A Grandson Remembers
Apr 01, 2011 by Craig Blomberg | 3 Comments
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (RSV).
She was born on June 26, 1906, almost 105 years ago. Teddy Roosevelt was president. San Francisco had just been decimated by a horrible earthquake. The Wright brothers had made their pioneering six-minute airplane flight only 2 ½ years earlier in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. But in the countryside around Atalissa, Iowa, nobody even used cars or motorized tractors. Transportation was by horse and buggy, while farming required horse-drawn plows. Events in Washington, DC or on the West coast had very little effect on the course of daily life.
In a typical farmhouse, surrounded by some of the country’s most fertile land, Christian and Mary Weiss had their first baby, born at home. They named her Hilda Elizabeth, and she weighed a whopping eleven pounds. Three years later they moved to a new home, just outside Muscatine, Iowa, a town on the banks of the Mississippi River in the southeastern portion of the state. Hilda’s address would have Muscatine on it for the next 101 years.
Growing up in Hilda’s world involved three main commitments—household and farmyard chores, school and homework, and above all church. Born into a staunch German Lutheran family, Hilda would embrace the Christian faith willingly and make it the centerpiece of her life. She was confirmed in 1920. She attended Zion Lutheran Church and Zion Lutheran School, both in downtown Muscatine, for all but the earliest years of her elementary and secondary schooling. Although it was a three-mile trip one way, her father would interrupt his farming, when necessary, to make sure she got to and from school, until she was old enough to take horses into town without his help. Not until her college years would families in the area start to have cars, especially the classic Model-T Fords.
Education was important for the Weiss family, so they sent Hilda to Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, where she studied education. Upon graduation, she taught in a Lutheran grade school for a year in Toledo, Ohio, and then, a few years later, back home in Muscatine for two more years.
These years also involved courtship, sometimes at a distance. In 1923 a 23-year-old German immigrant settled in Muscatine by the name of William Collitz—Bill or Willy for short. He had been in the German army for a few months at the tail end of World War I, just after he turned 18. But he was so disenchanted with the outcome of the war and the state of affairs in his nation afterwards that he longed to follow many of his countrymen and move to the United States. When he got that chance, five years later, he never second-guessed himself and became a loyal, politically conservative American patriot, until the day he died, on Christmas Eve in 1984.
Bill and Hilda met at Zion Lutheran Church when she was nineteen. They began dating a year later. They enjoyed going to movies and out for a hamburger and milkshake afterwards. He was her first and only boyfriend, a not uncommon experience for girls in those years. When she was away at college or during the year she taught in Ohio, they regularly corresponded by letter. Bill never formally proposed; “his letters just became more and more possessive,” Hilda explained. They were married on June 4, 1929, not surprisingly, at Zion.
A daughter, Eleanor Mary Collitz, my mother, was born one year and one day later. A few years later, a son, Ronald William, was born but lived only a few days. Bill and Hilda would have no more children. The young couple continued to live in the Muscatine home Hilda had moved to from the farmhouse with her parents in her teenage years. Her father had passed away in 1927, and her mother suffered frequently from migraines so that it would have been very hard for her to have lived alone. In fact, later in Eleanor’s childhood, Hilda’s mother would have what today might have been diagnosed as a mild stroke, not incapacitating her, but just making it harder for her to do certain everyday chores. Given the family’s circumstances and options there was no question of the Collitzes moving out to live on their own. Hilda would be her mother’s primary caregiver, as needed, until Mary Weiss’s death in 1965 at age 87.
As a young adult, Hilda was active with the Zion ladies’ missionary society. She wondered at times if God might be calling her to be a missionary. She enjoyed immensely the one overseas trip she had with her new groom, to Germany and several nearby European countries. But Hilda’s two siblings, a younger brother and sister, would move away from Iowa—Mart to Washington, DC, for a career working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Esther to Washington state with her husband Dick Alexander—thus leaving Hilda to look after her mother. So she poured her heart and soul into domestic responsibilities, raising her daughter, helping her husband with the grocery store and meat market he spent his career owning and operating in downtown Muscatine, and being actively involved at Zion.
Over time, she came to embrace these roles as God’s true calling on her life. When her daughter grew up, she too attended Wartburg and then married John Blomberg of Moline, Illinois, in 1952, settling in neighboring Rock Island, only an hour’s drive (in those days) door to door. Eleanor and her parents would stay remarkably close over the years, exchanging letters every few days (long-distance phone calls were too expensive except for special occasions), with the two couples visiting each other regularly on weekends.
I was born in 1955; my younger brother Bob, in 1962. My grandfather, Bill Collitz, retired from his grocery business in 1965 at age 65. But until I was ten, when we would visit Grandma and Grandpa, almost always on Sundays after church, we would regularly be treated to a prize cut of meat that he had saved out for us and brought home from the store. My grandmother was an amazing cook, preparing everything from scratch. Sunday (late-afternoon) dinners consistently included mashed potatoes and wonderful gravy to accompany whatever the special meat was that we were having. Muscatine is known worldwide for its melons, berries and corn on the cob, so when those were in season they were plentiful on the dinner table as well. And her pies were simply amazing.
When my grandfather retired, he suffered with increasing arthritis in both hips. He would have both replaced almost immediately after that surgery was invented, but that was not until he was in his late seventies. So Hilda turned seemingly effortlessly from being her mother’s primary caregiver to being her husband’s primary care giver during his retirement years. Our family routine remained fairly unchanged, however. When it became too difficult for him to make the drive to see us in Rock Island, instead of alternating who visited whom on Sundays, the Blomberg family simply committed to visiting Muscatine every other Sunday and, later, once a month.
