When Dorette and I visited New Zealand a while ago, we heard a Maori proverb.
“Walk backwards toward the future.”
I thought of it when this picture of me as a kid (above) surfaced recently from my archive (that is to say, from my boxes of clutter).
It was taken by my father decades ago on the family farm in Wells County, North Dakota. Some of the tones have shifted over the decades, but the image still captures me. I have no recollection of the occasion — perhaps I was duded up for a school or church “program.”
As we used to say about active old guys, I’m still “spry.” But lately, a darker thought has occurred to me: “Is this my last good year?”
But I now truly understand the meaning and wisdom of the Maori saying — it’s useless to dwell on the future.
Today (Wednesday) my mother Minnie Vogel Vorland would have been 95. She died in 1991, a few days after my father, Kermit Vorland. They are buried next to one another in a cemetery near the former family farm south of Wellsburg, N.D.
This picture (above) was taken by Dad, from whom I inherited an interest in photography. I was about 4, my sister Susan about 2. Our younger brother, Dan, arrived four years after Sue.
Mom had a wicked sense of humor. She loved to tell the story of how, sensing she was pregnant again, she had consulted with a doctor in Harvey, N.D., 15 miles away.
After examining her, the doc said mom had likely been experiencing indigestion.
A year or so later, he greeted her while she was shopping in Harvey, looked at the baby she was carrying (Dan) and asked “who is this?”
“That’s my case of indigestion,” mom replied.
One last comment about the photo. My once robust shock of red hair now appears pretty much as unruly as it did in this picture
I’ve been hearing northern Cardinals but had not seen one close up until Saturday. They don’t migrate — one of the handful of species that live in Minnesota all year.
I photographed this female (above) under one of our feeders in Bloomington.
We’ll soon be hearing more of them. Both the males and females sing in earnest in March and April to establish territories and attract mates. They are the opera stars of the bird world — each individual has 10 to 12 unique song types, although some diva cardinals can sing more than 25.
It’s music to my ears.
According to my guide book, to maintain contact, males and females also give short nonmusical, metallic sounding “chip notes” singly or in a series. The frequency and volume of these calls increase with the level of agitation.
Claude Monet, one of the giants of Impressionism, is among Dorette’s and my favorite artists. We’ve seldom missed an opportunity to see his work.
We’ve also twice visited his estate near Meudon, France, a short train trip from Paris. Traveling with us last year was Avery Dusterhoft, Dorette’s granddaughter, who brought along her sketch book to draw scenes of Monet’s famous water lilies.
Naturally, the Monet estate operates a gift shop. Dorette purchased this reproduction (above) of a painting Monet created a short walk from the lilies.
It’s titled “Les Coquecots,” translated in English as “The Poppy-field.”
In retrospect, this picture captured what was one of the most important days of my life: June 6, 1965.
Gasp! That’s more than half a century ago. I’m not certain who snapped the shutter, although I think it was my sister, Susan Vorland Hanson.
It was graduation day at the University of North Dakota. I’m with my parents Kermit and Minnie Vorland who lived until 1991, when death took them within two weeks of each other.
The summer I graduated from Harvey (N.D.) High school, Dad gave me the keys to my “college car,” a 14-year-old Chevrolet he had purchased from a friend.
He and mom didn’t see the UND campus until the day I graduated four years later.
Unlike now, when parents often visit their kids on campus, back then most did not, especially those who like mine did not attend college. Dad ended his education with the eighth grade, a decision his Norwegian immigrant father Hans told him he’d later regret.
That’s Budge Hall in the background, where I lived for all but one of my years at UND. It’s among the many vintage buildings demolished by the university, much to the consternation of old fart alums like me.
I went on that autumn to graduate school at Northwestern, assuming I would work as a journalist in New York or Chicago.
Instead, I eventually ended up back at the University of North Dakota, first as an instructor, then, after a three-year teaching stint at St. Cloud State, as UND’s director of public relations. I took early retirement in 2005.
All in all I’ve had a good run. Thank you, mom and dad.
Humphrey Bogart said that to Ingrid Bergman in the 1942 movie “Casablanca.”
He was right. I feel that way about my favorite place in the whole wide world, even if I never have the opportunity to return. I’ve been there several times over the years.
But actually I do have an opportunity.
In July, I’m splurging on what most likely will be my last visit to Paris, attending the International Hemingway Society Biennial Conference. I’ve been a Hemingway aficianado, as he would put it, since I read his short story “A clean well-lighted place” as a University of North Dakota freshman.
