Family Reunion – looking back and looking forward

In September 2014 I journeyed to Sioux Falls, S.D. for the Rust Family Reunion. Below is an adaption of a speech I gave to my Toastmasters club about the experience. This September I’ll be lucky enough to do it again.

Tales of time spent with families on vacation have a special place in America’s collective mythology. There’s the car trip across the country beset with hilarious disasters along the way – it’s the subject of books, memoirs and comedies spanning the entire Chevy Chase oeuvre.

Or there’s Thanksgiving and Christmas with the relatives – whether it’s the first turkey dinner with the in-laws, or that holiday right after a hotly contested election. There have been years when I asked my Sunday School class to pray that I wouldn’t strangle any of my kin.

In years past we had the obligatory holiday snaps developed after the trip with which to bore our friends and neighbors. Those of a certain age may remember the slides we had to sit through. Now with Facebook and Instagram we can make our friends jealous (or put them to sleep) while we’re still on the trip! Relax, this will be all stories and no pictures of people you’ve never met.

Last September (2014) I went to see my father’s people at the Rust Family Reunion. Each year his six brothers and sisters gather and spend the better part of a week together. Then on Friday night, as many of their kids, grandkids, great-grandkids AND great-great-grandkids come into town for the buffet dinner at the Royal Fork restaurant. The past few years I’ve been lucky enough to go up for a few days to spend time with a side of the family I hardly ever see – and I was lucky enough to go again in 2014.

The scene is Sioux Falls, S.D. – one of the windiest places in the lower 48. The natives act like it’s still summer, but it was autumn to me! Dad and his siblings were all born on a family farm outside Adrian, Minn., a small community about 45 minutes away. Sioux Falls was their big town, where they went to the Fair and to the State Theatre for movies. Most of the relatives still live within a couple states’ drive, but for us it was a 1,100 mile flight.

Let me introduce you to the case of characters. Aunt Betty Lou is the oldest at 86. She was my roommate for the week at the motel. Uncle LeRoy is the next oldest – he recently turned over day-to-day operations of the Rust Family Farm to my cousin John, the sixth generation Rust to run the place. Next up in the batting order is Aunt Marlys, who drives in five hours with my cousin Tim from outside Fargo, N.D. (The Midwestern states are HUGE.) Uncle Ed – oh, you’ll hear more about him – comes over from Wisconsin with Aunt Elaine. Uncle Bob is next in line, right before my Dad. And Aunt Audrey is the baby of the family at 69. She was a little upset with me for not bringing my swimsuit on this trip – she didn’t want to take a dip in the pool by herself.

Aunt Anne, Uncle Bob’s wife, books rooms for us at the Empire Falls Best Western. It meets all our needs – an extra-large room where we all gather; a free hot breakfast each day with waffles and omelets, and most importantly – this is a key selling point: freshly made cookies each afternoon. Every day the “elders” would send me or Aunt Audrey downstairs to check on the cookie situation. And report back so all the uncles could head downstairs and get cookies.

So what do we do? Well, what do you think a bunch of old people do? We sit around and talk. And drink coffee. And eat home-made munchies that everyone brings to the party, besides the motel-made cookies. And we shop. Fortunately, Empire Mall is within walking distance. Unfortunately, it lies beyond an 8-lane road which handles all the traffic coming into Sioux Falls from Interstate 29. Imagine herding 10 people over the age of 70 across a road like that. I felt like a crossing guard at the Alterra Senior Citizens center. I wanted to yell “Hold hands! Stay with your group!”

Because so many of the folks are getting on, I wanted all the family history,  knowledge and lore only they could share. What was it like growing up? What were Grandma and Grandpa Rust really like?

Uncle Ed stole the show with his tales. Like all the boys, he went into the service soon after high school. Back then, they were eligible for the draft. Uncle Ed served during the Korean War, and once he came home, he had to find a job. Finding a job wasn’t the problem. In five days he went through five jobs. Now before you think he was a wastrel read on as to what these jobs entailed. One was at a cracker company doing all the grunt work. He put in a full 8 hours and decided, I can do better. Next he went to work at the Campbell’s Soup factory in town. Any job where they start you off pulling the chickens off the truck is pretty low on the totem pole. Worse – when your work environment includes something known as the “Blood Room” – Uncle Ed wisely decided to turn in his ID badge and move on to a higher calling.

