Sorry I missed you yesterday. I’ve really tried to be as faithful as possible in sharing a column with you all, but yesterday I was on a mission. Actually, Cheri and I both ended up spending the greater part of the day driving a four-hour round trip, and then spending the day with Cheri’s mom up in Grafton. It was a good, important day, and enjoyable as well. It always is, but it seems in this season that our visits are significantly appreciated.
The visit ended with a trip out to the farm. It’s only a 7 mile trip west of town, and one that Cheri and her family has made thousands of times for school and shopping and church and visits. I, however, had never driven highway 17 on the first few days of October. The significance? It’s the start of what is known as “The sugar beet campaign.” After a season of growing sugar beets, in the course (hopefully) of a couple of weeks, the beets are dug, loaded from the fields into semis and taken to the “pilers,” which are a couple of acres of land, and a few machines that auger out the 2-5 pound beets (you don’t want to eat these!) onto mountains of beets, that later will be moved by even larger trucks to one of the four or five sugar beet processing factories in the valley. Of course, everyone is in a hurry to get their own semis unloaded and back to the field so they can get another load to take to the piler. It’s probably the biggest cash crop in the valley – even more than potatoes – and so the campaign becomes the most important span of time in the entire farming year. Last year, the rain and the snow wouldn’t stop, and so the fields of rich black dirt became bogs of black mud. Both the “lifters” (the huge machines that dig and dump and beets into the trucks) and the trucks themselves had to be towed by even larger tractors to get them through the rows. It was perhaps the worst year in many for the farmers.
Not so this year! Everything is nice and dry, with only a few sprinkles. You can tell by looking at the piles of beets that they are pretty clean after living their lives underground all summer. Some years, the piles are black as midnight, as the beets are covered with mud. So far, it’s a good year, but that doesn’t make the work any less dangerous or hectic. About four miles west of town, along the highway, about halfway to the farm, is one of those piles. As we drove past, carefully watching for huge trucks that weren’t watching for us, I expect there were at least 20 trucks lined up and waiting to dump their load, as the machines in the fields waited for them to get back.
As we drove up to the house on the farm, it was evident that Cheri’s folks hadn’t lived there for nearly four years. A house uninhabited starts to sigh a bit, and sag a bit, and the liveliness of conversation and trees trimmed and grass tended to all sort of disappears. Eventually the house will come under the care of Cheri’s brother, and be renovated by Cheri’s nephew, but for now, it stands quiet and lifeless. The power is still on, so Cheri’s mom, as she has for probably 50 years, needed to read the meter and call in the number to the power co-op. So all three of us went in, and took care of that task.
It’s always tough to enter the house, because it’s taken on a musty, almost moldlike atmosphere. The air doesn’t move and things get stale. The house isn’t quite cleared out, in part because after 50 years, there is a lot to clean out, and when you go through closets and drawers, you suddenly find things you hadn’t remembered were even there. Boxes of old letters and pictures – oh my gosh! How can any family have so many pictures of ancestors! Except for perhaps my family, as we cleaned out Mom’s house after her death…
So the quick trip always turns into another walk through the museum of the Thompson family, and Cheri’s mom, as she always does, began to lament the state of the house, and worried about how she could ever get things cleared out. It has become an almost periodic funeral, not only about Cheri’s dad, but a home that is no longer a home, and that terrible coronavirus, and it all starts to collapse in.
One of the very hard parts of the cleanout was in a closet. Cheri’s dad was a snappy dresser when he wasn’t in the field, and hanging in the closet were about 15 suits, lots of dress shirts and dress pants, and even some nice dress shoes. They just hung there, no longer having an owner, and taking up space in a closet that no one was using. The burden they brought to Cheri’s mom, however, was a huge weight. She just didn’t know what to do with them, but something had to happen to them, and each time we came to the farm, we ended up at that closet, with Cheri’s mom nearly in tears.
Finally, we said, “Let us take them. We can find a good place for them to be reused back in Fargo, and they aren’t doing any good here.” We happened to have an empty back area in the car, and so after we were able to figure out which key worked to unlock the front door – actually, we never found it… we had to unlock the back door, go through the house, and manually unlock the front deadbolt, carry the clothes across the front lawn to the back of the car – many loads! -- and then rebolt the front door, go through the house and relock the back door with the key that was not hidden away somewhere! Have you ever noticed, when you are needing to do something that is very important or significant, that it always takes a second or third effort to walk through the obstacles and barriers to just do an otherwise simple task.
Remember the musty smell in the house? Well, it was in the clothes too, as Cheri and I drove the two hours home. Today, we will carry the clothes from our garage to the back patio and allow the sun and the autumn breeze to try to rid the clothes of some of that.
What we won’t get rid of, however, are the memories of the man who wore the clothes. As we were carrying them into the garage when we got home, Cheri said, “Oh—these all smell like Dad!” All I could smell was the musty part, but Cheri was able to detect her father’s cologne, and just everything that smelled like him. The work isn’t just physical – there is much emotional and mental as well.
Cheri’s mom, of course, was relieved, and so thankful that we could do such a simple thing. It was as if a huge burden had been lifted – it was one more thing that she didn’t have to concern herself about. There is still a lot of “stuff” in the house, but nothing of that personal nature. It turned out to be a good day.
I know many of you have had to do the task that falls to almost every family. “What are we going to do with….?” brings no quick answer. When we fail to act on an important task, however, things get musty. They don’t go away – they just linger and hang and droop like a tired house. If you are emotional at all, it takes a rather large amount of effort to go through the work. It takes something intentional and response-able to complete the task, which may be easier than we think, when we are able to just do it.
We will make other trips out to the farm again, I’m sure – there are still some pieces of furniture with our names on it that we will need to haul home. But the closet is empty. Her father’s clothes, her husband’s clothes will go to a good home soon, and another chapter of life, and death, is written. It was a good day.
Word for the day: qualtagh. Pronounced KWUL-tag. This is a word you may not ever hear in normal conversation, but it would be a fun one to throw out in a group at the right moment. It’s not Latin, and it’s not Greek. It actually comes for another near-dead language, called Manx, which is found only on the Isle of Man. Some have presumed it further came from ancient Irish comdal, with agh as a suffix. Comdal means “meeting with,” and agh, “a sense of belonging.” So the word breaks down to meeting with someone who “belongs” to you. The word in Manx denotes one of a few things. First, it means the person you first meet after leaving your home on a special day – specifically later, it meant New Years Day. It also came to mean the first person who crossed the threshold of a house on New Years Day. That person was considered lucky, or blessed, or special.
But – you ask – why would we need such word as qualtagh, and why denote a person who just happened to be the first to visit? The answer of course, is – I don’t know. Apparently people on the Isle of Man are a superstitious lot, and feel the need to make this thing a big deal. That’s of course not like us – knock on wood. Oh, did you sneeze just then? Bless you!
After 43 years of ministry, Randy Cross lived his "fourth life" and shared about retirement, living boldly and intentionally in our world. To be sure, there was some North Dakota thrown in.