Although I need to take his advice — I’m not as young as I once was. That is, “iI faut d’bord durer” (first it is necessary to survive).
I’ll give it my best shot. I took this picture in 2005 along the River Seine. Everyone, inluding this couple, feels more creative and alive in Paris.
Like birth, I think the hour of our death is very meaningful, whether our earthly minds allow us to solve the puzzle or not. It is drenched in meaning, here and also somewhere else. The year, month, day, hour and second — it is already written for each of us.
I think I’m lucky in that I can see the light of that meaning, glowing like a street lantern illuminating my steps through a blackened night, but I can’t really articulate my grief. I am not able to explain what happens to me when it comes knocking. And that’s actually the hardest part.
I have accepted the death of my father, then mentor, then mother. My mind has yet to fully grasp what else it is I’m supposed to know about my devotion to each of them, about their part in the play of my life and about how and why we came to love each other.
And with all three, feelings of great significance wash over me on certain days, like when they left or on dates of things we celebrated together. It starts off as a really strong feeling. I will wonder, what is it? What’s wrong? And then I notice the date, or a that a date is coming instead of the other way around. These are signposts I think, and evidence to some kind of intelligent communication from beyond.
Somedays I feel like I’m standing on the edge of a rabbit hole. “Mom, are you there?” I call out to myself in the quiet. I talk to all three of these souls like they are with me all the time. I’m not even embarrassed about it.
Sometimes I’m stopped cold when their presence pops into my reality and I spin into another dimension. Like the reoccurring thought chasing me lately, that my mentor never saw me transform (as much, only just the beginning … and man, was he accepting!) into the stronger, taller and uniquely complex man I am today. I was a different person entirely when I saw him last. That hurts and like a razor cut it bleeds slowly and painfully. “But I look so different now,”I say softly as if he can hear me.
For my father, it is simply true that he is everywhere with me. If I’m having a bad day, I reach for his Minnesota Twins cap. I chose it after he died because it was the most worn. Dark sweat stains along the rim, knowing they were his made me feel close to him. I loved him enough that I feel like we never left each other, that instead he is now just slightly out of reach.
I think I’m getting there with my father and mentor. Not 100 percent, mind you, but I’m no longer in the weird stages of grief where you never know what to expect.
I’m not there for mom yet. A mom is such a big thing, yes? That’s part of it I’m sure.
“Mommy!” We all can imagine saying this, or feel the orphaned reality when we utter those words, or just you know, watch “Bambi.” Mom is mom all day, and she was important to me in so many ways and, and it is still so very new it seems.
And it is also true that I’m exhausted by grief, so I put it off until my body is begging me to stop. To turn off the music, shut down the laptop, to put away the pen and paper, switch off the lights, back away from the world and just grieve. Even then, “I don’t want to,” my mind will argue. “I’m busy!” “I can’t today. I’m too tired,” “hurts too much,” “I don’t like to cry,”on and on with the excuses of the mind. But in time I give in and tears flow a little bit.
It’s like trimming the hedges. You put it off by snipping a few clips here and there until at once you realize it’s grown tall enough to block your sun.
I imagine I could use a raging sob, which is very cathartic right? I’m just not sure where to find it. When is the last time you sobbed? I like the idea because it puts a focus on the physical and occurs mostly outside of the mind.
Sudden deaths like my father and mentor came easy. I shouldn’t say that, they came whether I wanted them to or not. The process began like a break in a dam. There wasn’t a second for debate on when this event would occur. The wave hit me the moment I learned. Like tripping and falling as the water slams your body further into the ocean floor, it is unexpected and without reserve. I lost myself in the news, but when someone is slowly dying over time, a pattern of grief emerges that becomes much more complex.
There is guilt and anger and all of the stages of grief, but they are entirely different when that someone spent so much time being completely vulnerable.
While alive, you grieve what they once were but you’re still celebrating their life. And in the end, every single breath. After they leave, you realize your small pond of grief has become an ocean. It feels overwhelming.
I know I need to take that time to open the door to the moment of her death. I haven’t done this yet. I have only experienced and then ran away from it. I think doing so will feel like making a conscious, though anxious decision to cliff dive. To leave earth for a bit flailing wildly into the unknown. To crash into the cool waters below, and to eventually heal.
I will. I will. I can’t just yet but I am looking forward to the time when I can tell my mind a story about the good, bad, ugly, great reality of all the memories that make up our relationship as mother and son.
