Loren, This Pickle’s For You

By Susan Dempsey       Sept. 28, 2017

Loren, one of my many first cousins, died last night after a long battle with debilitating Loren at heathers weddingillness that started when he was young.  He was 62, and he’d suffered, especially the past couple years, with a crumbling spine and all its effects on his struggling physique. I tell you about his illness, not to garner pity, but to set the stage to tell you about his inimitable personality. Loren was a positive force in this world, and I wouldn’t doubt he’s a strong one in the next as well.

First a little background:  My mom’s large family is centered around the small rural burg of Arkdale, Wisconsin, no more than a slowed-down-speed-limit curve on Highway 21 that includes the Old Mill bar, the local post office, a Lions park and the Trinity Lutheran Church amongst a few homes and old buildings.  It’s surrounded by farms and sand-bottomed woods.  Most of my aunts and uncles settled in or near that unincorporated town, many as farmers, and a few in nearby towns.  Loren’s parents, Uncle Helmer and Aunt Myrt, stayed in Arkdale and raised their family on their farm. His family has been, and continues to be, active in church, the Lions and other civic organizations. They, like the rest of this large Norwegian/Danish farm family, work hard every day, yet they love to play and laugh together. When our grandparents were alive we gathered at their farm.  Later, we gathered for annual family reunions at area parks, committed to stay in touch as our family grew exponentially and morphed along with the modern world.

Loren was first diagnosed with arthritis when he was very young, and as he grew so did his characteristic gait.  But it wasn’t the first thing you noticed about him.  You’d note his low-key manner of speaking and way of greeting strangers that usually included a generous amount of ribbing as well as a warm welcome.  He loved to tell and hear jokes, and he had a keen wit that could deliver a zinger when you least expected it. He’d remember your name after one visit, and he’d greet you the next time by name.  Any guests I brought with me to family functions throughout the years came away with the feeling of inclusion, in large part because of Loren. They’d remember him easily when I’d ask—not an easy feat considering the multitudes to whom they were subjected.

The second thing people would notice, and perhaps one of the first things they’d recall, was his long red, recently turning whiter, beard.  When I first quizzed my husband which cousin was Loren, he asked, “the one with the ZZ Top beard?”  Yes, that was Loren.  He was the bearded one in the souped-up, bumper-stickered electric wheelchair with one of a variety of hats perched on his head and perhaps a camouflaged or Green Bay Packer shirt.  As long as he was mobile, he was in the thick of things.

When he collapsed with severe back pain and landed in the hospital about 18 months ago, he endured surgery and therapy but was paralyzed.  Family and friends went into action to raise funds to assist him and his new wife, Peg, with the mounting bills.  Everyone in the community and beyond pitched in, many noting times when Loren had helped them.  But what amazed many was his unbeatable spirit.  He continued to smile and enjoy visitors when allowed.  He would still joke with family and have great conversations with friends who stopped by to check on him.  And he continuously expressed his thanks.  This man, who had served as a coach or a mentor to youth, was an active Luther League member and the first vice president and “tail twister” of the local Lions Club, was reaping what he had sown in the expressions of caring he received.

Loren could thank the devil for putting a log in his path because he knew he had someone with him in his UTV with a chain saw to make good use of it as bonfire wood. His positive outlook and creative spirit made him the mastermind behind the antics and crazy creations of his brother and cousins too.  He helped plan and create things like racing lawn mowers or even a Frankenstein-ish hillbilly-mobile from an old minivan, just to entertain family at our annual reunions.  The last time I saw him was at our reunion in August, where everyone greeted him with hugs—we were so happy to see him there again! During the past year, whenever someone visited his bedside, his eyes would light up and he’d thank them for coming. And he’d usually joke with them still.

That was Loren, always kidding.  But once, a few years ago, he told me something that stuck with me as a new way of looking at life.  It was during my parents’ anniversary party, and we’d just served dinner.  He called me over as I passed by his table and said, “Sue, the food is really good, but you forgot the pickles.”  At first, I thought he was kidding as usual, but when I laughed he continued, “You always have to have pickles.”  I walked away thinking, “Really? All this planning for the party, and that’s what he noticed?”

