupid Olympic hero. I turned it off, with a loud CLICK. Shit! What the hell do they know about heroes? They don’t know a f—ing thing about heroes! They didn’t know our mother! What made me think I could go to work today? I fell apart every time anyone said, ‘Good Morning. I had to get out of there, but it’s funny how I seem to feel much better now that I am here at the house.”
[In the days that follow we are all drawn home to the kitchen table like moths to a flame, fearing that we might get short of breath if we are gone too long. If we do leave, it’s in packs, to run to the store and then to get right back. It is an indescribable power that draws us there. Maybe the power of family (the in-laws did not feel the same pull). We wonder aloud, “What do people with no family do at times like these? Do they suffocate?”]
“You know what’s interesting about the last two months? This is undoubtedly the most stress any of us have experienced, yet none of us ended up with that nervous twitch in our lip. You know, our genetic ‘Elvis Presley’ twitch?” [This condition has plagued most of us at one time or another during times of stress, but not this time. It should serve as a lesson to us. Stressed as we were, we talked about it a lot, received a lot of concern and support, and we cried many times a day, perhaps releasing the stress that normally would bring out the ‘Elvis’ in us.]
“I think I’ll shampoo the carpets today. Hey, need some help hanging up those wet curtains? Oh that looks great, just perfect.” [Dick pitches in. The valance is all bunched up at one end of the rod, and barely strung across the other end. No wonder Mom wanted Mia here for this!]
Phone rings: “Hello. This is the hospice coordinator. We were all so sorry to hear about your Mom. She went so fast, but at least it is a comfort to know she is no longer suffering. All of our staff members who visited your Mom commented on what excellent care her family gave her. If only all our patients could have such love and care in their last days. She knew you were really there for her and that made it so much easier for her. We are calling to tell you that the hospice program provides grief counseling for your Dad and for the whole family for up to two years. Someone from our bereavement team will be calling your Dad next week. We automatically classify him as ‘high risk’ because of the length of their marriage. This will be quite a lifestyle change for him. Any of you may feel free to call us at any time at no charge.”
“Yes, I knew what your mom liked — and I also knew what she didn’t like—carnations for instance!” [The shopkeeper is more than a florist. He knows Mom personally from years of filling her orders. What a blessing he is to us.]
“WHAT DO YOU MEAN, YOU ATE THE CASHEWS?! WELL, FIND THE DRESSING. IT’S THERE SOMEWHERE! NOW YOU WILL HAVE TO STOP AT THE GROCERY STORE AND BUY MORE CASHEWS! I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU ATE THE CASHEWS! WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT? THE DRESSING HAS TO BE THERE! YOU HAD TO OPEN IT WHEN YOU WERE SEARCHING FOR THE CASHEWS—WHICH YOU ATE! [Why am I red-lining over this salad? And my goodness, isn’t he being nice about it?!!] THEY WERE BOTH PART OF THAT VERY SPECIAL SALAD. IT WON’T BE RIGHT WITHOUT THE CASHEWS AND THE SPECIAL DRESSING!” [Hello Bereavement Team? No, I’m fine … really. I can handle holding my Mother’s hand when her heart beat for the last time. I can handle making arrangements for her cremation. I can handle the inept doctor’s office staff, who can’t figure out how to work a fax machine or call FedEx. I can handle wheelchairs, bedside commodes, needles, oxygen machines that sometimes don’t work, pain medicine, and lunch cut into little tiny pieces. I can handle my job, my family, and this crisis. I don’t need someone to talk to. I JUST NEED YOU TO GO TO MY HOUSE AND FIND THE DRESSING FOR THE CASHEW SALAD!!! No really, I’m fine.]
“Why is everyone stealing Grandma’s stuff. Mommy, can we have a treasure from Grandma, too?” [Walker and Jackson, ages five and seven, are puzzled by family members helping to clean out some of the closets and cupboards.]
“Can I come with you? I want to see how you do this.” [Mandy had been away at college when she got the call that her Grandma had passed. Now she was home and didn’t want to miss a thing. From the planning of the funeral, shopping for flowers and funeral clothes, hanging out around the kitchen table … every step brought her closer to the Grandma she already missed.]
“Where is Grandma’s wedding dress, anyway?” “I don’t know … I’m pretty sure it fell to pieces and was thrown out years ago.”
“Yes, Daddy told me the sad news. Grandma’s dead. When he told me, I had a tear in my eye. I miss her already.” [The little ones catch barely a glimpse of the sadness in the house. It will sink in slowly for them over the coming months.]
“Grandma wanted you to have your Magic Quilt now, even though you don’t graduate until next year.” [Darlene was Micah’s third Grandma—no blood, but a family bond, none-the-less, running deep and true.]
[Mom left strict orders: The service should be joyful, joyful, joyful – none of that ‘poor Mom is dead’ stuff. We followed her directions and it truly was a joyous affair.]
February 19, 1998: The Service to Celebrate the Life of Darlene Hildegaard (Christenson) Huseth: February 19, 1998 at 7:00 PM. Lutheran Church of the Living Christ, Chanhassen, Minnesota. Over 500 people attended (church capacity 300). Way over fire code, but we’re lucky; the fire chief’s mother was there! Thirty-nine flower arrangements on the altar and another 14 in the narthex. Cars filled the lot and then were parked illegally up to ½ a mile away. The ushers and elders served coffee and brownies to the police who then directed traffic. Near each door, baskets decorated with flowers were filled with 300 flower seed packets tied with pink ribbon labeled: Blooming Darlene – Take One. A collage of hundreds of pictures of Mom were proudly displayed. To begin the service, we sang the chorus, Majesty. Karl sang, I Bowed On My Knee and Cried Holy, If You Could Only See Me Now, and The Lord’s Prayer. The choir sang In the Presence of God. Mom always loved to hear her church choir sing, and specifically requested that they sing at this service. I read an essay I wrote for her years earlier, entitled Bridge Construction. When I read it for her the week before, she asked me to read it at her funeral. The local paper published it as part of her obituary. Pastor Norman Ruthenbeck delivered a warm and personal message based upon another essay written in 1991, entitled Temporary Tents – Permanent Altars. The daughters and grand-daughters wore Darlene’s hats, and looked like a million bucks! Mom had asked that the service be held in the evening so that folks would not have to miss work. By the time it was over, people who hadn’t known her wished they had. The presence of the Holy Spirit, energy, as some of them called it, was overwhelming.
What a tribute! What an event!
“Yes, there sure are a lot of people here tonight. I have been to church here on Christmas Eve, and it looks to me like Darlene has more friends than Jesus.”
A friend of Solveig’s sent us the following letter after she attended the service: As I was driving to the Memorial Service for your Mother, and turning onto Lake Street, I realized I had traveled alongside several of the same cars for many miles. Normally you see the traffic turning onto Great Plains to go to the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, but instead we went a little further to give tribute to a special person, your Mom. I was amazed to see a line of cars just waiting to reach the church parking lot. I’ve never seen this before. It reminded me of the end of the movie, Field of Dreams, where you see the headlights of hundreds of cars winding for miles. It was so touching to see how one person touched so many lives. So now every time I watch that movie, I will remember your Mom. She too had headlights winding up the hill like it was her escort into Heaven. I am sorry for your loss. She will be greatly missed. Love, Jody
“The wonderful thing is that Grandma set the tone for all of us. Now we all know how to leave this world with grace and dignity and faith. We all know exactly how we want our funerals to be: A celebration of our life. Grandma showed us how.”
[Dayna comes sliding across the dining room hardwood floor where she stops and twirls around. Her eyes are dancing. Her smile is beaming. It looks like the white gown has been tailor made for her young slender body. She could not have been more tickled if she held the winning lottery ticket in her hand.] “Check it out! I found it! I found Grandma’s wedding dress! It fits perfectly! I have to wear it when I get married! And soon—before I gain any weight! Quick, I have to find a boyfriend!”
