Incidentally

Does it feel like something new happens every day? Are too many things going on? Ever wanted a day to just sit quietly and wait for the next day? Even though I’m retired with “nothing to do” the number of things going on can be overwhelming. Then we get to a letter like this one from Lucy. Her life was just as full from the beginning.

Most of her letters have been focused on one topic; Sweet Adelines, a school story, meeting Ken, or sending Judy to school. Now we get a letter that’s kind of like my day; a series of disconnected items, every one of them fun and exciting in its own way. But there are so many little stories that I really don’t know much about.

Grandpa's garage in Gardner

Grandpa’s garage in Gardner

A wonderful part of reading Lucy’s letters, and those from Louie, Grace, and Jim, has been the revelation that they all had lives. Just regular lives, full of challenges. Their challenges were different from ours. We each face them in our own way, coming out the other side in good shape, happy to go on for another day. Having gotten a glimpse of Lucy’s life in this letter of one-liners, I’m left with a need to spend time asking her about each little story.

I should have done that ten years ago.

Lucy writes:

Grandpa Thurlow’s first job was in a blacksmith shop where he learned about metals this is what made him famous for his welding expertise. I saw one of his report cards and he was a straight A student. I always thought of him as someone special.

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Television

Lucy at WDAY in Fargo ND

Lucy at WDAY

When someone mentions WDAY in Fargo, this picture comes to me immediately. After Judy and I finished our first big date, the Fargo South Prom, I took Judy to work at the station. She worked at the desk in the picture.

Every phone in the building connected to that switch board. You can see the lights and a plug for each phone. Even the dial (used to “dial” a telephone number) is obvious, right next to the coffee cup.

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House

Lucy uses a word in this letter that looks large in her life. The word slips by, not even used in the context that’s so important to her. She goes on to expand on the concept in several ways. That word is community.

Christmas at Lucy's 1972

Christmas at Lucy’s 1972

Do you know anyone who seems to be living alone, wishing there was someone to talk to about the tough questions in life? Someone who struggles to find answers, but has nobody to turn to for help? Lucy was not one of those people. She knew how important people were to her own well-being. Lucy was kind and loving to everyone around her, and her friends returned those feelings, building a wonderful community that helped her through the challenges of a single mother in the fifties and sixties.

There’s that cliché about love being the one thing that returns more when you give it away; Lucy understood that process in the best way. Her friends at WDAY, Sweet Adelines, church, and extended family received her love and in turn gave her a community to build a wonderful life on.

As I read these letters from Lucy and my other elders it is becoming clear that they taught us by example. They didn’t sit me down and lecture about how to make friends; they had friends around them every day. They didn’t fret over the challenges of life; they let me see how they helped others through life changing problems.

Lucy built a new community around her when she moved to Rochester at age 78. That community served her well, just like her Fargo community did when she was half that age.

Lucy writes:

With Judy in school, mother to be there for her after school, I had to do two things. Try to find something to do to make a living. Waiting on tables at the airport, becoming manager of the dining room, (that was the end of promotion for that job). Then working for the City Directory I still wasn’t getting anywhere. Then Verna got me a job in radio at WDAY. There was a “community club” promotion where people brought in “proof of purchase” wrapper box tops, etc. I would be on the air each week day morning announcing winners of the day, serve coffee and donuts to people coming in and doing just OK, nothing big. Then Jack Dunn asked me to take over the night operator job as they were having trouble, so I laid off all but one girl and had a smooth operation when they asked me to take over the whole department. Gave me a raise and guess the rest is history.

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Judy

Judy (R) Christmas 1959

Judy (R) Christmas 1959

Lucy had lost her first daughter, then her husband. Now it was time for little Judy to leave the house for school. Like most mothers she probably had mixed feelings about letting a child head out the door to go to school that first day. There’s pride in knowing that your daughter has learned how to handle leaving the house. There’s fear, knowing that so many dangers lurk just down the street. Lucy knew all too well what could happen if she took her eyes off her Judy, even to let her go to school.

On top of that, Judy gave Lucy a glimpse of independence and strength. Again, those conflicts reared up. My daughter is powerful and intelligent. She doesn’t need her mom. Lucy doesn’t say what she did after watching Judy skip down the street to school. She didn’t have to. We know.

That story repeated itself many times since that late summer morning in 1958. Riding the city bus downtown to the clinic. Heading off to the big dance with that new college boy. Moving to Rochester where the doctors had told her to go home and make arrangements for her ailing first daughter. You can look at any event in life as a disaster in progress; or see it as a potential success unfolding in front of you. Lucy always picked the positive view. That’s a tough example to live up to. I’ll keep trying.

Lucy writes:

My daughter was truly the light of my life. I loved her so. She was about to start school. I took her the first day to enroll her. The second day I wanted to walk to the corner and see that she arrived safely at which time she said “Mothers do not walk their children to school.” I stood inside the house and watched her leave Mom behind.

