Charlie & Opal…

I met them in 2004. They had stopped coming to church, but Charlie was still driving, doing their banking, getting groceries, taking Opal out to eat and to her hair appointments. Charlie was 96 at the time, his blushing bride of 76 plus years was 94. They got married in January of 1928, months before the devastating stock market crash. They were delightful to visit, but quite reserved. I could tell they had gone through something very painful. But it would take months before they trusted me enough to reveal their hurt parts. Coincidently, they were born the same years as my in-laws. Charlie and Jim were born in 1907, Opal and Mag in 1910. But John’s parents passed away in ’87 and ’94. Charlie and Opal were still going strong. Each would easily pass the century mark. Opal’s 100th birthday party in June of 2010. Charlie was 102 in this picture.

The first big story Charlie shared was that his great-uncle had been the 14th president of the United States. Franklin Pierce. Wow. Charlie was a wonderful storyteller and good with details. His memory was phenomenal. A real history buff. But most of what I learned from and about him was–life he had experienced. His grandmother had been a fur trader and the first woman to open a trading post in Michigan. He was more proud of her than the great-uncle-president-part. After awhile Opal would start rolling her eyes when he began rambling through yet another tale. Had to feel for the woman though. If I’d heard the stories 20 times, she’d heard them 10 times that during their three-quarter’s of a century together.

Opal was still a petite blond (with some help). Her health was pretty good. She had suffered through a horrific case of shingles years before which had settled on her face. The rest of her life she suffered debilitating nerve pain through her right eye. Probably the reason she no longer drove. She was a gifted organist and piano player, had taught lessons for many years, and belonged to the Organ Guild. She looked like a small child sitting on her huge organ bench in her house. She needed to be encouraged, but once she found her rhythm, it was a joy to hear her play. She was a great baker and made plates of Christmas goodies, gifting me (and here I was bringing them food) for a couple years before she started getting forgetful.

Charlie was famous for his peanuts. He kept a cooker in the basement and EVERY time for the first 5 years I was over for a visit, he would head to the basement to fix me a container of freshly cooked, salted peanuts. When I walked into weekly staff meetings, their first question was, did you see Charlie and Opal this week? I always brought some of Charlie’s famous peanuts to share.

They met as teenagers. Charlie was at a friends house, when out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a beautiful platinum blond walking through the hallway. When re-living this bit of their history, Charlie grabbed Opal’s hand, his chin quivered and he’d said reverently, “I thought she was the most beautiful angel I had ever seen. I knew right then and there she was the girl for me.” Opal smiled shyly, patted his hand and quipped, “say what you want Charlie. It’s not going to help you out tonight!” She had a wicked, risqué sense of humor that coursed through her, and if ANY innocent comment could be construed with a double entendre, she’d giggle helplessly for 10 minutes. Charlie was much more social, Opal more reserved (except-for-giggling-fits-over-hidden-meaning-dirty-jokes). Each year that passed I begged them to let me contact The Today Show, Good Morning America, or at least our local newspaper for recognition of yet another one of their milestone anniversaries. Charlie was always agreeable but Opal would say, “aw people don’t want to know that stuff about us.” She was very private.

We became fast friends. Had them over countless times for supper. They loved to play cards, always men against women. Gin rummy. He’d tell stories about Lake Michigan, Muskegon Lake, the Causeway between cities when under construction, hunting squirrels that Opal would can. Now that’s something I’ve never given any thought about trying to preserve!

Charlie got a job at Amazon Knitting Company after he finished 8th grade. He almost got fired the first day. The 5-story building was filled with huge knitting and sewing machines which employed over 500 people, mostly women. Charlie was hired as a sweeper. He wanted to show them how ambitious he was, so was sweeping with great enthusiasm and fervor. The fibers from all that yarn had been quietly piling up on the floor. Soon Charlie had yarn dust flying everywhere. It actually stopped several of the knitting lines because the dust entered the machines, halting production. Chastised, he soon learned how to carefully sweep the fibers and keep them from heading upward.

They had an only child, a son Charles Jr. nicknamed Buddy, who died at age 22 from a ruptured appendix in 1950. This was such a painful part of their lives, I just couldn’t ask any questions about him or his death.

Charlie had just traded his Caddy for a Lincoln. After a couple months he told John he hated the Lincoln. It was too big for the garage, and it was sporting several new dings to prove his point. He took the Lincoln in to trade and got another Caddy. A couple weeks later we stopped to pick them up for supper, (we always insisted on driving when we went anywhere with them, sorry Charlie) he was still moaning about his ordeal with the car dealer. The problem? He had planned on financing part of the car, and they told him he was too old for a loan! He needed to pay cash. He was 99 at the time. Hilarious. Paying for the car was not a hardship for him.

By this time he was facing some physical challenges. Walking wasn’t easy and he was losing strength in his legs. He asked John to get information on those elevator chairs you put on stairs to glide you up and down. John gave him the info, Charlie ordered 2 so he could still use the basement for his peanut frying hobby. Plus he had an office and his bedroom upstairs. Opal too was having some health issues. Her forgetfulness was getting worse. Then she fell in a parking lot suffering a couple of back compression fractures. Her spine just kind of collapsed on itself. She had surgery, needed some rehab. The place was nearby so Charlie could visit everyday. Later, he broke his shoulder slipping on the ice, trying to put his garbage container away. He never remembered anything after falling outside that frigid night. Told me countless times, in tears, it was God who picked him up, brought him back to the house, woke up Opal so she could call 911. He had seen God plain as day that night. I never questioned this because I believed him.

One day while I was visiting, Charlie showed me some papers. They were dated back as far as 1914. His school achievement certificates for perfect attendance. I told him if he ever wanted to part with any, I’d love to have one. “Please pick one, they’ll just get thrown out after I’m gone,” he assured me. I did, though not the oldest one. Took it immediately to Hobby Lobby to have it matted and framed. Hung it in our front hallway. A few weeks later when they came over for supper, I stopped him after he walked through the front door. Pointed to his framed attendance award and told him how proud I was to have it hanging in my house. He got out a hankie and just stared at it. Grabbed and patted my arm, sniffling said, “Denise, it’s me who’s honored by what you’ve done. Thank you.”

