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Guest Columnist: Memorials of heart and mind

Memorial Day. I woke up thinking about life and death. About those gone before me — family, friends, the famous and unknown. The men of my college class of 1968 who died in Vietnam. Ancestors whom my brothers, cousins and I never knew personally. That they made life decisions and gave us so many gifts. Their humor, their courage, their loving, their music. And, some not-so-great traits for us to struggle with.

It's wonderful that we have Memorial Day. I am glad for my husband and friends who have brothers, parents, grandparents, and here and there a stillborn child placed lovingly in our area cemeteries. Places where they visit on this and other days. Grounds they keep up as a community. And even write about, as Margaret Webster did in her wonderful "Funny Things Happening on the Way to the Cemetery," an account of the people buried in the cemetery on South Finn Road west of Wright.

For many, families are scattered and have been for generations. Not one of my ancestors are buried locally. Great-grandfather Hans Markusen is interred in Grasston, Minn., where he last lived — a journey from Schleswig to Spring Valley, Minneapolis and Pine City. His wife — my grandfather's mother — is buried in Jellinge, Denmark. My father, David, born in Cromwell, is not buried at all. He died of an equipment failure rock climbing with my brothers. He'd willed his body to the University of Minnesota for research. The university never returned the ashes to my mother.

Does this matter? I love going to the Stillwater cemetery, a hilly setting with huge oaks, where we successfully begged the proprietors to let us bury the ashes of Grampa Renus, and Uncle Sid and my dad David's name, too, on a stone next to my grandmother Ruth Markusen. My brother Steven often sends me photos of our parents' gravesite in Minneapolis. On my Dad's, we put "Climb peaks, sing silly songs." On Mom's, "Smell the wildflowers." There he finds comfort. On occasion I meet him by the tiny lake. We sit on the grass and tell sad and funny stories.

My long-lost, never-known second cousins — granddaughters of my grampa's sister Bertha who decamped for California early last century — found me and journeyed here one recent summer. We bonded over visits to the homes where Marinus had live, to the cemetery in Stillwater, and to Han Markusen's gravestone near Grasston. We compared notes on the brother-sister pair who had been so dramatically separated as young adults.

But mostly, I carry the gifts of my ancestors — their funny and not so funny traits — with me in my spirit. I spend time with them. When with others, they emerge from my mouth at unexpected times, as in my father's funny sayings, like "I'm so tired my face hurts," pulling down my cheeks with my hands as he did. I hear my Grampa's fiddle swaying in my body. I practice my mother's joy in nature.

I struggle with the less attractive habits inherited from each. I've tamed my mother's talent for escalating arguments. Have outgrown my father's shrinking from conflict, when it's necessary to deal with it. Reined in an outsized competitiveness learned not just at home but cultivated at school and beyond.

Mostly, I love being with them whatever I am doing. When I'm weeding in the garden or walking on a hiking trail, I talk with them, thank them. Sharing stories with my brothers and layers of cousins. Snapping off a text to a brother when some droll memory crosses my path. Teaching my son and his cousins, none of whom were born yet when my father died, about his traits and how these live on in all of us. Listening to my husband recount tales of his big and extended farm family, asking questions, comparing notes. Keeping them all — even those I never knew — alive in my heart.

PS — I recommend Margaret's book. You can buy it from her by calling 218-357-2635 or at the Cromwell Area Summer Fest Silent Auction, Friday June 23, and the 4-7 p.m. Steak Fry at the Cromwell Pavilion.

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Writer Ann Markusen is a Carlton County freelance writer/columnist and retired economist and professor emerita at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. She lives in Red Clover Township with her husband, Rod Walli.

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