“Well, I guess it’s time for bed. We’ll all sleep good tonight. This evening feels more like a party than a funeral.” [Dad heads off to bed thankful for all the action in the house this week. He knows that next week the silence will be deafening.]
The boy had just turned 14. He was old enough to know better.
Banner was a beautiful buckskin colt just a few months old. The boy loved that little colt. He was the first to discover Banner’s birth on a chilly spring morning, and since that day they had spent every waking moment together. Hour after hour the boy would brush him and pet him, pick up his feet and clean his little hooves, and fashion his forelock just right. Banner was just as likely to follow the boy as his own mother, Babe.
And that’s why it came so easy.
The growing colt had followed the boy into the kitchen one day. Showing off … pushing the envelope just a little … that was typical of him. His mother had looked up from the sink, smiled and told him to wait right there while she got the camera. He still has that little black and white photo around somewhere. That proud little colt with his head held high, standing in the doorway by the stove.
A few days later the boy was home all by himself. What exactly went through his mind we will never know.
After all, Banner had been a kitchen guest just a few days earlier and his mother hadn’t specifically told him he shouldn’t do it again. She had even stopped peeling potatoes to get the camera!
So there they were … the two of them, back in the kitchen, all alone. Just a few more steps around the kitchen table and they were in the dining room. The colt seemed a little nervous at the sound of his hooves on the hardwood floor, but the boy spoke to him in soothing tones and he calmed right down.
So far so good.
They both looked around at the dining room like they were seeing it for the first time. Banner WAS seeing it for the first time, and to him, it looked very confining and slippery. The boy noticed how small the biggest room in the house suddenly appeared. But things seemed to be going quite well, so they headed for the STAIRCASE.
Ears straight forward, eyes darting, the colt followed at the end of the lead rope, the boy coaxing him one step at a time. Just a few more steps and they were on the staircase. More noisy hardwood. Much more confining than the dining room. But up they went … clop clop clop … all the way to the top of the stairs. Hmmm …the ceiling seemed much lower than the boy remembered it. They stopped for a moment on the landing to compose themselves.
It was taking a little more smooth talk to get Banner’s attention now. But the boy pulled the colt toward his room. Banner sort of danced sideways across the landing.
The boy, again pushing the envelope just the teeniest bit, led the reluctant colt into his room.
After all, this had been a big day for the little colt. Perhaps he should have a nap. Yes, a nap, that’s a good idea. I think Banner would really enjoy catching forty winks in my bed. My tiny twin size bed with the iron headboard and squeaky springs. Yeah, that’s a great idea! But how can I get him to lie down? No problem. After all I walked him into the kitchen and through the dining room and up the stairs and into my room. This should be no problem. Yep, poor thing looks a little sleepy to me.
Ears forward … nostrils flared … little sideways stiletto steps across the room.
Yeah, looks to me like he needs a little nap.
The boy calmly positioned the colt next to his bed, and slid up next to him. Slowly he leaned down, running his hands down the colt’s legs, and in a jiffy, he picked up those tiny hooves and tipped that little colt right over onto the mattress!
Well I don’t need to tell you that a nap was the furthest thing from that colt’s mind! As the 300 pound animal hit the sagging mattress, the squeaking springs began their heavy metal lead-lick and the boy noticed how huge the colt had suddenly become. The colt would try to get up and the boy would push him back onto the bed. The colt would try to get up but just couldn’t seem to get any traction. Springs squeaking … legs scrambling. The room was a blur as the boy tried to calm him down but the colt was not listening anymore. He had trusted him into the house and up the stairs, but no more!
Reason (which obviously been out for lunch) suddenly returned to the boy. He tried to get the colt out of the bed and onto his feet. But chaos filled the tiny – and getting tinier – room.
It took just moments, and when it was over, the room looked like a cyclone had hit it. Hearts racing, the two nervously made their way down the steps, through the dining room, out the kitchen door, and back outside to the pasture. Wide open space never looked so good … to either of them. As the boy shuffled back to the house to survey the damage, he wondered how he would make the repairs before his folks came home.
But when he actually saw the room he was blown away. Awestruck, he stood in the doorway. He quickly realized that there was no way he would be able to repair the bedspread, sew up the sheets, fix the hole in the mattress, tape up the drywall, weld the headboard, or re-wallpaper the walls AT ALL … not to mention in much of a hurry.
The boy tried to think of a believable alibi to explain the damage. But alas, when his folks got home, all he could say was, “Follow me. You’re not going to believe this.”
And my brother told my folks this very story … just the way it happened.
But not for me … I was married on a Monday night in December. It was a crisp winter solstice evening in 1981. I was holding on to the love of my life as we made our way up the slippery steps of the old church, snow squeaking beneath our shoes. Our wedding story is one thing, but now sit back and listen to one of our many love stories.
It was 1982. We had been married just three weeks when Karl’s band left for a four week engagement in Reno, Nevada. I had just moved from Minnesota to Indiana where I had no job, no church, and only a handful of friends. I had no money but lots of time, so when my brand new husband had been gone just a couple of days, I came up with the brilliant idea of hopping a Greyhound Bus to see him. Fifty-four hours and four time zones later, I was back in his arms.
We had had our first date in July and our wedding in December. Now it was January and he took off for a month. It was too much to bear. My heart was aching to hold him again. I had known Karl for less than half a year and it was a long distance courtship at that. But now the thought of one month apart – OMG!
So I packed two suitcases full of glitzy club clothes, spikey high heels, and dangly earrings. I threw on my favorite jeans, a sweatshirt, and my western boots and headed downtown Indianapolis to the Greyhound Bus Depot. They said it would take about two days to get to Reno. I missed my new husband so much; it was only a couple of days… how bad could it be?
First stop: Chicago. The three hour drive took about five hours. That should have been my first clue. Turns out riding public transportation isn’t all about me. The bus stops every two or three hours to pick up riders and drop some off, do potty stops and meal breaks, and trade out drivers. In other words I was not to get more than two hours of sleep at a time for the next 54 hours.
The Chicago Greyhound Bus Depot was even seedier than the one in Indy. I kept to myself, watched the boards, and couldn’t wait until we pulled out. Finally they called our number and I settled into my seat. The bus filled up with passengers and for a moment I thought I would begin the trip with an empty seat next to me. Guess again. An old disheveled woman and her two grown daughters boarded at the last minute. The “more than big-boned” daughters were crabby with their elderly mom, bossing her around in unkind tones. They placed her in the seat next to me and we took off toward Des Moines. The afternoon rush hour rendered the expressway a virtual parking lot and we inched our way out of the city.
Diesel fumes permeated my senses. It wasn’t until six years later in 1988 that the first smoking bans began to gain momentum across the US. The front rows of the bus were designated as no smoking, so you know what that means for the back of the bus. It occurs to me that having a no smoking section on the bus is sort of like having a no peeing section in the pool. Smoke and diesel fuel mixed in mid-air to assault my nasal passages and tear ducts. It was January in Chicago … windows remained shut tight.
The sun soon set and the old woman dozed off. I remember that her frame was so tiny in that big seat. She tried to sit upright, but when sound sleep overtook her, she found a pillow on my shoulder. I noticed her hair hadn’t been washed in a while. By morning the unthinkable had happened; she had wet herself. This added to the myriad of odors hanging in the air. When she awoke, it became clear that she suffered from some sort of dementia and her daughters were impatient with her nonsense and her needs. She was talking too much. She was hungry too much. She was thirsty too much. Her daughters withheld water from her in hopes she wouldn’t have another accident. This made her irritable and a little panicky. I was her only ally, which in time made me an adversary of her daughters. I secretly shared what I had with her and we were both scolded for it. I don’t remember where they disembarked, but it was a long ways into my journey.
