The Greatest Man I Have Ever Loved – A Toothpick Chewin’ Cowboy

There’s a toothpick chewin’ cowboy picking up his beautiful bride for a drive around heaven tonight. Oh Dad, I will always be Daddy’s little girl and you will always be the greatest man I have ever loved and known. I am who I am because of you. Not a day goes by that I don’t find myself thanking you for the lessons in life you taught me or recalling a valuable piece of wisdom you gave me as I try to make sense of the world. So many of the decisions I make today are made on the foundations of faith, character, and conscience you instilled in me.

Dad you saw the world through eyes that had seen just about everything this broken and beautiful world has to offer. You never walked away from a challenge but would rather do your part to make every situation better even if it meant more work or hardship. I will do my best to carry on your example.

This year, unlike any other, tested you. And yet you persevered. Not that there weren’t days you wanted to give up, to be with my Mom again, to rest. But you didn’t. You lived fully and had so much to live for. For that, I am eternally grateful, and ever so proud. I will forever cherish the time I was given with my you, even just the quiet moments spent in each other’s company. I could never have enough hugs from you. I could listen to your stories of your childhood and your life before I knew you forever. Goodness knows you had plenty of tales to tell.

I will treasure beyond measure our last real father-daughter conversation at Thanksgiving. It was just you and me sitting in the quiet of the living room. I remember hearing the ticking of the 100+ year old clock that hung in grandpa’s barn and survived fire and marveling at how it had chimed through so many days of our lives every hour on the hour because you took the time to wind and set it every Sunday morning just like your father had. I listened as you told me about your childhood in Plentywood; what it was like that first year after your father passed away (you were only 6) and the years that followed before your mother met and married your stepfather. The warmth you felt as neighbors welcomed your mother, your brother and you into their home for a Thanksgiving dinner unlike any you had ever had before. Your recollection was vivid, your memories as sharp as the biting cold that gripped Plentywood in the dead of winter.

You told me of how much you and Mom loved Fred Morck and I, and of how much you missed her. That you sometimes found yourself waiting for her to come downstairs in the morning. You told me you wished I was home, that I wasn’t so far away, and that surely, I could find a good job in Billings. You assured me then I could even get a puppy! You told me how proud you were of me and Fred. That we had done better than you had expected us to (you have such a way with words.)

Sure, you had your “moments” when parenting me was far from pleasurable, and I remember plenty of spankings delivered to set me straight, but in my eyes, you will always be the handsome toothpick-chewing cowboy turned executive trying to get me to ride a wild burro, the “brass-banger”/ badger-caller in the wilds of Wyoming, the connoisseur of buttered Rye Krisps as we watched Hee Haw and the Lawrence Welk Show every Saturday night, the church council president extraordinaire ( I take after the best!), and the greatest Dad this girl could ask for.

I know your body was weary of this world and your spirit has longed to be free riding the range and dancing with Mom and acing every hole from the tee for some time. I know you were ready for the ultimate glory awaiting you in heaven that you so richly deserve, but I was not. You went so fast (just like you – always efficient, never wanting to lollygag) I still have so much to tell you and so much to learn from you. I am not sure how I will go on in this world knowing I will never hear you say, “I love you Erika, wish you were home,” or feel you hug me tight again. You are the only one who would listen to me play the piano and tell me “That was nice!” Who will listen with glee to the stories of my mountain-top adventures?

This afternoon as I walked out to Tucker’s rock and sat awhile looking over the horizon I wondered just how I will go on…. And then perhaps you let me know, because the sun came out from behind the clouds and warmed my soul, and of all things on the way back home, a van pulled up and parked on my path. The owner had decorated it with these five words, the title of my Blog: Let your light so shine! Coincidence? Serendipity? I think not!

Dad, I promise to let my light so shine, so that God is glorified, and your fine example of an honorable life well- lived is carried on.

I love you, Dad. More than words can ever say, and even more than that- forever and ever.


Tomorrow, I will be taking what I know will be a very long drive home. Prayers are needed for my family and especially for my Dad. Thank you for lifting us up as you have through this journey. It is up to God now – like it always has been. Even though my faith is my foundation, it has been very hard for me to not try to control God – to make my ways His way. This ending, this sending – this story was not supposed to come to a close like this.

The amazing thing about faith is when I finally gave our Lord Jesus my will and fully trusted my Dad to my Him, a certain peace came over me. My heart quit pounding, my ears quit rushing, and while my tears didn’t stop flowing, my eyes could see clearly again.

His grace is amazing.  

