Ursula Carlson: Marilyn Brandvold, a woman for all seasons

Marilyn is one person I thought would live forever, not only because as a nurse she embraced the glory of life and its inevitable pain, but because her heart was pure goodness. But more than anything, I thought she would live forever because I wanted her in my life. Isn’t that the way it always is?

Marilyn’s life was rich with stories long before I met her in 2000 or 2001 when she signed up for a class in writing memoir. Her first story was titled “Twenty-four Mule Team” and it was accompanied by a photo of all those mules’ backsides neatly lined up across a huge field, the mules “harnessed and hooked to corn planting machinery.” The place was her grandparents’ farm in Nebraska and the time, 1931. Bertha, Marilyn noted, wife of one of the neighboring farmers, took the photo, because “for years she owned the only camera in the neighborhood.”

The story was full of wonderful, telling details: names of the three farmers who owned the mules; description of their clothes: sweat-stained, dirt encrusted gray Stetson hat; 8-inch brown work boots, laced with hooks and eyes. And here, as in every story, there was Marilyn’s distinctive voice as she added, after pointing out that neighbor Vance Merritt wore a broad-billed cap, “He always was a snappy dresser.”

In those first years, it was through Marilyn’s stories that I came to know the trajectory of her life from childhood in the Sand Hills region of Nebraska, her college and nurses training years in Scottsbluff, her marriage to Gerald. Reading her words was like watching a television series. Every person her pen brought to life became a part of us. For instance, we in the memoir class railed along with Marilyn against the pathologist who exhibited no sensitivity in dissecting a 23-year-old female the student nurses had known as a patient suffering from kidney disease, tying up her hair with wire, letting her head drop and bounce on the table, and then sawing off the top as if it were a cookie jar.

After Marilyn got her registered nurse degree in 1957 and worked for a year at the Scottsbluff hospital, she and two of her classmates (Ella and Shirley) moved to Rapid City, South Dakota. The three of them bought a 1950 car which “suffered from deferred maintenance,” as Marilyn phrased it, and which “gasping and sputtering” got them to their destination: a basement apartment that her friend Ella’s brother and his best friend Gerald Brandvold had found and rented for them.

Gerald and Roy were both serving in the U.S. Air Force with SAC and came to see how the girls liked the apartment. As Marilyn wrote once, “After meeting Gerald that night, I forgot about seeing the rest of the world and dumped the Texas cowboy that I was engaged to marry in June.” Three and a half months later, on Aug. 10, 1958, they were married at the family’s church in Stapleton, Nebraska, with their bridesmaids and groomsmen in attendance. Then it was off to Fargo, North Dakota where Marilyn worked and Gerald started college.

Marilyn never knew a stranger. Her heart had no boundaries, no limitations, no room for prejudice or meanness. She and Gerald together opened their arms to those who needed counsel, education, emotional support. I love and admire them both as if they were my own family.

Marilyn made friends for life. She attended to them wherever they were – often by phone if no other way. She also believed in a Heaven’s Door – that those who are gone from this earth drop us something we find precious, such as feathers or pennies…. I have Marilyn’s words.

Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.


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