Chicago. Des Moines. Omaha. Salt Lake City. And – every – little – town – and – burg – along – the – way. Every two hours. The sound of those air brakes jolting me awake. My eyes felt like sandpaper. My brain was so tired. My joints were so stiff. My skin needed a bath. My hair was a mess. I looked like someone had dragged me through the bushes backwards.
My next seatmate was a guy about my age reeking of Jack Daniels, beer, pot, sweat, and jail. And he was really chatty. He had lots of stories about his adventures, both real and imagined. I’m sure he thought he was really impressing this vulnerable little blonde. I couldn’t wait for him to get off the bus.
Bus depots are, almost without exception, located in the roughest section of cities. Salt Lake City was that exception. The structure was clean and new and shiny. I changed buses there and headed out on the last leg of my journey to Nevada. It felt good to be somewhere clean and light, but by this time I had been two days without a bath and I carried the aromas of fast food, diesel fuel, smoke, and the underbelly of humanity.
Finally after 54 hours, we pulled into the Greyhound Bus Depot in Reno, Nevada.
Now I was 28 years old and you’d think I might have had a plan. But as I stepped off the bus into the bright desert sunshine, it occurred to me that I didn’t have the phone number or the name of the hotel where the band was staying. No cell phones. No credit card. About $5 left in my pocket but no quarters for the pay phone. All I knew was the name of the casino where the band was playing; John Ascuaga’s Nugget. I had no idea how to contact Karl. They didn’t know to look for me. Remember, it was a surprise.
The words, “How could I be so stupid?” rolled around in my head as I waited for my luggage. “How could I have overlooked this one teensy little detail? Now what am I going to do?”
It was hot. I longed for the clean clothes in my bags. The luggage belt went round and round. “No, it can’t be.” One by one each suitcase was picked up. And then nothing. My heart sank. I dragged over to the office where they confirmed that my luggage was indeed on it’s way to Phoenix.
What to do? What to do? I started to sweat.
For some mysterious reason I decided to step outside to get some fresh air. And there … low and behold … right across the street up the block was a big casino with a sign from above. A giant marquee in tracer lights, “John Ascuaga’s Nugget”.
I could not believe my bloodshot eyes! My steps and my heartbeat quickened as I hastened up the street.
I was thinking, “They’re probably not at the club now at 10 a.m. since their last show was in the middle of the night. But I’ve endured the last 54 hours on a Greyhound Bus. Surely I can wait around til the band’s first show tonight. It’s only 12 hours from now. I can wait. I can keep checking back at the bus depot for my luggage. I can grab some free hors d’oeuvres and a coke. I can watch daytime gamblers. And I can wait.”
The automatic doors swung open and I stepped into the air-conditioned lobby.
And then … you won’t believe this! There they were. A wall of men walking toward me. As they came into focus, I saw it was Bernie and Al, the band’s drummer and sound man. They saw me at the same moment I saw them and their jaws dropped! They stepped to the sides — like the parting of a curtain — and there was Karl. Again … I couldn’t believe my now tear-filled eyes!
We fell into each other’s arms and didn’t let go. Never mind that I smelled like diesel fuel and all manner of human experience. Never mind that I was suffering from a severe case of bus hair. Never mind that I needed a shower — badly. Never mind that my clothes weren’t glitzy and my shoes weren’t spikes. We just held on to each other and didn’t let go for the longest time.
Almost 40 years later we are still holding on to each other. When our dreams of fame and fortune faded, we held on to each other. When we laid eyes on our baby sons for the first time, we held each other. When we bought our house and wondered how we would ever make those payments, we held on. When we lost loved ones to age and disease, we held on to one another. When our kids make poor choices breaking our hearts, we hold on to each other. When the world bumps us around a bit, we just keep holding on to each other.
Thinking back now on that January day in the middle of the desert, at that miracle of timing; me walking in the front door at the precise moment the love of my life was approaching; down to my last dollar and out of ideas, I think it may have been a sign from God that if we trust him and hold on tight to one another, we’re probably going make it just fine, come what may!
Karl and I like to tell people we got married on December 21st — which happened to be a Monday night in 1981 — because December 21st is the longest night of the year … as we raise one eyebrow. The truth is, Karl sang in clubs six nights a week and his only night off was Monday.
And there on that cold winter night in that gothic and ornately painted sanctuary, during our unorthodox weeknight wedding, my husband sang to me a love song he had written for me:
God has brought us together We will love forever Our union causes blessings to flow We profess our love to everyone we know
Mia, I’ll need you always I take you for all of my days I give God thanks for sending you to me Be my life for every man to see
You know I don’t deserve you You know I won’t desert you God has been so very good to me I want you for all eternity
It was Christmas week in 1981. We said our vows in a historical landmark, the first building built in Chanhassen, Minnesota, almost hundred years before. It was a Catholic church which had been purchased by the Lutherans and eventually ended up on the Historical Landmark Registry. The night was cold and snowy, but the day had been crisp and bright.
I had just finished up my accounting degree the previous Friday, December 18, which means I had been planning a wedding and studying for finals all at the same time. Not to mention packing to move to Indiana on Christmas Day. It had been a roller coaster autumn since our engagement in August. But now all the ducks were in a row and plans were well in hand for a small simple wedding. Finals taken. House cleaned. Bags packed. Oil changed. RSVP’s received.
I got up early Monday morning and went to a fancy salon at St. Anthony Main, an upscale downtown Minneapolis mall, to get my nails done and my hair cut. Very short. Very trendy. Just perfect for my perfect day. By lunchtime I was back at my folk’s house, having sandwiches with my mom and my husband-to-be. So nice and relaxed. Plenty of time to spare. After such a busy couple of months preparing for this day, it seemed almost surreal. So quiet. So peaceful. So prepared.
But you know what they say about the best laid plans. That’s right … they often go awry. We were just finishing lunch when the phone rang.
It was my cousin, Linda. My capable cousin with all things managed. My cousin Linda who never panics. To my surprise, her voice carried a tension I wasn’t accustomed to hearing from her.
“The colt has colic and I can’t get him up! His belly is as big and hard as a barrel, and all four of his legs are sticking straight up in the air. I have to get him to the vet, but the horse trailer is snowed in and parked behind a stack of hay. What are you guys doing today?”
We looked at the kitchen clock. It was 2:30. We had five hours before our wedding bells would ring.
We didn’t hesitate. I slipped on my Key overalls, my barn stocking cap, and my dirty mittens over my perfect St. Anthony Main hair and nails. Karl and I jumped in my pick-up and drove too fast the 40 minutes to the farm where Linda and I boarded our horses. As we tore up the driveway, we saw Linda standing on top of the hay stack, wildly hurling one bale after another far away from the trailer. It was freezing out but she was red in the face and sweating.
“Try to get him on his feet!” she yelled.
Karl and I scrambled down the hill to the barn where we saw the little grey Arabian yearling wedged up against the side of the stall with all four feet sticking straight up in the air. Karl had never seen anything like this. Linda’s were words fresh in his head. “Get him on his feet.”
As we rushed toward the colt, we startled him and he struggled to right himself. Wham! He threw himself against the side of the stall. Wham! Wham! Again and again. Then he gave up and let out a sigh. He looked like a cartoon character with his feet in the air. All he needed was the little x’s across his eyes.
Perplexed, we stood back to assess the situation. My mind was carefully formulating a plan including ropes and pulleys … and too much time … when my knight-in-shining-armor stepped up, crossed his arms, grabbed the colt’s back hooves, twisted his arms back in line, and literally stood that 700-pound colt right up on his feet!
I was flabbergasted. “How did you do that?” I asked. “I didn’t even know that was possible!”
Karl replied, “I didn’t know it WASN’T possible. Now what?”
“We have to get him walking.”
The colt was better on his feet, but his stomach was still huge and distended and his legs were as a stiff as a board. We put a halter and rope on him and tried to lead him. He wouldn’t take a step. I pulled and pulled.