“But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.
They will soar high on wings like eagles.
They will run and not grow weary.
They will walk and not faint.” ~ Isaiah 40:31

Our “Brown Furniture” is Priceless

Back on its golden hinges
The gate of memory swings,
And my heart goes into the garden
And walks with the olden things.
Ella Wheeler Wilcox – “Memory’s Garden”

The task that loomed before me was daunting. Armed with the background reading I had done regarding what to do with “your parents’ stuff”, what your parent’s stuff is worth and spurred on by the slightly offensive title of one article that warned, “Sorry, Nobody Want’s your Parent’s Stuff,” I was determined to get the job of cleaning out my parents’ stuff done. But now, surrounded by the accoutrements that once decorated our life as a family, I was overwhelmed by how empty I felt inside.

All the things that made home “home” seemed at first to be just things on a list to be categorized as keep, sell, donate, or toss were now claiming a place in my emotions. The family pictures in the main hallway will forever document my brother’s and my youth. The end tables covered with golf and political magazines going back years recalled the Sunday afternoons on the golf course and dinner conversations on current affairs. The kitchen table etched with hours of homework into its mahogany top now sat covered with empty medicine bottles and stuffed medical folders. The living room furniture that was painstakingly chosen for its warm and inviting fabrics after hours of deliberation, that supported my family through many a holiday and warmed us after my mother’s funeral, certainly could not be considered worthless post mid-century “Brown Furniture” by the estate sale pros. The knickknacks Fred and I so proudly gave to our parents as gifts still held their prominence on windowsills, desk and dresser tops while others were tucked discreetly away in “special” drawers full of all kinds of special things.

16681786_1491067427584517_4990078830237632947_nThe book cases – oh goodness where would I begin with the bookcases filled with book collections from my parents’ college days some 60 years prior, Bible studies, agrarian philosophy, mysteries, western history, family history, religious history, Montana history, Viking history, geologic history – literally hundreds of books sometimes double stacked on shelves; many with personal inscriptions denoting the sentiments of the giver rendering them “unsalable” and others with momentos tucked between pages that would bring woe to us if they were lost when tossed into a bargain book bin. And this was just what I documented in the quick walk-through I made to refresh my memory of where everything was upon my return home.

All my course-of-action pre-planning that I did during the 7.5-hour drive to Billings for
the five-day regiment of claiming pieces of the past and clearing the rest for an estate sale went out the window into the dark and stormy night as I stood in the “emptiness” of the house.  With Mom gone and Dad moved into an assisted living home after a sudden spiral into severe Alzheimer’s related dementia, this once inviting (at least to me) home and its humble but comforting furnishings now felt lifeless. Even the sturdy hundred-year-old wall clock rescued from a barn fire in the 1930’s that ticked and chimed through the days of our lives was ticking out of synch.

I was encouraged to be ruthless in my endeavors by friends who have also been through this season of life. Faced with the reality of the tininess of my present living quarters and the vastness of things our house contained, I was determined to do my best. Surprisingly, my things were the easiest to part with. When I came across the footlocker that my mother had saved all my childhood fashions in, I spent an hour or so going from shock at how small I was as a first grader, to remembering the Hanes t-shirt with the butterfly iron-on I wore the entire summer of my 6th year after I wrecked my bike while wearing a Farrah Fawcett style angel top. My entire chest had to be wrapped in gauze all summer and cracked ribs prevented me from taking swimming lessons… My mother saved every dress, and during my tomboy years, the flannel shirts I wore for class pictures going through 7th grade. Yes, I saved a few choice pieces that my mom had sewn for me or were worn for special occasions, but the rest – too old to donate or sell – went in the trash. I am sure no little girl today would want to wear my rubber pants even with the lace on the back.

I spent many a summer afternoon and bedtime lost in the adventures of Nancy Drew. I could not wait to get my allowance and head to Walden Books to purchase my next adventure. The crack of the spine as I opened each story for the first time was thrilling. I still fancy myself a bit of a sleuth but my complete collection of hardback Nancy Drew books simply will not fit in my apartment and what good do those thrilling words of mystery do collecting dust on a shelf or being packed away in a box? Luckily, we have a darling little neighbor girl who has taken to my dad and loves to read. I am blessed to be able to pass my childhood (and to this day) joy of reading and adventures on to her.

This simple act of giving away a part of my childhood stirred in me emotions I was not expecting as it made me realize all the things I was saving for the daughter I would have someday had no value anymore. My life has turned out completely different than I or I am sure my parents – with everything they saved to pass down to our families –  had planned.  That particular someday will never come. The family line ends with me and my brother as neither of us have children.  This puts a whole new perspective on the value of our family “heirlooms.” Of course, we must hold on to them, mustn’t we? Some things have been in the family since before our parents’ time! But to be frank, what is the point? Our society is adopting a much more minimal, nomadic lifestyle. Collections of things are found in museums, not homes.

