"As the joined ashes descended from the vessel entered the Redwood River and started their long journey, we looked across the river from the bridge and saw an old, storm-broken tree trunk on the opposite bank with a wooden cross-piece stuck to it horizontally...."
The passing of 67 years is about two-thirds of a century. That’s quite a long time for a couple to have been together as spouses, and when you add in having known one another for a year-and-a-half before the exchange of wedding vows as matrimonially engaged people, you may be starting to describe my parents. Though theirs may be close to a “true” World War II love story, there must be other committed couples today – a minority, perhaps – who could boast of having had many such cherished years together. As the eldest son of Wendell and Aurelia Wehler, I actually believed, even in my youth, they would be eternally inseparable, and I still hold to this spiritual union belief in a way that seems difficult to fully put into words. Perhaps, it’s ultimately the strength of their relationship that holds sway in my assertion. No story of a couple’s life, love for one another, and enduring commitment to each other is complete from hearing their own telling of life events. They were the ones living that life, and we can only guess what it was actually like for them. The story doesn’t approach being fully known by one’s familiarity with their relationship, even as seen by sibling descendants of the next generation. How they were to one another and how that affected them individually would be something very personal and known only to them. My senses, my intellect and my emotional awareness – even my intuitive nature – all point to what I thought was a deep and abiding bond. Yes, there were the occasional differences, disagreements, frictions, etc. No close relationship is entirely free of these, unless we enter a perceptual world that is one of utter denial. These discords seemed very infrequent for them. Compared to how I saw other couples relating to one another, their place on the “relationship harmony” scale seemed at least in the upper one percentile of positivity. My one and only sibling (brother, Danny) and I often heard comments from others about how warmly close they seemed to one another and how gloriously they got along. Suffice it to say we happily accepted having parents like this, believing our perceptions were quite accurate. A gal from a large city meets a rural farming guy during World War II at a dance held to celebrate military service personnel. Would there be long-lasting compatibility along with romance as well as enduring, loving respect? A young urban woman having grown up in Chicago is mutually attracted to a youthful farm-raised man from southwestern Minnesota. Would they cohabitate well or would it be an “oil and vinegar,” difficult relationship? That would be hard to tell right away and would need at least several years of testing out the marital waters.
They moved to his family farming community after the Second World War. My father took care of growing the crops and tending to livestock responsibilities. My mother provided support as a housewife and occasional farm helper. Their roles were established. Then I came along in the late 1940s, one of the earlier members of the “boomer” generation. For the next eight years and before my brother came along, I felt comfortable, secure, and loved as my parents enjoyed family, friends, and community life. They remained a hard-working and fun-loving pair, still “going steady” and no less excited about one another than just after they had first met. My brother, Danny, was born to my parents as I was about to turn eight years of age. He was a welcomed addition to the family, and we brothers got along very well. There are many good memories of our childhood, but one really stands out. I recall both my mother and I frequently running to the living room TV when he shouted “read it, read it” as a preschooler as my father was out in the shop or doing paperwork elsewhere in the house. What was it he wanted read? The next cartoon was coming on, and he knew that when the music played, the cartoon title would be flashed on the screen for several seconds. He wanted to know what it was called. My mother and I were glad to see him eventually enter grade school where he could learn to read for himself. It’s something all four of us laughed about decades later. Working hard on the farm and doing well in school were areas of family pride. As social breaks, extended family gatherings were typically weekend events, especially on Sunday afternoons. Sunday school and church worship services were attended about half the time. The small First Presbyterian Church where we belonged gave my brother and me a general grounding in mainline Christianity. My parents seemed moderately warm to and generally involved in church activities, but as I entered college, they showed signs of dissatisfaction with what they called “organized religion” and seemed especially turned off by expressions of biblical fundamentalism. From that time period onward, I think their church involvement waned until they ultimately no longer attended. On one occasion, they told me briefly about their perceptions of religious hypocrisy, church activities getting repetitious, that going to church worship services was becoming monotonous and wondering why a minister was needed to keep telling them what they already knew. To use contemporary language, they were beginning to become affiliates of what author and educator, Bishop John Shelby Spong, has called “the church alumni association.” As they retired in their early 60s and relocated, they did not take their farm community church membership – whatever was left of it – with them to the small city where their new home was. They seemed to tolerate others, even my immediate