My friends Herman and Hilda Larson celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary at Skaldebakken Lutheran Church last Sunday.
I deliberately showed up an hour after the program was scheduled to start, hoping to miss the mushy stuff. No such lick. There was still an hour left of poems, tributes and testimonials. The skit about their courtship was probably too accurate for Herman and Hilda’s liking, although the rest of the crowd roared.
Hilda was enjoying herself, but Herman looked as if he was in pain. He was recently diagnosed with VDD (Voluntary Deafness Disorder), and the symptoms on this Sunday were particularly severe.
Herman sat with a little forced grin on his face, not reacting at all to the circus arranged by their daughter Nancy, who swooped in from Anoka Friday afternoon with the force of a March blizzard.
The program was almost bearable until the new minister got up and asked for the audience to share reminiscences and remembrances of Herman and Hilda. Dead silence. Everybody was thinking ahead to the food. And what stories were there, anyway?
I wanted to tell about the only time I heard Hilda say anything nice about Herman, the time he had his heart attack and just about died, when she admitted that she would miss him because, “He’s not a bad guy.”
But I kept my mouth shut. As did everybody else, except for the minister who finally broke the silence by offering a long tribute to Herman and Hilda’s “enduring faith,” something which was news to most people in the audience.
“They sure make a fuss,” Herman said to me afterwards in the basement. It looked like his suit itched terribly. The collar on his shirt was two sizes too large. He clearly couldn’t wait for Monday morning when he could put on his overalls and go putter around the shop.
It wasn’t so bad for Hilda. She reveled in the compliments on her hair and her corsage. For once, she didn’t have to work in the kitchen. “I better enjoy being lazy this time,” she said with a laugh. “Next time, it will be my funeral!”
Once everyone finished eating, things got a bit more relaxed. Herman ambled over to a dark corner full of men. His hearing disorder improved. They discussed crops, even though none of them still farm.
Nancy cooled her jets and joined the gabfest back in the kitchen. The grandkids strapped their offspring into car seats and headed back to the suburbs. The minister issued some final unctions and ascended to his reserved parking spot. The crowd dwindled down to old neighbors.
Once again, Herman and Hilda had endured.
On Memorial Day, I think of neighbors. Most of the neighbors around the farm where I grew up are gone. Their children moved away, their farmsteads were bulldozed, and the marker in the cemetery is all that is left of them.
The old neighbors had neighborly rituals, and with them, those rituals died.
Neighbor Lewis and Mabel Nelson picked blueberries over by Bemidji every summer. A few weeks later, Mabel would host a big meal for the neighbors, topped of by blueberry pie. It was an annual event.
Neighbor Henry Helm was a wiry old German who walked in big strides and smoked Salems. His forearms were like Popeye’s, but the rest of him was barely there.
I was scared to death of Henry. He trapped on our land, but I never once saw him in our woods–only his widely-spaced footsteps. He wasn’t much for children and when I was small, I wondered if he trapped them too.
But Henry had an old Beacon apple tree which bore the sweetest, reddest apples you have ever seen. Every year, Henry would bring over a bag full. We had apples galore on our own place, but none like Henry’s Beacon apples. When he brought them over, I realized he wasn’t so scary after all.
By fifth grade I even mustered the courage to ask Henry if I could watch the first game of the 1975 World Series on his color TV. Henry fixed Kool-aid, and the Red Sox won behind legendary Cuban pitcher Luis Tiant.
In 1977, Lewis and Mable Nelson went blueberry picking on July 4th as always. They picked as much as usual, but this time it was too much for Mabel’s heart–she passed away that evening, before she could make any of her famous blueberry pie.
Sadly, no fall meal at the Nelson’s. But that October, Grandpa called up Lewis to see if we could watch the sixth game of the World Series on Lewis’ color TV.
Lewis made us hot chocolate. Reggie Jackson hit three home runs on three consecutive pitchers. And it was the last time I was in the Nelson house before Lewis moved to town.
The next winter as I was about to get off the school bus one cold evening, Art the bus driver said, “So, you lost a neighbor.” Henry Helm had died suddenly that morning. I thought right away of that World Series game, the only time I ever spent with Henry.
When summer came, somebody went over to sneak some of the famous apples off Henry’s tree. No luck. Henry’s Beacon apple tree was stone dead. It hadn’t survived the winter either.
So, most of the old neighbors are gone, some precious rituals have disappeared, but many good memories remain: Blueberries and Beacon apples, grand old neighbors, and some great ball games.