(Charlie’s framed certificate is packed away while we wait-slowly-for our house to sell. This is one of my brother Larry’s awards I just found, similar, but missing the Michigan state seal, and of course 40 years later).

Charlie & Opal are now reunited with Buddy. The raw pain of the loss of their only son no longer etched on their faces. Charlie died peacefully at home a couple months after his 103rd birthday in January 2011. Three weeks shy of their 83rd wedding anniversary. Unbelievable. Sharp until the day God took him home. Didn’t think Opal would last long without him. She was pretty forgetful and could no longer stay in their house alone. Moved to an assisted living place with her piano and lived about 18 months until June of 2012, a couple weeks after she turned 102. She had some razor sharp moments and I got her to play for me a couple of times. One visit we went for a walk through the halls, then back to her room and sat on her bed. I handed her chocolate chip cookie I had brought. She looked over on her night stand and spotted a piece of paper. “What’s that?” I picked it up. It was a note from her niece, so I read it to her. Said something like, “Hi Aunt Opal! I had such a nice time with you. I won’t be able to come and visit you tomorrow because I have to stay home and do my hair.” Love, Dawn. Opal turned her head towards me and said incredulously, “what a crock! I’ve seen her hair. That DOES NOT take all day!” My turn to laugh. Thanks Opal.
Charlie & Opal, both in their upper ’90’s, standing in front of their fireplace. I have never met another couple before or since them more devoted to each other.

Not in a mushy way, but in a quiet, dignified, serene way. Made you feel warm and envious of what they had and shared. Although it was only 6 years, it was an honor to know and love them. Thanks God…


Two Fish…

My continuing saga of being Parish Visitor (PV) for more than a decade in two churches. Best job I ever had. I have loved older people since I was very young. But this job managed to have me work for 4 horrible bosses in a row. All were ministers. What are the odds? I’m bitter, full of resentment, and know I need to move past my bad feelings towards them. I’d like to forgive them, and hope by writing the story it will be a therapeutic start. This dude, Two Fish (TF) is the hardest one to get past.

Exquisite house of God, but a political cesspool inside…


Deep breath. We were staying under the church’s radar. Not signing attendance sheets because we didn’t want cards or calls. A beautiful church, stately. In a terrible neighborhood. Dying downtown area, and rough. Thugs, drugs, & robberies. Hadn’t always been that way. Fifty years ago the size of the congregation was over 1600 members, and was considered a neighborhood church. As of 2012 weekly attendance hovered around 160. Ten percent of 50 years ago. This was not all the church’s fault or their location, but location was a biggie. I think religion as a whole had taken a big hit in the last 30 years. When I was a kid there were no ifs, ands or buts about going to church. You went to church EVERY Sunday morning. A different world then. Not as many women worked outside the home, so weekends were slower. There were no kids travel basketball, baseball, hockey or soccer leagues. Now moms are trying to squeeze all that, plus what needs to be done in 2 days, while putting in 40-60 hours a week outside the home. Then we played on Saturday while Mom cleaned the house and baked. Almost everyone in my town went to church on Sunday. Sometimes more than once a day.

Soon after joining this church, the preacher, TF sought me out. Asked me to apply for the PV position. I said no. The man currently doing the job was retiring because his wife needed care. TF inquired again. Said I’m not interested, sorry. Couple months later he called me to his office. Asked me to give careful prayer consideration and apply for the job. Ok God, I give up. This was my calling, I knew it. Filled out the application, had an interview with TF and Bob. Bob and his wife were responsible for the endowment that paid for this position. They started it with seed money years earlier after a terrible accident claimed the life of one parent, left the other one in bad shape. That parent had pretty much been forgotten by the church, so the fund was started. Requiring the church to hire a person just to visit folks who no longer attended regularly.

So I was never paid out of Sunday morning collections or pledges. This endowment, now humongous, also paid for any continuing education classes. Many were offered and I took a lot of them, learning all I could about dementia, Alzheimer’s, sundowners, medication issues. Classes on the caregivers, the spouses, relatives, grown children, who no longer went out for lunch, card clubs, the Y, even ignoring their own health by not going to the doctor or dentist because all they had time for was caring for their loved one. This job fit me to a T. Biggest problem I had was finding my way around town. I didn’t know where any of the facilities were, and home addresses were even worse. I hauled a map of the city with me for a year.

Many things were different than the “One Fish” church. (A post a few days ago, aptly titled, One Fish, yeah, I’m clever like that) The building was a city block long. The staff in this church was enormous. Over a dozen people sitting around the table at weekly staff meetings. Granted a couple positions were volunteer, still the church was not that much bigger in congregation size, but the budget was almost 3 times the size of our previous church. This 80 year old building was a pretty demanding mistress and required a lot of money for maintenance and upkeep. Had full time positions for the minister, office manager, choir director/organist, janitor, and chaplain. Part-timers were a couple of bookkeepers, youth director, maintenance man, children’s director, adult Sunday school director, and a cleaning crew from an agency to do odd jobs.

A few months after I was hired, TF fired the children’s director. Calmly walked into staff meeting, with his little catch phrase I would soon learn to detest, “with much prayer and discernment, blah, blah, blah.” The young gal, a member, whose mom had just passed away from an aggressive cancer, had also been a member. At the time, I thought it was really bad timing. He should have waited, or not fired her at all. We only had about a dozen children in the church, half of which tagged along with grandparents or great-grandparents.

Of the 4-lousy-minister-bosses though, TF was the ONLY one that visited my little people and enjoyed it. Often he would call with, “I’m leaving work at 3:30 on Wednesday. Who do you think I should see?” You have no idea how much older folks appreciate getting a surprise visit from the minister. Often made their year. Usually though, I had several on my list who had serious health concerns, upcoming surgeries or facing a move to independent or assisted living. He usually headed to see them.