Then, in another act of heroism, my city-boy groom, put his shoulder into it and began to push that sick little colt from behind. I pulled and Karl pushed and finally he took one reluctant step. Then another. And another.
Colic is a really nasty condition. You see, horses can not throw up because their peristaltic muscles only work one way; that is to swallow what they eat. Reverse peristalsis is another word for regurgitating, and horses can not do it. So when they eat something bad that their body wants to get rid of, or their intestines get inflamed or twisted and they can’t pass it out the other end, they get colic which causes gases to distend the belly. If they don’t get rid of it, they are slowly poisoned and they die.
We hoped if we could get him walking we could get him “moving”, as it were. The idea was to get his intestines to untwist and relax, and get this baby horse to, well … to take a shit.
But at the moment this seemed easier said than done. Karl pushed and I pulled, and we literally did the walking for him, barely keeping him on his feet. He kept trying to lie down.
Soon we heard Linda’s truck fire up and tires spinning trying to dislodge the trailer from the icy grip of a month under snow. My 35-year-old x-ray technician girl cousin had single-handedly and super-humanly moved an entire stack of nearly 100 bales of hay. She had hooked up the trailer and was finally ready to load the colt for the 45 minute trip to the vet’s office.
Just one teensy problem. The frightened and sick colt had never been in a horse trailer and we wondered how we would ever get him inside. We pulled and pushed him to the door, but we could see the fear in his eyes growing.
“I know,” I said, “I’ll get Lola. The colt will follow her inside.”
I ran down to the pasture to grab my old grey mare who was quite accustomed to loading in and out of trailers because I had taken her to horse shows for years. We were barrel racers from way back. Her registered name was Lucky Lola, and today we needed some luck. She had been near the barn door when we were down there, curious I think, about all the commotion, but now I couldn’t see her. I ran out into the barnyard just in time to see her heading back out to pasture. I grabbed an oats pail and began trudging through the snow after her. I finally got her attention by shaking the pail and she came trotting back. I threw a halter and lead rope on her and headed for the trailer. She hopped right in where she was rewarded with the scrumptious grain.
Linda slowly coaxed the colt towards the door and when he saw Lola munching on something undoubtedly delicious, Karl pushed once more and I quickly slammed the door. He was in!
It was getting dark, which doesn’t mean much. The sun sets in Minnesota on the shortest day of the year by 4:30 in the afternoon. We decided we had time to follow Linda to the veterinarian. We could barely see the colt’s tail above the back door of the trailer. The plan was to flash our lights if we saw the colt go down, so we could stop and get him up on his feet again.
We drove a long way in rush hour traffic to Mound (I think), where the vet was waiting for us. The colt stayed on his feet all the way. And this is why.
When we opened the trailer door, it looked and smelled like IT had quite definitely HIT THE FAN. We wondered if that colt had spun around and around as he relieved himself. There was horse manure EVERYWHERE. On the floor, on the walls, on the door, on my old grey mare, everywhere!
And we were so happy to see it.
That Arabian yearling stepped lively and pranced happily with ears straight forward right into the veterinarian’s examination room. It seemed his first ride in a trailer had simply scared the living shit out of him! They kept him overnight, but he was fine.
Karl and I rejoiced with Linda and then headed back to Chan with just a few minutes to spare. We showered again and barely had enough time to get beautiful in time for our wedding.
We pulled up to the church and I scaled the ice encrusted snowdrifts on the curb in my three inch spike heals just in time to say “I DO.” My family and friends braved the elements to be with us. Linda even made it back in time to be our official photographer. Pastor Nate Castens officiated with inspiring words of wisdom and hope and love. My husband sang to me a beautiful song of eternal love and devotion he had written just for me.
And yet, when I think of my wedding day, I think of a little sick colt with his feet in the air, dangerously close to x’s across his eyes, a trailer full of horseshit, and a man that would spend his wedding day willingly doing something so crazy just because it was important to his sweetheart.
That was almost 40 years ago, and not much has changed.
After sixty (something mumbly) years of observation, I have concluded one true thing. People are more at peace when they operate out of a place of gratitude. The heart, the mind, and the footsteps of someone filled with gratitude go a long way to make this world a better place.
Today I am thankful for a couple of things. I am thankful for diversity. When I was a little girl, my family lived on a farm in west-central Minnesota near the little town of Evansville, population 800. Everyone around me was Caucasian and Lutheran. Well almost everyone. My dad’s second cousin had returned home from the war with a beautiful and tiny Japanese wife named Yoshi. I remember her infectious laugh and the day she taught my little sister and me the right way to do “the twist.”
There were four non-Lutheran kids in my class. We could tell, because once a week when all the school children were released for religious instruction, those four got to ride to the next town where there was actually a Catholic church. Us little Lutherans trudged across town where we learned the Ten Commandments on the second floor of the creamery. There was a piano up there; weird come to think of it. I still smell sour milk whenever I hear the familiar old hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
I remember the first black person I ever laid eyes on was the man who brought us towels and soap on the Amtrak train we rode to the state of Washington to visit my cousins in1965. I was 11 years old. That was the extent of diversity in my world as a little girl. But today I am thankful for family members and friends who have vastly different backgrounds and skin tones ranging from very pale to very dark and everything in between.
During my visits to remote villages in Belize and Mexico, when little girls from Ketchie or Yucatec Maya villages in the Belizean rain forest or Tarahumara indigenous people still living in caves in the Copper Canyon, stare at this mop of blonde hair and pet it and giggle, I imagine it might be their first experience with someone who doesn’t look like them. And I wonder how much their world will change by the time they are my age.
Not only am I thankful for diversity, I am also thankful for schools and education. I think it goes without saying that parents around the world and throughout time have tried to craft a life for their children that is better and a little easier than the one they had. It is true in the suburbs of Indianapolis and in the ghettos of Chicago; it is true in the refugee camps of Syria and in the rain forests of Belize; it is true in the border camps as kids are separated from their parents; it is true in the tiny apartments of Beijing and in scenic fishing villages of Norway. It is a matter of the heart. Mankind always wants better for the next generation.
Historically speaking, this has been achieved because of education. As countries, states, and villages value and fund education, the standard of living typically goes up and up, generation after generation.
I am also filled with gratitude for my cultural roots. When my people came to America from Norway just as the Civil War was wrapping up, they left what little they had in a breathtakingly beautiful country, boarded a creaky old ship (with their own provisions for the six week voyage, incidentally), traveled across the icy waters of the north Atlantic through the Hudson Bay, made their way down through the Great Lakes, ending up in the undeveloped wilderness called Minnesota. My dad’s great grandparents dug a hole in the side of a dried up lake bed (later named after them: “Huseth Lake”) and lived in that little dug-out while they cleared their homestead of trees to build a barn and pulled up stumps with oxen to plant crops in the first ever agriculture on that ground.
Just a few generations later, thanks to public education, hard work, and a healthy dose of white privilege, the occupations of my people, the Huseth and Christenson families, are as varied as the branches of our family tree: teachers, preachers, college professors, dentists, pilots, farmers, salesmen, homemakers, tradesmen, computer geeks, photographers, medical technicians, entrepreneurs, authors, accountants, soldiers, entertainers, office administrators, nuclear technicians, one decorated flight nurse and one FBI agent. You name it … we’ve tried it. Descendants of those first cave-dwelling Huseth’s have gone on to make homes in American cities and abroad, in the rolling countryside, and in busy suburbs. Thanks to the sacrifices of our parents and their insistence that education is a treasure to be valued, our family has lived the American dream along with much of the rest of the country.
I am thankful for education and hard work and believe they are mighty things that can take you a long way. But I don’t think it’s everything.