family, participating in religious activities. They would attend events like weddings, baptisms and funerals in a church but not attend religious church services on their own. This was their choice individually and as a couple. (I make mention of their church-related behavior and perceived attitudes, because of the matter of their eventual deaths and interment, which I will describe later). Irrespective of their church disaffiliation, they continued to be honestly good, upstanding, moral-minded and kind-hearted people who were very willing to help others, and in that way, their love for others came through. Though they rarely spoke about religious or even spiritual matters per se, they seemed to have their own sense of spirituality both individually and certainly, as a martially-joined couple. They often spoke of their World War Two ultra-small wedding involving just a U.S. Navy chaplain, his wife as organist and a married couple (Helen and Frank) who stood in to witness the “before God” event. That union held loving strength for all of the remaining days of their mortal lives. Their retirement approached 30 years long, a generously given amount of time to live the final chapters of their lives and Earthly life together. It was an opportunity to “kick back” and take it easy (or easier), even with my father’s part-time employment as a crop insurance adjuster through the federal government during the early part of his post-farming years. He loved being with people and he liked going to other communities, but he preferred staying fairly close to home. My mother remained at home and kept active with some volunteer work, especially through the local humane society. She had a fond heart for animal welfare and what pets could bring to peoples’ lives. Tour bus trips, a love for playing bingo and time with their family also contented them to no end. The years seemed to pass by rather quickly. The time came when they entered the ages of being the “older old,” in spite of my father’s severe lung disease (COPD) and complications of my mother’s diabetes. At least several years before their deaths, they made sure my brother and I knew where their will and important papers were, the location of the bank’s safe deposit box key, and they had prepared a listing of all their assets. For years, they had said they both wanted cremation after their deaths, their ashes to be placed in a stream “so we can flow to the ocean and travel the world together.” They identified which funeral home in town they wanted, requested only a simple remembrance gathering of family and friends and left it to my brother and me where to inter their “final remains.” At 91 years of age, our father died peacefully at the local hospital. Our mother moved to an assisted living facility in town, being reasonably happy but clearly missing her husband. My brother and I – along with our spouses and children – took on an even more active role of being in contact with her and doing errands. Fifteen months later, her health gave out, she passed away peacefully just several weeks short of her 91st birthday. My brother was the keeper of my father’s ashes we never got around to interring. Now we had our mother’s ashes as well. We deliberated what to do with them. Our parents had retired to Redwood Falls in 1982. That was roughly equidistant to where my brother and I lived with our families. Also, a strong desire to move there was based on the location of a beautiful 219 acre city park – Alexander Ramsey Park – called the “Little Yellowstone of Minnesota” which is the state’s largest municipal park. With deep river valleys, beautifully exposed rock colors, and other picturesque scenes, it had been an escape-to-paradise spot for them right in their city of residence. An idea seized upon us to combine or mix their ashes in a large flower vase and drop them into Ramsey Creek that empties very close by into the Redwood River which flows into the Minnesota River, the water eventually entering the Mississippi River that exits into the Gulf of Mexico and thus, flowing world-wide. That would be a fitting tribute to a loving couple who stood together strongly as they were buffeted, figuratively, by life storms. Symbolically and spiritually, they could now continue on together through the physical act (likened to a consecration) of granting a “final resting place” as they had requested. We honored their wish. My wife, Carla, had taken along the two dozen, long-stem, deep-pink cut roses from my mother’s memorial gathering several days earlier. She tied the decorative ribbon that said “Mother” on it around this bundle of flowers. In addition, she had cut a one-inch wide strip of a tied fleece blanket she had made for our father and secured this around the bouquet as well. As the joined ashes descended from the vessel and as the roses were cast into the water, I read the marital pronouncement from their 1944 wedding license. As the ashes and joined flowers entered the Redwood River and started their long journey, we looked across the river from the bridge and saw an old, storm-broken tree trunk on the opposite bank with a wooden cross-piece stuck to it horizontally. It looked natural, not nailed on, its cruciform appearance taken as a symbolic sign of God’s connection to human-kind, our Creator’s infinite love and “watching over” being actually revealed. Our parents and the memories occurring because of them are going to remain in our hearts forever. The spiritual web of moving to “The Beyond” is broad, yet individual and personal – not just simply a religious tradition act or a secular rite of passage. Sometimes, a couple’s bond knows no bounds. Perhaps our parent’s lives occurred to give expression to this spiritual realization. To say that two individuals who are mortally joined can remain as one is – for me, at least – a truth beyond words of description.