Goodbye to the Greatest Generation

This weekend, my family of origin gathered for a funeral. It won’t be the first and it certainly won’t be the last. We hugged and laughed and cried and prayed—-together—-and honored the life of DeLila (Stiegelmeier) Schneider.

But something is different about this funeral. DeLila is the last member of her generation to say goodbye to this old world and good morning to eternity. She was my grandpa Milton’s baby sister. All of her siblings and their spouses have passed away previously.

They were the generation born on the eve of the Great Depression and the dawn of the ‘Dirty Thirties.’ They watched their parents survive by the skin of their teeth, watched the dust pile up in the fences, watched for space aliens on the horizon when Orson Wells broadcast the War of the Worlds on radio theatre, watched the horse drawn plow replaced by diesel horsepower.

This was the generation that fought the evil of Nazi ideology and met the fury of Hitler’s masses and munitions on the battlefields of Europe. DeLila’s husband Reinel Schneider was wounded in combat and received a Purple Heart. While his German speaking relatives back in South Dakota were being forced to lay aside their mother-tongue, Reiny put his German to good use as an interpreter in France.

DeLila was almost legendary when I was a child. She seemed unapproachable and almost beyond the level of the rest of us mere mortals. Many grandmothers and great-aunts cooked and canned and cleaned, but DeLila excelled them all. To my very young self, one hardly dared enter her perfectly kept house. Everything was in its place and everything must be done ‘just so.’ DeLila worked hard (even though she and Reiny had retired from the farm and moved to town), keeping a garden, making pickles, baking kuchen and cookies and blachinda, teaching her grandchildren to grow the most incredible cabbages for 4-H, feeding family and friends. I knew that my father respected them both—once he told me that Reiny probably still had the first dollar that he ever made, in a conversation about the wise use of finances; and he tried to talk my mom into making DeLila’s pickles, because, of course, they were the best. (My poor mother even made the trek to the farm north of Java to get water from the well of Bethlehem, er, the Schneider farm, and her pickles failed to turn out—an unfortunate experiment she NEVER repeated!)

I was forty years old before I really got to know DeLila. My grandmother was dying, and Providence had arranged it that Grandma Phyllis spent her last days in the Mobridge Hospital; DeLila lived in the Assisted Living facility that adjoined the wing where they cared for Grandma. I spent several days there, and DeLila came daily to sit beside her sister-in-law, her friend, hold grandma’s hand, talk softly to her even though grandma could no longer respond. And DeLila told my grandma how very much she loved her.

This woman who had seemed so far beyond, in my childhood, showed her sweet, caring heart by her presence and she was not shy in using words to express it. At nearly ninety years old, she brought blachinda and cookies over for snacks, and she prepared a meal for Uncle Jerry and me to give us a break from hospital food, complete with an apple pie made from scratch. Of course she apologized up and down for serving purchased lasagna rather than homemade. And she asked me to massage her shoulders because she had a kink in her neck. She was human after all, I marveled, as I gently rubbed her tight muscles. When she told me that her heart was getting weak, I knew that her love was stronger than ever.

We had opportunity for some long visits, and DeLila’s sweet, gentle voice gave me a new picture of my grandpa’s childhood and young adult years, both highs and lows that I had not heard about before. I got a fresh glimpse of the friendship between Grandpa Milton and DeLila as siblings, a bond that only multiplied through their spouses, and I felt a new appreciation for the animated card games and the frequent fishing trips I remembered the four of them sharing when I was a child. I got a new picture of her mother, my great-grandma Katie, whom I only remembered after Alzheimer’s made her cross and withdrawn, but who taught DeLila to make apple pies from scratch, taught her to pray and to trust Jesus as her savior, and who coaxed a garden out of the dust bowl to make sure there was always enough for her family to eat.

Death is no respecter of age nor generation; I have already buried my father and my daughter, DeLila buried her grandson Cody when I was still in my teens. We may have only one breath between us and eternity at any given moment, but it is sobering to realize that there is only one generation between the present me and finding myself as part of the oldest living generation in my family. It is sobering to know that I have no more opportunities to sit at the feet and hear the stories of this, the greatest generation. I am less than a decade away from the age DeLila was when I was born. Do I have enough wisdom to step into that role when my generation must? Did I glean enough from my grandparents, from that greatest of generations, to learn how to meet life with their resilience, tenacity, humor, hard work and love?

I recently read something to the effect that we should strive to be the best of those who have gone before us. So in that light, and to quote DeLila: to all of my family, to each of you who have been there for me and helped to shape me from the time I was small: I love you SO much. There is still much of this woman who was a legend to me that is likely unattainable in the lifetime I have left: I will never be the cook or housekeeper or gardener that she was, I will never can the meat of a whole hog or beef, I will most likely never grow a cabbage worth eating let alone mentioning, but I will keep making apple pies from scratch—or in DeLila’s words, ‘by guess and by gosh’— and I will strive to say I love you in deed and word.

DeLila (Stiegelmeier) Schneider was known for her near perfect homemaking skills. Photo courtesy Schneider family

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