I saw a glimpse of this when I visited Norway in 1996. The Norwegian government and its citizens value and fund education; they send everyone in the country to school all the way through college. While we were there, we had dinner with our second cousin who was attending the University of Bergen tuition free … and she was from Seattle! We visited the home of a long lost relative who proudly showed us his library including not one, not two, but THREE sets of encyclopedias. They were far more informed and interested in world affairs than anyone at home I knew. All the younger people are fluent in at least two languages. Health care is provided by the Norwegian government. People young and old are the picture of health; probably because they walk everywhere they go and eat lots of salmon. There is virtually no air pollution; one car per household (if that) because gas prices were triple what ours were at time. When a baby is born in Norway, both the mother and the father get six months leave of absence from their jobs … paid for by the government. The natural beauty is stunning; snow-capped mountains and fjords everywhere you look. Seems very progressive and full of all the things we want for our kids. And yet, the suicide rate in Norway has doubled in recent decades.
Look at Germany in the 1930’s and 1940’s. A blisteringly serious and hardworking people, not to mention highly educated. The German government held education as a very high priority as they understood the concept that young children could be taught much more easily. Our word “Kindergarten” is a German word because the first pre-school was started in Germany. Much of the world still uses fundamental teaching techniques developed by German educators. Yet in Germany, rich in academia, steeped in hard work and discipline, home of Albert Einstein and the Guttenberg Press, and the cradle of spiritual reformation … a tiny seed of superiority took root in the hearts of leaders and ordinary people. A seed that planted the agenda of “us vs them” and “right vs wrong” and “good vs evil”. A seed nurtured by speeches and literature leading to the Holocaust. A seed of arrogance planted in the heart, justified by the mind, and carried out the annihilation of six million Jews plus anyone else deemed to be less than ideal. Education by itself was not able to speak reason into the hearts of those Nazi guards.
Don’t get me wrong. I saved for my kids’ college educations and I harped about the importance of a strong GPA. I support my church and various mission organizations focused on helping kids go to school in developing nations. My mom was a teacher, my aunt and uncle were teachers, and my dad was a flight instructor.
I believe education IS a mighty thing. But it’s not everything.
After over six decades of observation, I think the heart, the mind, and the footsteps of someone filled with gratitude just might be the one true thing to make this world a better place.
A heart filled with the Christ’s compassion for others; a heart that can’t help but reach out to someone in need.
A mind that acknowledges God and the free gifts he has provided for ALL people. A mind that grasps the fact that everything we personally possess comes directly from the Creator of the universe.
And the footsteps that actually carry this kind of love around the neighborhood and around the world.
Not the heart of superiority that brought us the Crusades, Colonialism, the Holocaust, Apartheid, Darfur, or 9-11. Not the mind of entitlement that carefully constructs a system whereby all our needs are guaranteed to be comfortably met. Not the footsteps that carry death and destruction and war, or perhaps carry nothing at all. But a heart and mind rooted in gratitude.
With this one true thing, all other things fall perfectly into place. Education and the standard of living it brings us suddenly takes on new meaning.
With this one true thing, walls made of fear between races and cultures crumble, leaving only Christ and his perfect love in their place.
With a heart and mind operating out of a place of gratitude, I don’t think we can help but leave this world a better place.
As way of a little background, I reprint here a portion of an essay I wrote when I was 51 years old and my sons were 13 and 15 years old. The conclusion of the piece entitled “15 & 51” reads something like this: “I need to relax a little and lighten up on my kids. After all, who was I when I was 13 or 15 years old? ”
I was a pretty good kid at my core who was loved by my Mother and Dad. I was scared and insecure and pretty and smart. I made good friends and good grades when I wanted to. I made poor grades when I didn’t care. I had great courage sometimes and great fear sometimes. I made good choices sometimes and really stupid ones sometimes. I broke my parents’ hearts a time or two, although I really didn’t set out to. I put the needs of others before my own sometimes, and thought only of what I wanted sometimes. I did dangerous things that could have got me killed or hurt or pregnant or sick, but I really didn’t see it that way at the time. I didn’t see the big picture or plan ahead very far to set my future in motion according to some grand design. I didn’t live up to my full potential, all the way, every day. And still…I think I turned out OK.
So here I am at age 58 and this is a letter to my younger self.
Dear Mia or as I spelled it as a little girl “Miya”,
“How are you? I am fine.” I am still inclined to start my letters like you do. “How are you? I am fine.”
I want you to know all these years later, I really AM fine. I know from time to time you have your worries about how this will all turn out. I want you to know it’s been quite an adventure so far and it really has turned out even better than fine. I’m not sure whether or not you will pay any heed to this– probably not, come to think of it, knowing you — but never-the-less, here are a few tips that may prove helpful to circumvent some of those heartaches that lie ahead. However if you choose to ignore these little nuggets of wisdom from your seasoned self, I need you to know it’s still going to turn out just fine, so relax a little and enjoy the ride!
The one who will make the most trouble for you is the one looking back at you every morning as you blow dry your hair. No blaming anyone else for your predicaments. Own your own mis-steps and learn from them.
Get serious and stay serious about filling your heart with the things of God: the Bible, prayer, and community. These things will be your shelter in the storm and your bridge over troubled waters.
Rest assured your parents are giving you everything you need to make it: faith, love, a good work ethic, a sense of home, and the notion that you bring your own fun with you.
Don’t take it to heart when the mean girls don’t invite you to their parties. There are bigger fish to fry.
Don’t listen to those who tell you that you are dumb in math. It turns out you are not.
Use your fastest shoes and RUN from easy credit and easy men. They are both more trouble than they are worth.
Christopher Robin was speaking right to you when he said, “You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” Grab these words and repeat them daily until you turn 30 — and then weekly thereafter.
Don’t be scared to step out. “If you don’t start somewhere, you’ll never get anywhere.” (This is probably the first time Bob Marley and Christopher Robin have been quoted in the same essay.)
Your dad is right … nothing good happens after midnight.
Begin to cultivate friendships with women sooner rather than later. They will sustain you. Plus they are loads of fun!
Relationships and money are, always have been, and always will be the two constants in the lives of all mankind. The more you learn about people and finance, the better off you’ll be. Start taking notes today.
If you have to stand on your head to make someone happy, all you’ll end up with is a big headache.
Spend less. Save more. Start now.
Treat each pound you gain like it is a one degree fever. It turns out that just two pounds a year equals 80 pounds by the time you go to your 40 year class reunion – which is this year btw!
Don’t underestimate those cookie-cutter suburban neighborhoods. Some of the most interesting people, living out their passions, making a big impact in this world, live there. You’ll want to be friends with them.
Expand your world view and embrace the vast experiences this life has to offer. Material possessions just wear out or break or fall out of fashion anyway. Owning stuff will never make you rich.
Pay attention to the stories the old ones tell even though they repeat themselves and drive you crazy. You might learn a thing or two without having to suffer the lesson yourself.
I cannot wait for you to meet your amazing husband and sons. You will be so surprised to see who they are! They will rock your world!
Do not fear the hard stuff that is inevitable. The weeks you will spend with your dying mother will count among the richest experiences of your life. The deep pain that comes from losing those you love will mysteriously cause you to tap into something profound in your soul — if you let it.
And most importantly, next time Grandma Tody comes over, climb up in her lap and give her a great big hug from me!
Larry Theis has been a force to be reckoned with for the last six decades, though you won’t often see his name in the papers or his face on TV. A tenacious dairy farmer from the time he was old enough to attach a milk machine to a cow’s udder, he sold the dairy operation in 2001 and turned his exclusive focus to growing corn and beans. By that time, Larry and his son had formed L & B Theis Farms and began methodically expanding the family farming operation.
Born June 2, 1954, and raised in Shakopee, Larry was the fourth of nine children born to Norbert and Corrine Theis. He grew to be a formidable 6’ 5”, which has served him well in many tough spots over the years. Truly, the guy has outlived his nine lives! Larry has survived a playground slide accident, a snowmobile accident, a motorcycle accident, a bob-cat accident, serious car accidents too numerous to count, and one incident involving a brush pile and a flash fire. “Hard-working and hard-playing” doesn’t come close to describing his family.
