The Last Grandparent

On February 27, 2015, I spent most of the day talking with my paternal grandmother, Opal at her house. I had been visiting my parents in Sioux Falls because my maternal grandmother, Dolores, was in hospice care.

I went for the visit with a specific intention and purpose. Something I haven’t shared with a single human being since that day. With Dolores dying and my realization that I was losing all of my grandparents in quick succession, I was worried I didn’t have much time left. I went to ask my grandmother, Opal, about how she met my late grandfather, Marvin, and how they managed to stay married and in love for so many decades. And, also, with a somewhat nervous stomach, to ask if I could tell their love story as her eulogy for her future funeral.

Dear reader, my grandmother wasn’t a very “lovey-dovey” grandparent. She was kind, and she was interested in talking and listening. But she never once told me, “I love you.” I had heard from my parents and my aunts and uncles that she also wasn’t big on talking about the future or death. That it made her upset, not to bother her with such things. So asking her for permission to write her euology….was nerve-wracking to say the least!

But I had learned a few years prior, that being a grandchild had certain advantages that my aunts and uncles and parents weren’t afforded. The family had all told me that my grandfather, Marvin, wouldn’t ever talk about his parents and family because he was stoic. Yet, when I got up the courage to ask him about his family, he gladly shared everything he knew. Telling stories, sharing names and impressions. It was an amazing experience to hear him talk about things that I thought were family secrets. These stories and “family secrets” led to the eulogy I gave at my grandfather’s service after his death in 2013.

Opal had told me many times that she was touched by the story I shared of Marvin’s family and how unfortunate it is that the stories get lost over the years. I had ended his eulogy by sharing that my grandfather’s greatest legacy was that of the love he had for Opal. Of the decisions he made to be a solid and reliable spouse and build a simple life with the woman he loved.

But I knew I didn’t have the whole story, their love story. Because I only entertained the family legacy that led my grandfather to Opal. And now I needed to know the other side. It was only fair, that I ask her side of the story. And I wanted permission to share this story after she died.

My fear was unfounded. She didn’t hesitate at all. She wasn’t phased for a moment about the thought of her death or her funeral. But she did say, “I have a lot of stories I could tell, how much time have ya got?”

And I replied, “All the time in the world.”

Here is the summarized version of what I recorded from the conversation on February 27, 2015. I will refer to my grandparents by their first names, for clarity. Opal is my grandmother. Marvin is my grandfather.

“We were a good fit.” She said. Opal was sitting in Marvin’s chair in her living room. I was next to her on the couch. She had tried numerous times to feed me, or get me coffee, or a pop with a straw I could stick in the can. But she finally relented that I was fine just as I was and was ready to answer the question I had asked moments before.

“How did you meet? And what is the secret to such a long and happy marriage?”

She shifted a bit in the recliner, a chair that seemed to swallow her. Every year, she appeared to shrink, smaller and smaller. But she was still savvy about her social skills. She looked you in the eyes, when speaking. Her light blue eyes gazing with kindness, not intensity, as she spoke. And after her pause she said, “I’ll have to start at the beginning. Otherwise you won’t understand why we were such a great fit. But don’t worry, I’ll answer your question.”

Opal grew up in Sioux Falls. “My father and mother, you see, were very kind people. A lot of people on the block weren’t so kind. But my parents accepted everyone, and even invited them to the house.” She went on to explain their kindness with some anecdotes. It didn’t matter if they were sick, poor or had mental difficulties. There was a boy who lived in the house next door, who was in the grade between her older sister Verna and herself, that was ostracized. He had a harelip and was considered “slow.” He spent many days every week at the Nelson household.

But the kindness her parents showed the community wasn’t limited to anyone, no matter their behavior, good or bad. Her father had a younger brother who came back from WWI “changed.” He became an alcoholic and couldn’t get his life together. He “stole” the wife of a neighbor and together they had a few children. The relationship her uncle had with the neighbor’s wife didn’t last and he was a mean drunk. Opal was scared of him. But her parents would always keep an open door for him and his alcoholic friends. Her mother would boil water for them for their drinks. Opal’s father and mother did not drink, they were staunch in their abstinence of alcohol, but never judged those who did. They also never turned out her uncle or his friends, no matter their behavior.

Her father’s older brother had also fought overseas during the War. He too was an alcoholic, but unlike the younger brother, he was a happy drunk. Opal and her siblings found him quite funny and they enjoyed being around him. The ways she bore witness to the drinking that so affected her uncles influenced her. She decided she wouldn’t drink and formed this opinion at an early age.

At this point in her stories, she paused and looked at me. “The reason I told you all of this about my parents and my uncles is because it helps explain a bit about myself. You have to know about me in order to understand Marv and I.” Opal said she considered herself an “older person who was really younger.” And by younger, she meant someone who was innocent. In her words she didn’t “drink, didn’t party, didn’t fool around, ya know, have sex.” The boys and men she dated were sometimes put off by her stance of no sex before marriage. She said they never “got handsy.” But she considered herself an inexperienced woman when she met Marvin.

But this is exactly what made her a good fit with Marvin. He was really “an older person who was young.” Marvin had to be the man of the house when his mother, Hannah Bakke, got divorced during the Great Depression. He had to take care of things, he started working at a young age and use to take care of Dodie [his little sister]. Even after Marvin and Opal first married, Hannah would call Marvin and ask him to go get Dodie “out of trouble.” Opal said that Dodie was “too pretty for her own good” and often found herself in situations that needed help. So Marvin was supporting his family and trying to be “a moral compass” for his little sister, while bailing her out of jams. He didn’t drink either. And he didn’t “fit” with the other teenagers his age.

They met through happenstance. But I believe it was fate.

