My grandma Lilly lived to be almost 95. That’s a really long time. Life expectancy for women born in 1918 – the year she was born – was only 42 years. I only knew my grandma for the last 25 years of her life, but so much of what she saw, heard, and experienced came before that time. It therefore seems appropriate to think back on as much of that as we can in these few minutes, to understand the scope of life spanning nearly a century of time.
My great-grandfather Fred, having been blessed with three daughters, gave up on having a farm outside of Albert Lea and moved his family to a house on the South side of town. There, my grandma became the fourth and youngest addition to the family. In their house in town, she shared not only a room but a bed with her older sisters. By all reports that house was cold. The hot water was rarely on, the dreaded bathroom in particular a frigid wasteland beyond the reach of the kitchen’s oil stove. To wit: Fred seems to have brought a characteristically Norwegian lack of warmth to that house of young women. I imagine my grandma was never very explicitly told by her parents that they loved her, but in her later years she fondly recalled to me memories of small handmade gifts given to her by her mother, Ingeborg, small tokens of love expressed with the little extra money available from Fred’s work at Wilson and Company.
My earliest memories of my grandma are trips my family would take from the cities down here to Albert Lea to see her and my aunt Vi. In my mind, she lived as far away as humans could travel in day and I didn’t really understand why anyone would live so far away from home. Of course, Albert Lea is where my grandma’s home was and is. When we used to visit Albert Lea, aside from enjoying the occasional money cake (a kid-friendly dessert my grandma would bake, in which my sister or I would find the occasional foil-wrapped coin), much the time we used to spend at Grandma’s house was time of adults talking. I would always hear Grandma and Vi talking about people – all kinds of people, people I didn’t know and never met, people about whom there were endless stories and deep social connections interweaved among those stories, taking place at the Legion or the Elk’s club, here at First Lutheran, or some other local haunte. Even at that age – when I was maybe five or six years old – I could tell that my grandma had a whole life that I would never really see, one where she found joy in making friends with countless people here in her hometown. A big part of that life and those social connections was my grandma’s older sister Vi, whom I saw as an inseparable pair. After my grandma moved to the cities to be closer to her son, my father, and our family, it was Vi who she would travel back to Albert Lea to see and about whom my grandma seemed to talk the most. Every time my grandma and Aunt Vi got together, there always seemed to be a chance to get a hamburger and “a little something to go with”, which was usually pie, nay always pie.
One of my childhood trips to Albert Lea stands out quite vividly. On this trip, I remember visiting Graceland Cemetery where much of our family is buried and where we interred my grandmother’s ashes just before this service today. There, above the gravestones were American flags rippling in the prairie wind. One of these flags carried a plaque indicating it was sponsored by my grandma and bore the name of the man I never knew, that my father hardly had a chance to know, but who clearly shaped my grandma’s life more than any other: Bud Leeper, my grandfather and Lilly’s only love.
Lilly never said much to me about my Grandpa Bud, but during a car ride with her last year, she mentioned how it felt to see him go off to fight in World War II, that she had traveled days by train to see him before he finished training for the war, and spent days travelling back to Albert Lea, the whole time in tears at seeing him go. That confession of emotional fragility was the rare time that I glimpsed the power of their relationship. Bud and Lil married after Bud returned from the war – as the story goes, my grandma gave Bud no opportunity to delay or reconsider and they were married almost immediately. Those years were times of joy and happiness – the best picture we have of this time shows my grandma, her best friend Ardis Holte, and my grandpa Bud standing outside their home, arms locked around each other with giant smiles on their faces. She and Bud took a trip out to South Dakota to see the Black Hills, their big road trip as a married couple. And Bud together with his father, AC, built a house on Columbus Ave here in Albert Lea that my grandparents would share. The house was small, perhaps only 20 feet by 20 feet, heated with a space heater in the middle of the house’s only room.
In 1950, the day after Christmas and a few weeks early, my grandma gave birth to my father, John. The house got a second room.
In 1954, when John was only three, my grandma lost Bud tragically when a train struck his car late at night. From then on, my grandma faced the world as a single parent, working at several local companies and finally for Freeborn County to support her only son, the lasting treasure she had from those joyous, short few years with Bud. Of course my father would grow up from a bespectacled young boy into a champion rifleman, a college graduate, an expert on the computer (a device she never chose to learn), and eventually a husband, to my mother Linda, and parent to my sister Anne and I.
