Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Beginning of My 32nd Year

One of my coworkers was telling me about a woman she met on a flight from Arizona to Rochester, Minnesota.  Just 40 miles west of La Crosse in the small town of Fremont, Minnesota, Martha Johnson is still running The Fremont Store at the age of 98.  As she was telling me about her flight and about a trip she and her boyfriend took to the store, I felt compelled to meet this woman.  So, last Friday morning, on my 32nd birthday, I hit I-90 knowing it was going to be a memorable day.

When I took exit 242 and began looking for Fremont Store Road, I expected to become lost in the middle of nowhere.  With the help of Google, I at least knew what the store looked like.  A little over a mile down the country road, the store stood on the left and I almost drove right by it.  I parked to the right, between the store and a little yellow house, which I assumed belonged to Martha.

A bell rang as I opened the door and walked into the smell and warmth of a burning wood stove.  Martha was wearing a leopard print blouse and looked very similar to how I imagined her.  She was standing next to her walker with a broom, sweeping the uneven floorboards.

I introduced myself and explained how I heard of her and the store.  Within minutes, I was helping her put the pile she swept up into the trash can.  She invited me to have a seat, so I pulled up a folding chair that was beside a card table with a cloth checker board on it.  Martha took a seat in an old antique rocking chair behind the register and just across from me.  I had not even been in the store five minutes and I felt as though I had known this woman for many years.

The Fremont Store had been running for 158 years and visiting with Martha on Friday felt like stepping back in time.  Our conversation reminded me so much of my Great Grandma Grace and the times I spent with her in her little house back home in Wausau.  Just like when I would sit with Grandma, I listened intently and occasionally asked questions.

My eyes wandered around the store as she spoke of her husband (now deceased), her children, and her small town life.  The shelves were stocked with candy, potato chips, snacks, and candy bars. There were also everyday household supplies like garbage bags, laundry soap, and paper towel.  A variety of sodas and beverages were in the cooler beside an old refrigerator with a sign listing all of its contents.

The door opened and the bell rang several times in the two hours I sat and visited.  A middle-aged woman in jeans and a heavy flannel shirt came in.  She introduced herself as Mary, a neighbor from 'down the road', as she made a pot of coffee.  Mary sat down and joined us for the rest of the time I was there.

Two men came in and they looked like they could be father and son.  They had obviously never been to the store before because they didn't know it is a self-check-out establishment.  Martha has macular degeneration and is losing her eyesight, so customers open the register and make their own change.  They paid for their candy bars and Mountain Dews on the honor system and after witnessing this, I immediately felt very silly for having locked my car before coming in.  

Shortly after they left, another gentleman walked in.  He was an older man and within two minutes of his entrance I learned that he was a farmer from 'south of La Crescent'.  This was his first visit to the Fremont Store.  He chatted for a while, paid for his soda, and left.

Martha made sure to tell everyone about the guestbook to sign by the door.  "Mary, you sign it, too!" She said.  Mary replied, "Martha!  I come in here every week and you have me sign it EVERY week."  I left before Mary did, but I'm willing to bet that she signed the guestbook again.  Martha just doesn't seem like someone you can easily say no to.

My first attempt to leave, I picked out a few candy bars and a root beer for the ride home, checked myself out at the register, and then sat back down.  Martha told me about her son who had muscular dystrophy and helped run the store, how she fell outside behind the store last year, and about the heart attack she suffered.  "I'll never go into a nursing home," she said.  I believe her.

When I finally said goodbye, I turned the music off in my car and began driving back to La Crosse.  I spent the next 40 miles thinking about some of the things she had said that took me back to my childhood.  To the time when I had all of my grandparents and two great-grandmothers still living.  

"These days, you have to schedule an appointment to see your relatives.  We used to just show up.  Didn't matter if you were hanging laundry, you just took time to have a cup of coffee and visit."  This was our upbringing.  We never called first, we just showed up in Grandma Judy's kitchen.  Dad would drink coffee with Grandma and Grandpa while Shannon and I would play "secretary" at the desk at the top of the open staircase.  Sometimes, we'd sneak into Grandma and Grandpa's bedroom and try on Grandma's high heels or braid the curtains.

When I started 6th grade, the school was right across the street from Grandma Jean and Grandpa Larry's house.  Sometimes I would miss the bus on purpose just to be able to go over and visit.  Grandma would always feed me and if Mom or Dad didn't come get me, they'd drive me home.

When I made it back to La Crosse, I wanted to keep driving.  Alone with my thoughts and memories of simpler times I've lived through without realizing in the moment that they were simple times.  This woman I had only spent two hours with certainly created a legacy.  If I learned anything from the visit, it is that in the time I have left on this earth, I have my work cut out for me.    

It may not be as common to just pop in on people anymore, but I know now that there's an incredible woman ready to visit between 9:00 AM and 5:00 PM everyday at the Fremont Store.

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