From the editor: Friends

James E. Mattson | 12/22/2016

You have to work at making some friends.

Team of horses
Recently, we published an article by Nancyruth Leibold titled “Path to civility.” As I prepared her manuscript for publication, I was reminded of another story—about my dad.

I was born in northern Minnesota where my father served as the pastor of a small church in a small town—a very small town, fewer than 100 people—a few miles from where he had grown up. Developed as a sawmill town when area forests blocked the noonday sun, much of the village was destroyed by a 1918 fire that claimed 453 lives—more than the Great Chicago Fire. Except for the hotel and a general store, every commercial structure in town was destroyed. Surrounding forests were also consumed in the inferno that burned 1,500 square miles. My mother, who was 5 at the time, and her family witnessed the terrifying event from the vantage point of a hay wagon pulled into the lake adjoining their farm. Would the fast-moving tornado of fire devour their home? Unlike the neighbors across the lake, their lives—and their home—were spared.

James MattsonWhen I was born—and for many years after—the town’s main street was a dirt road. By then, it had a bank (identified not by brand but by four-letter generic descriptor), a dance hall, a town hall, a two-story elementary school, two general stores, a post office (located in the former hotel), a creamery, a feed mill, a Soo Line Railroad depot with water tank to replenish steam engines, and a church. The railway transported iron ore from Minnesota’s Cuyuna Range to Duluth on Lake Superior, where boats plying the Great Lakes waited to transport the ferrous treasure to steel mills further east. The church, the one my father pastored, had once been a store, constructed in part by my grandfather. We lived in the back.

Most of the town’s residents were first- and second-generation immigrants from Finland, many of them Finnish-speaking. My grandparents—both maternal and paternal—who also came from Finland, spoke Swedish. They lived about three miles out of town, in the “country.” There was at least one area resident, however, who was of English descent, and his nickname was Dutchy. He lived on Dutch Lake, but I don’t know which name came first, his or the lake’s.

My father had heard that Dutchy didn’t care for preachers all that much. In fact, he had declared, “If any preacher comes to my place, I’ll take the shotgun after him.” So Pastor Runar Mattson went to visit Dutchy, and he returned home bearing a gift from his new friend, a White Plymouth Rock rooster. 

As far as I know, Dutchy never came to church, but every spring in the years that followed, he and his team of horses plowed the large plot of ground just north of the church that was our vegetable garden and then cultivated it throughout the summer. 

Eventually, we moved to Wisconsin, where my father served other small churches in other small towns, but he kept in touch with Dutchy. On trips home to visit “the folks,” he would sometimes stop by Dutchy’s place to say hi. And a couple of decades later, when he heard that Dutchy—then in a nursing home—was dying, he made a special trip home to say goodbye to his old friend.

I guess that’s why they call it “making” friends. Some friends don’t come natural; you have to work at making them. And sometimes, the people who seem the poorest candidates for friendship make the very best ones.

Now you see why Nancyruth Leibold’s story “Path to civility” reminded me of the story I’ve told you about my dad. It’s more than a Minnesota connection. (Leibold teaches at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall.) No, the path to civility circumnavigates the world, but as with my father and with Leibold and her nursing students, accessing that path and following where it leads sometimes requires courage.

James E. Mattson is editor of Reflections on Nursing Leadership.

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