Our Neighbors.... Marlene Waseen and Ray Broker

Seniors Marlene Waseen and Ray Broker of Barnum depend on a few key lifelines that enable them to continue to live independently at home - their Tele-Health monitors, their knitting, Waseen's dog, Kelly - and each other.

Seniors Marlene Waseen and Ray Broker of Barnum depend on a few key lifelines that enable them to continue to live independently at home - their Tele-Health monitors, their knitting, Waseen's dog, Kelly - and each other.

For most of their years, Waseen and Broker lived busy, active lives before coming to live at the Barnum Senior Apartments. And though both remain alert, productive and engaged members of society, health challenges threatened to bring all that to an end....

Broker, now 91, was born in Moose Lake and did a great many things for a living.

"From a gandy dancer, to a railroad engineer, to a cook, to spending 25 years making Kraft cheese in Galina, Ill.," he said, "I did it all!"

He recalls working on the railroad tracks north of Moose Lake one time when there was a narrow escape.


"A train was coming and the foreman knew it, but he said to us, 'We've got time to put another double rail in...'" related Broker." The train came along when we still had that section of the tracks out, so we had to run down and stop it, and when the engineer stopped the train, he ruined the brand, new rails - so the foreman got fired!"

Broker is justly proud of the things he learned to do and the many ways he made his way in life.

"You name it, I've done it - from driving a train to picking potatoes," he said. "One day, I went to town and there was a sign on the restaurant, 'Help Wanted.' I went inside and asked, 'What have you got to do to get a job?' and the owner said, 'Go to work!' It paid $75 a week, and he told me, 'When you can cut the buck, you'll get $150.' So, my first day was Labor Day, and they told me since I was the new guy I had to do the cooking. The placed filled up. A hamburger was a nickel back then. There were two dozen buns there, and those days they weren't sliced. I had my knife sharpened, and I made one swipe through two dozen buns all at once. The boss was standing there, and he came up and tapped me on the shoulder. I said, 'Don't bother me. I'm busy.' He said, 'I'd better be able to - I'm the boss! Tomorrow, you start at $150 - but not today!'"

As it turned out, Broker cooked there for five years.

"I increased his business because I made all of the stuff myself and even taught him some things!"

He also built three homes in his lifetime.

"I built them from scratch, from the basement on up," he said. "I did the wiring, the plumbing, everything. They passed inspection, too. I did it all. That's one thing I can say. I worked 14 hours every day. And if someone else needed help, I helped them. There's always someone who needs some help. I had a cousin who had arthritis so bad he couldn't move his head. When he needed help, I always went there and did whatever needed doing. People say, 'What do I owe you?' and I tell them, 'If you can say thank you, that's good enough.'

"There was a lot of bartering that went on during those years," added Waseen. "I remember my parents and also my husband doing a lot of that. My husband helped a friend do some remodeling, and the friend was so pleased that instead of giving him a quarter of a beef, he gave him half a one! We had meat for all winter and then some."


Broker was 29 years old before he married, and he and his wife had four boys. They lived a long, rich life until he lost his wife several years ago.

After Broker retired - "What's retired?" he posed. "In about 1960, I had enough years in to retire, but I've kept busy ever since...." - Broker moved back home to Moose Lake.

Waseen was born in North Platte, Neb., and she and her parents eventually moved to Cheyenne, Wyo. When she was eight, they moved to Denham, Minn., in Pine County.

"My dad thought he was going to get rich quick," she related," and he bought a small farm with a big, old farmhouse - but the rich part didn't come for many, many years."

She graduated from Willow River High School in 1954, got married and lived in Barnum during her married life, becoming mother to four children. She, like Broker, later lost her spouse and went on to live alone.

Due to health problems, she moved into the Barnum Apartments in 2000. She met Broker when the two were attending the Covenant Church in Barnum, and after Broker had a stroke three years ago, he, too, found himself at a crossroads in his life that could have taken him in one of two directions.

"One of his sons thought perhaps he should go to a nursing home," related Waseen," but he talked to his doctor, who said, 'He does not belong there. He belongs right where he's at!'"

