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Mildred Thelma (Mickelson) Nervig


Posted By: Robert Nervig (email)
Date: 1/16/2021 at 13:42:20

In Memoriam: Mildred T. Nervig

It’s the Friday before Memorial Day, 2017. I’m at the Eagle Grove Cemetery, standing in front of my parents’ headstone. I recall for many years, beginning in childhood, I would make the annual pilgrimage with my family to the Trinity Lutheran Church cemetery south of Hardy, Iowa in Humboldt County, where my Nervig grandparents are buried. Now and for nearly two decades, I have also visited this cemetery west of my hometown to honor my parents. I bring planters filled with colorful annuals to both cemeteries to place them at the family grave stones. Setting these flowers in place for me means – I remember and will continue to remember, as long as I am able, to honor those who have gone before me. At the Eagle Grove Cemetery, there are many people placing memorials on the graves, but at Hardy there is no one. All those who in the past have decorated graves here are also likely in the hereafter. The younger generations haven’t kept up this practice – Memorial Day just means a three-day weekend for most. Now, probably, the only one to notice the flowers on my grandparents’ grave site at Hardy is the person who mows the grass.

When I look upon my parents’ headstone, my eyes focus on the dates below my mother’s name: “Born: 1916. Died 1989”. She was 73 years old, enjoying the retirement years, when cancer took her. I felt at the time, and I still lament that her early death was an unfair reward for a lifetime of selflessness. But let me tell her story from her eldest son’s perspective.

Mildred Thelma Mickelson was the first child born to Michael, or Mike as he was known, and Annie Mickelson on their farm south of Randall, Iowa, on March 1, 1916. The name “Mildred”, is of Old English origin, meaning “gentle strength”. It ranked sixth in most popular female names in 1912 and maintained that popularity through 1920. “Thelma” was the name of a heroine in the novel, Thelma- A Norwegian Princess, written by Marie Corelli. The novel was the basis for a film that was released in 1916. Mike and Annie’s ancestors were Norwegians.

Annie died in 1929 at the age of forty after giving birth to her seventh child. My mother was 13 when her mother died. She and the next oldest sister, Alma, took on the duties their mother would have performed in caring for the other children, two sisters and three brothers. Before her mother’s death, Mildred preferred being outside caring for the horses, cattle, hogs and chickens on the family farm.

Mike and his family left the Randall farm March 1, 1931. It was the time of the Great Depression. They did not leave voluntarily. They moved to Kanawha, Iowa, to a school house owned by a relative. Mike worked at odd jobs to make a little money. Also, he would travel to South Dakota to harvest potatoes for a penny for a five-gallon pail of potatoes. Mildred would be responsible for caring for her younger brothers and sisters. A neighbor would teach her to bake bread. She attended school as an eighth grader, but she had to bring her younger brothers, the youngest being three years old, to class each day. Her grades reflected the limited time she could devote to her studies.

In 1933, they moved to Eagle Grove and lived in a house east of the sale barn. Mike got a job as an Eagle Grove school custodian. Later, they moved to a house in Eagle Grove on North Cadwell Avenue near the high school. It had a flowing well in the backyard that was used to cool milk and perishable food. Meals were cooked on a wood cook stove.

Mildred and Alma did not continue their education beyond the eighth grade. Both would take jobs as “hired girls” involving housekeeping and childcare. Her youngest brother, Teddy, commented that when they worked for families in Goldfield, Iowa, ”it was just a few dollars for a long week of cleaning and cooking.” Her youngest sister, Marjorie, told when Mildred and Alma returned on the weekends they would bake bread, rolls and cookies for the following week. Parker House rolls were my mother’s signature dinner roll, requested for all the extended family gatherings.

Mildred’s brothers and sisters would report that their oldest sister was their protection when their father, a strict disciplinarian, would bring out the belt to mete out punishment. Mildred would intervene. They all knew he went too far in his corporal punishment of his children. It is not surprising that even though the majority of his grandchildren lived near him later in his life, none had a relationship with him.

Two of Mildred’s sisters, Alma and Fern, would marry in 1940 and 1941, respectively. My mother continued to work for farm families as a “hired girl” and then jobs at the Broadway Hotel and the New Home Café in Eagle Grove and Wilson and Company, an egg and poultry processing facility until she married my dad, Stub Nervig, in 1945.

It’s ironic that both of my parents lost a parent at the age of 13 and had to assume adult responsibilities. My dad’s father, a farmer, died in February 1929. My dad was the youngest child, but the older siblings were out of the house by then – so Stub helped his mother with the farm.

