Living & Dying in Nevis, MN (Uncle Ray Stories)

It was great being with Aunt Bernice and her family for Uncle Ray’s memorial. Patti and Matt shared their feelings and stories about Uncle Ray, as did Pastor Paul Bowles. The weather was spectacular, being in the low to midsixties all weekend. The forecasted rain kept moving out until it disappeared from the weekend so there was nothing to distract us from our prayers at the cemetery on a beautiful, if cloudy, Fall afternoon.

After dinner at the Nevis hot-spot Iron Horse, we went to the cabin Jim & Patti and Guy & Matt had for the weekend for a campfire. As we found our way down the stairs to the lakeshore, we were greeted by a huge beautiful full moon reflecting off the water. Jim & Guy already had a bright fire going. As the various Brumm cousins joined around the fire, we ate ‘smores and started sharing stories about Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray. I think one of the great traits of our families is the laughter in the midst of our sorrow. To smile is to remember the person we loved as we knew them and to forget the pain of our loss. This is what John Mellencamp called “between a laugh and a tear.” And we spent hours there that night.

Earlier that morning during Uncle Ray’s memorial service, Pastor Paul, shared one of Uncle Ray’s quotes, which I had never heard before. When Uncle Ray was going to tell someone an awkward truth – he would start with, “You may not like what I tell you, but you’ll get used to it.”

If you meet Pastor Paul, you would quickly notice he is bald. A conscience decision based on his balding scalp. When Pastor Paul visited Uncle Ray in the Fargo hospital and Uncle Ray saw this “haircut,” he said, “I like your head.” When Pastor questioned him about the odd comment, Uncle Ray said, “My head is full of bump’s and dents, its not round and smooth like yours.

Inspecting Uncle Ray’s head, Pastor confirmed it did indeed include a couple of bumps and a noticeable ‘dent.’ The ‘dent’, Uncle Ray explained, occurred when he was in the Navy stationed in Japan. He was assigned to dismantling the country’s weapons factories. For some unremembered reason, Uncle Ray was chasing down a fellow bluejacket. Just as Uncle Ray thought he had his quarry pinned down in a dead end, the fellow sailor grabbed, of all things, a banana stalk. He escaped by knocking Uncle Ray unconscious with his ruthless banana stalk. Pastor Paul said Uncle Ray laughed long and hard from his hospital bed telling that story!

During his eulogy, Matt told about how is his Grandpa, again while in Japan, would make a little extra money by playing cards. Each week he would send Aunt Bernice some of his winnings to put away for their dream home – which ended up being their house in on Wolf Road in Wheeling, IL. Matt lamented maybe he should had Grandpa teach him how to play cards rather then how to fish.

One thing Patti said her Dad got right from the very beginning – was to agree with her Mom. Part of being a great father, is teaching your kids. Patti shared how her Dad taught all her sisters how to fish and how to garden. Her dad’s gardening lessons consisted of learning which plants are supposed to be in the garden versus the ones that were not. They got a lot of practice getting rid of the ones that were not supposed to be there. Most people call it weeding. Her sisters preferred his fishing lessons.

There was a great friendship between Uncle Ray and his brother-in-law, Uncle Donny. Uncle Ray shared some of his land with Uncle Donny. But like typical guys, they were competitive. I remembered they had an annual Onion Bet. Whoever grew the biggest onion got $5. I remember walking into Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray’s home and making my way to their back family room. When he wasn’t in his garden or playing with his bees, Uncle Ray could be found sitting in his chair watching TV. There I would see in a red stretched nylon bag, a large onion with a folded $5 bill hanging above his head. And then there were winters when I made my way to their back room but there would be no onion hanging above his head. I think those winters Uncle Ray’s wallet was about $5 lighter.

