Sometimes I have to pinch myself!
Did it really take place? Was I actually there or was it but a dream?
Oh yes, it did take place despite some of us having to drive an extra 80 to 100 miles to avoid roads that are underwater. And yes, I was there for I would not have missed it for the world.
The first ever family reunion on my late mother’s side was held over the Fourth of July weekend on what we call, “Holy Ground.” It’s the farm near Upham, N,D., on which my grandfather, H.F. Niewoehner, homesteaded in 1904. Here is where we cousins and our siblings went nearly every Sunday after church for Grandma’s roast beef, turkey or sauerkraut and homemade sausage dinners. There are now upwards of 250 people in this clan and 100 came from the East Coast, the West Coast and points south.
Many of us had reservations at the Holiday Inn Express in Minot, where some festivities were to take place. But when the Minot flood closed the motel, neighbors of our farm families opened their homes to us. Is not such hospitality typical of the wonderful people of North Dakota?
My grandparents, H.F. and Ida Zimmerman Niewoehner raised six children on this farm — now all deceased: my Aunt Ida, Freda (my mom), and Uncles Hank, Walt, Bernie and Artie. From them came 15 grandchildren, 13 of whom remain. This reunion was the dream of my cousin, Ken Niewoehner, who farms Grandpa’s land and runs beef cattle in his pastures. Along with his wheat and canola seeds, Ken started planting the seeds of this reunion many months ago.
Three windmills still dot the landscape of this farm and from welding rods and copper sheeting, Ken constructed replicas that were used as center pieces for our tables. The drone of the windmill by the barn sounded just as it did some 50 years ago, soothing, comforting, welcoming.
The reunion began Saturday night with a barbecue on the lawn of Bethlehem Lutheran Church located a few miles from the farm. This is where all of us cousins were nurtured in the Christian faith. Following the cookout, we moved into the sanctuary where our son, Dean, his wife, Jyl and their daughters, Amelia and Grace, led us in a time of musical worship and praise.
Sunday morning we gathered at Bethlehem again for a family worship service complete with a family choir. The little children were so excited to sing with us big kids. There are four Lutheran pastors in this extended family and three were at the reunion: The wonderful sermon which focused on passing on the faith was delivered by the Rev. Doctor Jim Baneck. Readings and prayers were spoken by Revs. Karl Koeppen and Tom Vanderbilt.
Then it was off to the farm for coffee and caramel rolls made by Ken’s wife, Cheryl.
Ken and Cheryl, with the help of the local cousins and their spouses absolutely spit-shined the entire farm: the yard, setting blooming flowers here and there, the Quonset where the catered meals were served and where registration took place as well as the genealogy and family documentary presentations prepared by Paul Kienitz and Glenn and Tim Borchers,
And oh, how I wish you could have seen the house, the magnificent six bedroom mansion that we all dearly love. Marilyn Niewoehner, wife of cousin, Dale, dressed the dining room up like a museum. On mannequins she displayed the wedding dresses of Grandma Niewoehner (cream colored 1903), my mother (1930 mint green), Aunt Ida (1930 light peach) and Aunt Doris (1936 white). And next to each dress was a blown up to 20×25-inch black and white photo of each bride and groom. In amongst the dresses and photos were bouquets of lilies and other flowers. It both looked and smelled gorgeous!
Grandpa and Grandma My mom and dad
Through a pillared archway one steps from the dining room into the living which at 3 o’clock that Sunday afternoon was full of people waiting, waiting . . . for Grandma. And then, I descended the open staircase coming from her bedroom above and wearing one of her dresses from her closet, one of her hats as well as a pair of her shoes. Grandma has been gone since 1976 and yet some of her things still hang in her closet.
I was honored, at a cousin reunion planning meeting, when Ken asked if I’d portray our precious Grandma Ida and tell the stories she told to us and to our children a long time ago. I plopped in her favorite gold chair and told about building and then living in a sod house, about the games pioneer children played, such as the string game, Cat’s Cradle. I told about meeting up with friendly Indians on the North Dakota prairie and about the time gophers ate Grandpa’s crop and the children picked buffalo bones from the sod which were sold to help with that year’s living.
As Grandma I also told about the wedding dress I made and how hot it was on that day in August of 1903 when I married Grandpa. Someone asked how I made the flower appliques for my dress. Laughter filled the room when I replied, “Oh, I got them at Michael’s.”
It was hot the day we held our reunion but we enjoyed every moment of singing, playing softball and horseshoe and going on the horse-drawn wagon ride. But, the topper had to be jumping rope. As in the days of my youth, a thick farm rope was tied to a corral fence and family members took turns jumping and twirling the rope. This was something we always did when we went to Grandma’s and Grandpa’s. That and singing. Grandma would not let us leave until we sang, “Whispering Hope,” and, “The Holy City.”
As the day was ending, Ken perched on hay bales in front of the red corral to rest as he watched the rope jumpers. On the fence behind him are words by Socrates that Uncle Bernie painted there a few years before he went to a nursing home.
The words are these: “Count that day lost whose low descending sun views from thy hand, no worthy action done.”
Our day was not lost, but powerfully re-found, in one another and on “Holy Ground.”