TF hired a new children’s director out of the blue. We’ll call him Blue Boy, (BB). BB, new in town, had strolled into church one weekday with his wife because they admired the building’s architecture. Huh. After he was hired they moved into the church’s upstairs apartment. That would be part of his job, security at night and weekends. Wasn’t very long though before sparring between the 2 of them was noticeable during staff meetings. TF wanted BB to always base his Sunday children’s message on the scripture for that morning’s sermon. BB did not feel that necessary and did not abide. Then there was a big snafu with a huge outdoor free picnic to be held in our parking lot for anyone who wanted to come. A local celebrity, an elephant had been booked to be the star attraction, but hadn’t been confirmed months before. BB’s responsibility. Elephant would be a no show after we advertised it big time. Fired BB the next week.

Wasn’t easy getting them out of the apartment and BB had a lot of parental support from the church. TF took out a police restraining order on him from entering the building! Then contacted all the surrounding churches warning them about BB. Wow. District higher-ups came down hard of TF, made him rescind those false statements so BB would drop his threatened lawsuit. By now, I was very disillusioned with TF. Thought he had lost his marbles, and told him exactly that during staff meetings. Said he had lost all of his credibility, and to please stop shooting himself in the foot.

TF hired another full time children’s director. Wonderful young woman. Fired her 4 months later-at 10:30 pm while she was house-sitting a friend’s place out in the boonies. Crazy. He was off the reservation. Hauling the then 80 year old woman who was the chair of SPRC (staff parish relations committee). This title was a misnomer anyway. It was TF-parish relations, not staff.

Basically though, my little ministry went unchanged. I got new folks added to my list while sadly, others passed away. My job was kind of a constant. But the church was doing badly. Attendance was down, worse, the money coming in was WAY down. With a $100,000 shortfall looming, some big cuts were going to have to be made. Letter after letter had been sent out to the congregation, (a big turn-off) asking for more, more, more money. Things were dismal. TF announced in staff meeting that everyone was going to take a hit. We each needed to meet with him and the new SPRC Chair (young punk, hand picked by TF of course) in the next 2 days. Thought I’d probably have to take a 3-hour cut each week. But my salary wasn’t paid out of pledges or collection, so I wasn’t worried. Oh boy.

My 15 minute appointment started at 10:15. I walked in and sat down. SPRC guy did not say one word. TF started, “Denise you’re doing a great job, the people of the church love you, those you visit especially love you, but we’re eliminating your position. We’re giving your hours to the chaplain. Take a week to say your good-byes.” No prayers, hugs, certainly no remorse and I walked out the door. It was 10:18. Should have seen this one coming, but I didn’t. TF certainly couldn’t get rid of the chaplain, she made his job much easier, regularly doing sermons and funerals. Stunned and shocked, I sobbed all the way home. John took it harder than I did. Maybe even a tad vindictive. We both knew why I was let go. Criticizing TF-a lot. And I was very vocal about his bizarre behavior. A couple hours after I got home, the music director stopped by. He had heard early that morning what TF had planned for me. Music guy had gone to TF’s office and asked if he really realized what the ramifications would be if he let me go? TF had already decided it was worth it.

When I could think rationally again, the magnitude of what he had really done hit home. The 4-top full time positions at church were told they would be taking a 10% pay cut. TF, office manager, chaplain, and music director. All 4 had spouses who had great jobs. Of the spouses, one was a city employee, one worked for the church at the district level, one as chaplain at a hospital, one was a minister. I earned about $12,000. a year. My hubby, John had bought a small manufacturing plant 10 years before. He had been doing ok until the recession hit, and a huge contract he landed had been reneged. John had bought new equipment for the job, ready for a run-off, now not making any parts. This was about 3 months before my fateful firing. John closed the plant and filed business bankruptcy. If anyone can tell me this was the right Christian thing to do, I’m listening. It was spiteful, ruthless and hateful. Guess I haven’t moved past it yet. Nope.

But that is not the end of the story. Majority of church folks were outraged and demanded a detailed explanation on how letting me go, when my job was not part of the budget dilemma was going to help this church? Meanwhile the couple who started the endowment called and took me out to lunch. They brought the original paperwork of the requirements of the PV job. If the chaplain added my job to hers, she couldn’t be chaplain anymore. Since she took home more than 3 times what I made, that wouldn’t make her very happy. Endowment couple didn’t think TF had the right or grounds to fire me. “Hang in there Denise, this is not over.” Plus they had noticed discrepancies in the parish visitor fund. It was down, way down. They hired outside lawyers to help sort it out.

Usually 30 people show up for these meetings. This one had a hundred-mad-as-hell-folks. Very humbling. TF gave it a good fight. He had listed 7 points for various cuts, my position was one of them. Stressed strongly it was a package deal, all or nothing. Folks disagreed. Motioned and seconded to have my job elimination taken out. Still unclear was the endowment situation. Couldn’t keep paying me my usual rate until the fund again grew to a healthy sum, or soon it would be depleted. TF shouted from the microphone, “well Denise, how do you feel about having your wages cut in half?” JERK. To which I replied, “you had me down to zero, so half is better than nothing!” It was emphasized that we had to start adhering to the guidelines of the endowment. I would no longer be required to attend staff meetings or make the CD’s every week. A waste of my hours since I would be working less. Ok by me, I didn’t want to see him again, let alone be in the same room every week.

