A 1952 Christmas

 This photo is from my mother’s Christmas in 1952. That’s her in the middle with the beautiful smile. She was so fond of her family and I can just tell from the photo that they are all really happy to be together. It was taken in the family home in Floodwood, Minnesota. It’s easy to imagine that their celebration included peppernuts and lots of cheerful chattering in the kitchen. Her parents, John and Eva Schroeder sit behind her. Older sisters, (Olivia is on the left and Wanda is on the right) surround her. Peeking from behind is her young brother, LeRoy. He would have been 22 and was likely a college student. The family was large and scattered. Missing from the photo is older sister Emma and her family who were missionaries in Ecuador and younger brother Loyd and his family who were also missionaries in Ecuador. Older brother Ed was married with young children and lived in Omaha. At the time Mom would have been visiting from her job at Grace Children’s Home in Henderson, Nebraska and Wanda would have been visiting from northern Montana. Olivia may have still lived in the area. Wanda (34) was newly married (her husband was there but not in the photo), but Grandma (Lillian, 28), Olivia (31) and LeRoy were not. 

Wanda with her new husband, Jake 
John and Eva Schroeder were both first generation Americans. Their parents were all children when they immigrated to the United States in the mid 1870s, likely from Mennonite communities in Prussia or Russia. They grew up speaking German and although at some point they learned English, I think they continued to speak German in their home even after they married in 1913.  Eventually they made the switch to English. The last and hardest thing to give up was praying in German. I think it was Grandma who said that that too needed to change.

I did not know my grandfather well. He was born November 21, 1890 exactly 97 years before our son Shawn was born and he died in 1961 when I was six. Because they lived so far from Kansas we didn’t see them often. And I was one of many grandchildren. Family members said that he was brilliant, an inventor of a musical instrument and a “rock picker”. But mostly, he was a struggling farmer and, in Minnesota, a lumberman. I think he preferred that to working in the employ of someone else but it did not give him the opportunity to pursue his inventions. A failed homestead in Montana and the Great Depression made things difficult economically but he was a very hard worker and devout Christian. They moved many times and always started a Sunday School or church wherever they went. I understand he was responsible for the very “unMennonite” names of their seven children - Emma Johana, Edward John, Wanda Evangeline, Olivia Marie, Lillian Rose, Loyd Oliver and LeRoy Donald.

Our sons remember Grandma Schroeder fondly. She was old for such a long time, passing away at the ripe old age of 102 in 1996. She too was a hard worker and Mom, who was her caregiver for many years, scrambled to find things to keep her hands occupied. Her spirit was sweet; she was quiet and never intrusive. Steadfast would be a good word to describe her. For the rest of her life she looked pretty much the same as you see in the photo. 

The children - Olivia, LeRoy, Wanda, Lillian, Jake

It is interesting to me that mom and her two sisters pictured were all in their thirties when they married. I think that was quite unusual for that time. And they married younger men. Wonderful families were established. Wanda had six children (one died in infancy), Olivia had four daughters and of course, there are four Epp siblings. Since we lived so far apart we cousins only saw each other on rare occasions but there is something about being raised by these sisters that gives us a common bond and understanding. Dear Aunt Olivia is the last remaining family member. She celebrated her 102nd birthday in October. 

It always seemed to me from my mother’s stories that LeRoy was the shining star of the family. He excelled with a variety of talents. He was a skilled musician and must have been very bright academically. At the time of his death (the result of a car accident) at the way too young age of 31 he was already a college professor and left a wife and two young sons. An unusual ability that he had was to sleep a precise amount of time. He would say, “I’m going to nap for 20 minutes (or any other amount of time)” and exactly 20 minutes later (or any other amount of time) he would wake up. 

This photograph captures a moment in time. None of them could anticipate the joys or the sorrows to follow. It is unlikely that this group reunited for another Christmas celebration together. By the next Christmas Wanda was a mother and Olivia was planning a June wedding. In two years the Schroeder parents were stuffing their car with pine branches to take down to Nebraska for my parent’s wedding. 

The Land Remains

The sandhills in winter are shades of brown. Tawny tufts of dry grass studded with spikes of rust surround a grassy path wandering through this pasture. One side follows a barbed wire fence with a hayfield stretching beyond. In the other direction the prairie spreads wild and free. Shrubs are stark sticks devoid of leaves. Further down the trail tall trees bravely lift their bare branches toward a sky of brilliant blue. For a late December day the temperature is chilly but not bitter. Beautiful? Perhaps you wouldn’t think so. But this is the land that my father loves. He grew up on this land, working cattle and baling hay and when his parents grew old and moved to town he returned and worked cattle and baled hay. He has grown old but he has not moved to town. We are walking, my father and I, down this path that he has walked a thousand times.

My father has not been himself lately. He is just a few days out of a hospital stay where he received IVs and was not a particularly good patient. This morning I took him to the clinic for a follow-up appointment and labs. He is not eating or drinking well. At lunch I scooped up a few bites of cottage cheese into a spoon and fed him. My slight father is now gaunt and thin. Here on this path walking he is more himself. His walk is steady and firm. We talk little. “I don’t want to go to the nursing home,” he says. I know. But I can’t promise. Our path winds around a tall cottonwood tree with a rugged trunk. Nearby a fallen limb melds into the soil. We have entered a hidden meadow surrounded by trees.There are remnants here of happy times, of picnics and bonfires. At the far end of the clearing we come to the spot where we often turn around. Surely he is tired. We are a long way from the house. My father acts as if he is going to continue on. But when I ask him he turns and returns to the house with me.

At the house the light on the answering machine is blinking. Just as I am trying to listen, the phone rings. It is the clinic. Lab tests showed that he needs another IV but they are closing soon. Can we come right away? We hustle to the car and return to the clinic. Lying on the bed receiving the IV he seems so small and weak. His PA, a pleasant, compassionate young woman comes by to check on him. “He’s always been so strong,” I murmur. She pauses and her voice catches a bit, “Ninety sucks.” 

There’s an errand I need to do before we go home. We stop at the store and Dad stays in the car. At the checkout I notice some grape pop in the cooler. The bottle looks frosty and cold. Good. So I grab a couple of bottles and purchase them. My father is a child of the Depression. He is not given to self-indulgence. Ever. His current condition has highlighted this propensity with cloudy thinking. Just today as we were preparing for our walk he said, “We mustn't waste our coats.” So when I show him the pop, he shakes his head. But I remove the lid and place the bottle in his hand.

Driving home I watch him out of the corner of my eye. He shifts the bottle in his hands. Then lifts it to his mouth. “Um, tangy,” he says. He takes another sip. By the time we return home almost half is gone. A bit of encouragement. 


On that day, my father had less than a month to live. We had always told each other that our healthy, active father would live to be a hundred. I was only beginning to understand and I was certainly not ready to accept that he would not recover.