Now I look back, and I realize that short conversation always stayed with me for a reason.  Why would a pickle tray be so important? It’s a condiment—a second thought, isn’t it?  Or is it? Any self-respecting gathering in rural America should include a pickle tray.  It’s a display of artisan craft, as these are usually home grown and canned varieties of sweet and savory tidbits that provide the crunch and burst of flavor that many entrees miss.  This is the added detail that shows the dedication and love of both the cook and the party host.  They are a form of sharing our heritage with every meal, as pickles have been around for centuries and often provided the only form of flavorful green during hard winters.  They are love.  How can you not be positive if you’re eating sweet bread and butter pickles made by one of your favorite aunts?

Loren was right.  There should always be pickles at a party.

As I sit here two states away from Arkdale, knowing that I can’t join my family this weekend as they celebrate Loren’s life, his spirit and his energy, I felt I needed to share this.  It’s cathartic for me to write pieces like this, but I also hope it helps others remember.  And while you visit, share stories, listen to the service, I’ll be here.  But I know that the lunch after the service at the Trinity Lutheran Church will include tables laden with great sandwiches and casseroles, but most importantly, it’ll include a pickle tray.

May you all who attend choose a pickle for your plate and say a toast to Loren with it.  “Loren, this pickle’s for you!”  May we always remember to enjoy every moment and thank God for every sweet or salty taste he offers us, until we join Loren at that big party, where I’m sure there will be some fantastic pickles.



Ode to Aunt Ginny, May 30, 2015

May 30, 2015

“Please don’t squeeze my Charmin, don’t squeeze her so tight…”

Aunt Ginny and Uncle Garland, 1978

Aunt Ginny and Uncle Garland, 1978

I still remember Uncle Garland singing that chorus at many family events. We all enjoyed it, but we all knew he sang it for Aunt Ginny. You could see the twinkle in his eyes.

What is it about her that he so loved? And what is it about her that so many of us cherish?

Virginia Pedersen Chaffee is my mom’s sister, her closest sibling in age, just a year and a half her senior. Plus they were best friends. In fact, Ginny and Gar introduced her to Dad. They were a foursome.

Some of my fondest memories of visiting Arkdale included staying at the Chaffee household overnight. Everyone there was always so busy. Aunt Ginny saw to that. She kept everyone going to get accomplished all that needed to be done around their farm.

She worked alongside Garland, cooked, and cleaned, but she also corralled her brood to keep them on task. She taught them how to work and how to have fun. If you know any of my cousins, Diana, Jerry, Nancy, Linda or Carol, then you know this is true. They are all hard-working, honest people who love to have fun.

As one of the Pedersen girls, Ginny has been known to kick up her heels with her sisters and brothers. She, Mom and her other siblings have always been known to get the giggles when they’re together. It’s one of my favorite things about them, and it’s infectious. But she–as is Mom—was shy when first meeting others. I remember one dinner at my former in-laws’ home when I thought she, another aunt (I think it was Care), and Mom were different people entirely. They were so very quiet, I could hardly believe it!

But perhaps she and her sisters had so much fun together because they felt so safe with one another, which was fostered by their parents, Hans and Hilda. While they may have had a few sibling disagreementa—as anyone with siblings does–they have always known that their love for one another is constant and strong. Their bonds have stood the test of time, of laughter and joy, of divergent paths and crossing lines, and of tragedy and grief.

Ginny lost Garland much too soon; more than 25 years ago. Yet she did not allow her grief to consume her or to keep her from sharing her bounteous love with her family. Instead she upheld all that the two of them built together. She continued to work around her home to keep it shining and productive. She was always working–until her physical being would no longer allow her to mow the grass, chop the wood, plant and water and weed, then harvest the garden, cook the meals, bake the cakes, clean the house, work in the community or volunteer at the Lutheran church.

In their later years, she, Aunt Care and Mom spent so much time with Dad chauffeuring them around that they became known as “Fred and his Harem.” They laughed about that. Dad always enjoyed their company, and he knew the joy Mom has sharing in her sisters’ lives. He may not remember much about that time now, but I know he still holds a special place in his heart for Aunt Ginny.

She’s always been easy to love, easy to hug. And now we find it hard to only hold her in our hearts and in our prayers instead of in our arms. She’ll live on in her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, of course. But she’ll also live on in good works, in her contributions to her church and community. But even more, she’ll live in our laughter together, and in our connected family. We have been given a legacy to keep our connection strong. In her name, as well as in the names of those who’ve gone before her, we will.

Meanwhile, we can all hear the last phrase of that song being sung from the heavens as Uncle Garland welcomes her and holds her again,

“She’s soft and she’s gentle, and sweet as can be,
And if Ginny needs Squeezin’, just leave that to me!”