A lot of people were unhappy with him since that stunt. He had been there 9 years, 4 too many. Between 2005-2009 he had fired about 8 people. Soon, a petition was circulated to have him moved and signed by many members, yup, including me. Not all loved or supported this gesture either. The church was in a world of hurt. TF was replaced by an interim preacher, whom we were assured by our district superintendent was “trained to heal broken churches.” Oh my. He was HOPELESS. More on him later. I would stay another 5 years and 2-more-lousy-minister-bosses. My cross to bear. Beginning to think maybe they weren’t bad odds. Just a lot of lousy ministers…


The Farm…

Can you believe it? For a time this Rock Valley city slicker lived on a FARM. With 2 kids. And no car. Hubby was commuting daily to Cedar Rapids, about 40 miles away. Mid-70’s, John had finally escaped the clutches of the 5-whack-brothers in Dyersville. Neither of us felt like this was a permanent situation, so we resisted the urge to move again. Tough on John because his day was long. Commute wasn’t fun, even less when driving a junker that required constant attention to make that daily drive. But not exactly a picnic for me either. See above: 2 kids, no car and a driveway from hell.

Hanging out a load of wash. Even outside, they smelled of hogs…


Almost spring when we moved in and the house came complete with their last Christmas tree. Or maybe it was from the year before. The trunk was still upright, but everyone of the 82,467 needles were snuggled deep into the carpet. Since Josh was of the age where eating anything off the floor was his favorite past time, my first job was staying a couple feet ahead of him. The closest town was Cascade, population 1700, about 15 minutes from New Vienna/Dyersville, my Catholic-ville story. Shannon was 5-1/2.

Our first and last time in 45 years of living on a farm. The house was set so far back, I couldn’t see the gravel road. The drive-way was gravel, dirt and large rocks. And long. Very long. The highlight of my day was walking Joshua in the stroller to get the mail. Wrote and received a lot of letters. I actually wore out a set of tires on that stroller, the drive-way was so bumpy. Think it might have been responsible for the loss of a few of Shannon’s baby teeth. Seems like I never had to give that last little tug. She’d step on a rock the wrong way, jarring her mouth, and another payment from the tooth fairy was in order. Many days Josh and I made that miserable trip twice, walking or bouncing along to meet Shannon when she got off the bus.

With so much time on my hands, I did hone some new exciting skills, finally. Cooking and baking. We did not buy a loaf of bread for over a year. I made home made bread, buns, cinnamon rolls twice a week. Baked something almost everyday. Learned to cook some decent suppers. The best thing though were the pies. The yard-grove had several apple trees, and I became a pretty good pie maker. Never did learn the name of that one specific tree, but they were still the best pie apples I’ve ever used. Green, tart, hard, but not a Granny Smith.The house was surrounded by crops. John was in hunting heaven. A mere 50 feet to all the pheasants he and our German Shorthair pointer, Anja could track, shoot and eat.


I was heading to the basement to get some meat out of the freezer. We had an old chest type from the Stone Age, but it kept all my newly found culinary masterpieces hard as a rock. My beautiful assorted fruit pies, numbering around 100, plus meats, and breads were swimming in a big pot of nasty smelling juices and blood. Couldn’t believe my eyes. My old freezer had taken it’s last gasp. No wait, much worse. It was unplugged. Why that stinking, miserable, mister-fix-it-hubby-of-mine had been down there a couple days before trying to improve his master-building skills. The whole basement had one outlet. John had been using power tools, thus had to unplug my freezer. Oh, there would be hell to pay. Hell. To. Pay. Slammed the lid shut and stomped upstairs crying at my huge loss. No way was I cleaning that up. The stuff was irreplaceable. We were through the fruit seasons, and we could barely afford to buy meat in the first place, let alone replace it. But for one blessed night while we lived there, not one solitary hog feeder lid was ever raised or clunked back down. While we slept soundly and noiselessly, the hogs feasted on the contents of my freezer. And I did not lift one finger to help, but sure fumed about it for awhile.

One of fondest memories about the farm was the yard. We had a nice yard and the kids and I were out there a lot. Little swimming pool kept them cool. We bought Joshua a little plastic lawn mower. He followed John around the yard every time he mowed.

We were attending a church in Cascade. The disco-era-church-going-kids.

We were renting a farm house from Bob. Strange dude trying to earn the title for: owner of the most farm land, most cattle, biggest dairy herd, most hogs while moving his family to squalor. I think he won that award. Our newly rented digs was the former home to Bob, wife Maryanne and their young daughter. A nice, sunny 2-story. But Bob needed to be closer to the milk cows, so he packed up his little family and moved to a horribly dilapidated house down the road a piece. (Yes I even picked up farm lingo) Which is why the nice farm house was available. Always felt sorry for Maryanne. Treated much worse than their hired man, who was treated badly she put in long days helping Bob with all kinds of back-breaking, unappreciated labor, all the while being belittled and criticized by “Bob the farmer.” I was watching them one day from the window when Maryanne got kicked by a cow hard enough to knock her to the ground. Bob sang out his sweet, melodious epitaphs for 10 minutes before she managed to get up. Let’s just say Bob and I would not have endured a very long-lasting relationship. There wouldn’t have been a need for birth control on his part, and he would have been known as “steer” throughout the farming community.

Cascade actually had its own public elementary school. Yay. One year old Joshua and mommy would be left to our own devices.

Farm also had lots of livestock. Some feeder cattle but mostly hogs. Long before hog or cattle confinements were popular, but might as well have been. The hog feeders were on the ground, with individual feeding stations. Kind of resembled a cut pie. With a top crust. They were wedged with a lid covering each pie-shape. The hog would stick his snout under the lip of the lid, lift it up, gorge and snort for awhile, then drop the lid back down with a clunk. Hundreds of hogs doing this night-and-fricking-day. Took us about a year to be able to sleep through this noise. (Where was my hearing loss when I really needed it?) One beautiful summer day, about 100 hogs got out of their pen and decided to root through my garden for a nice change of pace meal. My first and last attempt at growing my own stuff. Still think this is what turned me off from growing anything. But that’s why God made farmer’s markets.

