It began a few years ago. Uncle Wayne, my maternal aunt’s husband, started acted strangely. For awhile, I had the Sheriff of Lake County keeping tabs on Wayne and my aunt, Susanne. Then, about two years ago, things took a turn for a worse. Wayne went to a doctor to check on his behaviors and some physical issues. He was diagnosed with both cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease. Because of a precarious circulatory system, Susanne, whom I call “Auntie Sukie”, and the doctors agreed: No surgery. Wayne went to live out his days at a facility near his lovely, pastoral home just outside Two Harbors, Minnesota. That meant Sukie, at nearly eighty-five years old, lived alone in the old farmhouse with her two cats, trying to fend for herself against the harshness of Minnesota’s winter. Her daughters, my cousins, Julie and Heidi live a ways away. Selling the farm: thirty-plus acres of beautiful rolling pasture, a quaint, well-built house, a large garage, and Wayne’s beloved workshop was an option. Wayne and Sukie had tried to sell the place but the price had been set so high, only dreamers and charlatans stopped in and expressed interest. But even with Wayne in a facility, despite the difficulties of getting to and from town as a very short, hearing-challenged, elderly woman, Aunt Sukie stubbornly, steadfastly, and lovingly refused entreaties to move closer to Julie, her eldest. The Slovenian inside my aunt, coupled with her love for Wayne, was just too strong.

I saw Wayne from time to time at the facility whenever I was on the North Shore for work. While he continued to display the typical paranoia associated with Alzheimer’s, he always knew me and took great pride in introducing me to the new friends he’d made. “This is my nephew, The Judge,” he’d proclaim. But in the end, Wayne passed on. After the funeral, Julie and Heidi again postulated to Sukie that maybe a move closer to them made sense. Auntie would have none of it. “I have my church and my friends,” she’d say, “and the library,” adding that her role on the board of the Friends of the Two Harbors Library was something she cherished. As a fellow writer, I understood her connection to place and people. But, as summer turned to fall, it became clear that Auntie Sukie would be unable to sustain her independence no matter how strong her spirit and resistance.

A series of health issues ended my aunt’s ability to drive. Robbed of mobility, she relied on others to get into town for groceries and supplies, or to her medical appointments in Duluth, which as a heart condition manifested, became more and more frequent. Finally, her daughters convinced Auntie to see a heart specialist. She was diagnosed with aortic valve stenosis, a condition that, if untreated, would see her lose more and more stamina. But because of other physical issues, no surgeon in Duluth would do the surgery. Fine physicians at the U of M agreed to do the work. She came through the operation with flying colors and after a brief stay in the hospital, went to Alexandria for rehabilitation. Just before her heart surgery, Auntie finally said, “I can’t go back to the farm.” And yet, she still clung to hope; hope that she could remain in the Two Harbors-Duluth area. That desire to remain close to her beloved North Shore evolved until she recognized the importance of being closer to her girls. Julie found her an apartment in Alexandria, where Julie lives, a place also much closer to Heidi.

Julie and her devoted husband Brad made countless trips to the farm to get things moving. Susanne visited the proposed apartment and, after many, many debates and discussions, agreed it was for the best. As Sukie’s Power of Attorney, I set about finding a realtor to help sell the farm. With her daughters’ permission, I settled on a realtor who attended Knife River Lutheran Church, Sukie’s church; Steve Carlson, a smiling, gregarious, big-hearted man who, having lived his whole life in the area, knew the market well. But before the place could be put up for sale, it needed to be cleaned, rubbish and trash removed, and made ready. It took elbow grease and many hours of dedication but, eventually, the little white farmhouse was ready for potential buyers to view. I signed a listing agreement for a price that I thought was fair. Sukie, of course, having been mislead by charlatans and hangers-on who gave her a false sense of the place’s value, thought I was selling her legacy for a song. But despite our differences on this point, Susanne moved into her new apartment in Alexandria, many of her beloved “treasures” packed in boxes and sent to auction. Reluctant to depart with furniture and dishware and books despite moving from a three-bedroom home into a one-bedroom apartment, my aunt kept telling Julie and I that, “it’s all great stuff!” We’d placate her by nodding our heads, saying things like, “We know but you can’t take it all with you.” Between Julie and Brad and Heidi and Nick and I, the farmhouse was cleaned, her stuff sorted, and Sukie installed in her new apartment closer to family.

Steve listed the farmhouse for sale. It sold in two days. There were issues with the septic (let’s just say it hadn’t met code in decades!) that needed correcting. After escrowing money for a new system, the sale went through. Steve and I attended a closing in Duluth. The only remaining problem was Sukie’s car, a Buick that Uncle Wayne, in the early stages of dementia, had paid way too much for. The lender was a bank someplace in Ohio. With only Wayne’s name on the title and loan, and with the car having a value of about one-third what was owed, and with Susanne no longer able to drive, the car had to go. No one had paid on the loan since Wayne’s passing. The smart choice was to call the bank and have them come get their car. It took numerous calls and a final threat by a very pissed off nephew threatening, “if you don’t come get this car, I’ll have it towed to Fredenberg and you’ll have to come visit me to get the keys,” to persuade the bank we were serious. The car gone, the closing done, all that was left for me to do was deliver the check from the sale of the house to Auntie Sukie.

It was a beautiful Minnesota spring morning when I set out in my Grand Cherokee, cashier’s check in hand, for Alexandria. Passing through Mora on 23, I found I was ahead of schedule (I was meeting Julie and Sukie to tour my aunt’s apartment, go to lunch, hand over the check, and set up a bank account for Sukie) so I ended up diverting into downtown St. Joseph’s, home to St. Benedict’s College. I intended to say hello to Jeff Velline, son of legendary rock and roller, Bobby Vee, at the family recording studio in St. Joe’s, Rockhouse Records. I arrived a half hour before the studio opened, parked the Jeep, and took a stroll around the St. Ben’s campus, When I finally entered the studio, I was greeted by Tom Velline, Jeff’s brother. I explained who I was, that I’d met Jeff at Høstfest in Minot, and that Jeff was a fan of my Finn books. Tom gave me a tour of the place (formerly a bank). Later, Tom and Jeff and I stood in the studio’s control room and talked music and books and Finns (Bobby was half Finnish) and life. The Velline brothers were gracious hosts even though I’d arrived unannounced and uninvited.

I was still ahead of schedule. I detoured off I-94 into Sauk Center, the hometown of Nobel Laureate, Sinclair Lewis. My only quest was to drive around town to get a sense of the place, find Lewis’s birthplace, take a quick photo, and get back on the road. Unfortunately, I relied on GPS. It took twice as long as it should have but eventually I found the writer’s home, took a few photos, and headed north on the freeway.

In Alexandria, I dropped my Jeep off at the Cenex station. Brad, Julie’s husband, manages the tire center and, because my car needed new tires, I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone. Julie showed up at the Cenex. I grabbed the envelope with Sukie’s check, hugged my cousin, and we sped off to visit Auntie. More hugs, a quick tour of the apartment, a nice lunch at a local eatery, some time spent with a very thoughtful lady at the local bank setting up accounts, brief goodbyes, and the it was back to Cenex to pay for the tires and hit the road.

The weather held. The ride home was uneventful. I took the scenic route, following two lanes from Alexandria to Duluth through farmland, over rivers, and around lakes, content in the knowledge that my aunt was safe, well cared for, healthy, and back to enjoying life.

Before we parted, I suggested that she write another book, a follow-up to her great little memoir, Back of Beyond.

“Maybe,” was all she said.

Peace.

Mark

 

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