The grueling and relentless work associated with milking, cleaning, breeding, and housing 300 head of dairy cows helped shape Larry into the strong, self-sufficient, and innovative man he is. There is no shortage of wild stories illustrating just how hard they worked – and how hard they played – growing up. THOSE stories could fill a book with chapter titles like:
6 Police Officers Required to Issue Larry a Speeding Ticket
Pumpkins on the Jordan Hill
Drag Racing on Country Roads
Theis Boys Victorious Over Blinding Blizzard
Stitches Removed With a Seam Ripper
Theis Brothers (ages 8, 9, and 10) and Their Mom Disassemble a Corn Crib, Load it Onto a Flatbed, Transport It With a Tractor, and Reassemble It. Why? Cuz Dad Told Us To!
Farming runs in Larry’s veins, but family is at the root of who Larry is. Married to Solveig Huseth since 1992, with three grown children (Brad, Mandy, and Micah) and seven precious grandchildren, there is never a dull moment at Nana and Papa’s house. Family and friends know they are welcome to drop in – the door is quite literally always open – to splash in the pool, take the four-wheeler or the Harley for a spin, have a Michelob by the fire pit, or just hang out at the kitchen counter catching up. All the grandchildren agree that going “farming” with Papa is their number one favorite thing in the whole wide world with a cherry on top! They all know where Larry stands when it comes to his family. There is nothing more important to him.
Over the years, Larry has weathered seismic changes in the world of farming. He says the most important thing is to keep one eye on the sky and the other on the indicators of world market trends; he’s learned not everyone has the best interests of the farming community at heart when making public policy. In the 1970s and ‘80s, fast credit from local banks and grain embargoes out of Washington set in motion the biggest farm crisis since the Great Depression. Thousands of family farms throughout the Midwest over-borrowed from the banks; when grain prices plummeted due to international embargoes, land prices dropped, and many farmers could not afford the property taxes, let alone the principal and interest on what they had borrowed. It looked like the family farm would soon be a thing of the past. Those who were savvy enough and patient enough to avoid getting caught in that spiral are the ones who are still in business today. That would be Larry.
Larry’s folks started out in the early ‘50s with just a few acres south of Shakopee. Fresh out of high school, Larry took over the farming operation and steadily increased the acreage so that by 2003 when they sold it to developers, the operation had grown exponentially. The price per acre in that single transaction remains the highest in the history of Scott County. Now, in 2014, they farm 7,385 acres from Belle Plaine to Waterville and beyond. Larry’s key for success? Take a stand to live beneath your means. Invest, don’t spend.
Here is something you should know about farmers. They are a close knit group of people. They watch out for one another and help each other out whenever they can. For instance, if a farmer gets injured and can’t bring in his own harvest, it’s not uncommon for several of his neighbors to work together bringing in the crop for their injured friend before it freezes in the field. If one farmer gets hailed out, his friends will pull together and help him make ends meet until the next year. If a farmer’s truck breaks down, he just heads to his buddy’s place to borrow his; the keys are undoubtedly in the ignition.
So it made perfect sense. In the 1980s, when farm after farm began falling like dominoes to banks and holding companies, Larry Theis joined the Groundswell Movement of Minnesota started by Alfred and Bobbi Polzine of Worthington. The Polzine foreclosure case had served as a flashpoint and Groundswell chapters began to spring up in farm states across the region. Movies like “Country” featuring and co-written by Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard exemplify the struggles of a farm family trying desperately to hold on against all odds. Opponents called the Groundswell organization militant, but if you asked supporters, they would tell you they simply wanted to conserve an American way of life vital to the nation, a way of life that was now being derailed by big business, big government, and banks with loose regulations regarding land. “NO SALE!” was their slogan.
If you know Larry, you know that no one pushes him (or his friends) around without a fight. Suddenly across the country and right in their own backyard, family farms were going under, being gobbled up at tax sales or cannibalized by banks through farm auctions. Watching his friends being stripped of their land, their livelihoods, their very family histories was just too much for Larry to take lying down. He knew he had to take a stand.
Spring of 1985. West central Minnesota. The Jim and Gloria Langman family farm. Foreclosure. Farm auction. Politically charged. Hot tempers. Neighbor against neighbor.
That spring Larry and his Groundswell cronies made several trips to the Starbuck area, where the Langman farm was located, and to Glenwood where the bank that was foreclosing was located. The object was to protest the growing trend of foreclosures and stir up some publicity. During one visit they showed up with a backhoe and dug a trench at the end of the driveway so no one could get to the auction. Another time, 23 famers were arrested for locking arms across the street blocking the sheriff’s path from his office to the courthouse.
During another visit, Jesse Jackson (yes, the Jesse Jackson) rallied protesters on the steps of the Glenwood Courthouse. According to the April 22, 1985 issue of Jet Magazine (featuring a grainy black and white photo of Larry walking with Jackson), over 1,000 people listened as Jackson spoke in support of the protesters who had managed to block three attempts to hold a foreclosure sale on the Langman farm. “We must choose farms over arms and give peace and justice a chance!” was his message. He went on to criticize the Reagan administration for its farm and defense policies, urging urban and rural groups to band together demanding better prices and an end to foreclosures.
It was a pretty big deal; Jesse Jackson had just made a run for President of the United States the year before. He had been part of Martin Luther King’s entourage in the ‘60s and had traveled around the world to spotlight injustices and encourage world leaders to take a stand for people without a voice. In 1979 he had traveled to South Africa to speak out against Apartheid, and on to the Middle East to throw his support behind the creation of a Palestinian State. But on that warm April day in 1985, the Reverend Jesse Jackson was traveling with Larry Theis in a shiny new Lincoln Continental to Glenwood, Minnesota.
Larry, who didn’t always follow the letter of the law, tried to stay under the 55 mph speed limit. After all he had a celebrity in the back seat. A mile or two from the terminal the Reverend leaned forward and spoke in a low tone, “What’s the matter, White Boy? Don’t you know how to drive?” Well I don’t need to tell you, that was all Larry needed. He smiled playfully into his rear view mirror and put the pedal to the metal, passing cars like they were standing still, that big V-8 engine roaring up Interstate 94 all the way to Glenwood. It was a day he would never forget.
During another visit to the same courthouse, Larry and hundreds of Groundswell protesters assembled and were chanting “NO SALE! NO SALE!” The Langman farm was again in jeopardy of auction. After several attempts to calm the agitated crowd, Pope County Sheriff Gerald Moe zeroed in on Larry standing head and shoulders above the mob.
“Mr. Theis,” said the sheriff. “This crowd must disperse. NOW! I’m going to give you one chance. I want you to calmly walk with me into the courthouse. If you come with me peacefully, I will not place you under arrest – I’ll let you walk right on out the back. And then you just keep on walking … all the way to your car and get out of my town!”
Larry looked down at the man in authority, nodded, and quietly followed him into the courthouse. Then Larry proceeded to walk out the back door, circle the building, and slip right back to the courthouse steps emerging in the middle of the chanting crowd! “NO SALE! NO SALE!”
A few weeks later, long after the crowds, demonstrators, and Jesse Jackson had quieted, a large envelope came in the mail for Larry. It was from Jim and Gloria Langman, whose farm foreclosure had been successfully blocked. Larry opened the envelope and read the scribbling on the back of the photograph. It seems the press had been there to capture that tender moment between Larry Theis and the Pope County Sheriff.
The note on the back of the photograph read simply, “Dear Larry, thank you for taking a stand.”
I live in Indiana now, but growing up in Minnesota, folks knew the story of the Kensington Runestone or at least had heard of it. It is on rare occasion my Indiana friends know what I’m talking about if I happen to mention this fascinating facet of my heritage.