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Quartets

The Humbugs

The Humbugs

Singing with the Sweet Adelines was an important part of Lucy’s life. In earlier letters, you’ve read about how much it meant to her. Judy sang with SA choruses, too, in Fargo and Rochester. Both of them joined quartets, vying for honors at competitions around the country. In Lucy’s case, they went to Europe, too.

There’s another societal change noted in this letter that needs explaining. Lucy describes her part in a quartet called the “Sugar Beats.” When they formed the quartet three of the gals were single. In this letter Lucy talks about how two of them fell in love and had to quit the quartet, even though they were fun and prize-winning.

Maybe I’m stretching it a bit, but did husbands keep tighter reign on their wives in the fifties? Did they break up the quartet just so the newly married could stay home to cook and clean?

I ask this because even in the seventies being female was a challenge. In 1976 Judy worked for a dental office. The day the dentist realized she was pregnant, becoming obvious by the swelling belly, Judy was out of a job. That doesn’t happen today. I bet women don’t have to quit the chorus or quartet just because they got married, either!

Lucy writes:

Ken was gone – Judy and I had settled into routine. I decided not to work full time as long as Judy was home and so small.

Ken had decided mother should retire so he built a small appt on the side of our home. It had a bath, kitchen, small bottle gas stove, a small closet and a Hide-A-Bed. After Ken was gone we cut a hole in the wall so Mother didn’t have to go outside to come to my house. She spent very little time in her room after that. She kept candy on her dresser for Judy. She was 72 at that time. I felt it was too bad she had to start raising another at which point she said “She is my Purpose.”

Betty Wroe + I belonged to Sweet Adelines and the chorus had a quartet and Betty said “If they can do it – so can we” so start we did. We had our first quartet with Pauline Argenziano and Shirley Johnason and Shirley got married so we had to start all over.

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Horse and Buggy

Farm house where Lucy grew up. Gardner ND

Farm house where Lucy grew up.

From the time I knew Lucy until she left us in 2008 music was the important theme in her life. She was always part of the church choir and other activities. In this letter Lucy talks about riding to school in a horse-drawn buggy. Music plays a key role in the story. One of her earlier letters also described riding to school with her brother and sister, and this story adds to the drama.

There are so many comparisons we could make between today and ninety years ago. They had dirt roads, horse power, mud, boarders … my grand children have none of those challenges. As I write this, two of the grand kids are sitting on the couch playing with iPads. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

At least they seem to love music as much as Grandma Lucy did.

Lucy writes:

My folks always took in High School students during those depression years, if they couldn’t finish high school. After Alice + Lewellyn finished school whoever was staying with us would drive the horses. Now George Beardsley was that man. He would always remark about how spoiled we were. He came from a very poor humble home so living with us was a real treat for him.

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Starting Over

Rochester MN 1925 City Directory

Rochester MN 1925 City Directory

Two things in this letter resonate with me. The first is Lucy’s description of the City Directory. My children may have heard of them, but their kids certainly have never seen such a thing. When I was a kid the City Directory was the first class version of the Telephone Book. The City Directory had much more information, things like who lived in the household and what they did for a living. In a sense, it was a corporate census of the town. I didn’t get to see one very often, as they cost a lot of money, but every business man needed one. They may have been a source to determine credit-worthiness. They disappeared in the nineteen eighties, after a hundred year run. Nowadays they’re a good resource for ancestry hobbyists. They hired unskilled people to make the rounds of homes to gather information; a good entry job for Lucy as she tried to get into the labor market.

The second thing that brought back memories was Lucy’s mention of Main Avenue. When I moved to Fargo in the fall of 1968 to attend North Dakota State University one of the things the guys in the next room taught me quickly was where not to go in Fargo. Main Avenue was one of them. There were some interesting bars down there, not the least of which was the Pink Pussycat. For several blocks along Main there were nothing but bars, the Salvation Army and the Bus Depot. They were not the place for a naïve teenage boy to hang around. The flop house era was just ending in those days, and single old men wandered about, drunk most of the time, waiting for their big break.

For Ken to help those guys out was incredibly charitable. For Lucy to go door to door down there would have been a real challenge.

These last couple of letters from Lucy have been difficult for me to read, and even more difficult to comment on. She came through a challenging time in her life, to come out the other side as a successful and joyful person. She mothered a wonderful girl who became the most wonderful grandmother any child could have. Lucy’s next several letters will lift you up even more than the last couple have dragged you through the nadir of her life.

Lucy writes:

Being left with a daughter and mother to care for was only the beginning of my concerns. I married out of high school and had never had a real job that paid a living wage.