Opal was an independent woman. In high school, while the War raged on overseas, she had been one of the first three women to be trained in a school to work program. While trying to fill jobs left open by all the men who were fighting overseas, Washington High School had started an accounting program for senior girls. Opal not only graduated from this program, but obtained a job at a store called Farmer’s, where she eventually managed the accounting department.

Opal lived in an apartment with her sisters, crowded and small, but she said it was one the best times of her life. After several years of living with her sisters and being a woman in charge, she was beginning to feel like she may just end up alone. And it was all because of Dilbert.

Opal met Dilbert in eighth grade and they dated all throughout high school. I saw a picture of Dilbert once. He was short and stout, like a boxer. With a full head of black hair that he slicked back. He was handsome. But Dilbert and Opal had to maintain a long distance relationship when he went overseas to serve during WWII. When he returned from the War, he only cared about going to bars. Opal said he became a completely different person. It must have reminded her so much of her uncles. One night he gave her a kiss and said, “You are just too nice of a person to be with me.” And then he walked away, no other explanation. Opal was perplexed, but decided that if he loved her and wanted to be with her he would get in touch with her. She wasn’t going to chase after a man who didn’t want her. And she never heard from him again. Her family had thought her and Dilbert were going to get married, so it came as a shock to the whole family that he broke up with her. Opal decided, after this breakup, she was going to “swear off men.” But her sister Verna, had other plans.

Verna convinced Opal to go out dancing after arguing with her all day. The Nelson girls were famous for dancing the night away and having a good time, and Verna wasn’t about to let Opal slip into a depression over some solider that dumped her when he returned from the War. If that meant taking her dancing on a Wednesday night to get her out of the doldrums, then so be it.

Somewhere else in Sioux Falls, Marvin was settling down for the night to relax when his friend, Don Skatsen, convinced him to come out dancing for “just a couple of hours.” Also not in the mood for music and gaiety, Don had to pester Marvin to get him to finally agree to go out.

These four people all ended up at the same dance hall on a Wednesday night. Marvin saw Opal sitting alone and asked her to dance. They danced just once.

I interjected her story, “With just that one dance, did you know? Did you like him, did you immediately fall in love with him?”

And she responded with a sly smile, “There wasn’t anything there.” And she said she didn’t even think about him again.

One day, much later, while working at Farmer’s, Marvin delivered some stationary to the store. They started talking because they recognized each other from the dance. She enjoyed talking to him so much, that she agreed to go out dancing with him again. By this time, her depression over the breakup with Dilbert has lessened. She was in a better place. Soon, they were going out dancing on double dates with friends all the time. Opal commented that Marvin was, “a really good dancer.” And that impressed her. But what made a greater impression on her was the type of man Marvin was. Marvin didn’t drink and he held down a job. He helped his mother and he took care of his sister.

At this point in her story, she paused and reflected. “I had dated a lot of men. I had even been proposed to and turned several down. Remember that pig farmer I told you about in Milford?” I smiled, she loved telling me about the widower who proposed to her three times and whom she turned down three times. She meet him while going to dances at the Roof Garden in Okoboji. My settling in the Iowa Great Lakes was like an ironic life twist for her memories. “Life was a struggle for the men of my generation. The War, it changed them. They couldn’t hold a job, they went out drinking and got out of control, they pushed women to do “things” they didn’t want to do.” But Marvin was different. He was stable and calm and kind. She had found someone who wasn’t affected by the War. But she didn’t yet know why he wasn’t affected.

Marvin proposed on November 11, 1948. Opal accepted, she would be a spinster no more. After Marvin went to City Hall for the marriage certificate, he realized he needed to talk to Opal again. He couldn’t accept her proposal. He felt like he was lying to her. Through tears he explained that Hannah [his mother] had to sign the marriage certificate because he was technically too young to enter into a marriage contract. He was too young to even have served during the War. He sat with Opal and asked her if she still wanted to marry him. This young man, who didn’t even fight for his country, who was just a teenager. They spoke for a long time, she said. He loved her so much, he couldn’t bear to live without her. But he wouldn’t lie about his age. Wouldn’t this age difference make him live without her, some day? But in the end, she said it really didn’t matter. In the long term, their age difference was minimal. What mattered was love, respect, and building a life together. They were married July 15, 1949.

“So you see, we were a good fit.” She looked at me with her calm blue eyes. They had tears in them, as they often did when she spoke about her husband.

“What was your age difference?” I asked perplexed about this huge deal between the two of them at the start of their life.

“Oh, just five years. And I was right. It didn’t matter in the end.” She smiled. “He was always worried I would die first and leave him alone ya see. He said I had to live to 100, and then he’d buy me a big diamond ring and then we could die together.”

I was getting teary at this point too.

“His worst fear never came true, I didn’t leave him alone. You tell them that. I kept my promise. I hope he doesn’t have to wait too long for me to see him in Heaven. You tell them that too. If they are sad, don’t be sad. I’ve got to go take care of Marvin. They can be happy we are together again. ”

Opal died March 23, 2021 at 4:33am. One month shy of her 97th birthday. She lived eight years without Marvin.

I was not able to share this eulogy she helped me write for her funeral. I considered going rogue, and rushing the pulpit to give it anyway. And in many ways, I should have. I should have done what I told her I would do. But families are complicated. Hers was no exception. And grief is complicated. Mine is no exception. And so her final words are just for me.

And now, they are also for you.

I spent the funeral trying not to think about these words, words that have echoed through my mind many times during the past six years since she shared them with me. There is so much more she shared, stories and advice and thoughts. Opal may have never told me she loved me, but she showed me. And she showed me the power of a marriage of love and being a woman with uncompromising values and determination. I couldn’t share this with your family at your funeral, Grandma. But I can share it with the world online, and maybe that will be enough to make up for my cowardice. You deserved better than what you got at the end.

I love you.

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