My cousin Penny told us how her Dad, Uncle Donny, would bring her and her brothers and sisters to their garden at Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray’s. He would teach them how to dig up potatoes without spearing them with a pitchfork. They would dig up potatoes and put them in their wicker baskets. Her dad would pick out the biggest potatoes and put them to one side. When it came time to bring the baskets to car, her dad would cover the top of each basket with the biggest potatoes he set had aside. As Uncle Donny hoisted their baskets into their station wagon, Uncle Ray would come out to inspect their bounty. Uncle Donny was nonchalant as Uncle Ray would marvel at the huge potatoes they were bring home. As he closed the gate of the station wagon, Uncle Donny would ask, “You still planting those little potatoes, Ray?”

One of the great traditions of the Brumm Family is the Brumm Family Picnic. Held on a Sunday on a weekend between end of July to the middle of August at various Lake County Forest Preserves, or in more recent years, various suburban Park Districts. All the Brumm families would come out. The women would talk, the children would explore, and the men would play pinochle. And there was always softball and volleyball games to be played. Those picnics are some of my fondest childhood memories.

As the troops would gather, there were always spontaneous greetings between Brumms in the parking lot as chairs, and coolers and baskets of goodies got carried to the shelter. At an early picnic in Daniel Wright Woods, Little Jimmy Beckman was getting something from their station wagon and ran into Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray. Both of them were laden with coolers, baskets and chairs. Uncle Ray was never afraid to give a quick Life Lesson.

“Hi there, Jimmy” called Aunt Bernice.

“Hi, Aunt Bernice,” said Jimmy. “Hi, Uncle Ray.”

“Hi, Jimmy,” said Uncle Ray as he put down the folding chairs and the cooler he was carrying. “How’s it going?” as he stuck out his hand.

Pausing not expecting to be so formally greeted, Jimmy shook Uncle Ray’s hand.

“No, no, no – that’s not how you shake someone’s hand,” he reprimanded. “You want to give a firm grip like this,” and he shook Jimmy’s hand demonstrated how a man shakes hands – with a firm grip, powerful but not hurtful.

Jimmy returned Uncle Ray’s grip with all the muscle he could muster. “There you go,” praised Uncle Ray. “Next time that’s the kind of shake I want from you.”

Uncle Ray smiled and picked up his folding chairs and the cooler and made his way to the Pinochle game. Jimmy continued his way to the station wagon. To this day, he remembers that parking lot greeting, instilling how to shake hands, a lesson he would pass on to his own son, Chris.

Nevis, Minnesota was not just a retirement destination for Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray. It was their vacation spot. Apparently a friend of Uncle Ray’s suggested the In We Go resort a few years earlier. In We Go became a vacation spot for Uncle Ray and Uncle Donny’s families since the early seventies. And yes, after many summer weeks over many years, Nevis would be Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray’s destination for retirement. But there were still many stories before they actually moved up there.

In We Go is one of many summer resorts in the area. It is on the Eighth Crow Wing Lake which is part of a chain of eleven Crow Wing Lakes. My cousin Scott, one of Uncle Donny’s kids, told me they started going to In We Go in 1974 and his family, and his brothers sisters’ families continue to go there to this day.

Needless to say, there are many stories around vacationing up North at In We Go. Apparently, one time, Uncle Donny and Uncle Ray put snakes in my Dad’s and Jim Clark’s – my cousin Patti’s husband – tackle boxes. So when my Dad and Jim motored out to where they were going to fish that morning they found more then just hooks and bobbers in their tackle boxes.

Uncle Ray’s nephews, having learned from the best, eventually started pulling pranks on their Uncles. One morning Uncle Ray took his boat out to his favorite fishing hole. As he got ready to drop the anchor he found water coming into the boat – someone had pulled his boat plug. Knowing a moving boat would not sink, he headed back to the dock. As he got close to the dock, there hanging from a rope was his boat plug. Uncle Ray knew Danny, Kevin and Scott were the likely culprits.

