The woman in scarlet



She was born on Easter and you would imagine her anything but a woman of scarlet. Or flowers, for that matter. Similar to me, her namesake of sorts, she loved them but didn't have many around. Born and raised on the lonesome windswept prairie outside Aberdeen, South Dakota, the flowers of her childhood were the wild roses, thistles, and fields of gold just after planting, before the crops choked out the flowers and surrounded her with corn and wheat.



She had plenty of spunk, but in the quiet post-Great Depression, committed housewife and mother sense. Every now and then you got a glimpse of that spark, in the flash of her eyes as she shot a sarcastic remark back at Grandpa Al, when she giggled long until she went into fits of coughing over some silly joke; in the pack of cigarettes in her purse, for card night with her girlfriends.


One yellow rosebush survived from my father's childhood all the way through mine, and my children witnessed it's last glory on a visit to Silver Bay in 2005. Grandpa still strong to hold 40 pound Katy, Grandma weary but willing holding a 5-month-old Rosy. Our last visit before they fled from the coming hard winter to the arid Arizona where they wintered for many years in their old age.



I get glimpses of a woman of scarlet in the spunky way she told the story of her many beaus in high school, with her striking black wavy hair and snapping blue eyes and fair complexion. Amidst the Scandinavians who settled that part of South Dakota, she was the vixen wearing the red dress to the weekly barn dance, her slender figure swirling through round after round of eager partner, farmboys in overalls. That's her in the above photo, bow atop head, wool jacket stylish - no tights on a cold spring day getting ready to walk miles to school.




One tall baseball player stole her glance, a Swede from Minnesota, rough around the edges, farm boy just like the rest. But with a quick wit and twinkle in his sky blue eyes, a head of curly blond hair, and standing a foot above the rest of the Norwegian farm boys of South Dakota. She made her mark, and played her cards just right, bringing her pie with her when she went to sit on his blanket in the dugout of the dirt ball field in Groton. Jokes ensued about who was pursuing who (and went on until their dying day), but Alton Erwin Holmen obviously took a liking to the midnight-tressed spitfire of a 5'2" vixen who remained sitting there despite his protests and eventually talked her way into his team jacket. (There is also some talk of a trade of a few slices of that pie for the warm jacket - "the way to a man's heart is through his stomach" was a proverb apparently part of Irma's repertoire) The next night, the family car stopped to pick him up for ice cream. I imagine him folding his 6'3" skinny frame into the model T and the uncomfortable drive with her silent parents, often still lipped and stern, Werner and Marie, neither of whom spoke English without a little bite and a lot of thick German accent. In Groton, they went for ice cream, and then walked to the barn dance. Alton managed to commandeer Irma's dance card and fill it for himself, with much heckling from her and the couples passing.


He found a suit and they both found smiles for their quiet wedding day at the church in Ferney, a small South Dakota town with a grain elevator, a church, a graveyard and not much else, in those days or these.


Over the years, Grandma struggled with depression and anxiety as she raised 1 girl and 2 boys while my Grandfather first failed at farming and then worked shift work at the taconite mine in Silver Bay, a lonely village set on the rocks on the north shore of Lake Superior. They both made friends, though, Grandpa escaping through the hunting and fishing that Irma first accompanied him on, and finally the trips he made with his raucous group of brothers and friends. Grandma played cards, found part-time work as a post-carrier and server at the local cafe, where my dad used to find her just for the complimentary chocolate shake after school.


And perhaps there still was a little bit of the playful vixen, the woman in scarlet, rolling in the grass at 80 with great-grandchildren.


She loved us quietly, sweetly, ever serving. I never witnessed selfishness in my grandmother. She would work from dawn to dusk to have a happy family, well fed and entertained in their small pre-built home in Silver Bay, the turquoise house on the bright lit shore that has forever tied my heart to turquoise, and the light off large bodies of water, seas and lakes, and shores. Her faith had grown in her from her childhood as part of a way of life now long forgotten - best clothes for church early at 8 a.m. on Sundays, her grandma's Bible lessons from her sick bed where Grandma Irma tended her from age 12 until she was 16. In the meals she prepared without ever asking "why is this my job" for uncles, farmhands, father, brother, on a busy bustling group of family farms that slowly made a fortune for themselves in South Dakota, buying up land and investing during times of great economic hardship.


Still adventurous in her late 70's, she wouldn't make the steep trek down to the best places for agate hunting, but came along with us to the breakwall at Reserve Mine to snap a photo of us with Grandpa Al's mine in the background.


She taught me that faith is simple obedience and the incredible, selfless and beautiful work of service. That mission is not about place or time or resources, but simply giving what you have to those people God has laid on your heart to love. In her paradigm, that was family. Family was simply, and forever, first in her mission and mindset and she gave all she had to love us. From the spiderwebbed handwriting of a weekly letter, the quavering voice leaving messages or visiting once a week on the telephone, the fact that she folded my laundry in my frontroom, with great-grandchildren dancing around her, just a few weeks before she was found dead in her home.


It blooms now, her amaryllis, one last reminder that perhaps there is more scarlet in a quiet life well lived than one might imagine. That service transcends the grave.


They will always be remembered by us as the wise, sweet, and blessed couple who passed within 3 months of each other in 2010. A pair meant to be, drawn together by wild circumstances. Transplants from the prairie, forced bulbs in their seaside community, who bloomed and blossomed together, and tended the young plants of their budding family with all the love, selflessness, and giving they could pour into it. We reap the blessings, generations later, and remember the girl born on Easter, who wore her scarlet not brazen but beautiful.
Know therefore that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to the thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments. Deuteronomy 7:9 (NASB)
I love you, Grandma Irma, and miss you on this, your birthday. Card sent to heaven in the form of deep, tear-delivered prayer.