Shannon riding her own tractor, 1976.,,

The next night John walked in the house from work with this bit-o-news: “Bob the farmer” had stopped him on the road home. Told him he was having 2 expert veterinarians from Iowa State come to the farm that night. Several of his hogs had dropped dead. The vets were coming to determine what had killed them. My heart just stopped. The hogs were kicking the bucket over my rotten food. (And the only good nights sleep in a year) I’d be arrested! I ran out to the pen hysterical. All the fat little farts were doing just fine. Hubs was yanking my chain. I’m still astounded he pulled that little stunt. He should have been filled with remorse, chagrined-not giving me a ration of shit.

Shannon was going to be in her first Christmas program. John was helping her memorize her lines. She had it down pat, but dad was worried about the volume. She was not comfortable in the decibel range he thought necessary so Josh and I could hear her in the back of the church. He constantly encouraged her to articulate, slowly and LOUDLY. Her part was a sing-songy lyric about advent. There is no possible way to write what she sounded like that night. My face still burns with embarrassment. Sorry Shannon, this was not your fault. I guess the best word describing it is crescendo. The line repeated several times was, “4 candles in a ring.” The “4 candles” part was perfect, nice and loud. The “in a ring” part broke the sound barrier, shattering a couple stained glass windows. Luckily these were on the sides, saving the kids, and us in the back. I was back there in case Josh got noisy. Fear not mommy, nothing could top our daughter’s solo. After a couple trips to the doctor for shattered ear drums for those sitting nearby, the whole congregation was ready to move on and tackle a new year. Good job daddy…

Shannon 6, Cascade, Iowa. 1977…








One Fish…

Gonna be upfront with you. I’ve got issues. I haul around this humongous set of luggage chuck full of guilt and regrets. I have some resentment. Better change some to a lot. About my parents, sister, my former bosses and the church. The Methodist Church. Haven’t been a Methodist very long. About 15 years and 4 ministers. My resentment shows up occasionally in my blogs. OK, need to change the occasionally to many. I realize this is unhealthy for me and I need to move on. But I’m quite famous for my grudges. Holding onto them for awhile. No, let’s forget awhile. We’ll go with years. I’ll stop now.

My first stint as Parish Visitor…

I’m not good at forgiveness either. I’m really not a good Christian. Not going to get me very far when I plead, “God don’t forget all those soups, canned goods, breads and pies I made and gave away.” No, good works are not going to get me past the pearly gates. Besides they weren’t even that good. Plus, this isn’t the way I want to be remembered. Since the blog is about me, if you find my trying to work through my issues distasteful, stop reading. I need to forgive some people from my past. Still detect a morsel of bitterness though. A work in progress.

In the past 20 years, I’ve had 5 bosses. One great McDonald’s owner-operator-and 4 preachers when I did my parish visiting stints in 2 churches. This is about preacher number 1. Really what are the chances of having 4 lousy ministers bosses in a row? Might be noticing a pattern here. Just saying.

We’ll call the first guy, “One Fish.” I have no respect for any of the 4, thus the blog. One Fish did have some good traits. He was the only one of the 4 who did not read his entire sermon. And his sermons were pretty good, until the political barracuda came out on the pulpit. Good job Denise, pointing out his redeeming qualities. On my way!

One Fish liked what I was doing. Just finishing up my Stephen Ministry training in his church. A 50-hour course in the art of listening. Tricky for a deaf person, but my hearing loss was not as bad 15 years ago. A one-on-one program connecting a Stephen Minister with a person from the congregation who is going through a traumatic time. Divorce, health issue, death, job loss. One Fish showed up at our class one night with a dilemma. The retired pastor he had hired years before for visiting was having serious health problems. One Fish (from now on being referred to as OF. I’m already tired of typing it). OF was asking for volunteers to take over visiting the elderly. My hand shot up before he finished the request. This congregation was a healthy mix of young families, empty nestors and elderly. After a few months he needed to hire someone permanently for the job. But not necessarily me. He wanted some pulpit help, an occasional sermon on Sunday and help with funerals, leaving me out. Tough job for 9 bucks an hour. OF gave up looking, and hired me, 20 hours a week. My visiting wasn’t limited to just the older folks though. I’d visit families with new babies, bringing them a meal (can’t forget all my good works God) and new people trying out the church.

When visiting, if I felt the person needed a deeper, spiritual conversation, I’d e-mail OF and request that he please stop by and see them. Several older gals had mentioned that OF never looked their way on Sunday mornings. One lady put it this way, “he’s been here for 9 years and doesn’t know my name.” Yikes. Not good. I needed to get him on board with these sometimes forgotten people. I e-mailed him (he was not a believer in staff meetings) asking if every other Sunday, could he spend 5-10 minutes speaking to those little folks who were already in their pews waiting for church to start? He e-mailed me a long letter on how busy he was trying to run a church of this size by himself. He couldn’t be distracted before, during or after the service. (Really, my little folks were not the movers and shakers. He didn’t want to say, “how are you?” cause he didn’t want to take the time to hear their answers.) I specifically asked him to visit a member in Hospice care while I was on vacation. He did not. When I reprimanded him (yeah, I can be kind of ballsy) he finally did go. But talked the whole time about his kid in college. Never asked the Hospice guy how he was doing, or his wife on how she was coping with it all.

An older member named Phylis lived near me. She had been a widow for several years. She had a son in town and a daughter about a hundred miles away. One Sunday during church it was announced that her son (in his 50’s) had fallen down the basement steps the night before and had died from the injuries. After church John and I went home, changed clothes and ate lunch. Told John I was going to see Phyl for a few minutes. She was home alone. Pretty sure she was in shock. We talked, cried and prayed. The next morning I headed for the disciple class taught by OF. After class I asked him how Phylis was doing? He hadn’t been there yet! They were playing phone tag. It must have been more important to be home that afternoon and night, then class the next day than to stop and see her. She was about a mile from him.

Each minister have their own gifts. I realize that. Of the 4, only 1 enjoyed visiting my little people. Some worked well with the youth, some at running the business end, others were great recruiters. But just because you might not enjoy part of the job, or find it immensely rewarding, doesn’t excuse you. This job involved more than preaching on Sunday. And I really didn’t ask any of them to step in very often. Truthfully, I can say about 95% of those I visited thought more of me than any of the 4 preachers-combined.