And so, when the Home Care Program at Carlton County Public Health first secured a grant to purchase 12 Tele-Health home health monitors three years ago, it proved to be perfect timing for both Waseen and Broker. The county paired with adjacent Aitkin County in applying for a grant to obtain the monitors, which are utilized by individuals in their homes to monitor vital signs on a daily basis. The readings are then relayed to public health nurses and personal physicians, who help the patient make adjustments as needed.


"I've been using one for about three years, ever since I had my stroke," said Broker. "Every morning at quarter to eight, I have to be there [at the machine] to have my weight, blood pressure and heart rate taken."

"I've been blessed with having him here ever since," said Waseen.

And as for her...

"I've got diabetes real bad, and my heart isn't the best," she admitted. "I've been on one [of the Tele-Health monitors] ever since they first came out two or three years ago. It keeps my medical condition under a tighter control."

"Good livin' helps a lot, too...." added Broker with a customary twinkle in his eye.

The two have apartments right next door to each other, and they soon became fast friends. There was one thing they didn't know about each other when they'd first met in church, however.

"We hadn't even brought up the fact that we both liked to knit," said Waseen, "until Ray moved to the Barnum Apartments. It was then I discovered he had his own knitting board, and I had one, also. I dug it out from where I had it stored in the corner of my apartment, and we sat and worked on our own boards for a while. Finally I said, 'The heck with it. I can go faster by hand!' and so I switched over to my knitting needles and have been doing it that way ever since."

Broker had learned to knit after he retired. And just who taught him?


"Me!" he exclaimed proudly. "My cousin had a knitting board, and since I'm inquisitive, I had to find out how it worked. I did, and I've been doing it ever since. Idleness just doesn't pay. Of course, this doesn't pay, either, but you get the satisfaction out of doing something worthwhile. You bring us some yarn, and we'll give you something in return. It's good therapy for us. Otherwise we'd just be watching TV, and a little bit of that can go a long way!"

Waseen, too, taught herself to knit many years ago.

"I guess I knit backwards, but as long as it gets done, I don't care if it's backwards or upside down!" she proclaimed. "Together, Ray and I just decided we'd do some knitting every day, even Saturdays and Sundays."

And while Broker and Waseen find knitting together a companionable pursuit, they don't do any visiting while they're at it.

"We don't say a word when we're knitting," said Waseen. "We just focus on what we're doing."

"I could holler 'Fire!' and she wouldn't hear me!" Broker laughed.

"I don't mingle with too many people," said Waseen. "I just like to sit and knit and listen to music. I often think what I'd be doing if I wasn't knitting and had to just sit and watch the 'boob tube' all day."

Broker gets up about 5 a.m. every day and starts on his knitting about 5:30 a.m. He works at it until about 7 a.m.


"Then I say, 'That's it.' That's when I quit," he attested.

Waseen gets up and does her blood readings on the Tele-Health monitor about quarter to seven in the morning, and then goes over to Broker's apartment and fixes breakfast. "Then I work on my knitting from about 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. at night," she said. "I enjoy it. It's the best thing for me, otherwise my hands would probably be crippled up with arthritis, but when I'm using them all the time, that doesn't happen. When I'm not knitting, I take what's left of the yarn and wind it into balls and I create odds and ends of yarn. I go through a lot of it. I used to do a lot of sewing, but my eyes wouldn't cooperate any more for threading the needles."

And what becomes of all the things Waseen and Broker knit? They give it away.

"I enjoy watching the reaction of the people we knit things for," said Waseen. "Last week I gave a cap and scarf to a little boy who helps his mother deliver Meals on Wheels here. He ended up losing it at Wal-Mart. His mother said he cried all the way home, and she said she finally couldn't take it any more so she turned around and went all the way back to Wal-Mart. Don't you know - they were right where he'd left them, on top of some other caps and scarves he'd been looking at. She said the smiles came on his face like you wouldn't believe. I gave him a blanket when he was here this morning and one for his little brother, too, and as he was leaving he turned around to me and said, 'Can I be your friend?'" It's just doing little things like that that make us feel good."

