Tag Archive | Uncle Helmer

A Tree, a 100-Year-Old Friend, and Lots of Memories

Whispering Winds Retreat Haven

Remodeled Farmhouse

Twenty-six years ago Mim and I left Chicago to move back to the family farmhouse in Wisconsin – the farm where I had grown up, also where my mom had grown up and lived almost her whole life. My brother re-modeled the farmhouse for us to make it our perfect home – doubling the square footage: adding a few rooms, tripling the number of bathrooms and adding a front porch. We also increased the size of the lawn to incorporate a couple fields, giving us about three acres of lawn to mow and a gigantic vegetable garden the size of the whole lot of our Chicago two-flat (30’x120’), where we had lived the previous 20 years.

Shortly after we moved into our newly remodeled home, I invited my mom’s brother, Uncle Helmer, and his wife, Aunt Edith, over to see what we had done to the house where he had grown up. We walked them from room to room. When we got to one of the upstairs bedrooms (the one that had been my room when I was a kid), he looked through the north window and pointed to a large oak tree beyond the pasture and just across the road (Highway PQ). Uncle Helmer said, “See that tree way over there. That was our target. Fletcher [his younger brother] and I used to open this window and shoot our rifles at that tree. I wonder if you can still see any of our bullets in the tree trunk…”

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What’s left of the old oak tree.

I’ve been thinking about that conversation a lot over the past few days. Last week I was at our Christmas Mountain timeshare to work on writing my second “Talking to God through Music” book. At the end of the week, as I was driving home past that old oak tree, I was startled to see that the tree was no longer standing, but instead there was a huge stump, about a foot and a half tall and five feet wide. Big chunks of the tree were lying beside the stump. The next day I noticed some men sawing the chunks into more manageable size pieces that they trucked away. Now the only thing left is the stump.

A few years ago Highway PQ was given an additional name, Water Street, as the village of Cambridge expanded westward. This summer the street will be closed to traffic as water and sewer pipes and underground utilities are replaced. Then a new road will be constructed on top of the upgraded infrastructure. I assume the old oak tree is a necessary sacrifice for progress in Cambridge. I can accept that, but I will miss the old oak tree. Fortunately, I still have the memory of that tree, and of my conversation with Uncle Helmer about target practice with that old oak tree.

fullsizeoutput_241cSpeaking of memories, our next-door neighbor in Chicago turned 100 this year. Ruth is still living in her two-flat. In 1924, Ruth’s parents and her aunt and uncle bought the two-flat, brand new. Her parents, 6-year-old Ruth, and her baby sister Elaine moved into the first floor apartment, and her aunt and uncle moved into the upstairs apartment. This two-flat has been home to Ruth and Elaine ever since. (Elaine passed away a few years ago.) The picture on the right is 6-year-old Ruth modeling her new ballerina dress (sewed by her mother) in their back yard.

Fifty-five years later, in 1979, Mim and I, along with our friend Marilyn who was renting an apartment in a Chicago suburb at the time, bought the two-flat next door to Ruth and Elaine. Marilyn had the first floor, and Mim and I had the second. We were neighbors of Ruth and Elaine for 13 years, until Mim and I moved back to Wisconsin in 1992. We’ve continued our friendship over the years, and we stop to visit Ruth whenever we can on our trips back to Chicago. We’ve been fortunate to call Ruth our friend for nearly 40 of her 100 years.

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Marian, Mim, and Marilyn in our backyard in Chicago, about 1980.

One of Ruth’s relatives suggested a plan to celebrate Ruth’s 100th birthday this spring. Instead of holding a huge party, she suggested a hundred days of celebration. She set up an online calendar for Ruth’s friends to schedule a private party for just Ruth and themselves, any time beginning with Ruth’s actual birthday (March 22) and continuing for the next 100 days.

Yesterday (May 22) was our day. Marilyn, Mim and I brought lunch and celebrated with Ruth in her home. We reminisced, talked about the neighborhood, laughed, looked at pictures, took new pictures, and had a wonderful lunch together.

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Marilyn, Ruth, and Mim. (My arm isn’t long enough to take a good selfie, so I didn’t get in the picture.)

