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

The Year Following Susan’s Death

Ken and Judy in 1956

Ken and Judy in 1956

In this letter Lucy moves from the greatest sadness of losing a daughter to several wonderful and exciting events. I knew Lucy for over thirty years and she was always the most optimistic person around. Even when things seemed to be headed south, she could see through the disaster and predict that goodness and light were just around the bend. The happiness she describes here shows the fulfillment of that optimism.

The two friends Lucy writes about, Verna N and Judy F, were always there for Lucy. The job at WDAY served her well until she retired at age 79.

Lucy writes:

The year following Susan’s death we just spent so much time having people in, going to movies and keeping busy. My Mother was there for us. She began baby sitting for Verna Newell. Didn’t know at that time that Verna would become a life time friend, singing in quartets and working at WDAY together.

We decided that we should shake the idea that having a baby entailed the possibility of losing another. We could not stand the idea so I went to the Dr, had a physical and immediately became pregnant. Continue reading

After the Death of our Daughter

Ken Thurlow

Ken Thurlow

Most of Lucy’s letters are positive, relating the good things in life. In this letter, Lucy lets the hard times show through the happy veneer. Every sentence she writes is the seed of another story. Lucy did share some of the stories with us while she was living in Rochester, but somehow we never found the time to listen to them or try to remember them. It’s only now that she’s gone I realize that there is something more important than deciding what to have for dinner tonight, or that there is too much dust on the furniture. We should have been listening to Grandma Lucy tell the stories about how she drove downtown to get her driver’s license.

This letter relates a lot of sadness, hard work, and the potential for great joy. I hope everyone who reads it has a chance to share their own stories and take the time to listen to other people’s stories. That’s so much more important than getting that dust off the furniture.

Lucy writes:

After the death of our daughter Ken was still not able to work. He would sit in his chair with a flat iron with a belt thru the handle – and would lift it up many times a day. It was hard for him to be so inactive but for me – guess I really needed him to be with me. I hadn’t slept for such a long time and I felt so depressed. Ken had built a room on the side of our house for my mom. She had decided to retire and it was his suggestion. He was always helping people. Audrey lived with us weekends and summers for seven years. He helped Loly and Paul build a house which they lived in while her 3 children were born.

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Susan and Mr Otterson

Ken, Susan, and Lucy

Ken, Susan, and Lucy

Some stories should be told, but aren’t. They’re too painful. Lucy lost the most important person in her life, her daughter, to what then was an incurable disease. Today Wilm’s tumor is highly treatable. Not so in 1950. Lucy didn’t like to share the memories of her little girl traveling to Rochester’s Mayo Clinic where the doctors told them to go home and make peace with God. I surprised her when I took a job in that same town after graduating college. We now live just blocks from the hospital where Susan was unsuccessfully treated. Lucy came to grips with her daughter living in Rochester. Lucy even spent the last ten years of her life here. She never got used to telling the story about Susan. We know very little of that little girl’s life. Can you sense the reticence in Lucy’s telling of this story? She talks around the edges, but we never get to hear what really happened. Never.

Lucy writes:

Susan + Friend Mr Otterson – She blamed him for everything she did wrong. What a relief it was to be back home. We bought a few new things like curtains – end tables and a brand new bedroom set – a crib and then began making diapers. No “disposables” then, flannel gowns. Oh such excitement. Susan Lynn was born on the 11th of June. She had tight curls on her head – big brown eyes and we all loved her so much. She was so good – as my mother said once “That child is too beautiful and is loved by every one.” Guess she was right. Continue reading

New Beginnings

Ken and Lucy

Ken and Lucy

The months after the war ended must have been heady times. Ken and Lucy had worked in Seattle for a couple of years after training in Minneapolis. They met new people, grew up, and visited with relatives passing through Seattle to and from the Pacific Theater of operations. Not bad for a couple of kids from Gardner, North Dakota.

Now they’re off to new adventures back home in Fargo. Family was there. After such an adventure they must have been eager to just go home.

Lucy writes:

We left Seattle with such a happy feeling you just have no idea. Of course – no job, no place to live – the little house on “Hungry Point” (that was what our section of town was called) was no place for someone expecting to have a baby. Everything changed again.

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