So when Uncle Ray saw the three of them head across the lake to a hill they liked to explore, he saw his chance to even the score. The nephews’ boat had a bigger motor so Uncle Ray could not out run them. As he came around the bend he saw their boat beached below the hill. As he came up along side of it he could hear them making their way down the hill to the boat. They must have spotted him as he came to shore. Whooping it up like rejects from Lord of the Flies, they raced to meet Uncle Ray but they were a little too late.

Exacting his revenge he pushed away from their boat, Uncle Ray heading out to open water. The nephews knew they could catch up to Uncle Ray and pushing their boat back into the water they started their motor to chase him down. And just as their boat took off – their motor died.

Uncle Ray turned his boat around and when he got close he held up his hand and yelled, “You guys need this?” In his hand he held their boat’s fuel line. After a few victory laps around their boat he headed back to the cabins. Ten minutes later he returned to find them rowing their way across the lake. Coming up besides their boat he handed over their missing fuel line and a warning – don’t mess with your Uncle Ray or pay the price.

Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray moved to Nevis to retire planning on spending their last years together on Far North Drive in a house on the lake. Aunt Bev and Uncle Dick had the house right next them. One thing that caused a little confusion at Uncle Ray’s Memorial was a picture of him feeding a chipmunk. It was well known that Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray held no fondness for chipmunks.

Turns out that was not always the case. When they first moved in Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray enjoyed the little scamperings of their new neighbors – thus the picture. But when Uncle Ray went to plant his garden, his little neighbors would eat his seeds almost as soon as he planted them. After fences and other barriers failed, Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray became a little less neighborly to their striped furry friends. It seemed no matter how many they killed there were always more to dig up their garden. Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray took to keeping a BB rifle at the backdoor. And the back porch became a Chipmunk Shooting Gallery.

Uncle Ray’s nephew Kevin suggested an ingenious way of killing alot of chipmunks – a bucket trap. You fill a 5 gallon bucket with a couple gallons of water, pour a thin layer of sunflower seeds on top and sprinkle sunflowers seeds down a ramp that goes from the top of the bucket to the ground. With Uncle Ray’s first trapping he had over twenty dead chipmunks. His garden sighed with relief.

Once when Scott and Uncle Ray were walking down to the Uncle Ray’s pier to check out Scott’s new fishing pole, a chipmunk ran in front of them. Scott and Uncle Ray stopped mid-step. The chipmunk froze – that was his last mistake. With a flick of his wrist, Scott whacked the chipmunk on the head with his new pole. The whack caused the chipmunk to fall into a series of unhealthy tourette tics. Excited about Scott’s skill on his impulsive whack, Uncle Ray said, “Hit ‘im again, hit ‘im again!”

While the Chipmunk War waged at Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray’s, Aunt Bev and Uncle Dick were sympathizers. So battles could only be fought while Aunt Bev and Uncle Dick were not in Nevis.

But it wasn’t just chipmunks that Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray battled in their gardens and at the birdfeeders. Uncle Ray’s nephew Lee shared his story about the week spent at Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray’s. One bright afternoon Aunt Bernice, Uncle Ray and Lee sat down to a simple lunch of sandwiches.

Midway through lunch, Aunt Bernice yell, “Ray, he’s back!”

Lee looked over to Uncle Ray who, without a word, placed his sandwich on his plate, wiped his mouth with his napkin and pushed himself away from the table. Getting up he made his way the gun rack and grabbed his 22. Chewing the bite of his sandwich, he slip out the back door.

The midst of the silence between Aunt Bernice and Lee was shattered. BAM! BAM! Aunt Bernice waited as she watched the back door. Uncle Ray returned dropping the rifle back on the rack. He walked over the sink and washed his hands. Lee watched as he walked over to his chair, pulled it out, sat down and picked up his sandwich.

“Did you get him?” Aunt Bernice asked

“Yep,” replied Uncle Ray. “I tossed him over in compost.” And lunch continued.

