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Roxane B. Salonen, Published August 09 2013

Living Faith: Celebrating dad in his old childhood digs

As the youngest boy of nine kids growing up during the Great Depression, my father viewed his birthday as a day about the same as any other.

In fact, for years we thought his birthday was Aug. 8. It wasn’t until Dad received his birth certificate from the government at age 65 that we learned his Aunt Mabel, who’d always insisted he’d come into the world Aug. 4, was vindicated.

Despite being something of a birthday Grinch, Dad eventually came to accept our outpourings of love on whichever August day suited us. “Just no cake please,” we heard.

This summer, facing the first of Dad’s birthdays since his January passing, we wanted to do something special. “Let’s go to New Rockford,” my sister, Camille, said, suggesting a visit to his hometown to honor what would have been his 78th year.

So after a quiet visit to his gravesite at the North Dakota Veteran’s Cemetery in Mandan, Mom, Camille and a half-dozen of our eight kids piled into two minivans and headed north to the place we’ve known in a mostly legendary way through Dad’s colorful stories.

We kept the agenda loose, with our one planned event being an evening musical at the Old Church Theatre.

Might we also be so blessed to find the old home where his five sisters used to scramble each morning for the one tiny bathroom, and where little “Bobby,” son of a railroad worker, dreamed of someday owning his own electric train set?

On arriving, we collected our clues – house No. 520 and a former residents’ last name – and set off as if on a treasure hunt, hoping for just a glimpse.

“I think it’s a little further north,” Mom said after a few misfires. Sure enough, as we rounded the corner a few blocks up, there it stood, like out of a fairytale. Though worn from the years, the home had the same pointed steeple and period windows we’d remembered from long ago.

“Should we knock on the door so they’ll know why we’re here?” I asked. The nods confirmed it.

We could have been met with a growl, but a smile came instead, then another, and before we knew it, we were being led on a tour by others who called the place home.

The further into the interior we got, the more I began to feel Dad with us.

When we reached the bedroom where he likely once slept and played, I paused, noting the model-train that had been set up. It was as if a part of Dad’s spirit had been impressed upon the walls.

From there, it was all blessing – finding the railroad tracks, the cinema where Dad used to spend his hard-earned dimes to catch a matinee, the pool where he and his siblings cooled off on hot summer days, the site of his old church and school.

And at night, as we took in “Life Could Be a Dream,” our expectations were blown to pieces in a happy way. At the standing ovation, I sensed there couldn’t have been a more appropriate production to honor Dad, who would have been first to clap at the exceptional four-part doo-wop ’60s harmonies and humor.

We closed off our time together at the walking bridge of the James River, where Dad spent many hours of his youth, fishing and dreaming of his future, and felt him deeply in the tears of our circled goodbye.

That’s when I realized we didn’t need a birthday cake to honor Dad. The gift was right there – his life in us; a gift we held through holding one another, and one we could keep forever.

Roxane B. Salonen is a freelance writer who lives in Fargo with her husband and five children. If you have a story of faith to share with her, email roxanebsalonen@gmail.com