In 1972, Easter Sunday came on April 2. We had gone to Glendive to have dinner and spend the day with the Selvig/Vogele side of the family. We got back home to Miles City in early evening. Later that night, my brother, Carl, phoned, saying they’d called several times during the day trying to contact us. Our mother had collapsed that day and went by ambulance to the hospital in Red Wing, where she was in a coma. He called again in the wee hours to report that she had died.
We (Mom and I) didn’t get much sleep the rest of the night as we tried to plan out what we needed to do before we could get ready to hit the road for Minnesota. I remember going into the office for a few hours to wrap up a stack of work while getting an oil change on the car half a block away. I recall that we were able to hit the road by late morning and we made it to Moorhead MN, where we spent the night before going on to Zumbrota the next day.
After seeing my mother’s death certificate later that week we understood that she had a cerebral hemorrhage that I viewed as a merciful end to a long, slow deterioration in her health, as the ravages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease) gradually made her a prisoner of her own body.
It was a battle that she couldn’t win, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. She and Dad had made a round of doctor-shopping trying to find someone who could offer some hope. When that didn’t work they went to various preachers who billed themselves as healers.
Dad said they offered some hope “if they had faith.” With a sigh of resignation he’d say, “I guess we didn’t have enough faith.”
He had nothing to apologize for. He’d cared for her throughout her decline and they’d gotten to the point where her care would be more than he could handle. The end came at a good time.
Gudrun Fossum was the first child of Carl and Sophie Froyum Fossum. Her father was a farmer/businessman and evidently relatively prosperous, based on the house they’d built on the farm in about 1912.
She graduated from Wanamingo high school and put in a year of piano, organ and voice study at the old Red Wing Seminary, a Haugean Lutheran school later absorbed into St. Olaf College. She often maintained that St. Olaf bought out the Seminary to get their grand piano.
She returned home to the farm between Zumbrota and Wanamingo and made money teaching piano. She also told of playing piano and theater organ for silent movies at a local theater.
I never really heard any stories of how she and Henry Vang got together. It was likely inevitable from the standpoint of the social connections in the lutefisk ghetto of the area. Henry was a working fool, as he tried to accumulate enough money to start farming on his own, so worked for various farmers in the area. His sister, Ragnhild (Ragna) married a brother of Sophie Fossum, so the hookup of the spinster piano teacher and the Norwegian bachelor farmer was probably only logical.
They married in 1932 and moved onto a farm east of Wanamingo, where Carl was born in 1936. They later moved to another farm a little farther east, north of the little crossroads of Hader, and that’s where I was born in 1939.
In 1942, they came up with a down payment on a farm just north of Zumbrota and moved there, and that’s where Carl and I grew up. We went to a one-room country school a quarter mile away (seemed like a long walk back then), until we were able to transfer to “town school” in Zumbrota.
Music was a continuing theme in Gudrun’s life, as she continued to teach piano lessons to a never-ending line of kids with various degrees of musical talent. Some of the kids were pretty good (or so I thought) as they would be accompanists for musical groups at the high school. I was one of her failures, though she kept pushing one thing or another until I started playing horn in the summer between 6th and 7th grade (the transition period between country school and town school).
She would occasionally play the organ for church, though that wasn’t often. She often sang solos for funerals, with “Den Stor Vid Flok,” a traditional Norwegian dirge that’s still (in translation) in our Lutheran hymn book, a seeming favorite.
Besides music, she was hooked on whacko conservative political ideas, and faithfully listened to a bunch of right-wing commentators on the radio, the Joe McCarthy-era spiritual ancestors of Rush Limbaugh. In addition to her conservative politics she also (remarkably for a life-long Lutheran) would rail against the Lutheran church, and especially against Lutheran liturgy.
Back in the early 1970s, the church where I grew up, United Lutheran Church, went through a merger with the Lutheran church a block away, Redeemer Lutheran, to form United-Redeemer Lutheran church. She and Dad joined a splinter group that refused to go along with the merger and they were among the group of families that formed Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, a so-called “free” church.
That church was under construction during her last couple years and hers was the first funeral to be held in that church.
In spite of her right-wing views on politics, if she were around today she would have some fervent disagreements with some current conservative politicians. For one thing, she long felt that we should have socialized medicine in the U.S., as she thought the existing health care system was only good for lining doctors’ pockets. She would be aghast at the likes of Rick Santorum and his views on birth control. She really thought that big families were ridiculous and that some of these women who had one baby after another should think in terms of some Lorena Bobbitt-type solutions (and said so, too).
So, what did she think, then, of her second-born who went off to St. Olaf, became a Democrat and then started a career with that bastion of the hated New Deal, Social Security? She did once say something to the effect that that was better than if I’d become a Lutheran minister (at least in the establishment-type of Lutheran church).
So, there you have it, a look back at a person who would be just a fading memory for Kevin and Erin and totally unknown to the rest of you.
She was an intelligent, well-read person, with a lot of musical talent and some really strange political views. She died too young, at not quite age 67, even if it was a merciful end. We still have her piano, which came into our home the summer after her death. Incidentally, that wasn’t the piano I took lessons on. She got a new piano after they built a new house after Dad retired from farming.
Requiascat in Pace (though she’d hate that papist Latin, too). That’s another good reason for living long past your parents—you can be a little insulting and there’s nothing they can do about it.
2 thoughts on “guest kaddish: Gudrun Fossum Vang (16 June 1905–3 April 1972)”
I just put it together, Pop. Were you really only 33 years old when you had to deal with all this?
Here I am at—what, 47? 48? I have to count on my fingers—still not having a clue how I will handle my mom being no longer.
How did I not put this together before?
What was it like burying your mother when you were still just figuring it all out yourself?
I think that all comes under the category of doing what has to be done. That said, there are certainly issues that are left hanging at the end. For example, that previous autumn we made a trip back to Zumbrota for a visit and when we led Mother was rather distraught about our leaving. I said, “Don’t worry, we’ll be back in the spring.” Obviously, she understood more about what was going on and somehow knew she’d never see us again. Yes, we came back in the spring, though it was to bury her.
The moral of the story is we need to be a little more open about feelings, and, I guess, honest about medical prognoses. Certainly, if we understood the death sentence she was under we might have done things differently.
On the other hand, a lasting lesson is to appreciate good health. At age 73 I can say (and occasionally do), “When my mother was my age she’d already been dead for six years.”
Of course, you might also keep in mind the business I was in back in those days. In 1972 I had a little over ten years with the Social Security Administration and heaven knows how many families I’d worked with in that time who were dealing with these issues of tragic death, terminal illness, sorrow and grieving. Even if my mother died at a seemingly young age, she had lived long enough to see her children grow up, get married, and have a bunch of children. That’s what I’d call a life full of blessings, when you consider how many people don’t get to experience any of that.