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Blanche and I and the goodbye party

Blanche Norden (seated) posed for a photo with Ann Daley. Submitted Photo

If you spend enough time visiting with folks who live in our local senior living facilities, sooner or later you will meet some pretty remarkable "old people."

Blanche Nolden was one of those people.

I met Blanche about five years ago when she moved into Neilson Place. She settled into her new home easily. Elderberry Neighborhood would be her new address. She liked everything about her new home, and she enjoyed and appreciated all the activities that were offered. She especially liked music, and that's where I came in.

I would show up on a regular basis to play "Name That Tune" with the residents. Playing the game exercised their memories and my fingers. Blanche loved the game and was a very good participant. Not only did she know the song titles, she also remembered many of the words. Sometimes she purposely didn't come up with the answer just so some other resident would have a chance to "name that tune." In any case, because of these musical games, Blanche and I became good friends.

Blanche liked church, and she never missed a Sunday worship Service except once in a while when she had a chance to go to the casino with her daughter Joanne. When it was my turn to do the Sunday service, Blanche was always most complimentary. She thought I was a fine preacher. She made me feel like Martin Luther King Jr., or at least Billy Graham.

One day after the service, she said she would like me to do her "goodbye service." When I realized she was talking about her funeral, I said, "Well, I don't know about that. Heading up Sunday church service is one thing, but preaching at funerals is quite another. I have no credentials. It might not even be legal."

But this was of no consequence to Blanche. With a twinkle in her eye, she quickly responded, "Legal enough for me!" I felt humbled, flattered and honored by such a request.

And when Blanche died last September at the age of 91, what could I do but keep my promise and start making plans for her "goodbye party.

I met with Blanche's family at one of her favorite places, the Moose Lake Resort. At one time, she was actually part of a four-generation cabin cleaning crew there. She held up her end of the work until she retired at age 85. So it was there, sitting on the porch, that we tackled the task of remembering Blanche.

What should the memorial service be like? How do we want to celebrate her life? And how would Blanche want to be remembered by her family and friends?


And so the stories began.

"Grandma taught me how to drive," said Ryan, a great-grandson.

"Grandma would never betray a confidence - you could tell her anything," said Sheryl, a granddaughter. "And she went snowmobiling and four-wheeling with us kids."

I remember Blanche talking about her daughter. "Not only is Joanne my wonderful daughter, she's my best friend," she said.

We talked about Blanche's life as a business woman and about her work at Bemidji State University. She enjoyed music, bingo, blackjack, golfing and eating.

A bump in the road

Joanne and the grandkids recalled the night Blanche had a serious stroke. She was driving home from the casino when her left arm quit working. She had to use her right hand to operate the turn signal. When she arrived home, she was unable to get out of her car. Quick thinker that she was, she honked the horn, and all three came to her rescue. They could see Blanche was in serious trouble and that they needed to get her to the hospital immediately. Needless to say, they made good time driving into town and, no surprise, they got pulled over for speeding. When they explained the situation to the very nice patrol officer, he offered to help, but they said they had the situation under control. They said thanks anyway and were on their way. This all happened about six years ago.

The rest of the story

Blanche never did recover the use of her left side. With such a severe disability, there was no chance she would ever return to her own home. Blanche accepted this and decided her motto would be, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

So she gracefully made the transition to Neilson Place, where she would spend the rest of her days making the best and the most of everything. She got a motorized wheelchair and whipped around all the neighborhoods like a seasoned taxicab driver. She visited with everybody.

Thanks to her family and staff, Blanche always looked like she just stepped out of a band box. She was a smart dresser and always had a perfect hairdo. Some might say she looked "foxy." With that classy dignified appearance, she looked like she was going to a job interview.

That's how Blanche looked on the outside. On the inside, it was more of the same. Her family said, "She was a ray of sunshine everywhere she went and she never had a bad word to say about anybody. "

When she died, the staff gently covered her with one of the beautiful hospice quilts, and then the "procession of honor" made up of family, friends residents and staff escorted her to her waiting funeral limousine. She was treated with respect and the dignity right up to the end of her life. You might say that Blanche left Elderberry in style.

The goodbye party

And as for the memorial service, it was held at Neilson Place, of course. This was her home, and this is where her friends were. We celebrated her life with scripture, hymns and stories. We ended the service with a favorite hymn and then we listened to the Mills Brothers sing "Cab Driver," Blanche's favorite song.

We would probably have wrapped up the afternoon at this point, but it seemed there was one more thing we needed to do.

Waving of the hankies

It all started with Blanche's mother, Lettie. According to the stories, Lettie always wore an apron, and when anyone left her house, she would step out on the porch and use her apron to wave good bye.

Like her mother, Blanche continued this ritual throughout her life, including at Neilson Place. When her guests left, she would sit by a window and watch for them in the parking lot. Since she no longer wore an apron, she waved good bye with a white hanky.

Incidentally this hanky-waving habit really caught on. It has been passed down through five generations and family members continue this special ritual to this day.

So, needless to say, we all got out our hankies and waved a final goodbye to Blanche, and with that, her goodbye party was over.

Blanche was an inspiration to all of us. Her faith and positive attitude, her sense of humor and her zest for living helped her get through life with flying colors. She was one of a kind.