The strange church emptied quickly in the little town where my family was visiting grandpa and grandma at Christmas. Although at age 5 I didn’t really know them, my cousins, aunts and uncles comprised a large portion of the town’s population of 788. We were all at Redeemer Lutheran for Christmas morning service.
At its conclusion, everyone donned coats, scarves, hats and gloves (it was Wisconsin, after all) and headed out the door for the holiday meals and spirit that awaited. Thankfully, although there were lots of Norwegians in town, the traditional meal was still turkey and ham, and not lutefisk and lefse.
I wandered about the pews, looking at the garland and poinsettias, not noticing that the sanctuary was rapidly emptying. When the room grew quiet, I turned to see I was the only one left. The only one. Five years old in a strange church, a foreign town.
Even at five I was too secure in the love of my family to panic – much. Surely this was an aberration and someone would drift back into the church to collect me. Dad probably just went out to warm up the car.
The furry fingered fear of abandonment started to close around my throat just as organist Olive Shultz, who was closing up the building, came around the corner and spotted me. Since it was only her and me now, she knew I was as misplaced as a snow shovel at the beach.
A large woman, she rustled down the aisle and side-stepped between two pews, leaned over asked, “What is your name?”
“Norman,” I said with some measure of certainty.
“Where are you supposed to be?” she asked.
Not enough clue for her, she asked if grandpa had a name. I wouldn’t know grandpa’s name for years but I offered that he was “Grandpa Jameson.”
Given the size of the town and percentage of its populace occupied by my relatives, Olive knew immediately where to take me. She led me to her car and drove briefly down Hwy. 16 to the farm my Norwegian bachelor uncle Don rented, and where he lived with his parents – my grandparents.
I was relieved and grateful as I walked into the bustling living room, a joy that lasted only as long as it took me to realize everyone had just figured out I was not among them, and were arguing about who had get their winter garb back on and go get me!
The next year we moved to that little town, Rio, WI where the population stayed at 788, my dad told me, because every time a young lady had a baby, an older man left town.
Eventually I graduated from high school there, in the same building where I started first grade. But, more about that, later.