That next day Uncle Ed joined Uncle Bob at the county road department. Listening to the two of them laugh about that experience, you’d never know that years later they’d both go on to big success in their own businesses.

That was the week – funny family stories, time spent catching up and eating far too much. And guess what – I lied to you. There will be pictures! I’m adding links to previous posts on past family reunions so you can see the town of Sioux Falls (a beautiful place) and the family farm.

The first week of September wasn’t a National Lampoon-style “vacation from hell” at all. I’m so glad I went. If you have older members in your family – take the time now to sit down with them. Or get in the car or plane and go visit! Once they’re gone you’ll wish you had more memories. Thanks to this crazy week I do.

Happy Birthday to a lovely lady

Today, March 5, is my Mom’s birthday.

When I think of Mom, I think of the time the two of us went to Savannah together for the weekend. I was worried about what we’d say to each other for 72 hours of togetherness. It was the first time in some years we’d spent that much time just by ourselves. What would I say to her all weekend? Would it be awkward?

I needn’t have worried. The minute I picked her up she started chatting about anything and everything. She chatted happily all weekend, the extrovert. All I had to do was listen.

Another memory I have of Mom is of her making cocoa for me and my brother after school on cold, rainy days. And of her being the Girl Scout cookie captain for five years running – as well as the Cub Scout den mother for my brother’s pack. (Never forgot one of the Cubs eating so many cupcakes he made himself sick.)

Mom was the modern day Centaur, as Erma Bombeck said – half woman, half station wagon. Or in her case, a light blue 1970 Ford LTD. She chauffeured me and my friends to kindergarten, ballet class, piano rehearsals and later high school band practice.

She was a dedicated worker. She was never late to her job as a nurse – in fact, she’d get uptight about her schedule and be ready 30 minutes before she had to leave for her afternoon shift, just to give herself time to relax. In my memory she didn’t get sick and hardly took time off. At her retirement party the organizers limited the 10 speakers on the program to two minutes each. That was after the presentation of the plaques from the mayor and the governor.

For all her talents, Mom was not Julia Child – and she didn’t pretend or try to be. She was firmly out of the WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) mode of cooking – boil it to death because water is a spice. I couldn’t eat green beans after I left home until I discovered steaming.

But Dad liked his green beans that way – and he was the one she was cooking for, not us kids. She always catered to him, making him a priority. Cookies Dad liked – he got them. Dishes he liked – he got them. Even today she cooks a hot lunch for him most days. Funny tale about that: right after they moved into their current patio home community, Dad got a part-time job at the model home across the street. Mom would cook his lunch and carry it over to him each day at noon. One day the neighbors reported that a few minutes after they saw Mom return home, she was back out the door to go to Dad – with a ketchup bottle in her hand.

Mom understands loyalty, fidelity, service and love. A 54-year marriage (and counting), as well as a 25-year career, is proof.

Happy 75th Birthday, Mom. May you have many, many more.

Mom laughing
Mom (far right) with my Aunts: Anne, Marlys, Audrey and Elaine; at the Rust Family Reunion in Downtown Sioux Falls, Sept. 2012

Blessing No. 22

Today I got an unexpected birthday present … about 7 months early.

My dad gave me the Queen of Mixers … the Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer. In cherry red. Picture to follow. As well as many cupcakes, cakes cookies and breads.

He asked me a week or so ago what type I would like, and I thought he was planning to make this a birthday present for me later this year. When he called earlier today to tell me he and Mom were coming over with a present, I thought, oh, no, you didn’t. Then I burst into tears. Unless you cook, you just wouldn’t understand. It’s the Cadillac of mixers.

I can’t wait to make this and this and this and this.

Thank you, Dad and Mom. You’ll never regret giving me this!

Part 4, The Family Reunion

More good stuff on the family reunion. (To catch up, see Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.) Today’s post shows scenes from the restored downtown of Sioux Falls.

Sioux Falls impressed me. The metropolitan area is home to 28% of the population of South Dakota. Downtown hosts a Sculpture Walk with donations from local artists. The sculptures are auctioned off and replaced with new artworks each spring.