My parents would have three sons, me – born in 1946; Richard born in 1947 and John born in 1952. Our parents were stoic, hardworking, Norwegian Lutherans. The values transmitted to their off- spring included: a good work ethic is very important, your word is your bond and you take care of your own.

My mother was primarily a homemaker, but after the boys left home she would clean the houses of elderly neighbors. One of the things that really pleased her later in life was when she became eligible to receive Social Security benefits. She then had her own money and didn’t have to worry about Stub questioning a purchase.

The other time I saw her really beam was when she purchased an older camping trailer. This was possible because she had received an inheritance, a few hundred dollars, after her brother, Arnold, died in Alaska. She loved camping, especially when her and Stub accompanied friends, fellow volunteer firemen and their wives. My parents eventually upgraded to a used medium-size bumper-pull camping trailer. Camping with family and friends brought her much joy.

My mother was never sick, so it was alarming in 1987 when she was not feeling well and having a difficult time breathing. Her local doctor was unable to make a diagnosis, so he referred her to McFarland Clinic in Ames. Before she could see the specialists in Ames she ended up in the Emergency Room at Mary Greeley Medical Center where they drained fluid from her thoracic cavity. This gave her some temporary relief. The pulmonary specialist examined her but was unable to make a diagnosis. Eventually, she would see a gastroenterologist. He requested an X-ray of her abdomen. She was to return the following Monday. I accompanied her to the appointment. When the doctor told her she had a mass in the pelvic area. I knew it was cancer. It was like an ice pick had been thrust in my heart. My stoic mother didn’t blink. Her biggest concern that day was where to take her sister, Fern, and her husband, Lynn, for lunch since they had driven her to Ames, because my dad was having back problems. She was referred to a gynecologist who would biopsy the mass.

The biopsy report came back: ovarian cancer, the silent killer. She was then referred to an oncologist, who recommended chemotherapy to reduce the tumor size and the anticipated pain. The prognosis: one year of life, which was accurate to the day. It was a hard year with many hospital admissions. At one point, both parents were hospitalized. The chemotherapy, weight loss, bowel blockage . . . my mother handled it all with such grace. I never once heard her complain, she would tell everyone when she was hospitalized: “they treat me like a queen.” She had a supply of hard candy when she was a patient and she would offer this treat to all her visitors. My mother also had a guest book that she asked all visitors to sign. When I visited her after work we would talk about who had been there that day. After her death I looked through the book and counted over 100 names. Individuals mainly from Eagle Grove. One visitor was my friend Pastor Rolfe Johnstad from St. Petri Lutheran Church in Story City. He would stop by the hospital to see her and sing her favorite hymns. She would tell many times how much she appreciated Rolfe’s visits and was touched by his solos.

Death would come and with it a time of reflection on her life, especially when we poured over the family photos. Her smile was evident in so many of those pictures and you could see joy in her eyes. We focused on the good memories and the things she loved – dancing, camping, playing “500” in the winter months with the volunteer firemen’s wives, fishing in Canada with her sister Fern and her husband Lynn and the many family celebrations.

She raised two families, her siblings, and her own children. She was a humble woman who practiced selflessness. She had few wants and enjoyed the simple things in life. She would put up with my dad’s occasional angry outbursts and assert herself when it was least expected.

It was timely to note that Gilda Radner, a member of the original cast of Saturday Night Live, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer about one year before my mother. Gilda wrote a book, It’s Always Something, telling of her two-year treatment journey – surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. She died in 1989 at the age of forty-two. Her book is about illness, doctors and hospital stays; about friends and family; about beliefs and hopes. It’s about her life especially the last two years. Her book was extremely helpful to me. It put words to what I was feeling as I accompanied my mother on her medical journey. Alan Zweibel stated in the Forward of her book, Gilda’s “quirks and exaggeration were the essence of parody. Irony and discomfort the grist for humor”, even in her final performance.

Individuals we love become part of us. This is especially true of our parents. I don’t believe we truly realize how much our parents are a part of our very being until they are gone. This was the case for me following my mother’s death. I felt deeply the absence of her. The pain of grief recedes, but for me the fragments of my sorrow still exist and I will always fondly remember my mother for her constancy and commitment, selflessly caring for her husband, sons and extended family, preparing three meals a day for a lifetime, maintaining a tidy home, ensuring we had clean clothes each day for school, baking treats for special days, caring for my brothers when they contracted whooping cough, writing me weekly when I was in vet school, the Army and graduate school, eating the heels of the bread loaves leaving the best slices for her family. She was a blessing to me and many others – may she rest in peace after a life well done.


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