Waseen and Broker recently provided every resident at the Cromwell Nursing Home with a knitted gift for Christmas, including lap robes, 20 prayer shawls and many different sizes and colors of caps and scarves.

"We sent 49 different items so each resident could have something - plus one extra just in case someone else is admitted," said Waseen. "The folks who work there said they were so happy because some kids put their parents in nursing homes and go off and forget them. Some haven't gotten any gifts for many years. Now everyone will have one."

Waseen and Broker have also given some of their knitted goods to the Carlton VFW for the past two years to distribute with their gift baskets for the needy at Christmastime.

"We have another big bag of yarn that was just given to us this morning," said Waseen. "That way, we can go on working. The good Lord provides for us."


The two make caps and scarves for babies, kids and adults, blankets for little ones, prayer shawls, lap ropes and crib blankets as well as heavier blankets out of two-ply yarn in a virtual rainbow array of bright colors.

"We mix and match everything," said Waseen, who proudly points to the makeshift shelves of knitted goods that line Broker's bedroom.

"Probably by the end of December, most of this will be gone," she said. "Then we'll start all over again. If I know someone who has a baby who is going to be baptized, I make up a white blanket for them to use. We have also made baby blankets with feet in them, so when the babies are tucked into them the mothers can also carry an extra diaper or maybe moist towelettes in there as well."

The two make many of their items out of remnants of yarn Waseen has put together, and no two are alike.

"Most people donate the yarn when they find out there's no charge for us to make something for them," said Broker. "We've never sold any of it. We give it all away."

While Waseen said she likes making baby blankets the best, Broker said he enjoys "anything and everything!"

"I even make blankets with feet in them for the elderly so they can sit and watch the 'boob tube' and keep their feet warm," he added.

And while anyone can bring their own yarn for Broker and Waseen to knit into something nice for them, it's not a requirement.

"You don't have to bring yarn - you can have something anyway," said Broker. "We don't care. As long as it goes to help somebody.... Others keep bringin', we keep usin' and we keep givin'....."

The two have also donated hand-made knitted goods to the Covenant Church in Moose Lake and the Salem Church in Mahtowa for their Sunday School kids as many other people as well.

Waseen's 10-year-old "Pom Poo" pup, Kelly, is a constant companion at the side of both she and Broker as they knit, and though the little dog only weighs three pounds, she, too, has been a life saver for them.

"I'm a brittle diabetic," explained Waseen, "and if I don't feel good and I lean back in the chair, she'll get up and put her legs up on my chest and look up at me. If I don't answer her or kind of push her away, she'll start to bark because she thinks I might get myself in trouble. At those times, I give off a different kind of odor - kind of a sweet smell - so she seems to know I need help."

"At 9 a.m. every morning," added Broker, "we take a break, and if we have a blanket here, Kelly covers up with it and takes a nap. She doesn't even peek her nose out. When I first came here, she came up to me and sniffed and then went back to Marlene. The next time we went for a ride, we took the dog, and she came over to me and sniffed and stayed a little longer. The third time, Marlene was driving and Kelly came over to me. Marlene said, 'Let her inside your coat,' so I put her inside my jacket and that was it! Now, she's my shadow. I don't know what we'd do without her."

Never one to allow himself to be idle for long, Broker recently turned out several batches of "sandbakkelse," Norwegian Christmas cookies made of butter, sugar and eggs.

Last year, he made three batches of the traditional treats, which amounted to some 300 cookies! He also makes fattigmands at this time each year - fried Scandinavian cookies cut in diamond shapes that literally melt in one's mouth.

"There were three boys and three girls in our family, and I'm the only one who still makes them," Broker related. "They all call me and say, 'Have you got them made yet?'"

And while Broker and Waseen both know how lucky they are in life, they are modest about their considerable accomplishments.

"We're just plain, ordinary people," said Broker. "Nobody's our enemy unless they do something to deserve it.... It's helping somebody that makes life worthwhile. We're all put here for a purpose - to help one another. And we'll keep on doing it as long as the good Lord's willin'!"

Pine Journal Publisher/ reporter Wendy Johnson can be contacted at: .

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