One spring a beaver was damning up Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray’s bay. Whenever they would go out fishing in their pontoon boat, they would tear the beaver’s lodge apart as much as they could. But just as quickly as they would dismantle the construction, the beaver would rebuild it and then some.

One afternoon as they came back from fishing they were working on the beaver’s lodge deconstruction. A DNR officer came up to see what they were doing. They complained about the beaver trying to close down their little bay. Uncle Ray said what he’d really like to do is shoot the damned vermin.

The DNR officer asked, “What would you use to shoot him?”

“I’ve got my 22 sittin’ in the back room,” Uncle Ray explained.

“Well, I’d rather you didn’t do that,” the officer said. “Do you have a shotgun? I’d hate for you to miss!”

Any one who knows Aunt Bernice knows she loves her birds. And anyone that comes around their bay window in the family room is treated to spectacle avian fare. But whoa be to the vermin that that messes with Aunt Bernice’s feeders. Another reason for the BB gun at the backdoor.

One late summer afternoon a deer wandered into Aunt Bernice’s feeder to take advantage of her generosity. Aunt Bernice may have been in her eighties at the time but she was a damn good shot. So when she spotted the deer rooting into her feeders from the kitchen, she was through the backdoor like white smoke with her BB gun in tow.

As soon as she fired, she knew her mistake. She hadn’t grabbed the BB gun after all, she had grabbed the 22. That explained the stronger kickback. And why the deer was now lying on the ground. She went over to the deer and kicked one of its legs. Nope – right in the head she got it. This doe was dead.

Aunt Bernice ran inside to get Uncle Ray. Following Aunt Bernice came Uncle Ray saying, “So what do you have to show me?” as she led him to the doe.

“Bernice! What did you do?” was all Uncle Ray could say.

Using the ‘1, 2, 3 – Pull’ method, Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray managed to get the big doe into the woods past notice. With a rake Aunt Bernice gave the doe the best burial she could without digging a hole, covering the deer with as much leaves as she could scrap together. Back at the feeders, she raked away any of the hair that her avian friends might see. It was a year before either one of them said a word.

Uncle Ray was pretty handy around the house but not always outside, except with his garden. His In-Laws started coming up in the Fall to celebrate their birthdays. One weekend Uncle Ray’s project was to take down a tree in the backyard between the house and the garage.

His sister-in-laws were out pan fishing in the bay down by their pier – Aunt Judy, Aunt Delores¬† and Aunt Joyce. Since the fish weren’t biting on account of Uncle Ray’s chainsaw the three of them sat and watched.

Uncle Ray stopped cutting, set the chainsaw down. With a thick rope tied around the tree he pulled the truck up until it was pointing away from the tree. Inside he went to get Aunt Bernice. He was explaining that he wanted her to drive the truck while he was cutting he rest of the tree trunk to pull it between the house and the garage.

“Oh, I don’t know Ray,” Aunt Bernice said.

“Just hit the gas when I yell,” he said and motioned Aunt Bernice to get in the truck by handing her his keys.

“Hey Ray,” called up Aunt Delores from the boat in the bay, “Is that rope long enough?”

“Yea, yea, the rope is just fine,” he brushed off their skepticism.

Up from the bay came Aunt Judy’s laugh – which was cut off with Uncle Ray’s chainsaw. The chainsaw’s whine got higher as Uncle Ray made his way through the tree’s trunk.

“OK Bernice!” Uncle Ray yelled as he really let the tree have it.

The truck engine revved and its tires lost it grip. All could tell the tree was losing the battle as the chainsaw quieted to the cracking of wood. And like a tilted ballerina, the tree turned toward the truck and make its grand decline.

No, the rope wasn’t quite long enough after all and grabbed the bed of the truck with its out stretched branches. There was an audible gasp from the bay that sounded strangely like “I told you so”. Along with that was Uncle Ray pivoting back and forth muttering “damn, damn, damn, damn, damn, damn”.

