A rough few weeks...


The past couple of months have been difficult here in the small town as more people than normal have died. “They say it comes in threes,” has been replaced by “when it rains, it pours.”


I include personal remembrances to illustrate the web of small town connections, and in a couple of cases to point out how living in a small town requires that you reconcile differences over the decades. At its best, small-town life is about forgiveness. 


Above is a picture of Carlton and Hazel Roed which I stole off Facebook. Carlton and Hazel died last week in a car crash at age 88. They were one of those respectful, loving, quiet couples who might have died within days of each other had nature been allowed to take its course. 


When I told Dad of their death, he informed me that Hazel had been one of his teachers at the old one-room school on the corner of our farm. 


What impact can one quiet old couple have? Immense. At their funeral this past weekend, ninety floral arrangements jammed the church. The flower shop quit taking orders as they had neither the time nor the flowers to complete them all. 


I had exactly one conversation with the Roeds in my life, and it happened three weeks ago at the grocery store when I was home for a few days. I thanked them for contributing to my campaign, and for hosting a sign at the top of their drive. 


After their death, it was amazing to watch on Facebook as people decades younger related their stories of remembered kindnesses. 


Kenny Sather died yesterday. He was the longest tenured guest at the Fertile Hilton. Kenny’s mother passed away during his birth. He lived a life as a farmhand outside of Fertile, working mainly for the Leo Lindberg family. When Thelma Lindberg, Leo’s wife, was in the last stages of Alzheimer’s disease last year and seemingly didn't know anybody, the Hilton staff rolled her past Kenny’s wheelchair. She pointed to Kenny and said, “He’s good!” 


Kenny melted into tears. 


“Hello there young feller!” was Kenny’s standard greeting when I said hello.


Dee Dee Grant spent her last years at the Hilton. She was a friend of Aunt Olla’s. Jealousy of Dee Dee’s fashionable glasses drove Aunt Olla to get new “more mod” frames at age 102. 


Dee Dee was born here, lived her middle days away, then returned in her old age to get some of the finest care available and to be amongst her kin, the dignified Hamre clan. 


She called me a few times when Aunt Olla would go off on some kick. “You have got to talk some sense into her!” she once implored. “The dining room is not filled with lesbians!” 


Reid Wahlin lost his father Johnny in December. Reid’s long struggle with depression ended last month. Like his father, Reid gave to others. His obituary tells the story. Reid had a penetrating, unconventional view of life and was prone to make observations so true that it would make you wince. He was an open book. I have a theory that people who put themselves out there like Reid always did unwittingly produce more ammunition with which to punish themselves when they get down. But Reid kept up his love for people anyway. 


Grant Ellegaard was a character. He passed away during surgery last month. He had several dogs, which he treated like family. 


Grant’s love for dogs sent him over the edge when I wrote satirical column in 1996 about people who think dogs are family. He called and told me off in colorful terms. A year later, we had a little confrontation at the gas station over the dog issue. But that blew over and by this summer, Grant several times gave me a thumbs up and said, “glad you’re running.” His encouragement meant a lot. 


Carole Engelstad was my typing and psychology teacher in high school. She was very popular, but I was a little too full of myself for her taste and we didn’t get along at all. She could put you in your place in a hurry. 


Our stormy relationship continued when Carole was offended by a column I wrote which included the phrase, “even an altar guild can become a snake pit of gossip and revenge.” Carole was on the altar guild at Little Norway Church. She wrote an angry letter defending the honor of altar guilds to all the newspapers which carried my column, and a few which didn’t. 


But things got better. At a event paying tribute to veterans which I emceed, she waited afterwards to talk to me. “You made it dignified,” she said as she squeezed my hand and looked me in the eye. It was a high compliment, and one given in full recognition of our spats. I knew we would be friends from then on.


More recently, Carole developed dementia. Carole softened towards everybody. She gave me hugs, even kisses, when we met. We had good laughs. Her big family kept her active and out in public, which is just what dementia patients need, and that gave me many chances to see her in the last year. 


Another of Little Norway's stalwarts, Harriet Lundby still lived on her own when she, June Erickson and Ardis Bakke urged me to push for an assisted living. I called all three with reports. Harriet’s response to one call was typical of the no-nonsense approach of all three: “Don’t waste time talking to me, you need to get busy!”Ardis passed away before the assisted living was built, but June lives there now and Harriet lived there for a while before moving into the nursing home.  


A week before she passed away, Harriet signed the papers to sell her land. The lawyer spread the documents across her bed at the Hilton. He apologized for the mess. 


“Take your time!” Harriet said. “It isn’t every day that I have a lawyer kneeling by the side of my bed!”


Clarice Lindberg Aagenes was a neighbor and a fixture at St. John’s Lutheran, the brick church just two miles from the nursery which finally closed this winter. She was first married to Ray Lindberg. When he passed away, she married Donald, her high school sweetheart and widower who returned to the small town from a career away.  


Connie Tschosik was a boisterous sort with a loud voice and a big laugh. I didn’t know her at all, but she was a good customer and mother to Doug, an unfailingly polite gentleman who co-owns a gas station in town. 


Roger and I had exactly one conversation. I believe it occurred on a township road somewhere in the boonies where we had to pull over to let each other pass and while we were at it, we stopped for a brief visit. I could tell just from that conversation he was a gifted critic of the conventional non-sense. He is sort of a legend, and the stories point to a man who thought it silly to preserve himself for a long stay in the nursing home. 


Wink Tucker arrived in our town from California, where he was an optometrist. How did he get here? Long story short, his son came from the West Coast to UND to study aviation. There, he met his wife Becky, a Fertile woman. At a family gathering, the widower Wink met Becky’s sister’s mother-in-law Ann, another Fertile woman. They married and eventually settled in Fertile. Wink lived briefly at the Hilton before his passing. He adapted well to the small town, despite it being completely foreign to his experience, and took an active part in the local golf culture. 


Another Californian, Arlene, was a long-time neighbor with an infectious laugh. She, too, was a fixture at St. John’s church. She and husband Arne stood out for their relaxed, easy-going and calm approach to life. If I got wound up about something and wrote about it in a column, Arlene would see me on the street and say, “Oh, Eric!” and laugh. Underlying message: Relax, it isn’t worth getting so worked up.


Chee-Chee Flikke, like several of the above, saw through the small town non-sense. She just didn’t care about gossip. She lived life her way. She spent the last few years manning the express lane at Wal-mart in Crookston where she always made sure I was adequately ribbed when I came through. I enjoyed returning the favor. When she died too suddenly in December, her fellow employees set up a memorial to her in the express lane. 


Franny Gudvangen worked for my Uncle Orville and Aunt Ede and Cousin Gary at Lee Nursery for many years. I was so used to seeing her in overalls and a stocking cap (she worked sorting trees in the cold building) when I came to pick up trees that it took some time before I recognized her when she moved into the Hilton. 


Barbra worked for me at the nursery a couple of years. She was so down-to-earth and at home in the small town that I never guessed she had been out in the world until I read her obituary. 


And Aunt Olla lives on! When she was sick two weeks ago, she asked me if there were people waiting for her room at the Hilton. I said no, there are plenty beds available. No rush.