If there was a geography bee my Mom might have won. It’s not that she just read a lot, which she did (starting with but not limited to National Geographic). And having chased a career military husband around the world added to her advantage. But a big addition to what she knew about the world is jigsaw puzzles.
You see, jigsaw puzzles are generally pictures of places, and Mom put together hundreds, maybe thousands, of them. And each time, she learned something about the place in the picture she’s just completed and admired the art work.
Marian Crook was my mother — and a retired nurse. She grew up on the family farm in Slope County, North Dakota, in the Bad Lands of the Little Missouri River, the youngest of four sisters, and as she describes it, she was “her father’s son,” working alongside him in the fields as much as time permitted when she wasn’t going to school.
Those long days on the tractor and in the grain truck gave her plenty of time to dream about faraway places. And like a lot of farm kids growing up during the Great Depression, she learned about responsibility and independence at a pretty young age.
So, when she became a military wife, eventually with a handful of kids to look after while her husband was deployed both overseas and in this country during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, she wasn’t intimidated by the challenge of getting ready for the next move, sometimes after her Army husband had gone on ahead to his next post to line up housing for his growing family. And she always looked forward to the possibility of seeing some of those places she had dreamt about as a girl. Like crossing the Pacific Ocean. She taught us all a lot about packing and unpacking and traveling and fashion and more — including changing fashion of hats over the years.
Many years after those daydreams on the tractor, after flying from Billings, Mont., to San Francisco with four young children (one of those was me), she herded us onto a modified Troop Ship headed for Okinawa in order to rejoin her then-husband at his U.S. Army assignment on that island so very far from the United States.
Sea-sickness plagued us all on that “cruise ship.” To prepare her children for their time on the island, she quietly but firmly told us “remember this is their country— show the locals respect” and she got thoroughly acquainted with the culture and history of the island with her new friends there. She let her children roam when they were not in the the local schools or in a boat exploring nearby uninhabited islands with other military friends. One of her friends was a local seamstress, who also served as our babysitter. I have an intense memory of Hilukyu and Mother pounding a poisonous centipede with a hammer to a pulp.
In Mom’s eventful life she learned Latin, English, Norwegian, German, Spanish and Japanese and could remember many of her mailing addresses. And I’ve written those down in doing family history work with her in her senior years living in Mandan, N.D. She was always interested in genealogy and wanted to know if any of her relatives were still living in Norway (they are). She puzzled over why I had not yet visited Norway (I hope to).
Marian loved the seashore and the mountains and birds and hatched ideas for many adventures with her new friends around the world. Her window bird feeders are the stuff of legend, and she nurtured countless people in learning to identify birds and plants and more, when she was not reading books or newspapers or baking krumkake or organizing a pinochle or cribbage game with her neighbors or scheming up a trip to The Owl Used Bookstore in Bismarck, where she had the owner on her speed-dial.
Her apartments were easy to identify because she has a long love of lighthouses— born perhaps from the time she lived on the West Coast near Seattle in her later teenage years. She visited as many lighthouses as she could and loved the view from the top of those and from the tops of many mountain ranges of the world.
While living at her husband’s duty station at Fort Bliss, Texas, she trained as an LPN and worked while her children were at the neighborhood schools and Aunt Marie Hovick (an elder Hovick sister who had taught in many a Dakota rural school) helped with their care. Later, as an older-than-average student after her marriage ended, she returned to college with her youngest child in tow and graduated with her bachelor’s degree in nursing at Dickinson State University. Following that, her career took her to Grand Forks, where she worked at then-United Hospital until her retirement from that career just before the big flood of 1997.
Known as “Gram” to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, upon retirement, she lived a “gypsy” life, traveling and living with her children around the country to help care for her many grandchildren so their parents could work and enjoy some free time by themselves.
In addition to travel, she learned to love to camp, and until just a few years ago, well into her 80s, it wasn‘t unusual to find her camping, with or without her family, in her tent and a well-used sleeping bag, in national and state parks around the country. She’d pitch the tent and plunk herself down in a camp chair and read National Geographic or one of the many other publications to which she subscribed. She always wanted to share what she had read with her loved ones, and she and Junette traded stories and magazines back and forth until Junette’s death in 2020.
Marian and Junette were very resolute about the importance of education and justifiably proud of their descendants as we proceeded in our adult journeys of education. While they were humble, they were generous in praising us and in telling the world as we obtain our myriad credentials in life.
Mother eventually settled in Mandan, where she would be near to Junette and where she kept busy taking care of her newest grandchildren, getting to know her new neighbors, participating in geography bees and knitting special scarves for staff and other loved ones. She loved to keep contact with her many family members over the years. She had a real fondness for pie and ice cream.
We were all raised to work hard: farming, ranching, Scouts, hauling bales, raising chickens, singing in choirs, playing piano, 4-H — you name it. Roll up your sleeves and do it. We all rode various buses to school on muddy and snowy roads, played musical instruments in various bands — again — whatever was required of us.
Sarah, her eldest, worked in various nursing homes and hospitals, attended UND and worked for JCPenney until she retired after more than 30 years. Mom burst with pride with Sarah became a seasonal employee of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and couldn’t wait to see a picture of her in her new uniform, which I supplied to her. Our last long road trip with Mom last summer was for Thomas and me to take Mom to Theodore Roosevelt National Park for a picnic with Sarah, right there in Chimney Park in Medora. Then we drove the South Unit loop road with her for what has turned out to be her last visit to a National Park.
Thomas is a retired Senior Chief, U.S. Navy who now works for the TSA. He managed to fly into Bismarck for Mom’s last birthday party and I wish you could have seen the faces of the people in the building when he arrived. Mother melted into his arms in tears and smiles of pure joy. Sarah was my witness. Other family members arrived for the birthday party as allowed by the current lockdown rules and everyone’s schedules, including Beckie, who has worn so many hats in life as wife, mom, dental hygienist, Fort Lincoln Elementary School PTO president and art gallery organizer and instructor, New Mandan Junior High Exploratory Committee, Spirit of Life Catholic church leader, Mandan High School Group leader — and, in our view, aspiring “master gardener” and all-around great cook.
Our family loves the outdoors and such treasures as state and national parks, we enjoy fishing and potlucks and various boats and campers and such — time off the grid on our sacred landscapes with trusted companions — that is when we are not reading books or keeping up with the news! I’ll stop with the bragging now because I’ve written long enough and will let others tells the stories — and like my ancestors, I’m not fond of bragging. But I can say you would have enjoyed Mom’s last birthday party.
To this day, it slays me that the Silbernagels traded the Nelsons a pony for the Nelson boys for a piano for the Silbernagel girls. But it was a damned fine piano and still holds its tune despite being moved around countless times.
Marian Crook, the youngest daughter of tough Scandinavian and German roots, embodied the pioneer spirit and worked hard to make her corner of the world a better place. Her obituary, while brief, is just a glimpse of her interesting life.