Here’s a sample of the beauty we saw on the street:

"Midnight Snack"
"Hey Marylou/Blindsided"
"Outfoxed"
"Red Dress"

And there was this … the theater where Dad and his brothers used to go watch movies when they went to town is being restored:

Sioux Falls State Theatre
Sioux Falls State Theatre

And one last shot – of a lovely group of ladies having lunch at the diner downtown on Phillips Avenue:

Enjoying the day at the Phillips Avenue Diner, Sioux Falls

Part 3, The Trip to the Family Reunion

Part of the fun of going to a family reunion is learning things about your parents you never knew before.

For instance, my dad once saved a school bus full of children from near tragedy. Or so his side of the story went.

My aunt Audrey was reminiscing about the time the school bus almost went into a ditch on the side of the country road. She was just six, in her first year of school, and Dad was in his freshman or sophomore year.

Here’s what the two agree on: The road was in bad shape and the bus nearly went into a steep ditch. The bus driver slammed on the brakes to prevent the accident. That’s when the accounts start to diverge.

My aunt says she was trembling at the back of the bus, scared of what was to her a huge jump down to the ground. Dad, for his part, says he quickly and efficiently ran to the back of the bus, opened the back door, ushered all the kids off (saving all their lives in the process), then rushed up the road to the nearest home where he procured two blocks and raced back to the bus to chock up the tires so the poor driver could finally take his foot off the brakes. And then he saved the driver.

When cousin Tim and I heard that story we decided we had to find the exact spot this took place so we could one day place a historical marker. We drove out past the family farm and there was the ditch:

This was the ditch where Dad saved a bus full of children.
It would have been a terrible accident if the schoolbus had plunged into this ditch.

Fortunately, everyone lived happily ever after.

Dad and Aunt Audrey
That ditch doesn't look as steep from this angle. Back then Dad and Aunt Audrey were happy to be alive.

Read more about the family reunion:
Part 1
Part 2

Family Reunion, part 2

Century Farm sign at the Family Farm in Minnesota
The farm has been in the family since 1889.

A few years back, in 1989 to be precise, the Nobles County, Minnesota, paper featured articles about century-old farms in their area. Our family farm was one of them. (Picture of the farmhouse in the post below, about the reunion.) Today my cousin John and his family live and work on the farm, keeping in the family for another generation.

the family farm
A scene from the farm …
Another scene from the Rust family farm
Looking out from the farm house at the Rust family farm

Home from the family reunion

Last week we (Mom, Dad and I) spent five days with folks I hardly ever see – my Dad’s three sisters and three brothers. It was time for the Rust Family Reunion.

Dad, his brothers and sisters
All seven of Freda and Herman Rust's kids, gathered at the official reunion dinner at the Royal Fork Buffet in Sioux Falls. Dad's at back left, looking off camera.

We traveled 1,361 miles to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to meet up with everyone. Home base was the Best Western – actually a very lovely place to stay. They let us make our own waffles at the continental breakfast bar.

Sioux Falls
The city of Sioux Falls was named for its charming landmark.
Sioux Falls
Early morning light at Sioux Falls

One morning Aunt Ann and Uncle Bob, two enthusiastic amateur photographers, got up early to catch the morning light – the “golden hour,” as photographers call it.  I decided, why not? and trekked to Sioux Falls with them. I’m glad I went.

Why Sioux Falls? Since the majority of Dad’s brothers and sisters still live within a day’s drive of Sioux Falls, that’s where they meet. And since it’s been 25 years since I’ve seen most of these people, I decided to come too.

I got reacquainted with all my aunts and uncles, and several of my cousins, too, including my cousins John and Laura. We drove out to the Rust family farmhouse outside Adrian, Minnesota, about 45-50 minutes from Sioux Falls. John now lives there with his family, on the farmstead the Rusts bought in 1889.

The family farmhouse
The Rust family farmhouse, where Dad was born during a January snowstorm.

There was more sightseeing … here’s the gravestone for the first Rust to come over from Germany, Harm Rust:

Gravestone for Harm Rust
The old gravesite where Harm Rust is buried.

It’s late, so I’ll stop now and break this into multiple posts. But one thing I know: I won’t let another 25 years go by before I see my kith and kin again.