In Remembrance

On Monday morning, August 30, the world stopped turning for just a moment or two. You probably didn't feel it, but all of us here in Jim's family felt it. It was the morning that my father-in-law died. He was 99 years, 6 months and 27 days old. And he was a great man.

John Stephen Heinen was born on February 3, 1911, in Spring Hill Township in Minnesota.  That is where he lived most of his life. He was raised on a farm and was the second oldest in a family of ten children. Although John only attended school up to the eighth grade, he was one of the smartest men I knew.

He served in the Army in World War II and when four of his brothers also signed up, the Army sent John back home to help his father with the farming. John married Esther and together raised 8 children on their own 240 acre farm.

In 1975 John sold all but one acre of his land and built a ranch home right across the street from the church in town. This is the home that I remember. We have many, many happy memories at this place.  It was only a three bedroom house, but it was wall-to-wall people during the holidays. If we were lucky enough to get there early, we'd get dibs on one of the bedrooms. Otherwise, the basement was always open. There was an old double bed with a mattress that guaranteed cuddling because it sank in the middle. An old green couch that seemed to go on forever was also available, along with two hand made cots that were pretty comfy. If you were one of the unfortunate ones to arrive late, you'd get to sleep on the living room couch, and then, well, you'd just grab a piece of the floor in the living room. We made do. Somehow the majority of us fit around the table - it had two or three leaves in it. The kids sat at a card table or even down in the basement. The food was always so, so good. I still remember one of the best meals I had there was when John had come back from fishing with 80 sunfish. Esther fried them up and we had fresh peas from the garden with a creamy white sauce over them and home made bread. Yum!

John and I had a great rapport. He'd always get me going with talk of the different kinds of food they ate like blutwurst (blood sausage), liver sausage, CHICKEN'S FEET, head cheese, etc. I was more of a city girl, and the likes of these NEVER touched my lips - until I met Jim. Well, I only ate blutwurst and liver sausage. I do have SOME sense!

We had just been up to Minnesota to see John about a week or so before he died. He was ready to go - his quality of life wasn't that great.

On the Friday before his death, Jim's brother Ron got a call from the nursing home that it looked like the time was coming soon. So Ron and Karen got to the nursing home as soon as they could. When they arrived, someone was moping the floor in John's room. John was nowhere to be found. Karen asked, "Where is John Heinen?"

"Oh, he was hungry so he went down to the lunchroom, " was the reply.

This man was unbelievable! Later that evening more of the siblings made it to see John. John requested a shot of brandy, which he hadn't had in awhile. So here's his last shot of brandy on this earth:

John went peacefully Monday morning and for that we are all grateful. He lived a long and happy life. But it is still sad to see him is like the closing of a book, the ending of a legend.

All of the children made it home to bury their father; most of the grandchildren did, too. They came from Washington, Montana, Wisconsin, Colorado, North Carolina, Florida, and Illinois. Wednesday night was the wake. The eight Heinen children stood in line from oldest (Jim - 65) to youngest (John - 46) to accept the condolences offered by friends and relatives of their Dad.

Comrades from the local chapter of the American Legion came in and made a presentation before the casket. They withdrew their hats and held them over their hearts as they prayed for their fallen comrade. One man then put a poppy in John's lapel.

The Post Commander spoke of how John started the local chapter, had been a chaplain and former commander of the Legion, and a member for over 60 years. I was so proud of my father-in-law, as I'm sure everyone else in the family was, too.

When the crowds were gone and it was only the family left, the 8 "children", and John's sole sibling, Norb, gathered around the coffin and raised one final shot of brandy to Dad.

Thursday morning we gathered at St. Michael's Church in Spring Hill, the same church that John and Esther got married at just about 67 years ago, to pay our final respects to this great man. As we pulled down the street in the tiny town,  it just warmed my heart to see so many cars parked at the church for the service. The church bell rang out through the crisp morning air and could be heard throughout the town. Eight grandchildren acted as pallbearers and walked carefully with their precious load, the American flag draped proudly across the coffin. Members of the American Legion stood in Honor Guard formation and saluted as the casket was carried by, and the family members followed.

The rest of the grandchildren had duties: cross and bible carriers, scripture readers, bringing up the gifts, and the eulogy. I don't see how anybody couldn't have cried after listening to Eric describe Grandpa's quiet demeanor, his funny one-liners, his gentle patting on Grandma's hands.

After the mass we walked to the little cemetery out back for the final ceremony. I thought it was fitting, somehow, to see the original farm on the rolling hill in the distance as John was laid to rest.

Lunch was served in the church basement by the Christian Mothers group. There is something to be said about a small town; everyone feels the loss of a loved one and everyone pitches in to help.

I don't want you to think it was all sadness this past week. We had a wonderful time with the family, talking about old times, laughing, and just being together. Some highlights and quotes from the past few days:

  • The nurse told Ron that recently she was testing Dad's short and long term memory. She asked him, "How many children do you have?" His reply? "Well, my wife tells me that they're all mine!"
  • Our hotel was located right next door to a Wal-Mart. Many a trip was made there for this and that. One such trip was for pantyhose that my sister-in-law needed for the funeral on Thursday. Well, the majority of the group thought it would be hysterical to walk over to Wal-Mart and help Karen out so they traipsed over there with their drinks in hand, some barefoot, some not, most feeling their drinks, and walked right into the store. Luckily there was no "greeter" at the door (it was a little late), and they began calling out Karen's name. She was so surprised to see about 20 of her relatives looking for her in the store!
  • My brother-in-law tends to forget to pack his underwear. He will deny this, but his wife will attest that this has happened three times! Soooo, when the group was at Wal-Mart bugging Karen, they picked up a little "surprise" for said brother-in-law, let's say his name is MARK. When they returned from the store, they awarded Mark with a package of some fancy underwear, which Mark put on (with little or no encouragement I might add) (over his jeans) and wore them for awhile. We were trying to get all the men to do this, but alas, it was but a dream of mine!
  • Out of 8 kids, 7 were boys, and only 1 girl. All the boys kidded around that their sister was spoiled. She always felt that she was treated equally. The local priest told her that "She was the rose among the thorns."
  • And finally, at yet another toast to Dad/Grandpa, one of my nieces took a shot of brandy then yelled, "Holy Crap, that's bad!"

So -  We laughed, we cried, we hoisted a few drinks. We celebrated Dad's life. He would have been proud. Rest in Peace, John. You were a good man and will be missed by all. It was an honor to know you and to love you.

John S. Heinen, 1911-2010
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