Family members walked down the center aisle of the small Catholic Church, each carrying a rose that they placed in a vase below the cremains of “Granny Franny” whose life was being celebrated on this clear summer day. Her family, from husband James to great grandchildren, were all tucked into the first five rows. The priests, one retired and one active, came in to perform the mass as the community compressed themselves into every pew to show their respect for this lady who had served food and provided support and comfort for baptisms and weddings as well as the many wakes and funerals that are part of an aging community.
What we have experienced for over a century, from the dry plains to the lush hills along the rivers, is disappearing. We have been served a rich slice of a unique culture that is fading away with the death of each resident of our small towns. The ritual of community service, life-long dedication to friends and quiet respect for those who pass is a hallmark of rural existence. I saw it firsthand in this small town as I mourned with family and felt their strength and unity.
In a broader view, the town of Glen Haven sits below the bluffs of the Mississippi River in Southeast Wisconsin. There is one main street reaching from the old river port up the hill. The single white spire on the church is the high point in town. A stream tumbles along Main Street, inviting children to play in the clear water.
Nestled in a notch in the hills on a long slope running down to water’s edge, the town no longer has any river business except the boaters who come over for Taco Thursday at a local bar. A main line for the Canadian Pacific Railway runs close to the shore, but there is no active depot. Frequent whistles are heard as millions of tons of freight zoom by.
The town’s population has declined for a long time. The 2000 Census showed just under five hundred; probably half the number who lived there at the beginning of the last century. Today, the town folks say you can cut that number in half again, even if you count all the dogs and cats.
Longevity is a hallmark of rural people. The tough survive, and the length of life of our seniors in the northern states is the highest in the nation. Franny and James lived on a farm for their fifty four years of marriage. He has lived near this town his whole life and farmed until he crossed into his seventies. He possesses many pioneer skills and still tinkers in his shop, entertaining visitors who want to learn some of what he knows.
In this German and Irish Catholic region, the tribute to a departed soul begins with a wake and ends with a funeral dinner. The small church basement serves as a kitchen, and the word goes out that desserts are needed and cooks and servers should congregate to stage the meal. On the afternoon of the visitation or wake, the line of friends stretches from the front sidewalk through the entryway and down the right hand side of the pews. It then curls around to where the family greets each person. They stood for hours to receive condolences and support. Handshakes, hugs and heartfelt thanks abounded.
On the day of the funeral, the church was adorned with flowers and pews were marked to accommodate family. The meal preparation began early with some dishes prepared in the church and some brought in and kept warm in big ovens. Simple, tasty and hearty; the same as a Sunday dinner or harvest fare for past generations. It was comfort food to farm folks before the terminology was popularized.
The church bell tolled at 10:30 am. The service opened with a eulogy given by the oldest grandson. His voice was sad but strong as he talked about his memories of his grandmother with nods of agreement and encouragement by all who knew her. He sat down quietly as the service began and moved through a ritualistic mass that most knew by heart. When it concluded, the ministers invited everyone to lunch and they were given the opportunity to go directly to the basement or to the cemetery with assurance there would be food left when they returned.
The service at the graveside was short. It was the final Christian good-bye that tries to bring closure to death and celebration of life. Respect, even relief, is expressed with reverence and hope of salvation.
The family walked into the church basement filled with conversation and bustling as meat, potatoes, vegetables, salads, tea, lemonade and many other small plates of specialty items were laid out for two lines to pass through. Old tables and flimsy folding chairs rattled as each place was filled.
A young woman did double duty; she’d been a mass server in a white robe and now, in summer attire, she carries tea pitchers and goes from guest to guest. Finally, the dessert table. It is so full that it is hard to choose just one piece of cake or pie. One lady cuts angel food cake and eats a bit of the leftovers from each slice. Others are recommending a certain peach, apple or blueberry pie. There is one server gone from their midst but they don’t outwardly show their sadness. They turn to joy of friendship and fellowship as a meal is shared.
The funeral goers spill out into the lawn where large maples and oaks shade the warm summer afternoon. Picnic tables allow both fellowship, and a cool breeze to flow by. The widower farmer shows more comfort here and he is surrounded by sisters, daughters, sons and a swarm of grandchildren.
On the trip back from the cemetery, riding with his two sisters and niece, we drove by the farm and noted the sweet corn was ready. Later the family picked it and we spent a couple of hours that night boiling, blanching, cutting and freezing the crop. Some will go back to the farm as they visit in weeks to come and some will go with the relatives who live in distant cities to remind them of the life of Granny Franny.
When will the last of this generation be gone? Will the next have any similarity to their ancestors? We cannot go back to live in our past. Most of us would not do so but to experience this culture, even in decline, creates a memory that can be extended for one more lifetime.