The truck was actually OK, the branches weren’t big enough to do any real damage. The same could not be said of the northeast corner of the roof of the garage. A bigger branch must have taken out the corner. But that was something Uncle Ray could fix. Roaring the chainsaw back to life Uncle Ray cleared the bigger branches around the garage. Then he disappeared into the garage, probably still muttering to himself.

Out he came with a ladder and a toolbox. Setting up the ladder he got to fixing that corner of the garage. With a couple of trips to his workshop, running a cord for his saw, he had removed the broken boards and replaced them with fresh cut wood and nails. Tiding up the shingles back into place, the whole project took less then an hour.

The fact the truck was OK was everything. If he neighbors would have come home and seen his truck banged up and the corner of the garage busted up, Uncle Ray would never hear the end of it. Now he could tell them what happened on his terms – and maybe leave out the part about the garage getting hit.

As I said, a number of years ago Uncle Ray’s in-laws started coming up the Nevis in the Fall, sometime around Aunt Bernice birthday in September. There was too much snow around Uncle Ray’s in November. As the routine got established, once in awhile the Aunt and Uncles would bring some of the nieces and nephews. There was always laughter and stories and, of course, long hours of Nickel Nickel (a card game that appears to have no limit on how many can play). After dinner the table would be cleared of the evening meal. Then the bags and pouches and purses were brought out. There was always the bravado on who was going down that night or glories of past games were remembered. And into the wee hours of the evening –¬† 10:00pm, sometimes even 11:00pm, the rounds of Nickel Nickel would be played. But eventually their laughter would subside and the cards were put away. The washed dished would be put away. Their tired eyes would find soft pillows only to returned the next morning to meet for breakfast.

One weekend Uncle Ray mentioned Potato Gleaning. For the next five years Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray showed their brothers and sisters how to potato glean. Its not that potato gleaning is hard, but when an activity enters into the Brumm family vernacular, all the competitive heads start to leer about.

At this point there were not as many brothers, sisters, brother-in-laws and sister-in-laws coming up to Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray’s. They met in the afternoon to plan how they were going to glean potatoes from the recently harvested fields. Uncle Wayne and his pickup truck led the way as the Illinois plated cars made their way from the gravel road to the bouncy field road. Far enough away from the other ‘gleaners’ Aunt Bernice and Uncle’s family parked their cars and gathered around Uncle Wayne’s pickup truck.

Uncle Wayne had parked his truck on the edge of the field as it became base for their bags of potatoes. Each of the Aunts and Uncles were gathering potatoes for themselves and their children’s families. Weeks later after parental visits their grown children would give a paper bag filled with spuds.

“But!” Uncle Wayne instructed, “we don’t want any little ones. Only get good sized ones like this.” As he held up a potato as big as his hand.

As the afternoon wore on, Uncle Wayne’s pickup truck would fill with paper sacks of potatoes. There isn’t Brumm Brother that does like to take charge of a situation. So there isn’t a Brumm Sister that doesn’t like to give them a little grief. One of the sisters – Aunt Joyce, Aunt Elaine or Aunt Judy – thought the ‘Potato Inspector’ need a few potatoes to inspect. So the lined up the smallest potatoes they could find on Uncle Wayne’s tailgate.

“Wayne!” Aunt Joyce yelled, “How are these?”

As Uncle Wayne walked around the bed of his truck, he saw all the small potatoes lined up and a line of Brumm Sisters giggling like school girls.

“Nope!” and in a single sweep of his arm out into the fields the potatoes flew.

They weren’t giggling so much as he started going through the papers sacks and pitched the smallest one he saw back. “Too small”, “nope”, “you’ve got to be kidding”, plop, plop, plop in the field behind him. Over the next several days and weeks Brumm families brought back paper sacks of potatoes for their families. They can thank Uncle Wayne for the quality control from the potato fields near Nevis Minnesota.

