Eulogy for Edna
Eulogy for Edna Celestia Berger RevlandOctober 15, 2013
How do you commemorate in a few minutes the life and times of someone who lived for two years short of a century? How do you pay tribute to this long life, well lived, in a way that does her justice? Fortunately, we had help. Mother kept a scrapbook that documents what she considered the most significant events of her life. So does this 50th wedding anniversary quilt, which she requested be draped over her casket at her funeral. Edna was also a great storyteller, and surely the ones she told us the most were the ones most memorable to her.
She often spoke about her idyllic childhood—preacher’s kid, youngest of eight, growing up in Fort Ransom, sleeping in total safety on the parsonage lawn on hot summer nights, skating down the Sheyenne River to school in the winter. In a gift to a grandchild of Whittier’s Snowbound, she wrote: “Grandpa Berger used to read this poem aloud to us when the snow piled high around our snug home in the Sheyenne Valley while the fire—native oak—crackled and glowed in the old kitchen range. We all gathered round in a kitchen big enough to hold a table that seated 12, chairs, a rocker, a leather-covered davenport, and oh yes, that glowing, crackling cast iron kitchen range.”
Edna rarely talked about the hard times that followed—the death of her beloved father in 1930 when she was 14, the Great Depression, the years of drought—but she did love to tell about going out at night during the worst of those years, when nothing grew but the Russian thistle, to marvel at the sight of desert flowers blooming in a ditch. “They were pure white,” she said, “big as a pie plate, they only bloomed at night, and after the rains returned they were never seen again.” This memory is a parable of her lifelong optimism, a seeker of beauty even in the worst of times.
Tucked between the pages of her scrapbook were folded-up sheets of paper, poems none of her children had ever seen. One of them describes an October Sunday afternoon in the late 1930s when the Sheyenne Valley was green again and she was in love with the man who would become her husband, our handsome Dad. They had gone on a double date, Fort Ransom style, with her brother Harold and her best friend Miriam, and they had had so much fun that she asked Edna to write about it:
In Memory of a Sunday Afternoon, by Edna Revland
We spent a Sunday in the woods
The autumn woods, resplendent now
In flaming hues, displaying goods
That cleansed our souls and made us bow
In answer to a natural call
Before the glory of it all.
We traced a brook back to its source
We scrambled over bank and stone,
Enchanted, following its course
Through woods with wild vine overgrown
Until at last, with joy we found
The cool spring bubbling from the ground
October’s skies were overhead
Brilliant and clean and vivid blue,
The leaves beneath our feet, though dead,
In rustling accents spoke to you.
The frightened pheasant, bright and proud,
Flew from his covert, crowing loud.
We found a trail high on a hill
And hand in hand we followed it,
Lagging our footsteps now to fill
Our souls with the glory which lit
The Western skies in color profuse
Fearful lest one little ray we should lose.
Contented, we followed the trail to the end,
The peace of the woods and the skies in our heart,
Happy for each little hour we spend
In God’s great outdoors, amid natural art.
Oh long will the memory live of those hours
We spent in the woods amid nature’s bowers.
After Edna and Cletis got married they moved to Fargo and, in 1949, into the house on 3rd Avenue where the four of us grew up. The South Side was expanding in those post-war years to provide homes for many young couples raising the children of what would be called the Baby Boom. It may never be known who among the Bethlehem founders first said, “Why don’t we start a church?” but our parents were part of that exciting but risky undertaking from the beginning, meeting in the Jefferson School auditorium until the meeting room next door was finished. It was small and services were noisy, what with all those squirming little kids, but it was ours and it was wonderful, a very bright highlight in our family’s history.
After 20 years devoted to rearing her children, always her priority, Edna took a job as a housemother at Luther Hall, then the House of Mercy, a home for unwed mothers. Within two years she was promoted to residential director, a position she held for the next 14 years. Many pages in her scrapbook are filled with letters from former residents with photos of their growing children, expressing gratitude years later for giving them hope and direction at a difficult time. “You changed my life,” they wrote. “I’ll never forget you.”
Also in the scrapbook was this hand-made card the staff gave her at her retirement party: “Wanted: Director of Luther Hall. Must have the following skills.” After the usual requirements come a hundred more: Hem drapes. Talk to parents. Avoid parents. Have Christmas parties in your home for girls. Call the plumber. Give advice to the lovelorn. Bake lefse. Look refreshed at all times. “Good luck!” it ends. That was Edna, our indispensable, irreplaceable, unforgettable mother.
In the eight years since the death of her husband she often spoke about being lonely, but it was not just over the loss of our Dad, her constant companion of 64 years, but the loss of everyone in her immediate family, the loneliness of being the last one standing of nearly every friend and neighbor. As one of her grandchildren pointed out, it was not just Edna who has died, our history has died with her. For our mother was the great rememberer. Whatever has not been told to us or recorded, whatever we didn’t think to ask her, is now gone. But our loss is not to be compared with her gain. That empty seat at the table for 12 of her childhood, reserved for her for so many years, is now occupied, and our mother is lonely no more.