By Susan Dempsey Sept. 28, 2017
Loren, one of my many first cousins, died last night after a long battle with debilitating illness 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.