The day after all our lives changed on 9/11, I stopped at church to pray for the victims and their families. OF was headed for his office at the same time. As we were talking about the World Trade Center, he said he thought it was our fault. America was getting what we deserved. First time ever, I was speechless. He didn’t want to visit those I loved when asked, and thought the U.S. was at fault when terrorists bombed us. That Christmas Eve, his sermon was 3 love stories of the bible. Smack-dab in the middle, he said American guns were being used to kill Palestinians. Now where did that come from? Got nothing to do with the message. I went home and wrote him a scathing letter condemning his political views and statements from the pulpit. No one else got the chance to voice their opposing views up there. I was in church because I needed God’s word to help me get through the week, not OF’s personal agenda in favor of Arafat. The pulpit was not the right venue, and please keep his views to himself when he was up there.

They say the church is the people. I loved the people of the church. Ok, one cute story. Really not so cute, more of a blundering idiot on my part. I was visiting Marge. Really sharp lady, but eyes problems and walking issues. Getting ready to leave and said, “well I’m off. (most folks who know me are aware of this already) I still have to stop and see Bill and Amy.” Marge countered, “you visit them? I know them both well.” “Yes,” I continued, ” I love visiting them. Bill tells the best stories. I usually try and stop there last in the day cause I stay so long. They’re just about my favorites!” Silence. She nodded, smiled at me, and said quietly, “I hope someday I can be your last visit of the day.” Oh Denise.

Surprisingly they both fit quite nicely inside my big mouth…

Lately going to church was making me angry and depressed. When you’re filled with disgust watching the man up front, it’s time to worship God somewhere else. Heavy-hearted, I put in my notice. We started church shopping. I was gonna sit in a pew, get as much from the sermon as possible, walk out and not get involved again. Of course, that didn’t quite match up to the plans God had for me…



Mildred & Charlie…

Mildred wasn’t on my “parish visitor list” yet. Close to 80, she was still driving. (part of the problem) But a recent car accident had put her there. I stopped to see how she was doing. She promptly lifted her blouse so I could marvel at the perfect outline of the steering-wheel-bruise on her chest. She was a retired teacher, widowed a few years before, no children. Had a cat named Charlie she had adopted from a friend who moved away.

Mildred, around 2005…

She was fiesty, stubborn, argumentative. A life long Lutheran who had left her church of 50 years in a huff, (her father had been the pastor there for over 30 years) and joined Central several years before. After 3 or 4 visits, Mildred had healed up and leased a new car. Whew, I breathed a sigh of relief. She was ornery. Joke was on me. God, always able to humble you when He thinks you need it, had other plans for me and Mildred for the next few years. She broke her ankle, back on my list. Then she broke her shoulder, falling down her slippery steps, which required surgery and a rehab stint. Back on my list. A second car accident would keep her home-bound, but she relied (demanded actually) on folks from Central to take her to book club, women’s circle and church services. Now she was on my list for better or worse.

Mildred joined Central after 50 yrs at Samuel Lutheran…


It started innocently enough. She had a prescription that needed to be picked up, and would I mind getting a few groceries? Well, it was close by so I took the list. Soon she would have a couple things she “desperately needed” every few days. I wouldn’t and couldn’t count these as parish visitor hours. She’d be the only one I’d see, taking up all my hours for the week. I really didn’t mind helping her. After talking to my PHD psychologist daughter Shannon (meaning she talked, I listened) who said I needed to establish some boundaries. I put on my suit of armor, light-saber-weapon in hand, and marched up her steps. (Costume was very heavy, my legs couldn’t bend, and I was really sweating, bad sign Mildred) 1. I can’t always come when you snap your fingers. 2. I will go to the store for you once a week, exception would be a new prescription. 3. You have to stop calling me all the time. That wasn’t so hard, but kind of scary. She agreed.

We kind of got in a rhythm. She’d have her list ready when I called. I’d pick up her groceries, pills, stamps and greeting cards-birthday-get well-sympathy, by the skid. She truly had an amazing card ministry going on. She sent out 200 Christmas cards each year. I don’t know 200 people. I now picked up cat food by the case and big bags of kitty litter. I took her to the doctor, dentist, and the beauty shop every 4 months for a haircut and perm. What’s with little old ladies and frizzy perms?

Mildred’s cat, Charlie, 2006…

She did find ways to keep herself occupied at home. She had written a couple books about Muskegon years before on Lakeside and Pinchtown. Her new mission was her family history. But it would be me finding a publisher, and making boo-koo trips to the post office to mail them.

I mailed 75 out to 50 different addresses, 2007…

She often asked for my advice which she RARELY took. Example: she had leased a new car months before, then wrecked it, losing her license. Now GM wanted the money to fulfill her lease obligation. I told her to just pay it. Nope, she had lawyers for that stuff. Months later she told me she had to pay off the lease, plus outrageous legal fees. Oh Mildred. This law firm also had power of attorney for her. I did my best to change her mind. Doris was a friend of hers and a wonderful Christian woman who would do what was best for her, but that was-a-no-go-either. Mildred’s lawyers would take care of everything. I did convince her to get an order from her doctor saying it was dangerous for her to go down the steps, trudge through the snow for the mail. Now the mailman brought it to her door (usually waiting for it with an outstretched arm).

Mildred’s L O N G history, 401 heavy pages….

Stopped in wearing my parish visitor hat with communion for her (she wasn’t attending often anymore). Immediately she says, “got a reminder card from the vet. Charlie needs a shot, and he hasn’t been feeling well. I already made an appointment.” Sigh. No, groan. Hauled Charlie to the vet to get his shot, but the vet was too busy for an exam. “Bring him back in 2 days.” (Are you kidding me?) Mildred looked at the vet and asked, “what church do you go to?” (She had that same curious, rude behavior as my dad!) Exasperated, the vet shoots a few daggers her way (I ducked), “Mildred we’ve talked about this many times. I’m here to take care of Charlie. It’s none of your business what I believe, or if and where I attend.” I was shooting a few daggers of my own-at him. Not for his smart-ass answer, but that I had to come back. (You couldn’t just take a few extra minutes to check him out now, while we’re here, cozily discussing religion with our tea and crumpets?)

