her name is odelia, and she is one of nine children who spent their formative years in a bare walled homestead in the glacial flats near onamia. she was the third youngest child of henry and marie, emigrants who felt onamia represented greater hope than the logging towns of wisconsin, causing a westward drift that ended when their moral compass said “this is the place”. they set up shop and raised chickens and cows and obviously, children. the family lived as close to the earth as the 20’s and 30’s demanded. henry sold milk and cream to the chippewa and transient europeans. marie made sure her children were fed and clean and most importantly, did not lag behind on their chores.
from holland to onamia.
i call her aunt diel, but she insists it’s just “diel”. no formal names; no familial names. just diel.
diel is my mom’s sister.
on tuesday, i interrupted an infectious round of public service training to take my mom’s sister on a dinner date. she will turn 95 in october and the last time i saw her was at her surprise 90th birthday celebration; a party that filled every table in the gymnasium of st. peter’s catholic church with family and friends. even diel’s baby sister made the trek from california. ninetieth birthdays don’t come along very often, and when they do, there really is no valid reason not to attend.
diel was waiting for me. she has slowed a bit physically but still gets about and mentally, is as sharp as a tack. she lives in the same house she and her husband marcellus (always known as uncle sally) built in the 50’s. her garden is planted. her tomatoes and beans and potatoes will be off-the-charts good.
driving through the maze of parallel roads and confused stop lights that define modern-day st. cloud, we talked about her family. even though some of that family are my cousins, i have had a hard time keeping track because those 9 homestead children beget over 45 cousins. to live life and not experience loss only means you haven’t lived much of a life. uncle sally is gone, as are her daughters jane and connie and grandsons joey and chad.
her appetite is good. we put away the applebees spinach artichoke dip and lime fiesta chicken without much deliberation. i listened.
she talked about the farm.
diel said she has been thinking more and more about the farm. how could she not? it was a formative, daunting location during a time when luxury was a full belly or darned socks. it was all about hardship and illnesses and chores and reflexive cohesiveness a family finds when distractions are lacking. she said they were always cold in the winter and always swatting bugs in the summer; that they were always in dirt and mud and yet, when you look at pictures of that family, all of the clothes were clean and pressed and if any dirty skin was present, grandma had yet to locate it. “i don’t know how ma did it,” she said.
when her mother got sick, diel was enlisted by brothers and sisters to provide care for the family matriarch. when her mother returned from the hospital – a survivor in every sense of the word – she returned to her husband and 9 kids without missing a beat. years later, she had had enough and announced that it was time to leave their winter-time slice of uninsulated heaven and move to california.
back at her home, we looked at pictures. a decade ago, there was a gathering at the farm and some of the remaining nine got together to reminisce; some for the last time. diel pointed to a picture of the house and to a window in particular. she said that was the room my mom and dad would stay when they visited after their marriage and before the war and before – for them at least – life took a different direction.
not too long after that sentimental reunion, a bulldozer removed the tiny house that sheltered 11 degroods from every curveball life and nature could throw at them.
my mother’s sister is unafraid of what life has to offer now. she talks of her blessings and health and really, isn’t that the best perspective? she will continue to garden and keep busy with grandkids and great grandkids and hopefully, will accompany me to dinner again, the next time i am in st. cloud.
until then, i’m pretty sure she’ll keep thinking about that farm in onamia.
i will too.