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Country plays and calling 'cayutes'

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We all meet unforgettable people in our lives. One of mine is my Grandma Hulda.

Looking back I would have to say that what she embraced was the joy of living.

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A small town girl from the prairies of South Dakota, she knew hard work and hard times but she had a lot of "pep" and she liked to "kick up her heels." She would tell us stories about riding to dances in the surrounding small towns on the train. Romance was something to flirt with and enjoy. She used to laugh about the time she found herself with two dates on the same night. She knew when these two Romeos were going to come by for her and since it was the second guy she wanted to go out with, she enlisted the help of her kid brother. She told him to tell the first guy that she was sick and had to break the date. Her plan would have worked like a charm but her brother double-crossed her. When he called her to come downstairs she found both of her dates waiting.

She went to work teaching at country schools around South Dakota and worked at five different ones in five years before she decided to get out of teaching and get married. What was wrong with these schools we once asked her. "Nothing," she said. "I just wanted more money."

Her first full-time teaching job took her out to Lemmon, S.D., where she found herself living on a large ranch. Her first night on the western prairie was full of "cayute" (her pronunciation of coyote) howls so mournful that she cried because she was so homesick.

She was born in 1899 and grew up in one of the most dynamic centuries in history, but she did not pay much attention to the history that was being made. About the horrors of war she remembered very little but she believed that "things are never so good for the farmers as they are in wartime." She believed it was her duty to vote even though she did not give a hoot for politics. She voted for one presidential candidate because he was of Swedish extraction.

Grandma Hulda and her brother, Gottfred, were amateur entertainers in Dalton. They would stage plays in neighboring communities and country schools and do a lot of singing -- mostly in Swedish -- which was no big handicap because in those days everyone spoke or at least understood the language. The plays her company staged were no threat to Broadway but people loved them. This was in the days before television and the Internet and people did not expect so much or travel so far for their entertainment. The big kick Grandma Hulda got out of these plays was the fun of making other people laugh. She used to laugh herself when Gottfred would forget his lines and start ad libbing.

Gottfred was an insanely talented musician who had never had a music lesson in his life. He had what Grandma Hulda called "a perfect ear for music" and could play anything. He built and repaired pipe organs for a living and had one in his shop. He would take drink and when he got "tight" he would open the door on his little organ repair shop and play a medley of favorites. While the townspeople loved these impromptu organ concerts they were always a tip off to Gottfred's very proper wife and that would bring her wrath down on him.

By the time her grandchildren arrived the plays were over but the actress in Grandma Hulda would not let her give it up completely. She got herself a Santa Claus suit with a white beard and would come over to our place on Christmas Eve with a bag of toys. We were completely fooled. Then the time came when on one of "Santa's visits" my older sister, Linda, exclaimed with great astonishment "look, Santa is wearing Grandma Hulda's boots!"

Grandma Hulda taught Sunday School for 30 years and liked to attend Ladies' Aid functions in our little town. One time an old-time, fire-breathing preacher was the guest and he told them they were all going to hell. Most of the women were shocked and frightened but the gal sitting next to my Grandma Hulda whispered to her "well, at least we all know where we are going."

She used a string of expressions that you really don't hear anymore. When she ran into someone who liked to take a drink of alcohol she would say that person "didn't spit in a glass."

When two old country churches burned down she realized immediately how serious and sad it was to some of the old women in the congregation. I remember her saying with great sympathy and kindness that "it was a 'heart blow' because you know 'some of those old gals would be there 'til the last dog was hung.'"

Someone who was depressed was "down in the dumps," good meat was "choice stuff," someone who was full of fun was "full of the Old Nick," two people who were not getting along were "on the outs," someone who had been sick, had recovered and then gotten sick again had suffered "a setback" and keeping something a secret was "keeping it on the Q.T." She was not always politically correct. When she sat down and put on her make-up at the kitchen table in the morning she was "putting on the war paint."

She loved Charlie Chaplin movies and even got me to take her to some. In return, she went with me to that science fiction epic "Star Wars." She was "pushing" 80 at the time and when I asked her what she had thought of it she simply said "it was a little far-fetched."

She appreciated the little comforts of life. She took a bus trip to Minneapolis once when we lived together and asked me to meet her on the return trip just outside of town. It was a dark, windy, lonely autumn night that she stepped off the bus. The way she acted you would have thought that seeing my truck sitting there was the highlight of her whole trip.

If you had her for a friend, you had a friend for life, and the best part was that her friends all knew it. "If you don't have something good to say about somebody then don't say anything at all," was her lifelong motto. She could charm the birds right out of the trees and her charm was especially devastating when it came to men. She always understood most men will basically do anything for you if can make them believe they are playing the part of the "hero." After Grandpa Hilmer died she used to hire some of the old timers around town to do odd jobs for her around the house and the yard. She had two of those old boys so bamboozled that if she would have asked them to murder someone for her the idea would not have been completely out of the question.

Her old house was far from being the nicest one in town but I know it was the warmest -- and not because the heat was turned up -- but because her guests were always "as welcome as the flowers in May" and were treated like visiting royalty. When I lived with her and brought my friends home they were treated to pizza, ice cream, television, a good place on the sofa, blankets, extra pillows and anything else she could get for them. It was always a big surprise to me when they left.

She could be a handful too. When her toaster oven broke down she took it to the local TV repairman to be fixed. This guy was game enough to take on the job but he started to get annoyed when she called him eight times the first day to see if it was fixed. He finally asked me to talk to her. "Why do you keep bugging poor Walt about that toaster-oven?" I demanded. "Because he is so slow that if I don't I will never get it back," she said.

I had to be careful about helping her because she usually wanted it all her own way. One time my wife and I took on a painting job for her and she came out and started bossing us. There was only one thing to do. I sat down the paint brush, looked her right in the eye and told her that unless she was willing to leave us alone she could do the painting herself. That did the trick.

Another time a pal of mine came down to visit me in Owatonna. He drove brought both of my grandmas down with him in Grandma Hulda's car. I made the trip with them when they left and since it was my grandma's car I took over the driving from Mark. We had gone about 50 miles when we had to pull over to the side of the road. One of our two backseat passengers had been making too many "suggestions" about my driving to suit me. I asked Mark if he would drive and he just said "sure." For the next 200 miles you would have thought we were fighting for the lead on the last lap of the Indianapolis 500. Mark blew every bit of carbon out of that 1968 Chevy. The best part was that we did not have to listen to another peep about the driving.

Acting silly was never a sin in her book and she was still throwing parties for her friends when she was in her eighties that involved disguises like big nose and glasses, pop eyes and plastic teeth. A few sips of wine and these old gals would goof around and "dress up" in their disguises. We still have some pictures to prove it.

For all of her charms and all of her flaws Grandma Hulda understood that there are two things that everyone wants -- we all want to be loved and we all want to be happy.

She had many good times during her life and reveled in them She also knew that all good things must come to an end. She was afraid of death and I have always been thankful that before the end came she "went home" in her mind. She was not at the rest home in Evansville with a lot of strangers, she was a girl in South Dakota again. She would speak in Swedish to her mother and father, to her brothers and sisters, and they were all very much alive for her.

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