The past twelve months have been particularly hard on one branch of our family. My father’s younger brother Norman Bernhard Bergeson married Sylvia Mae Sylvester in 1956 and they had four children together: Norma Jean, John, Peter, and Sara Marie. Unfortunately, Norm and Sylvia divorced in 1968.
After the divorce, Sylvia married a childhood friend, Glenn Arnold Gunderson. They raised Sylvia’s four children and added one one more (David) to the family. They lived life to the fullest after their children were grown and creating families of their own. Glenn and Sylvia made annual pilgrimages to the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, the Great American Think-Off, and the Concordia College Christmas concert at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. I’m sure that they went to the Minnesota State Fair every year that they were alive. They were both involved as singers in a number of choral ensembles and had many sporting events to attend, being avid Gopher, Twins and Vikings fans. Family gatherings at the Gunderson Century Farm on Pelican Lake in Glenwood, Minnesota were regular events.
Fast forward to the spring of 2017. Exactly one year ago this week, Glenn died at the age of 84. He had been in declining health for some time so his passing wasn’t unexpected. Glenn had a very fulfilling career in social work and logged 36 years working in that capacity for Stearns County in Minnesota. At his funeral, one of the stories the minister told about Glenn concerned his commitment to the $2 bill of the United States Treasury. Apparently he never went anywhere without $2 bills in his wallet and he handed them out at opportune times to family and friends young and old. Gotta keep the currency alive! There were folks at the reception that told me that they, too, carried $2 bills with them in honor of Glenn.
Imagine my surprise then, when on September 11, 2017 I received a text message from my cousin Sara Marie, “Mom was diagnosed with sepsis. Not good! I may be flying home soon.” Sylvia was in the hospital, but I had no idea why. Six days later, on September 17, I got another message from Sara, “Mom is in comfort care now, starting this morning.” Turns out, Sylvia had an aggressive form of lymphoma cancer which couldn’t be treated because it was too far advanced. She died at 5pm that day.
I had enjoyed some marvelous conversations with Sylvia at Glenn’s funeral. She was vibrant and engaged and every bit the person that I had known all of my life. This sudden turn of events was seriously messed up. It didn’t make any sense.
At Sylvia’s funeral, the minister asked the congregation if anyone had ever received a newspaper clipping from Sylvia. I started to chuckle because she often sent cards and clippings to me and I was always touched by the thoughtfulness of her messages. Every hand in the church went up! How did Sylvia manage to make everyone in her network think that they were getting some special treatment when she did the same thing for all of us? This didn’t diminish the appreciation I had for her, it only enhanced it.
That brings me to Norma Jean. Norma was my first cousin and #5 in the birth order of the Bergeson cousins. Norma died on February 25, 2018. During the afternoon of that Sunday I got a call from Sara Marie telling me that her sister was found unresponsive in her apartment earlier in the day. Norma had been on oxygen for some time because of shortness of breath, but no one thought death was near.
Norma was the valedictorian of her high school class. She was an AFS student and spent one of her high school summers in Bolivia. At St. Olaf College she entered the nursing program and graduated with a BS in Nursing. She took her nursing skills to the Indian reservations of Arizona and to the senior living facilities of Florida. She had a particular interest in serving the elderly.
I was touched by the words of Pastor Todd at Norma’s funeral. He spoke of the caring and ever vigilant eyes of Norma Jean. She was always looking out for someone that needed assistance, whether monetary, emotional or spiritual. She would regularly give bus money to someone in need or money for another meal or an attentive ear for a story that needed sharing.
As I sat in the congregation listening to the eulogies extolling the virtues of these three members of my family, I was truly humbled. These folks were exemplary examples of the best that humanity has to offer. I am honored to call them family and happy for all the times we had together.