|Rolfe Alumni Essay|
|Thinking about the Season
Helen D. Gunderson
Rolfe High School Class of 1963 and RHS Web Site Editor
December 7, 2004
My mother, Marion Abbott Gunderson, age 85, died last week. The family process of preparing and participating in formal rituals to honor her life is now behind me. This week is a time to reflect on my relationship with Mother, what has transpired in recent weeks in regard to her failing health at the Rolfe Care Center, her death, the funeral arrangements, connections with family members and friends, and existential issues.
Mother and my father (Deane Gunderson, who still lives on the family farm southwest of Rolfe) were the only children in their respective families. That meant that my five siblings and I have had no aunts, uncles, nor cousins. Nor have we had to deal with the deaths of aunts, uncles, and cousins. Yes, there were the deaths of my grandparents when I was young, and indeed, some of the grief from those years continues to linger with me. However, I have not previously experienced the death of someone with whom I was so enmeshed, with the possible exception of the closeness I felt to Grandma and Grandpa, who lived on the homeplace farm three miles from the farm where I grew up.
I have known for a long time on a cognitive level that grief is not rational. Now I am experiencing the fact of that truth. I have moments of deep sadness, but I also find myself humming tunes such as, "The Day of Resurrection," "For All the Saints," and "Rejoice, Rejoice Rejoice." Indeed there is a sense of relief to know that after so many months of failing health, Mother has been able to make what I call "the Great Transition." I base that term on some of the things I have read in the The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and related Zen books. I also revert to sadness and songs such as "Song Sung Blue" by Neil Diamond and "Blue Christmas" made popular by Elvis Presley. Perhaps the most persistent tune that wafts into my consciousness is the hymn, "We Gather Together." Fortunately, the congregation sang that hymn at Motherís memorial service.
I am not sure how well I will do in finding the balance between taking the time, on one hand, to nurture myself and do some important reflection, and on the other hand, to focus and be productive. Although there is laundry, apartment-cleaning, book-keeping, and other work to attend to, I am sure I will continue to turn to family members and friends for fine conversation, visit my massage therapist, write in my journal, read scripture such as Psalm 139, and eat good quality chocolate. I also need to walk and meditate more and actually practice the wise things I know about nutrition. And I can go to the Collegiate Presbyterian Church or Unitarian Fellowship in Ames or the Shared Ministry (a merger of the Rolfe's Methodist and Presbyterian congregations) on Sunday mornings. But much of that will unfold over a period of many days, if not weeks. Hopefully, I wonít eat too much chocolate.
Today I was going through a box of materials that I brought back to Gilbert from Motherís and Dadís home on the day after the memorial service. It contained various papers that I had sent Mother in the last decade or that she had picked up from some of my photo exhibits or clipped from newspapers. The box also contained some snapshots from recent years. One document was my 1998 Christmas letter. It contained a passage that I like to think of as fodder for a parable about life written from the perspective of the tall grass prairie. I had been thinking about the concept on-and-off this past week, wondering if I had ever written down the thoughts and if I could find them on my computer hard drive. Fortunately, the letter contained the passage as well as a date, and I easily found the file.
In the past decade, I have learned much about issues of agriculture, especially about the contrast between our modern mono-culture of row crop production (corn and soybeans) and the rich bio-diversity of tall grass prairie that once upon a time covered most of Iowa. The bio-diversity of the prairie was as significant as that of the Rain Forest in other parts of the world.
I am working to return a "permanent" pasture on my farm land near Rolfe to prairie. The process involves annual prairie burns that my tenant squeezes in during the springtime after the snow thaws but before he is heavily involved in planting. Gradually, the native plant species are becoming more abundant. Unfortunately, the non-native Brome Grass will probably always dominate. I also have two tracts of land that I have taken out of row crop production, where I have planted a diverse mix of prairie seed. Most of that seed comes from a central Iowa prairie seed specialist. However, during the mid-1990s, I hand-picked some seed in the Rolfe area in the railroad right-of-way and along dirt roads where the land had never been tilled, leaving remnants of prairie. Sad to say, it has been several years since I have harvested prairie seed. Fortunately, though, in my 1998 Christmas letter, I wrote about harvesting prairie seed and how important the process was to me on a spiritual level. Here is what I said:
Often times as I drive across the Iowa countryside, I listen to National Public Radio, and just the right song is playing to fit my disposition or just the right topic is discussed to enlighten me. That happened last Wednesday morning as I drove to Rolfe to be with my father and siblings for meetings with the funeral home director and the pastor.
The guest on the "Talk of Iowa" on WOI Radio was an artist who had written a book about how artists could make their work economically viable. I was particularly interested in a point that was made both by a woman, who called the show, and the author. The essence of what they said was that an artist needs to connect with a community, feel at home there, and have a sense of place there in order to do his or her work. They also contended that an artist needs to have other connections and market his or her work to the larger world.
Part of my life journey has been the desire to be at home in a community, not just be on the move. I also have come to realize that I am an artist via my photography, video, and related projects. I also want to finish a book about my rural heritage. All I have to do is write the last chapter. Sounds easy, but the challenge lies in discerning what the focus will be and giving voice to what I want to say.
I have lived in Gilbert for over 11 years. Gradually, I am feeling at home here and am grateful for the sense of being part of the community. I am also grateful for the connections that I have in Rolfe and Pocahontas County, whether those are old acquaintances or new ones.
It has been interesting to visit Mother at the Rolfe Care Center. I often see peers of my parents, who are residents of the center, or run into my own peers, who are visiting their parents or are on the care center staff. Indeed, there have been times at the Care Center when it seemed like the social hub of the town. There is a profound feeling of understanding and compassion when connecting in a place such as that with people that share so much of my heritage.
I am also touched by the compassion that people have extended to my family and me as an individual following Mother's death. Perhaps some other day I will expand on my thoughts about these caring connections. But for now, let me simply say that the best of an old-time sense of community seems to prevail during times such as this. One of my regrets is that I have not sent sympathy cards, made phone calls, or otherwise reached out to my high school peers and other Rolfe people, who are dear to me, when they have lost a loved one.
Well, this is probably not the last that I will write in follow-up to the events of last week related to Mother's death. Mother was accustomed to telling her visitors at the Care Center that it was time for them to leave even if they had been with her for only 10 minutes. I can't recall a time when I was there with her that she either didn't say, "Helen, you don't need to stay" or directly told me it was time to go. Some times I beat her to the punch and said "good-bye" to her before she was able to give her signal. She died on Tuesday, November 30. On Saturday, November 27, toward the end of our visit, she said, "Helen, it's time for you to bid adieu."
Dad called me on Tuesday to tell me Mother had died. That evening when a dear friend, Joy, stopped for a visit at my apartment, I somewhat ashamedly told her that a polka-like tune had been bubbling through my mind but that I wasn't sure what it was. I hummed the tune. She said it sounded like "There is a Tavern in the Town." I was embarrassed to be thinking about a raucous song at such a sensitive time. The next morning I told her that I really had not been thinking about "There is a Tavern in the Town" but the words "adieu, adieu." Fortunately, Joy is a walking encyclopedia of verse and song. She sang me the chorus for "There is a Tavern in the Town." I could not believe that I had not heard it before. Her voice was tender. The words were exquisite and fitting:
So I bid adieu to you for now. As I said to family, friends, and colleagues at the end of my 1998 Christmas letter:
*Complete lyrics for "There is a Tavern in the Town."
Latest corrections and revisions made on December 9, 2004.