Everyone’s probably got their own image of a person that they see in their head when they
hear the words North and Dakotans. Maybe it’s a roughneck in the oil fields, or a farmer. Perhaps it’s Carson Wentz or Cara Mund or Lawrence Welk. For me, it is, and always will be, my Grandpa Martin Hagen.
He was the personification of a Prairie Parent. He lived his whole life in the Painted Woods township, south and west of Wilton. Literally, he was born in the Painted Woods post office (he always joked he arrived “special delivery”), which is long since gone, and he farmed the same land that his Grandpa Martin Gunder Hagen homesteaded after emigrating here from Norway, over 100 years ago.
My Grandpa Marty had a story to fit every conversation he ever walked into. And he got himself involved in a lot of conversations. As kids, we would try to avoid trips to the grocery store with Grandma and Grandpa Hagen, because Grandpa would walk up to strangers in the produce section and just start telling them that same story about the time the neighbor’s cow that got out of its fence, and how he tried to help but the other neighbor got him drunk on wine. Or the guy from New York City who tapped him on the shoulder and asked him what a combine looked like.
He was a neighbor to so many, and never knew a stranger. Branding calves, haying fields, volunteering as a rural firefighter, giving his blood, ushering at church, etc. Whatever needed doing, all you had to do was give him a shout and he’d come sprinting. Always in blue jeans and cowboy boots, making it all the more impressive how quickly he moved.
Thirteen years ago, he lost the love of his life, my Grandma Donna. That’s the only time I ever saw him cry was at her funeral. They’d go into town regularly for dances, and the two of them moved as one, spinning, waltzing, floating as if on clouds. When she passed away, he was never really the same. He talked about her every day, for those 13 years.
Up until a few years ago, at the age of 92, Grandpa was still working on the farm. Those are the lessons we took from him. Work hard, always help a neighbor and love someone so much that you’d be lost without them.
There’s the old Midwestern stereotype of how difficult it is to leave a social gathering. Best you can do is say, “Well, I suppose …” and start to get up, but expect your hosts to lure you back into the chair with another story or pie. That was my Grandpa Marty. My parents used to joke that they needed to start the exit protocol an hour or two before their intended departure time from the farm. If you let him, Grandpa Marty would talk your ear completely off.
Grandpa Marty turned 94 on May 26. He was in the hospital that day. They released him to the farm for hospice care, so he could pass away peacefully at home. My wife, two kids and I went up to visit him on Thursday. We listened to him talk about his life and how quickly the time goes. I held his hand, and he told his same stories. His speech was difficult to understand, but I could recognize his familiar “gaw dammit” he used to punctuate his thoughts.
When it was time to go, I shook his hand, looked him in the eye and said, “Well, I suppose …” He said, “Yeah, I’ll be seeing you.” I told him I loved him and gave him a hug. He kissed me on the cheek … then started telling his next story. So, I stood there, listening to him, hoping his story would never end.
Grandpa Marty died on Sunday, in his home, surrounded by his family who worshiped him. Though he can’t tell his same, old stories anymore, we sure will.