My fondest memory of Uncle Ray did not happen in Nevis, Minnesota. In fact, it happened when I was twelve years old and Uncle Ray was almost Fifty. It wasn’t really a ‘fondest memory’ but rather a powerful memory. It was the months Uncle Ray played my father, and Aunt Bernice my mother, to my brothers and sisters in the months after our parents died. Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray lived with us Sunday to Friday in those months. Aunt Bernice would see us off to school and would be home when we came back from school. She would make our meals and check to see that we were doing our homework. When Uncle Ray was done with work, he would come ‘home’ to our house. They brought stability to our upside down world.

Though Uncle Ray was usually gone in the morning when we got up, sometimes I would catch him sitting at the table eating breakfast. While everything about them being in our house was strange, he would let Dave and I sit next to him while we watched TV.

I didn’t really know Uncle Ray that well before then, their kids – Vicki, Patti and Pam – were all much older then we were. So when they were staying with us it was awkward for the more then obvious reasons. One of the first nights Uncle Ray would come ‘home’, he warned us to behave or we would receive a whisker burn. Dave, being the curious eleven year he was, stepped up to ask what a whisker burn was. Uncle Ray was happy to show him. Grabbing Dave’s head with his strong hands, Uncle Ray bent over his face in want looked like the beginning of a kiss. But soon they were cheek to cheek and Uncle Ray was rubbing his 5 O’Clock shadow on Dave’s soft young skin. Dave struggled to get away but he couldn’t. It was hard to hear Dave’s yells over Uncle Ray’s laughter. After a few moments Dave was released and he hand went up to his bright red cheek.

“That is a whisker burn,” Uncle Ray announced.

From that day – and in the days, the weeks, the months, the years and the decades that followed – whenever Dave and I would meet Uncle Ray we would rub the outside our fingers across his jaw to test the strength of his whiskers. It became our own special greeting. So when we went to their house for Zilligen Christmas; or when they would come over to Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack’s house to teach us out to fish and filet our catch; when we would meet at the Brumm Picnic – after a handshake and a hand on his shoulder, we would test his whiskers.

When Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray moved up to Nevis, MN I did not know the significance that quaint northern town held for them. I did not know the stories it held for them. They had moved to in an area they had their fondest vacation memories. And while they left their family, there ended up being visits from the Brumms throughout the year but mostly in the summer – particularly Aunt Cookie and Uncle Don’s family and Aunt Bev and Uncle Dick’s family, which now included my sister Hope and her family.

It would be great to say they lived happily ever after but in 2006 they lost their daughter Pam to ovarian cancer. While her only son Matt was already on his own, Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray tried hard to fill his loss as any grandparents would. But it wasn’t the first time they had wrapped their hearts around a child who had lost his parent.

Too many years later, I finally introduced my children to Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray. Meeting Lee in at Devil’s Tower during our trip to Mount Rushmore, we stopped in on Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray in Nevis on our way home to Chicago. They may have been in their eighties then but they were very busy with their church and their friends.

Aunt Bernice greeted us at their kitchen door and I introduced her to Nate, Noah and Naomi. She had lunch ready for us even though we told her not to bother. Desi and Aunt Bernice talked as my kids nervously talked to Aunt Bernice. I asked where Uncle Ray was and she said he was “out sitting the family room.”

I turned from the kitchen and made my way to find the family. Greeted by a large bay window I saw Aunt Bernice had her collection of birdfeeders arranged just like she did in their house in Wheeling, now complete with a backdrop of the lake. I found Uncle Ray sitting in his chair watching TV. I reached out with my right hand and rubbed the back of my fingers across his cheek. And he turned with a glint in his eye and a smile of recognition.

And that is the moment I will keep in my heart – the smile from a father that shined for his family and beyond to others. So they would know Home; so they could find their way and find their own light. Whether is was to their families, to themselves, or to Nevis, Minnesota where a great man once lived.

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