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A New Life

1957 Sweet Adelines quartet - The Humbugs - Lucy is 2nd from right

1957 Sweet Adelines quartet – The Humbugs – Lucy is 2nd from right

Most of us start a new life at least once, and usually several times in a lifetime. The big choices seem to be voluntary. Who to marry, where to go to college, which new job to take, where to live. Making those decisions affects the arc of a life dramatically. Some of the choices aren’t voluntary, they’re forced on us. The day Lucy got the call from St. Luke’s hospital forced a big change in her life, and in Judy’s life. Lucy’s last letter described that day.

Once Lucy internalized that major event she faced hundreds of decisions that a woman of the mid-1950s usually didn’t have to handle. Those decisions were hard enough, but she was facing them alone; the love of her life was gone. As I read Lucy’s letter I try to imagine what that was like. Even with the friends and family around to help, from here it looks pretty lonely.

The good news is that Lucy was already involved in Sweet Adelines, a women’s barbershop chorus. That group grounded her, gave her so many friends and opportunities for years. When I met Lucy she was deep into Sweet Adelines, and so much of the benefit came from the quartet Betty suggested.

Lucy writes:

Here I was, a mother, a daughter and a $1000.00 life insurance policy I didn’t even know Ken had. No job – only helping Lizell work on a car auction sale – snack bar – not much to go on but still didn’t seem to worry about a lot.

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The Call from St Luke’s

Fargo Forum, April 1956

Fargo Forum, April 1956

Every now and then there’s a job that needs doing and you just don’t want to do it. You’ve had those. The bedroom needs paint, but there is a big crack in the wall to repair at the same time. If there’s new paint, then the carpet would look a little faded. You know the routine. Just look at the job, turn and walk quickly away. That would not be fun. Today’s letter from Lucy is one of those letters. I just don’t want to read it again, let alone comment on it.

Lucy and Ken were getting over the loss of their first-born daughter, life was getting back to normal. Lucy let herself think it was going to be good.

The events Lucy describes took place when Judy was almost four years old. The family was doing well. The newspaper article to the right describes an up and coming successful business man taking over a business. In an instant just weeks later everything changed.

It’s clear that writing this letter was difficult for Lucy, too. From the letter, it’s not at all obvious what happened to cause a phone call from St. Luke’s hospital in Fargo. It was a traffic accident, all too common in the fifties, caused by a drunk driver. That instant changed Lucy and Judy’s lives.

Cass County Implement, Fargo ND

Grand Opening of Cass County Implement. Ken and Lucy to the left.

An important change was for the two of them to value every minute of life and enjoy everything that came their way. Out of that disaster came two of the happiest people I’ve ever known. They taught me to live every day as if it was the last.

As I read that last sentence it just seems corny. Trite. Doesn’t everyone know that? Nope. Judy and I have tried to get the most out of every minute. If a disaster like the one Lucy describes below ever happens to one of us, there are no regrets. It’s been a good life. Ken’s was good, too. Just a little short.

I still don’t want to paint that bedroom, but I was able to write this post. One activity gives me energy, the other doesn’t.

Lucy writes:

I remember when Judy was four years old. I was at choir practice and Ken was at a board meeting at the church and I told Pastor Keller “I am so happy. Everything is perfect. Ken is starting in a business with Fred Eisenhard selling tractors. I have my daughter. My mom is happy in her little apartment. We are all healthy and my life is so great.” Pastor Keller said “Be happy. Some people live a whole life time and never find happiness.”

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Holidays at Grandma’s

Christmas dinner

Christmas dinner

When Lucy wrote these letters in 1991, she was still living in Fargo. We had various traditions then; sometimes we would drive to Fargo with a car full of kids and Christmas gifts, sometimes she would take the bus or airplane to Rochester. Either way, the celebration would be tons of fun.

In the fifties holiday trips were a little shorter. They were a big deal, not that frequent, but just as celebratory. For Lucy and her family the trip was twenty-some miles from Fargo to Gardner, ND. On a recent trip to Fargo, we thought it would be nice to see what Gardner looked like now. We made the trip between lunch and coffee, never got out of the car, and thought nothing of it.

As a nine-year-old kid, when we made the hour-long trip to Pettibone to visit my Aunt and Uncle, it was a huge deal. We’d pack the car and make all sorts of plans for the day long adventure. That same sense of adventure probably pervaded Lucy’s trips to Gardner to see the family for a holiday dinner.

Lucy writes:

It’s Nov 16, 1991, almost Thanksgiving time. Now that meant Grandma + Grandpa’s house. Mother Thurlow was almost child-like at holidays. She’d cook a big turkey, have every one’s favorite pie, home made buns and what a cook. She could take a cheap roast and make it taste so good. My Judy was always special to them, they loved her so. She never walked from the car to the garage until she was too heavy for Grandpa. When he’d come to Fargo for parts, he’d stop in and it didn’t matter if she was sleeping or not – he’d pick her up + love her. Continue reading