Nelda Stutzman Yoder Vogt was my friend.
I can even go as far as saying that Nelda was one of the best friends the great state of Nebraska ever sent my way. Nelda was Orlando’s aunt, the wife of his mother’s brother. I must admit that our friendship was somewhat unexpected and unlikely. When I met her, back when Orlando and I were first married, she was about 60 years old and working as a waitress in my in-laws’ restaurant out on the interstate. She was short, wore big-framed glasses, and had beautiful white hair that she wore fluffed up on her head. She always buttoned the top button of her shirts, and I never, ever saw her in a pair of closed toed shoes. Even in the middle of the harsh Nebraska winter, she would come to work with sandals and socks on. Let’s suffice it to say that Nelda always did things her own way.
I got to know her working the evening shift at the restaurant. We would wait on tables together and close up the place. Nelda was quite independent, and at first I thought this was going to drive me crazy. She loathed the ice cream machine, but always felt it was her job to clean it every single evening. And by golly, did she clean the thing. She’d get out this little step stool because she was too short to pour the bleach water in the top. She would stand there with the bucket of water, teetering enough that I would feel the need to stand behind her, and scrub scrub scrub. It took a long, long time of my working with her before she would let me dump that stupid bucket of water in there for her. But after a while she let me. And then she started to ask for my help doing the daily jumble puzzles in the newspaper. Eventually we began to do things outside of the restaurant and she would come over sometimes and we would all go to Lincoln together. She enjoyed fajitas and seafood and well, you just couldn’t get those things anywhere but in the city. And over time we grew closer and I learned her story.
First I discovered that Nelda was an identical twin. Her sister’s name was Elda, and they were such similar creatures it made sense that they had such similar names. Of course, they were very close and so not surprisingly, Nelda and Elda married brothers. Two of the five Yoder brothers married Nelda and Elda in a double wedding. They farmed together and had a dairy together for a number of years. Wallace and Nelda had two children together, Madge and Shane. But then Wallace was involved in tractor accident and was tragically killed. She told me that it took her a long time to come to a place where she could grieve her loss because “Darn it, she had kids to raise and a boy to get better.” (Shane had been injured in that same accident.) So she moved her mind off her grief and she did her best to set it squarely on her kids and what she needed to do to next.
Somewhere in there she owned a business, she fought cancer, and she married a jovial truck driver named Lonnie. She loved Lonnie, but still I remember her telling me one day that “Wally” had been the love of her life and that’s just the way it was. Even though I never walked in her shoes, I think I understood that. Even so, Wally may have been the love of her life, but her children and her grandchildren were certainly the apple of her eye. Her admiration for them was well known. Her daughter’s intelligence, her son’s talents, her grandchildren and their beautiful singing voices, her new grandbaby and her lovely eyes. I was able to share with her the struggles I felt at the time, battling infertility and not being sure if we would ever have the family that we wanted. She encouraged me that even though life “isn’t always what you expect,” I should look for the good in it and the good will come. If she could do it, she said, then I could do it.
And she helped me think that yes, maybe I could do it.
I’m sure Nelda was a lot of things I know nothing about, but for me, an unexpected twist in her was her love for the weather. Since I am a weather geek myself, I found this trait particularly endearing. I think times being different, someone, somewhere should have encouraged the woman to go to college to study meteorology
. I recall one summer evening Orlando and I were at the restaurant and we spotted a tornado out the back window, maybe five miles down the road. (You can see that far in Nebraska). Having not heard anything about tornado warnings, we called Nelda because we knew she would know. All of a sudden, Nelda was calling us from her cell phone in her Buick–she was out chasing the stupid tornado and had spotted it in a field! Orlando was pleading with her to go home and take cover but she would have none of it and made it home to tell the tale.
Like I said, she always did things her own way.
Nelda died on September 11, 2007. She had developed a brain tumor that began by robbing her of her strength, then her memories, and eventually took her life. The last time I saw her, we had lunch at Red Lobster . My boys were laughing with her and Lonnie about the live lobsters in the lobby, but even then she was noticeably changed. But what I remember most about that day was her smile. She couldn’t remember if she had ordered her lunch or what to call her food, but she would look at me and Orlando, surrounded by these little boys, and she would just grin. Somehow, in all she had lost, she remembered our story and was able to rejoice with us.
Nebraska without Nelda will be tough, but she would tell me to look for the good, so that’s what I’ll do. Maybe I’ll start by chasing a few tornadoes myself….