“Let your hopes, not your hurts, shape your future” — Robert Shuller
Here’s a final photograph, and some thoughts about it, from the recent trip Dorette and I made to attend the jazz festival in Chicago’s Millennium Park.
Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe all said you can’t go home again. Wolfe even used the expression as the title of one of his novels.
But I keep trying.
For example, at least once a year, I revisit the North Dakota town where I was born and attended high school. It’s much changed. The last house of my dead parents is dilapidated and apparently abandoned, with no connection now to my inner life.
And then there’s this house at 810 Colfax Street in Evanston, Ill., photographed just the other day. It was my home in the mid-1960s while I studied at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
Like myself, it shows the effects of more than half a century of time.
Back then I had traveled by rail to Chicago, arriving at Union Station and connecting to another train to Evanston. After checking my baggage, I walked to Northwestern’s off Camus housing office, hoping to find inexpensive lodging.
I didn’t make it to the long lines of waiting students. A guy with a big grin spoke to me.
“Looking for a room?” he asked. I nodded. “Come with me,” he replied.
In his car, I learned his name was Lester Welty. We retrieved my stuff at the station and drove to Colfax Street.
The house looked great. For $50 a month, I rented one of two rooms he had available (the other was soon taken by a Medill classmate).
Lester’s wife had died recently, and I sensed he was providing sleeping quarters to students so as not to live alone.
Later that year, Lester mentioned he was a retired life insurance agent, although he said his first goal had been to become a Methodist minister.
He showed me several filing cabinets in the basement packed with the records of insurance policies he’d sold over the years. He asserted with pride that he’d done more good as a life insurance agent than he ever would have as a pastor.
And so last week, after tipping my hat to Lester Welty’s memory, I walked from 810 Colfax St. to the Northwestern campus, as I had every day when I was a student.
The distance seemed longer than I remembered, and at one point, I had to consult my iPhone’s mapping application.
So I guess it’s true: at my advanced age, you REALLY can’t go home again
Recently I sifted through some memorabilia and found the above picture taken in 1965, when I was a senior at the University of North Dakota.
With me in the photo that appeared in the Dacotah Annual were classmates Mike Schlax, sports editor of the Dakota Student newspaper, and Harriet Thorpe, who wrote editorials.
My title was “news editor.”
I had intended to run for the editorship, but Mike, who was member of the Board of Student Publications, told me the deck was stacked in favor of Sandra Kummer, a journalism student from Anamoose, N.D., not far from my hometown of Harvey.
So I talked to Sandy, offering to withdraw my application in exchange for appointing me news editor. She agreed and became my boss, so to speak.
It turned out we were a good team.
Afterward, I went on to grad school at Northwestern, and Sandy became an officer in the U.S. Army. She died way too young. Mike, a Vietnam War veteran who later worked for Northwest Airlines, died in early middle age. After graduation I lost touch with Harriet.
As the Maori people of New Zealand say, it’s best metaphorically to walk backward toward the future so as not to dwell too much on our losses and the brevity of life.
My sister, Susan Vorland Hanson, has returned from a two-week trip to Norway and after spending the night with us departed this morning to her home near Turtle Lake, N.D.
Also in Bloomington were Sue’s daughter, Ondrea Miller, and granddaughter, Allison, who moved in to an apartment near the University of Minnesota campus where she will begin her sophomore year. Allison’s dad, Scott, was in town, too, on business but we weren’t able to hook up this time.
Dorette and I had GREAT fun hosting and interacting with these wonderful people.
And not only that: Sue brought me a gift from Norway: a bottle of 41.5 proof “Linie Aqua Vit,” since 1805 for all practical purposes, Norway’s national liquor.
Produced from potatoes, it is flavored with caraway, dill, aniseed, sweet fennel and coriander, then matured in sherry casks. The casks are stored on the deck of a ship to be thoroughly mixed by the motion of the waves as it travels around the world. I couldn’t bring myself to ask how much Sue paid for the bottle.
I’m saving it for October, when we will be hooking up with our brother, Dan, in Sioux Falls, S.D.
The three of us are not getting any younger, so we’ll offer toasts to the good fortune we’ve had in our lives and to the adventures still ahead.
For example, I’m thinking that I, too, should walk in the home country of our grandparents, Hans and Anna Vorland. A few years ago, Dan sprang for airline tickets so the two of us could visit Paris together. Perhaps I should do the same for us to see Norway.
As the saying goes, there are no pockets in a shroud.