Henry, A Eulogy

This was a eulogy delivered today in honor of my father-in-law:

Oh Henry!….Vinn….Dad….PawPaw….Mr. Dempsey…each of us here knows you from a different viewpoint. As one with the least amount of history with you, I can only touch upon a few moments of your life that represent 89—almost 90—years of a life fully lived. May I honor you as much as we are honored having known you.

He was the twin brother of Hugh, and brother to Jack, Geraldine (Booby) and Mary Rose. Henry was born May 2nd, 1925, in Potts Camp, Mississippi and reared by his country doctor father, Davis Terrell, and Mama Lois Dempsey in Kennett, Missouri.

He enlisted in the Navy in 1943. He and Mary Alice, high school sweethearts, eloped as teenagers in 1944; stealing away to Peragould, Arkansas to tie the knot, accompanied by his brother Hugh and his sister-in-law.

Henry left Mary Alice with the Dempseys to serve in the Navy and found his bunk on a merchant ship during World War II, assigned to protect her carried supplies and precious cargo. He was a member of our Greatest Generation—he was one among those courageous men and women who served our country; unfailingly devout and steadfast in their duty, yet closed-mouthed about the danger or the terror.

When he returned, he attended Southeast Missouri State to study chemistry and biology before transferring to Arkansas State in Jonesboro. He would share more war stories about sneaking off to hunt or fish with his mentor, Doctor Demery, and how he’d barely stay awake in his classes the next day, than he ever would’ve considered telling from his overseas experience.

He was a high school Chemistry teacher in Mathews, Missouri, at a time when to teach also meant to encourage, to discipline, to share morals and values, and to drive the bus.

Two years later, he moved his young family to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where Falstaff Breweries had a bottling plant, to work in Quality Control. He told me once that he travelled a territory checking the brew quality at the point of purchase—local pubs, taverns and restaurants. (It was a rough job, but someone had to do it!)

In 1961, Henry was promoted and the family moved to Camellia Drive in Webster Groves, MO. He worked at Falstaff’s headquarters until the late 70’s when the company was sold. He finished his career as Quality Control Manager at Western Lithoplate in Kirkwood. He retired in 1995.

He and Mary Alice were blessed with three children, whose deliveries were spread over 17 years. Marilyn Ann was born in 1946, Henry Vinn Jr. in 1955 and Jefferson Lee in 1963. He was a patient mentor to his daughter and sons, and he enjoyed his family foremost. He was known to take his grandsons fishing at Suson Park regularly, and he watched them grow to fine young men. He would also beam with pride over the accomplishments of one of his granddaughters or great-granddaughter.

Henry was a kidder, and he was known to pull a practical joke occasionally. He loved to tell stories about himself and his friends. He fondly remembered his friend Beefy, for instance. Jeff has told me a few stories with those two characters at the center, involving levees, the Mississippi, gigging and a few cold ones. (At least they did have a half-sized designated driver, well before their time.) He and his identical twin brother Hugh were known to pull a fast one on each other or on others as well.

He was a staunch member of Webster Hills, and he served here as an usher for 45 years. He was also an adult leader in the church-sponsored Boy Scout troop, of which his sons took part.

While I met him later in life, I can tell you he was a quiet, unassuming man who was a home body—probably just enjoying being off the road after many years of travel with work. He loved to putter around the house or hand water the beautiful azaleas and impatiens he and Mary Alice planted. But he truly just enjoyed being there. He could fix just about anything, and I believe he passed that skill on to his two boys.

Anytime he was away from home, you could tell his heart was in his own backyard, and he’d soon after arriving say, “Well I best be getting back home, she’ll be waiting.”

Whenever we had pie for dessert after a family meal, he’d ask me, “You like that? I baked it myself!” …even if I had brought it with me that day. He laughed with his eyes, a true Irishman in spirit.

The Henry we all remember started to leave us a few years ago, when Alzheimer’s struck both him and Mary Alice. They say that this unfair disease is known as the “Long Goodbye.” I’ve seen it take our parents’ best memories from them, but it won’t take our memories OF them. My own father is suffering from the ravages of this beast too.

But the confusion and sense of loss for Henry are now gone.

Henry, the Long Goodbye is now over. It’s time to go on home. Mary Alice and Marilyn and all the others are waiting.