So yes, my collection of Precious Moments figurines will be sold. Hopefully someone will still buy them! And apparently, Fisher Price Barns, Dollhouses, and Parking Garages still have collector value so… maybe those will be worthy in the estate sale. Original Lincoln Logs anyone? My tin tea set with place settings for 6? Hmm… I’m afraid too many moms will have read about the hazards of tin to even touch that remnant – oh the hours I wiled away playing house, serving visitors, and opening restaurants!

By the time I made it through the thousands of dollars worth of Christmas décor (I kid you not!) nostalgia was turning into exasperated exhaustion. I decided it was not worth my time or sanity to test all the strings of lights and find their replacement bulbs which I know my mother saved yet I struggled to part with the ornaments of happiness encased in Rubbermaid bins.  No doubt about it, our family loved to celebrate Christmas and we did it in fine form! How do you sell or give away these things that we loved so much –  they belong to our family’s memories not someone else’s!

I spent 2 days searching for the prized collection of Bing and Grondahl Danish plates dating back to 1923 and have mysteriously disappeared in the crawl space but all I could find were tax documents and federal land plats.  After wrenching my back a few times lifting box after box of tax records dating to the 1960’s I was ready to scream. Honestly! My parents had moved 23 times throughout their marriage and they saved this but not the plates???

Now the cedar chest was another story. Safe within was a treasure trove of memories. Goodness, the things my mom saved – mittens from when I was 5, confetti from her wedding, her wedding dress, the patterns she used to sew her high school majorette uniforms and wedding dress, even the scraps from her wedding dress, and letters from her mother in-law tied lovingly with a ribbon… Going through her memories made me wish she could be with me as I sorted through all these things. How much more meaningful it would have been to share the stories behind instead of guessing why these heart items mattered to her.  Still, I love her even more now as I remembered this lesser known sentimental side of my mother. At this point, I realized I was going to need more than 5 days to do all this… and several boxes of Kleenex. I couldn’t be ruthless anymore. I realized we still have months to go before the house will be sold and more importantly, my dad is still with us. By the way, her wedding dress fit me perfectly!

Instead of slogging through the rest of my to-do list alone, I was able to bring Dad home for two afternoons and together we went through some of his things. Granted, I did not get very much done. We spent time going through photo albums dating back to the 1800’s. Surprisingly and a bit confoundingly, he could remember the names and events surrounding pictures from the 1930’s and even pictures of his grandparents and aunts and uncles in Norway and Denmark. We had a good laugh over a letter he wrote to his English teacher his senior year in high school not really apologizing for but doing his best to explain his bad behavior. This man who demanded straight-laced behavior in his kids wasn’t the squeaky-clean student we had presumed! We now have pictures to prove it!

I wept with pride as I read a letter written by a coworker upon his retirement after 40 years with the Bureau of Land Management, lauding his work ethic, philosophy on good government, professional but kind management style, and reinforcing how much his mentoring had meant to so many who continued on after him.  There are newspaper articles and more photo albums that will be gone through next time I am home, hopefully with Dad again.

Putting aside the schedule, one afternoon I just played the piano for my dad as he sat in his favorite chair. What becomes of the old upright Baldwin piano is much less important now than keeping the joy its music brought to our family over the years as my mother, brother and I played away live for him.

I realized that the things we hold on to do indeed tell our stories but the value of them lies only within our hearts. No price tag will ever adorn our memories. Time with those we love can never be bought or reclaimed.  The Bavarian china that sits in the cupboard awaiting a box will never have the same meaning in my home as it did when we all gathered for Thanksgiving around the table it graced. It could slip out of my hands and shatter in an instant but the memories will never be lost.

As I have shared my house clearing experience with my older friends, some have commented that they are not going to leave anything for their children to deal with. I can understand their well-meaning intentions, but I would caution them not to do this. The process of cleaning out and claiming pieces of our past is incredibly emotional and incredibly cathartic at the same time. Even the everyday items that made life livable like Sunbeam mixers, cookie sheets, Reynolds Wrap, outdated salad dressings, and crossword puzzle books remind us that life before illness, death, and grief took over really happened in this house. Some of the things I have touched and cried over will be let go and others will be kept.  Yes, it was emotionally exhausting at times but the process, even for just a moment, brought to a halt the chaos of the present day, the urgency of caretaking, the stress of not knowing what tomorrow holds for our family as I know it, and enabled me to pause and remember the times and trivialities that made life good for our family in the years leading to our present day.

If the storyline of our family does indeed end with my brother and I, I can be happy knowing the chapters of our lives were full and well documented. Whether or not the setting and accessories of our story sell at an estate sale matters little to me now.