The radiologist’s report on my recent ultrasound was matter-of-fact: “Visualized pancreas is unremarkable.”
All of my 70-plus years I have resisted my unremarkableness. A high school English teacher once commented on the back-to-school paper I was assigned about the most exciting event of our past summer that, “Either you failed to capture the import of the story or it was not all that interesting.”
Not all that interesting. Unremarkable.
Over the Memorial Day Weekend, I visited the grave of my father, who died last July at age 90 after a several-years struggle with dementia. His mother and a sister had also been stricken with this heartbreaking disease. Many other relatives lie buried in that country cemetery in Wisconsin. Both sets of grandparents, two sets of great grandparents, one step great grandfather, and a set of great-great grandparents, in addition to an aunt and various others of my extended family tree.
Dad was a blue-collar union worker. Most of the rest were dairy farmers. (Dad would have been one, too, but Mom wanted the city.) Plain-talking, salt-of-the-earth people, all of them. Unremarkable, I suppose.
In a far corner of the cemetery lies my great grandfather Matthias, who died just after New Year’s in 1920 at age 44. In advance of Christmas he had butchered a cow for the family holiday meals and cut himself. The story was that he died of blood poisoning. My maternal grandmother, Agnes, was only 10 years old at the time. Next to Matthias lies his widow, Amanda, whom I vaguely remember as a “grandma” by another last name, as she remarried. How else to raise six fatherless children?
Not far from Mathias lies another great grandfather, Ole, who died at age 41. He had been gored by his own bull, his back broken, and had lain in agony for a month before he finally died of infection. He left behind his widow, Caroline, nine months pregnant with a son she would watch die the long, slow death of pre-insulin diabetes at age 17. Another son, Paul, my maternal grandfather, was only 1 year old. Caroline lies buried next to her second husband.
Two farm-accident “orphans” later married, Paul and Agnes, my grandparents.
One Christmas morning while it was still dark, Grandma woke to the bedroom flooded with an orange glow. The barn was engulfed in flames, the livestock trapped inside bellowing in terror until the floor of the hay loft above collapsed upon them. For days after, the acrid air smelled of smoke and burned flesh.
My first criterion in choosing a life partner was no whining.
A field full of farmers, lying in the poor and sandy soil out of which they struggled to eke out a modest living on the average 160-acre parcels of land.
One of the blessings for my family in moving to Duluth from Chicago in 1993 was finding a home in Morgan Park across the alley from my recently widowed great Aunt Helen, older sister of Agnes, now deceased. Helen became like another grandmother to us. After she died, we found a large ball of string consisting of hundreds of short pieces tied together. She, like all those in the cemetery, had known deprivation.
Those ancestors had sown their seeds, raised their families, harvested their crops, baked their bread, gone to church, and buried their dead, including some of their children. Not much about their lives was noteworthy in the large scheme of things. Unremarkable, you might say.
Except that they had all endured. They had persisted. They had loved. And they had been loved.
Quite remarkable, really.
The Rev. David Tryggestad of Duluth is a retired pastor and a regular contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page.
P.S. My back-to-school essay for my English teacher was about the week I spent at my grandparents' farm that summer.
P.P.S My wife of 50 years survived an F5 tornado that roared through her small Iowa town two weeks before her high school graduation, destroying her family's home and killing 13 people, including a student teacher.