When my siblings and I were in high school or college, we all wrote term papers about the Kensington Runestone because it was so close to our hearts. The big rock was, after all, unearthed just a few miles from where we were born and our Uncle Ansel knew the family who found it. We grew up hearing the stories and we knew it as an authentic piece of history, but that’s not how our teachers or our classmates saw it. I remember being berated by teachers and laughed at by students for taking such an outlandish position on the stone’s authenticity and the discovery of America.
Remember this was back in the olden days, 1960’s and 70’s, when American school children were actually still taught that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 and discovered America along the way. Today it is common knowledge that descendants of the Vikings were the first non-indigenous people to reach North America some 500 years before Christopher Columbus was even a twinkle in his daddy’s eye.
But when I was a kid this kind of thinking was heresy in academic circles. I guess all the textbooks were already printed and they didn’t want to go to the expense of ordering new ones.
As a little girl in class I would day dream that someday the truth would be known about the Nordic explorers and that my people would finally get the credit due them for being the first to reach America.
Over the last few decades, Scandinavian artifacts from as early as the tenth century have been excavated from sites up and down North America’s eastern seaboard, in Greenland, in Newfoundland, and along the lakes and rivers leading into the heart of North America. Evidence was mounting that it was the Viking ships and not the Nina, Pinta, and the Santa Maria that should be featured in those school books.
The Kensington Runestone had its share of controversy and bad press when it was first discovered in 1898 by Olof Ohman and his nine year old son, Edward. The Ohman family was a simple hardworking farm family and according to my Uncle Ansel were not prepared for the firestorm of controversy that came out of nowhere and plagued them their whole lives.
But let’s back up. Here is an excerpt from the little boy Edward’s diary. I have a handwritten copy of this in my files, I believe transcribed by my Uncle Ansel from his friend’s actual diary:
From the diary of Edward Ohman, 1898, Kensington, Minnesota
It was 6:45 AM when Farr (Norwegian for Dad) and I hitched up our team of brown horses, Barney and Jack, to the stone boat (a stone-boat is a type of sled /sledge for moving heavy objects such as stones or hay bales. Originally they were for animal-powered transport used with horses or oxen to clear fields of stones and other uses and may still be used with animals or tractors today. The device may look like a low-profile sled with timber runners or have a flat bottom of planks secured together to slide over soft ground or snow. They were usually made of wood, but metal versions exist with hinges.) and began our journey to the field. The rock we were going to work with had never been seen but Dad had hit it with his spade the day before as he was grubbing out a tree on a section of our newly acquired farmland. After breakfast and chores, Farr said to me, “Edward, come with me today. You can pick up some small stones, while I dig around the big rock under the tree.” It was fun for me to spend the day with my Dad in the field and I was sure I must be a man now that I was 9 years old and could drive a team of horses all by myself.
The rock digging and picking went on all forenoon and after a dinner (farmers do not call the noon meal lunch, they call it dinner) of roast beef, boiled potatoes, bread and buttermilk, we went to work again. It was about 2:30 PM when Dad hollered, “Edward, Kom heet! Edward, come here! There is something unusual about this rock. It seems to have an odd shape to it.”
It did look unusual still clutched in the roots of the ash tree. We continued to dig in the soil and chop at the roots until about 4 PM when Dad suggested I go for help. I ran to the neighbor’s place and Mr. Flaaten brought his horses to help pull down the tree. He hitched his big team of blacks, Prince and King, to a wagon and away we went. In those days all the kids knew all the horses’ names for miles around. His boys, John and Alaus, rode along.
The four horses were put on one hitch with Dad at the reins. I was so proud to watch because Dad was known as the best horseman in Solom Township. When these big horses laid into the harness leather, the tree came down like a twig. After that, the 200 pound rock came out easily.
For some unknown reason, Mr. Flaaten brushed the clinging dirt off the rock. Alous said, “Look Dad, someone has written on the rock.” Sure enough it was writing of some sort and none of us had ever seen the likes of it.
I was sent to get Mr. Mattson and Mr. Berquest. John Flaaten went to summon Mr. Larson and Mr. Spilseck. Alous went to find Mr. Peterson and Mr. Steer. Within an hour all the men joined us at the rock. After much discussion it was agreed that the markings were some sort of writing, but who, what, and when was the question.
The grown men said, “It must have been done by Indians.” The boys said, “It must have been done by the Norske or the Swedes.” I piped up, “It must have been Swedes because they are braver and smarter than Norske.”
Dad gave me a dirty look and told me to get back to work. Could it be because he knew all the others were Norske? Ha!
We loaded the rock on the stone boat and hauled it home. The next day, people came from far and wide to see the mysterious rock. There were as many opinions as visitors as to its origin. In the days that followed people looked and people talked as I quietly day dreamed, “What if some day someone can read it and I become famous as the son of the founder. What if a big museum is named for it? What if many, many years from now our farm becomes a park to commemorate the stone and its meaning?”
I would be lost in my daydreams and about that time my Dad would holler, “Edward! It’s time to bring in the cows!” But during the days my mind would wander and I would imagine who might have been on our farm 500 years before and wrote on the rock. Sometimes at night I dream about it. Well, it’s now time to put away my diary and blow out the lamp as I hear my Ma call up the stairs, “Lights out for small boys.”
Small boys indeed! I guess I’ll have to tell her in the morning that I am almost a man now.
The discovery of the Kensington Runestone changed the life of Olof Ohman, his little son Edward, and their descendants forever. The intense scrutiny and constant accusations of fraud by academics and big city newspapers caused some members of this immigrant family much pain, depression, and premature deaths (a Minnesota-nice code term for suicide).
The Kensington Runestone weighed 202 pounds and measured 30 × 16 × 6 inches. Years later the runic symbols were translated by Dr. H.R. Holand, a Norwegian scholar and historian. And this is what it says:
“8 Goths and 22 Norwegians on exploration journey from Vinland over the West. We had camp by 2 skerries one day’s journey north from this stone we were and fished one day. After we came home we found 10 men red with blood and dead. AVM Save us from Evil. We have 10 of our party by the sea to look after our ships 14 days journey from this island. Year 1362.”
Such a few words paint such a big mystery. What happened there that day? Who recorded it? Did it really happen in 1362? How did they find their way such a long way from home? What do all those funny words mean? Here is a little paraphrase of the inscription:
“8 Goths [Swedes] and 22 Norwegians [show a combined effort of both kingdoms] on an exploration journey from Vinland [Newfoundland on the east coast of Canada] over the West [to the Hudson Bay and further to central North America]. We camped by 2 skerries [small rocky islands] one day’s journey north from this stone and fished one day [probably Cormorant Lake]. When we came home we found ten of our men red with blood and dead. [Tragically ten of the group it seems were killed and scalped by the skraelings i.e. Ojibwa or the Sioux.] AVM [the Latin initials of a 14th century Prayer for the Dead] Save us from Evil [the last phrase of the Lord’s Prayer]. And then on the edge of the stone another inscription: We have 10 of our party by the sea [Hudson Bay] to look after our ships 14 days [1,050 miles] journey from this island. Year 1362.”
The Kensington Runestone is just one piece of mounting archeological and geological evidence that Viking explorers traveled the North American east coast and interior more than 500 years before Columbus landed in the Bahamas. More runestones have been found as far south as Iowa and Oklahoma dated 1012 and 1022. A Scandinavian fire-steel of the 14th century was found along the route in Douglas County. A fire-steal is what the Nordic people of the day used to start their campfires. A variety of metal forged weapons and instruments dating back to this era were found along the way at the 15 documented campsites from the Hudson Bay to Sauk Centre, Minnesota.