From all I’ve heard, my grandma was thrilled to have grandchildren. Her aunts had had few children, leaving few cousins, and she and her sisters had not had many children, so I can only imagine the idea of grandchildren must have seemed unlikely. Pictures of Anne and I at every age were a prominent decoration in her house here in Albert Lea and in her apartments in the cities. When organizing her things, I’ve found a seemingly endless supply of pictures of my sister Anne from as near to birth as I can imagine until the present. My grandma’s love for us rarely came in carefully spoken words. It came in the pictures of us that she kept until well after we had grown into adults.
Of course, my sister and I would not be here were it not for my mom and dad getting together. My grandma was always interested in the family that they had created together, with the gift of long-lived marriage that had evaded her. I know that my grandma loved us all very much, even as all of us sometimes felt from her emotions seemingly incongruent with that affection. I think it’s no surprise given the my grandma’s relationship to her father that she didn’t always say things that sounded loving. She was sometimes more critical than necessary and didn’t quite fit the archetype of “grandmother”. But I think the little gifts she always gave my family reflect the utilitarian love of a poor upbringing on the Southern Minnesota prairie. A handknit washcloth for everyone at Christmas was perhaps her answer to the sewn garments her mother Ingeborg had made for her and her sisters. A pair of pajamas every year an expressed concern that your pair from last year might have been worn out from too many frigid Minnesota winter nights.
She moved up to the cities in 1998, so she was able to spend more time with my family. In the first few summers when my sister and I hadn’t yet reached our sullen teenage years, we spent many afternoons with her, swimming in the pool as she looked on, watching television, baking peanut butter cookies, or – more often than not – doing crossword puzzles. This was also the time that my grandma experienced a whole new world outside of Albert Lea, making new friends in her condo building, and volunteering for the Red Cross, for the friends of the Ramsey County library, and for Meals on Wheels, where in her 70s and 80s, she helped provide meals to, in her words, “a bunch of old people.” I never really knew why my grandma volunteered so much, but in the days since my grandma’s passing, it has become clear that in these experiences she found companionship with countless people who have passed on stories about how kind, friendly, and neat my grandma was.
As I said a few minutes ago, life expectancy for the women of 1918 was 42 years. My grandma outlived that by nearly 53 years. She lived through the Great Depression, through the lean times of World War II. She beat cancer in 1963, when 40% of patients didn’t live through the disease. She got to drive a lot of cars, some better and worse than others, and one of which went on to be the first car I drove as a teenager. She got to live to see my wife Heather join our family this year, in a wedding my grandma had made me promise to have before she passed away. But with so many years of life, she also lived to see many of her friends and family pass on before her. She saw her parents, Fred and Ingeborg, and two of her older sisters, Helen and Alice, pass away from this earth, they too peacefully leaving once their times had come.
Through all of this, my impression is that my grandma always woke up every morning with an open heart, open to the chance to talk with someone new, maybe someone who would hear her familiar laugh or with whom she would eventually enjoy a beer (even if she wouldn’t admit to ever having had said beer). She found these people in Albert Lea, through church, which she diligently attended throughout her life, and through numerous volunteer efforts at the Red Cross, and the Albert Lea and later Ramsey County libraries. My whole life, I saw my grandma as strong willed, unwilling to let the challenges she faced prevent her from getting up the next day. Even as she gradually lost her vision, which robbed her of the books she loved to read, and her body progressively made it more difficult for her to eat and drink, she still got up every day and found people with whom to keep company and some reason to get up the next day. Even as walking and breathing became challenges, her mind was sharp. It’s no surprise then that my grandma decided for herself when it was time for her to pass on. She said goodbye to the son she loved and passed away peacefully without pain.
Lilly’s passing shows that there is always meaning in life when you find love and cherish it forever even if the words aren’t always there to express it. There is always meaning when you define your place in the world according to the lasting friendships you make with others, and are open to opportunities for new relationships at every turn. And, life’s not too bad if you have a little pie to go with, too.