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The Longest Year

A year ago our days began to circle around the briefings from the governor which began with a listing of the new coronavirus cases in our state and comments on the deaths. He would mention “a man over 80 in Burleigh County,” “two people in Cass County,” “another in Ward County,” and so on. The best thing we could do was to stay home and to wear masks, leave only for emergencies, and never - under any circumstances - shake hands or hug friends when you met them. The worldwide situation put a kind of pall over our lives and everything we did. Phone calls from distant places centered on health issues or expressed fears about treatments we could only imagine such as the terrors of ventilators in short supply and empty shelves in supermarkets. We learned to adjust, but there has been a cost – especially so for older people living alone who cannot blame people across the room.

Earlier this week a friend called wanting to locate a music book, and as we discussed this, I thought I had what she could use. A couple of possibilities were on the shelf so I told her I would drop off what I had and that led to an almost forgotten experience for me. For the first time in a long time, I actually went to another person’s home, and because she wanted company, sat down in a chair by the door, keeping my mask on, of course, and we visited! We were careful to sit far apart, but it turned out to be a special treat.

Many conversations today include the vaccine shots, and in Cavalier County we are grateful for the efficient way this has been handled. Another topic had to be the rash of funerals in recent days and the fact that we don’t attempt to attend them even for long-time friends for various reasons which include pandemic restrictions, icy walks through parking lots or up steps, and the general infirmities of age. If either far away or local readers have not already discovered this, you can access recorded, web cam versions of many funerals by clicking on the funeral home link. In watching the film for the funeral of a friend who died this winter, I was struck by the fact that the little great-grandchildren were there making it a true celebration of her life since she was very fond of those little ones.

The reason this stood out for me is that my brother and I lost the last of our six grandparents just after I had turned three, and my brother grew up feeling we had no grandparents at all. That was a sore issue when his friends bragged about gifts from grandparents. The extra set of grandparents came into our heritage when my father was adopted at the age of three after the death of his mother. We were too young to attend the services when our father died and were left with a babysitter for early family funerals, particularly if travel was involved. Lacking those connections is actually the reason I later became interested in family history.

However, attending funerals took on new meaning when a classmate died- a situation some students have faced for the first time this past week. World War II was on, and I believe we were in fifth grade. Caroline had been playing with friends and was going home for supper which, in her case, meant crossing the railroad tracks. In a tragic accident, she did not make it. There were no counselors to help the class deal with this, and I have no memory of there being school the next day so this may have happened on a Friday evening. The funeral was on Sunday afternoon, and as members of our class arrived at the church, we were seated in the front rows as a group with a clear view of the open casket and her ruffled pink dress. It is safe to say that, as students, we were in shock and might have discussed this at home but not at school. Our class at Langdon was large, and we rarely knew the parents of our classmates, but when I worked on the school directory in 1976 and, again, when we did cemetery lists in the 1990s, Caroline’s sisters wrote to me. In my mind, she has remained alive. If there is any wish for today’s students, it is that they remember classmates who are no longer with us for the good times.

My brother lost a classmate in high school when a friend died in a hunting accident, not the first or the last to have that happen. Others think back to accidents with cars, motorcycles, and even airplanes. And some, even as young as first grade at the time, remember a classmate who was sick and then died. My students ate lunch with a popular little girl named Jennifer who did not come out to afternoon recess because “she was tired”. Her teacher found she was feverish and called for help. A short time later an airplane flew past our classroom windows taking Jennifer and her mother to Minot and later to Denver where specialists could diagnose her illness but were not able to save her life.

Life does go on, but we do not forget those friends and family members who die in accidents or with rare or lingering diseases, and those memories influence us for the rest of our lives. A few years ago a family came from another state to research their history in Langdon and Dresden. They found a brother’s grave at Lebanon Cemetery and were hunting for a grandfather who is on a map but has no marker. As it happened, they stopped by the library when I was there, and the grandmother who came with them remembered me as one of her classmates. And then she looked around her and realized she was in the old depot. Panic set in in a big way. Later the family told me how odd they thought it was that she had this unusual fear of railroad tracks and the depot at Langdon. Their grandmother had been one of Caroline’s best friends and had been playing with her the evening she was killed. It was a memory so painful that in all the years between, she had never mentioned it to her family or possibly to anyone else.

Other memories are to be treasured. It is part of the reason we remember some funerals for the jokes that are told and the happy events recounted. Two funerals I remember played special songs which left everyone feeling their friends were still with them. At one, a granddaughter played “Turkey in the Straw” on her grandfather’s violin, and at the other the recessional was a polka that left the family and friends tapping their toes. These gestures comfort and make you smile. They also help those who need to heal to go on.


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