November 24th…“WHEN DID YOU FIRST EXPERIENCE THE DEATH OF A LOVED ONE IN YOUR FAMILY?”
His yellow ’49 Ford banked easily off the gravel road and into the south driveway of our farm there near Kiester, Minnesota. In the sultry afternoon sunshine of Summer, I could see lazy swirls of gravel dust behind the car. They were rising in curlycews that seemed to trumpet a quiet fanfare in the arrival of our patriarchal Grandfather Edwin A. Noorlun. As he rolled the Ford into the driveway, with a foot to the clutch, Grandpa Ed slipped the manual column shift down into second gear so he could climb the small knoll that bent to the right and saw him bring that quaint Ford to a stop by our back porch door.
Bedecked in his customary farmer’s bib-overalls, Grandpa Ed slowly emerged from that gentle chariot of his and gave a stretch to his lanky frame. Being born in the State of Wisconsin, in 1888, Edwin was the first generation of Noorluns to be born here in America. Edwin’s father, Arne Noorlun, had immigrated from Norway to America in the mid 1800’s sometime. Along with Grandfather Ed being our first generation born here, 1888 also brought some other “firsts” to the world. The Eastman Kodak camera company was founded that year. Another “first” for that year was the inception of the National Geographic Society along with the magazine by the same name. Being so young, at the time, I had no knowledge of my grandfather’s early years of growing up in Wisconsin and eventually farming in northern Minnesota. What I DID have knowledge of, though, is that I perceived my paternal grandfather to be a quiet man with gentle mannerisms to match.
Even as a young boy, it was easy for me to discern the great adoration that our daddy, Russell, had for his father, Edwin. You see, Russell was the only one of the five Noorlun boys who decided to follow his father’s footsteps into farming. I sensed that that common bond between father and son garnered a very close camaraderie between Grandpa and Dad. In the late afternoon sun, you could often see their silhouetted bib-overall frames as they’d saunter, side by side towards our orchard discussing matters of agriculture or livestock care.
With Grandpa Ed as our guest that day, Dad completed the milking of our herd of Holstein cows and wrapped up his other daily chores as another Minnesota sunset filtered through the windbreak treeline. It was then that three bib-overall clad Noorluns (Grandpa, Dad and yours truly) followed their noses towards our farm kitchen and the delightful aromas of our mother’s excellent cooking. I treasured these times when we were all seated around our small dinner table for supper and listened to Grandpa Edwin and Dad share stories of the long ago when farming in northern Minnesota. Being a smoker, Dad’s pipe sent its smoke curls spiraling upward towards the kitchen ceiling light as he hung on every word his beloved father spoke. Grandpa Ed was an excellent storyteller. I was an eager audience to hear those stories and, in a sense, via those stories, was a witness to what had transpired in the heritage of our family history and life happenings.
Sadly, when Grandpa Edwin’s health began to fail, so also did his ability to live in the present. In modern terms of today, his diagnosis would likely have been Alzheimer’s Disease, but, in those days, folks called his condition “hardening of the arteries” or “old age dementia”. Due to his declining health, Grandfather Edwin now needed a more constant form of special care and attention. As a boy, I remember our family driving to the town of Lake Mills, Iowa to visit Grandpa in what appeared to be a care home in someone’s residence. There, from his bed on the second floor of that residence, Grandfather would talk to my father as if our dad were still a teenager and still living on their family farm in northern Minnesota. “Russell?!” he’d say. “Yes, Dad”, Russell replied. Grandpa Ed gave a directive….“When you finish milking the cows this evening, you’d better start the plowing on that north 20 acres.” With an understanding gentility towards his elder, our daddy responded with respect and said to his beloved father, “Sure thing, Dad, I will.” I could easily see the great sadness in my father’s eyes as we witnessed the fading mind of the Norwegian father he loved so much.
Grandfather Edwin A. Noorlun left this earthly life on the day after Christmas in 1964. My family and I attended the viewing and visitation at the local funeral home there in Lake Mills, Iowa. Even at the age of 10 years, I was still too young to comprehend the depth and gravity of what death really was. It was surreal to me. There, in the funeral parlor Viewing Room, I witnessed various family members as they poured out their mourning for Grandpa Ed in complete sobbing, while others just sat there teary-eyed with heads hung in sorrow. Grandmother Marie Noorlun was too weak from the stress of emotions in the death of her husband, so two of my aunties escorted Marie by each arm as they walked to the casket that was open for viewing Grandpa’s body. At the rim of Grandpa’s coffin, Marie lowered herself to kiss Edwin’s pallid forehead one last time. Their’s had not been a perfect marriage by any means, but I saw this as a final and tender farewell to the husband that had blessed her through their years with a thriving family of eight living children and two that had died at birth/infancy.
Imprinted in my memory was the Winter day of the burial. It was starkly cold with a bleak, stiff wind bristling through the evergreen trees that encompassed the grounds of Sion Lutheran Church located some miles to the east of our grandparent’s town of Lake Mills, Iowa. To me, even the naked branches of the deciduous trees mourned in the wind with all the rest of us at the laying to rest of our beloved Norwegian Patriarch Father.