If I had to characterize these visits and much of the rest of my grandparents’ lives, it would be with the word routine. They had their weekly and daily responsibilities that remained quite predictable month after month and year after year. Normally, only holidays, weddings and funerals intruded. But this brought stability, peace and security which our family highly valued. To illustrate, I could predict almost exactly what would happen each time we would visit on Sunday afternoons in their retirement years. Upon arriving we would sit in the parlor for awhile, visiting and catching up on family news. Then, because I had taken piano lessons, it was my responsibility to play their always slightly-out-of-tune, ancient German upright piano, while my grandfather sat in his most comfortable chair and my grandmother and mother started working on dinner. My father would visit with Grandpa some, play with my younger brother some, and read the Muscatine newspaper or a book he brought along, or, if it was a particularly busy time of the school year, grade papers from his high-school Spanish classes. When dinner was well underway, Grandma would ask if we would all like a drink of some kind, usually a red-colored berry juice mixed with 7-UP. That was my cue that I had played the piano long enough. We would visit some more and then when it was time for the ladies to attend to the food some more, I was excused to read, play outside or watch part of a ball game on TV.
After the inevitably luscious meal, Grandma would find the monthly Lutheran devotional booklet they regularly received, with a Scripture and one-page reading for each day of the month. After she handed it to me with an RSV Bible, it was my responsibility to find the Scripture, read it, and then read the devotional. Then we would all say the Lord’s prayer together (using “trespasses,” never “debts” or “sins”) and add a special family ending after the “Amen”: “The Lord be with us all,” followed by a second “Amen.” Mom would help my grandmother clean up (dishwashers were out of the question even when they became available because like dryers for laundry, they were simply an unnecessary expense!), the rest of us would have a little more free time and then we would say our goodbyes. As we pulled out of the driveway, my grandparents would watch from the porch and it was always important, after we were on the lightly traveled main road, that we all looked back to the porch and waved one last good-bye!
Grandma was 78 when Grandpa passed away. By this time, her younger sister, in advanced stages of M.S., and having already lost her husband when he was only in his mid-fifties, was back living in Muscatine at the Lutheran Homes, a modest but friendly nursing home. Not surprisingly, Grandma spent more and more of her time visiting Esther there, as well as getting to know a lot of the other residents as she made her rounds a couple of times each week. Esther died a little over four years later, but that didn’t keep Grandma from visiting all the other people she had come to know. She lived on her own in the house she had moved into as a teenager, eventually getting some daily visits from home health-care workers to help out in various ways, until she was 94. She then spent the last ten years of her life as a resident of the Lutheran Homes herself. My mother dutifully visited her twice a week, with rare exceptions, beginning in 1993 when she lost my dad to a heart attack.
Hilda’s funeral last week, on Thursday morning, March 24, 2011, a week after her death, brought out over sixty people to Zion, even though it had been more than a decade since she had been able to attend services there. Quite a few were cousins of some kind; most of the rest were old friends of my mother or “younger” friends of my grandmother, including a 101-year-old man still living on his own and driving himself around. That Iowa German farm stock sure is hardy!
In her free time Hilda enjoyed walking or sitting outdoors, or in bad weather observing it from indoors. She could identify countless flowers and trees and loved to watch any animals or birds that happened to be nearby. As a teenager she had to care for lots of chickens; in the Lutheran Homes, she loved to be wheeled to a common room with a view of a grassy courtyard with a little bit of water and numerous ducks, just to watch everything they did. But she had no time for the caged birds in one corner of the nursing home; birds were meant to be free to live in nature!
The funeral was a celebration of her faithfulness to Christ, to her church, and to her family for more than a century. She looked better and more at peace in the open casket than she had looked to me in several years in the nursing home when her body had let her do very little. Of course, we have the mortuary to thank for that; her spirit had already departed to be with Jesus, awaiting her glorious resurrection body and the new heavens and new earth to come. There was really little mourning, just a tribute to an extraordinarily well-lived life.
Grandma never used a computer, but if you google Hilda Collitz you’ll find her obituary and a smattering of other church-related items from more recent years. She never used a credit card because she didn’t believe in purchasing anything she couldn’t afford, and always paid cash or wrote checks. She watched very little TV and refused to have one in her nursing home room, because almost all of it was either filled with profanity and sexual innuendos or just too loud and boisterous, or both.
Zion Lutheran has a folio in their fellowship hall with pictures of all of their confirmation classes from the early 1910s to the present, and you can find Grandma’s there from 1920 (and my mother’s from 1943). Borrowing Eugene Peterson’s book title, which quoted of all people Friedrich Nietzsche, one could accurately label her life as “a long obedience in the same direction.” Jesus would probably call it abiding in him, as in John 15:4. Not surprisingly, one of her favorite hymns, little known by anyone today, was “Abide with Me.” It’s first verse goes as follows: “Abide with me, fast falls the even tide; the darkness deepens, Lord, with me abide. When other helpers fail and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me.” I am humbled as I reflect on her life—a life lived with much more quiet joy than most, even though with far less, from a worldly perspective, to make it exciting. May she not be the last of her breed!
Craig L. Blomberg
March 29, 2011