Among the best things in life are opportunities for making memories, and friends to share them with. As we approach Memorial Day weekend, we will be reminded many times to express appreciation for the protection our military has provided us throughout our country’s history. That’s important. But what’s just as important, is to thank God for all the happy memories we have – from conversations with uncles about trees, to lunch with 100-year-old friends. 

I’ve decided to start thinking of “Memorial Day” as “Memories Day.” For people who are suffering with traumatic memories, may it be a day of healing. For people with memories of service to country, may it be a day of patriotic pride and thankfulness for the blessings our country provides. And may we all remember the happy moments we have experienced throughout our lifetimes. Thanks be to God!

Happy “Memories Day” Weekend!

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Ruth’s 2-Flat is on the left. Ours is on the right. When it was ours we had a tiny lawn in front with some hostas next to the brick, no trees.


Your Gift to the World

Grandma's Flower Garden Quilt

Grandma’s Flower Garden Quilt

Grandma and Grandpa. The little girl scowling on the right is my mom. The happy little boy is Uncle Helmer.

Grandma and Grandpa. The little girl scowling on the right is my mom. The happy little boy is Uncle Helmer.

My grandma (Mom’s mother) used to make quilts. At some point she started making a green “Flower Garden” quilt, but she never finished it. When Grandma died, Mom took the quilt pieces with the intention of finishing the quilt sometime.

Mom was not fond of sewing. She used to tell the story of one time she tried to cut out a dress pattern. She kept getting two of the same sleeves instead of a left and a right sleeve, over and over again, regardless of how she positioned the sleeve pattern piece on the fabric. She was getting more and more frustrated. Finally, her young daughter Nancy, who was intently watching her, suggested turning the pattern piece upside down. It worked!

Mom liked to embroider and crochet, but sewing was not her gift. I grew up sleeping on beautifully embroidered pillowcases. When I was in my 20s and 30s, Mom crocheted afghans in the right colors for every room in our house and for every car we ever owned. But she never did sew my grandma’s quilt pieces together.

Mom crocheting a baby afghan.

Mom crocheting a baby afghan.

I share my mom’s lack of skill in sewing. In high school I took “Home Ec” one year and had to make a dress. One of my classmates, Connie, put in the zipper for me. The zipper was the best looking part of the dress. I never wore the dress. In college, my friend, Claudia, tried to teach me how to knit. My first and only project was a pair of slippers. I tried to wear them around the dorm, but one slipper was too tight and the other was so big it kept falling off my foot. Claudia knitted me a pair of slippers that fit to inspire me to keep trying, but I gave up. Knitting wasn’t my gift.

When my mom died, my sister, Nancy, took our grandma’s quilt blocks and hired Aunt Edith (the gospel pianist I wrote about last summer) to finish making the quilt. When my sister died, none of her kids claimed the quilt, so I took it. I have it on display on a wall-mounted quilt rack in our home.

Last week my cousin, Gloria, brought me a snapshot of that quilt (at top of this blog post) along with her mother’s notes about finishing the quilt for Nancy. Gloria was in Cambridge for a few days to help her brothers and sisters get everything ready for their parents’ estate sale this past weekend.

Aunt Edith's notes.

Aunt Edith’s notes.

According to Aunt Edith’s notes, she started to put together my grandma’s quilt pieces into the “Flower Garden” pattern on October 27, 1989 and she finished the project on May 19, 1990. It took her 303-3/4 hours and cost her $15.90 for thread and other materials. She charged Nancy 71¢ per hour for 303-1/2 hours (she gave her ¼ hour free!) for a total price for labor and materials of $231.39. Nancy gave her $500.

In The Monastic Way daily readings for this month, Joan Chittister’s focus is “Doing What You Like.” For March 3 she wrote, “Doing what I like doing is not a waste of time. It is my gift to the rest of the world.”

I am so thankful that Aunt Edith knew that. She faithfully used her God-given gifts – both at the piano and at the quilting frame – to create beauty. Those were her gifts to us.

Aunt Edith at the piano. (In the 1930s she married the happy little boy pictured above, my Uncle Helmer.

Aunt Edith at the piano. Sometime In the 1930s she married the happy little boy pictured above, my Uncle Helmer.