Mildred & her brother Eugene, about 1928…

Mildred was not walking well, and it took her hours to catch and cage Charlie. I didn’t volunteer for that duty. I told her if she caught him, I would bring him back to the vet myself. Even though she did not feel well, she wanted to come. So back to the vet. Charlie had some tests and we were waiting for the results. The Vet, (still of unknown faith, church affiliation, and whereabouts on Sunday’s) walked in with the x-rays. He explained that Charlie didn’t feel well because he had a large tumor blocking his stomach. He couldn’t swallow, and would die soon, painfully if she didn’t do something about it. We talked it over and she decided to have him put to sleep, but she would NOT have him cremated. Vet brought in Charlie, who for the first time ever, lay quietly in his cage with the door open while we petted him and said goodby. I sobbed through it all. Mildred was stoic. She wanted to bring him back home. I argued, “Mildred, it’s 80 degrees. You don’t have air-conditioning. I’m not going to bury Charlie!” She was adamant. We drove around back and the vet brought Charlie wrapped in a towel and laid him in his cage. The Vet put his hand on my shoulder and said, “thanks for doing this with Mildred and being here for her.” Ok, I take back some of the daggers.

Driving back to her house, she mused, “you know Denise, I was worried about this. Wondered what would happen to Charlie if something happened to me first? Now I don’t to worry about that.” I put Charlie in the spare bedroom (still bawling, what’s up with that?) and told Mildred I wouldn’t leave until she had some definite plans. She called Doris and Dick who gladly came over to help with Charlie.

Mildred and Conrad’s wedding, 1947…

A couple weeks later, John and I returned from a long weekend away. A funeral, (preacher’s mom) and Shannon’s PHD graduation party. I was leaving for Davenport, Iowa in 2 days to visit some old friends. Time to catch up with them and play some double-deck euchre. I wanted to get Mildred stocked up before I left. I called a couple times but no answer. She didn’t always tell me when she was going somewhere, but I usually knew her whereabouts. I headed to her house. There was a thick stack of mail rubber banded to her screen door handle. That does not bode well. She always got her mail pronto. The big door was open, the screen door locked, and a light was on. I yelled, no answer. Please God, don’t let her be at the bottom of the basement steps with a broken hip. I ran over to the neighbors who had a back door key, (“don’t worry about me Denise, the neighbors have a key and will always watch out for me”). Yeah, right. The key lady was gone. Called John. “What should I do? I think she’s hurt, I’m gonna break in.” Didn’t hear or heed his advice to call 911.

I took my car key, slit the screen, slipped my hand in and unlocked the door. Ran inside, but instead of heading to the basement stairs, stopped dead in my tracks. Turned and walked to her bedroom doorway. She was laying on the bed. Dressed, barefoot, her glasses on the dresser. Looked as though she laid down for a nap and never woke up. Hysterical now, I call the cops. Why hadn’t I waited outside on the steps? The 911 operator questioned if she was dead? What? No please, I can’t check for her pulse. She was not a good color, but I did touch her foot at the 911 operator’s insistence. Which was ice cold. I ended up waiting a couple hours while the county coroner cleared me. Well, I did break into her house. He had to rule out foul play. That was oddly disconcerting. This was a Tuesday morning. I had talked to her Thursday night. I think she died on Friday, though her death certificate would read Tuesday. The Thursday paper was on her Duncan Phyfe table, but Friday through Monday’s mail and papers were untouched stuck in the front and back doors. Guilt ridden that she died alone, gobs more guilt because I cried more over my loss of Mildred (and Charlie) than I did for Dad. Too traumatic I guess.

When I was arguing, to no avail, a couple years before to convince her to spend the winter months in a safer environment, Mildred had walked me through her house. Trying to show me how able-bodied she was. She had some neat stories and pictures of her having dinner with Gerald R. Ford at Western Michigan University. She had been on their Board of Trustees for about 20 years. Told me about the big Swedish dinners she used to have in that small house for 100 people at a time. And the story about Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois where her father taught when she was young. He had been given 2 matching antique oak stacking bookcases. Small world. We had lived in Davenport right across the Mississippi, but John had worked in Rock Island at J.I. Case.

Mildred removed beds to seat more folks at her Swedish dinners…

A few weeks after her death, the “law firm” called and asked my opinion on what I thought should be done with all her possessions? I suggested an estate sale and gave her the top 3 dealers in the area. She called back and said they had decided on an auction instead. Huh, they didn’t take my advice any better than Mildred had. What she said next left me speechless. I was in Mildred’s will. Stunned. When could I pick up what she left me? Needed to get it out of the house before the sale. Her will stated it was my choice of the antique oak stacking bookcases. Then it read, “she is not to have any of the contents.” Bookcases were filled with mugs from various places she and her husband, Connie had visited. I thought that was kinda funny.

The auction was a bust. They could have doubled the profits had the lawyers listened to this long-time-antique-nut-who-loves-estate-sales. I had been in her house hundreds of times but was amazed at how much neat stuff she had. Lots of dishes and serving pieces for those big dinner parties. I wanted to buy something, but not spend a lot. I really liked one of her china patterns (felt like a blushing bride) The set was huge with lots of extra platters and bowls. Told John I didn’t want to spend more than a hundred bucks. Dipstick auctioneer from Hicksville couldn’t even get a bid on it. Bought the whole set for $25.00. A shame. When I brought it home, checked what it would cost to buy at I had over 3 thousand dollars worth of china.