Sadly however, Scandinavian settlements died out or were assimilated by the Native populations, and therefore did not carry the European significance to the New World of Columbus and his cronies. But never-the-less, Lewis & Clark reported blue eyed blondes among the isolated Mandan Indians of North Dakota and described their square mid-evil Norwegian design houses and Christian symbols strikingly similar to medieval Scandinavian relics. In other words, these tribes knew about Christianity before the first settlers arrived. So what’s up with that?
Additional evidence supporting the stone’s authenticity were the mooring stones like those used by fourteenth century Nordic seafarers which have been found from the Hudson Bay, through Lake Winnipeg, down the Red River, and into Douglas County. Mooring stones were triangular holes carved into rocks along the shores of the fjords in Norway and the lakes and rivers of Canada and Minnesota. We know that in about 1355 the King of what is now Norway and Sweden, Magnus Erickson, sent out an expedition under the command of Paul Knutson to go to Greenland to see to it that Christianity would not perish there. It is believed that the King had received word that the people of the Scandinavian settlement in Greenland had emigrated to the mainland and lost their religion. So the King sent this expedition to go check on them. Their navigator was an astronomer named Nicolas of Lynn from England, and he was well known throughout Europe. When they reached the bitter cold Hudson Bay, the main party headed off to the west (and ended up in Minnesota) looking for a safer route back to New England from the Hudson Bay. Nicolas stayed behind and mapped the whole of the Hudson Bay and discovered, for the first time in history, the magnetic North Pole. The sons of Christopher Columbus said work of Nicolas of Lynn and his early maps was one of the factors that encouraged their father to try the southern route to America.
Ever since 1898, the Kensington Runestone has led researchers from around the world and across the centuries on an exhaustive quest to explain how a runic artifact, dated 1362, could show up in North America. It is an understatement to say that it has been a lightning rod for debate. Scientists, geologists, and linguists have studied the stone in an effort to offer a conclusive answer to the question of the Kensington Runestone’s authenticity.
Some linguists doubt it’s real because of the use of two dots over one of the letters; this was not common in the 14th century. Some historians doubt it’s real because the only people who saw it unearthed were family and close friends. Big city professors and scholars interviewed the immigrants involved in the discovery and declared they couldn’t get their stories straight on simple things like the time of day it was pulled out of the ground (remember farmers call their evening meal supper and city folk call it dinner, while farmers call their noon meal dinner). City – country – language barrier – farm folk – academic circles made for interviews that may have lost a little something in translation.
And then beginning in the year 2000 and through the publication of his book, “Kensington Rune Stone: Compelling New Evidence,” Minnesota geologist, Scott Wolter, performed modern scientific tests on the stone and the carvings. By comparing the deterioration of mica in colonial gravestones of a similar type and in a similar environment, he determined that the deterioration in the rune stone carvings was much more advanced. The carvings were centuries old when they came out of the ground in 1898. This does not prove the stone “was” carved in 1362 as dated, but it does show it was not done by Ohman or any of his contemporaries. Indeed, there are no viable candidates within accepted Minnesota history for the period between the 14th century and the first 19th century settlers.
We are now in the second century of dispute over the Kensington Runestone. The pendulum has swung back and forth many times, from hoax to legitimacy. The story has inevitably followed the same pattern. An academic or self-appointed scholar proclaims the stone to be a hoax and writes a book. Then his methods and scholarship are brought into question, and his failures become evidence for the Runestone’s authenticity.
Fingers are pointed in both directions and the Kensington Runestone sits there as a silent witness.
So in 1991, I wrote to my Uncle Ansel Christenson who knew Edward Ohman quite well, and I asked him what he personally knew about the discovery. I have his hand written response in the same file as the transcription of Edward’s diary entry.
Here are the words of my Uncle Ansel:
Who Found the Rune Stone and where did they find it?
Olof Ohman and his son Edward found it when Edward was a little boy. I didn’t know Olof but I knew Edward very well. The stone was found on the southeast corner of their farm beneath a tree they were grubbing out to enlarge their acreage. Mr. Flaaten, a neighbor, lived close by was called over to see the stone. Several mooring stones were also found nearby (a mooring stone is a big rock with a large triangular whole hole in it where Norse explorers would tie their boats and could unlock the rope from the boat with the flick of the wrist, because they sometimes had to leave the boat in water that was quite deep.
Is it true that the stone was used for a step into their granary?
That was just a rumor. They didn’t use the stone by the granary as they saw the writing on it right away and sent it to be analyzed by experts in Minneapolis, Wisconsin, and Scandinavia. From there it was put on display the Kensington post office and then the museum in Alexandria.
How did they figure out what it said?
As close as I can remember it was turned over to a Dr. Holand and he sent it to Norway where they could read Runic writings and then it was returned to Kensington and displayed in the post office, then on to the museum in Alexandria [about 15 miles from Kensington] where it remains to this day. The Runic writing was done by Viking explorers. I think it was engraved in 1362 and it says something like, “So many Norwegians and so many Goths were here and when some of the crew returned from a trip, they saw some of their comrades were dead and red with blood.” Where the remaining explorers went it never said, other than there was some talk about blue-eyed blonde-haired Mandan Indians in North Dakota who lived in houses, not tents, when the first white explorers reached them in the 1700 and 1800’s.
On what grounds do some say the stone is a fake?
Some say a defrocked minister with a hobby of studying runic writings and Olof Ohman carved it out one winter. I don’t think so! The fact is that Olof Ohman was a carpenter and was always in a hurry [my Uncle Ansel’s Minnesota-nice way of saying Olof was a carpenter and not a very good one]. He worked with wood and would never have taken the time to do such carving in stone. And besides the rock was entangled in the roots of a tree, which many neighbors were witness to. Others say there wasn’t any water close by, but who knows where the lakes and rivers were way back then. There must have been water covering that area because why would there be so many mooring stones around? Others say that Indians could have moved the stone from the Chippewa River seven miles west to where it was found, however Indians were not known to move stones very often.
Why do we believe the stone is authentic?
First of all, it was found under a tree, entangled in the roots and had been buried there for many years. The Ohman’s were hardworking non-foolish settlers with much more pressing issues on their minds than carving on stones. I knew all the Ohmans except Olof and they were honest salt-of-the-earth people. It is well known that they never tried to profit from their discovery which is another indicator that they had not forged it. Historians now know that a crew of explorers left Norway in the old days and I guess they never returned. Dr. Tanquist and Mrs. Leuthner from Alexandria and Dr. Holand from Wisconsin spent lots of time, money and talent and certified that the Runestone was the real thing. It was also certified by the Minnesota Historical Society Commission of 1910 and 1915, and the Minnesota Norwegian Society Commission of 1909, and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. However there were professors from the University of Minnesota who claimed the stone was a fake… but the more they holler the more publicity it gets. The Ohman farm is now a county park and is open to the public. A flag flies over the stone cite all summer long. A very fine man looks after the park and it is open to picnics, vacationers, skiing, hiking.
Well, the day dreams of a little boy came true. The nine-year-old Edward did grow up to be famous, the townspeople did build a museum dedicated to the big rock with the unusual writings on it, and his family farm did become a park for the whole community to enjoy. It is a place steeped in history and mystery. The view from atop the crest at the stone site is breathtaking. It looks over a large basin of rolling hills; you can almost see the waterways that once covered the land with Viking-style ships tied off at the mooring stones on the little rock islands. The park is a community treasure. It is a place where history buffs come to have their picture taken. It is a place where young people hit the slopes with ski poles in the dead of winter. It is a place where young men propose on one knee to their sweethearts on a warm spring evening. It is a place where wedding anniversaries are celebrated as autumn leaves are falling. In the summertime, graduation parties and family reunions fill the hall with the aroma of Swedish meatballs, lutefisk, and lefse.
The Kensington Rune Stone Park is indeed a place where modern day American families mingle with the ghosts of their ancestors, the first Europeans to lay eyes on this place over 650 years ago.