Haviland Brothers Apple Blossom pattern that I bought at Mildred’s sale…


Several months later, John was at church on business as a Trustee. They take care of the building, land parsonage, land and endowments. A big shot stopped to tell him about an influx of money in the general fund. Mildred’s money. John disagreed. “I thought the money was supposed to go for the youth?” “No, it’s been put in the general fund,” he countered smugly. When John got home, he asked me about the will, since the not-taking-my-advice-lawyers had sent me a copy. It specifically stated the money be used for the children and youth of the church as an endowment. John brought my copy to boss-preacher-man-#3, who righted that little wrong. But if I’d gotten a copy of her will for a little bookcase (sorry Mildred, it is one of my most treasured pieces) certainly the church had a copy too. Deliberately not following her wishes. Ah, church politics, ruthless business…
















Big changes were coming for this little family of three in the year of 1974. Celebrating anniversary # 5. Shannon was 3-1/2 and acquiring all the necessary skills (cooking-cleaning) for me to warm up to the idea of adding to our brood. Me, now a master chef could make: 1. Tuna salad 2. Tuna casserole 3. Coffee.

Shannon 4. Look at her hair length…

John had been hired by a company in eastern Iowa, about 350 miles away. We had never lived this far from the rest of the family, but it was time. My Mom was pretty possessive. She now had 4 grandchildren, 3 boys from Mona, but Shannon was the youngest and only granddaughter.

Mom sorta doted/smothered her and it was time to put a little distance between them. Eastern Iowa appeared like northwest Iowa, small towns, each a few miles from the next one. But it was very different from where we had grown up and what we were used to.

One of the 5-whack-brothers who owned the company which now employed John, had fudged on several facts when wooing us to take the job and move. Yes, there was a beautiful new school, but he assured us it was a public school. It was Catholic. The whole area around Dyersville was as Catholic as northwest Iowa was Dutch. We were living in a very small “village” just a few miles north. It consisted of one-small-grade-school-Catholic, one-not-so small-church-Catholic. Everyone was friendly and we met some wonderful people. We were kind of an oddity in their little world, and folks around there were curious about us. Our neighbors decided to hold a “Welcome to New Vienna” party for us. Taking place at “the church.” The church saw this as an easy fundraiser to make some bucks and coined it, “What are you willing to shell out to meet and greet 3 live Protestants?”

John liked his job. We had great friendly neighbors, but were having a big problem with the craziest of the 5-brother-bosses at work. First, he bought us each a new set of gold clubs. Neither of us golfed. Then he stopped by the house a couple times during the day when John was still at work. When I mentioned to hubby this was the second time, his-all-alarm-fire-bell-tripped. That dirty-low-down-sucker was hitting on his little woman. EEUUWWW. Whack-job was old, (maybe late 30’s, but I was 23). John barged into his office, threatened to remove his heart, balls and everything in between. Funny, it never happened again. I can’t believe John didn’t get fired. We assumed no one had ever talked this way or threatened one of the bosses before. They were revered in town. The biggest employer by far, but 4 of the 5 were pond scum. Found out later this crazy dude had 2 “alienation of affections” lawsuits against him. I was so naive. Did not have a clue. I do remember I was not flattered, just grossed out.

Me, Josh, John and Shannon, 1976…

Since Protestant churches were few and far between, we were trying out a big, beautiful Presbyterian in Dubuque, about 25 miles away. Definitely not the right choice. As we were walking in, someone handed John a sealed envelope. Told him to keep it and respond at the appropriate time. About half way through the service, one of the ministers started reading a list of names. Boys and girls, all about 12-14 years old lined up next to him. Then preacher man asked anyone holding an envelope to come up front. Oh boy. Reluctantly John shuffled up with several others. A quicky-5-minute-sermon reminding folks what you actually vow to do when a baby is baptized. That with the help of God, you will nurture and teach these children to become disciples for Christ. All adults were individually asked to open their envelope and read the name. That kid then marched right up and stood next to them. Preacher asked John to explain what he had “personally” done in the last decade for this child to become a better Christian? Though John was a tad embarrassed for being put on the spot, the dozen-egg-splatter on the preacher’s face for not knowing that John was a first (and last) time attender was worth the price of collection.

We were expecting our second baby. Shannon, now 4 was responding well to her responsibilities and had just finished wallpapering the nursery. Things were going good. This was our first Thanksgiving away from family and we were excited to attempt stuffing and roasting a turkey. Shannon had read the directions, and I helped her load the bird in the oven (just kidding, she was really strong). We were amazed at how pretty it looked in the oven. Golden brown and I was ready to accept the compliments on my culinary skills. Not. Took it out, ready to carve, but the sucker was hours away from being done on the inside. I could see Shannon still needed to brush up on her math skills.

Newborn Joshua, 1975…

Joshua, our first amazing son would arrive on his due date. Besides miserable heartburn and some very strange cravings, (lemon meringue pie and sauerkraut, which I ate straight from the can, cold) this pregnancy and labor were uneventful. Weighing in at 7-1/2 pounds, he had rather large feet and a beautiful head of hair. Shannon tried unsuccessfully to move into the mothering spot, but lost that position when she walked into the house after making mud pies, spotted her newborn baby brother fussing on the couch, and promptly stuck a filthy finger in his mouth. He did stop fussing, I’ll giver her that.

We ended up living in eastern Iowa about 4 years. Wasn’t really sorry to leave, though we had established some lasting friendships. We absolutely loved our next move to Spencer Iowa. Looking forward with trepidation at being a mere 60 miles from my folks again. John was only 2 when his sister Elly had gotten married. Living near them and their large family was a wonderful experience. Our kids thought they gained another set of grandparents.

We grew very close to Elly and Dewey, bowling with them on a mixed league, antiquing and road trips, plus sharing many suppers and some holidays together. Mom viewed this relationship about the same as the “alienation of affections” lawsuits in eastern Iowa. Someone, (Elly) was trying to steal the love and affection that belonged to her and her alone from me and the kids. Not a good time for her. No, not much had changed. A few years later it was time to move on, nomads that we appeared to be…