Obituary advice: ‘Hug a baby sloth. Ride an elephant’

Photo courtesy of Kirsten Lindbloom-Larsen.

Virginia Claire Larsen, of Austin, Minn., died on Saturday at the age of 81.

You can learn a lot about living from an obituary.

Thank you to the person who forward this to me today. Unfortunately, there was no name attached. The obituary was written by Jocelyn Pihlaja.

Every life story can be told through facts. Here are some facts about Virginia Lindbloom-Larsen.
Virginia Claire Larsen was born in Kenmare, North Dakota, on March 13, 1937 to Karl Bernhardt “Bernie” Larsen and Florence Edith Larson Larsen. Her paternal relatives were Danes who emigrated to North Dakota, while her maternal relatives were Danes who settled in the Council Bluffs–Omaha area. At the age of seven, her mother died prematurely; the grief from this loss was only assuaged four years later when her father married again – a woman also named Virginia who became a second mother to young Virginia and her brother Larry. In the next few years, three babies, Dan, John, and Richard, were born, making Virginia the big sister to a pack of boys.

The Larsen family moved from Kenmare to Minot in 1952. Virginia graduated from Minot High School in 1955 and from St. Olaf College, with majors in English and French, in 1959. During summer breaks from college, she worked as a reporter for the Minot Daily News and as a waitress on a Great Lakes vacation steamer.

After college, Virginia taught English for a year at the Martin-Luther-Schule in the village of Rimbach in Odenwald, Germany. She then spent nine months in Paris, working as an au pair for two families while she took classes at the Alliance Française. For the rest of the 1960s, Virginia taught French and German at the University of North Dakota; earned master’s degrees from UND and the University of Wisconsin in French and German; and was briefly married to the artist Douglas Kinsey before returning to Rimbach to teach English and French.

In 1970, she accepted a position as an instructor of French and German at Austin State Junior College in southern Minnesota. Throughout her teaching career, Virginia proved an effective and transformative teacher for the students in her classes and won an award for Outstanding Faculty Member in 1990. When she wasn’t in the classroom, she was often planning or taking international trips; experiencing other cultures and immersing herself in foreign languages fed an insatiable curiosity about the world and the people in it. After 27 years teaching foreign languages, public speaking and interpersonal communication — with a year of leave spent in Madagascar in 1982–83 — Virginia retired in 1997 from what was then called Riverland Community College.

A few months after retiring, Virginia was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. Despite decades of treatment and interventions, she refused to call it a “battle” until she neared the end. More than anything, she demonstrated how to live with cancer. In the decades of her retirement, she resettled her mother in Austin, providing loving care during her decline from Alzheimer’s; as well, she continued her advocacy work, fighting for the rights of sexual minorities, quality of life for developmentally delayed adults, and accessibility for the physically handicapped – work that was acknowledged with an award by the Austin Human Rights Commission in 2003. In 2006, her reputation as a mentor and a public resource led to a life-changing meeting. Virginia married Kirsten Lindbloom in 2008; in Virginia’s last decade, she and Kirsten created new adventures together in their shared zest for travel, entertaining, and community service.

During her final years, Virginia poured much of her energy into translating a book of German stories, Shadow Time, calling its publication “one of the greatest accomplishments of my life.” She also published two books of personal essays, The Book of Lurch and Saving Grace. As her health became more challenging, her gifts as a writer blossomed; she leaves behind a partially completed memoir that will be released at a future date.

On May 5, 2018, Virginia came to the end of herself with grace and dignity, her wife by her side, her life an example to everyone lucky enough to have known her.

Every life story can be told through facts. However, a more complete life story unfolds through nuances, details, lessons imparted. Virginia’s lessons to her friends and family included:

Bring home blood-draw ties from the hospital. You can use the gauzy white string to tie your tomato plants to stakes in the garden.

Treat every public waiting room like a free lending library, where you can take some magazines home and leave new ones behind.

Dig your hands into the dirt. Plant seeds.

If a friend calls at 10:30 p.m., crying, saying she thinks she needs to go to the emergency room, tell her, “I’ll be there in two minutes.”

Launch yourself into adventure. Get on a boat and land somewhere foreign. Learn new languages. Caress fruit in an open-air market. Laugh with strangers. Hug a baby sloth. Ride an elephant. Catch a piranha.

Take a leave of absence from your job for a year to go to Madagascar and teach English to children, with no more supplies than three pieces of chalk.

Gather unto yourself the vulnerables of the world. If one skitters out from behind a bookcase, throw it a chicken leg from your lunch. After they die, collect and display their desiccated carcasses on your kitchen counter.

Keep wall calendars long enough to use them again. No need to throw away a perfectly good calendar just because it’s a new year.

When asked about alcohol consumption, tell the doctor, “Not much. I just have a shot of Jägermeister every night.”

Invest in your dental health. Owning 84 toothbrushes allows you to accommodate the changing moods of your teeth and gums.

When your dog poops on your neighbors’ lawn, have the dog write a note of apology: “Please forgive my recent deposit on your grass. Love, Nadou.” Make the dog donate part of her weekly allowance toward a check that is slipped into their mailbox.

When you lose all your hair during chemotherapy, name all your wigs. Wear Naomi to the symphony.

Fly a friend from Russia for a visit. Take her to the county fair so that she can marvel at “American peeggies” because “In Russia, peeggies yust peenky. In America, peeggies black with white spot! Peenk with black spot! Black with peenk spot! Beauuuuuutiful America peeggies!”

Take time to have coffee with friends.

Listen to audiobooks and clutch at the edge of your kitchen counter when a character dies, weeping at the expert delivery of the reader.

When you vow never to kill another spider (except for good reasons), write that commitment onto a Post-It note and hang it on the side of the refrigerator.

Attend Bible study for 25 years at a church where you aren’t a member, because fellowship can be found everywhere.

Appreciate the accent and accessory of a square scarf. Tuck at least fifty of them into your dresser drawers. It’s good to have options.

Know without question that a second mother can love you just as fully as the first one did.

Plan an extra hour for running errands to accommodate the new people you will meet and the conversations you will have.

If you use a bendy straw, you can lie in bed and sip your coffee.

Whenever an animal dies in your yard, stand next to its corpse, sob loudly, lay it out ceremoniously, and commemorate it with a photo shoot.

Make sure everyone around you pronounces words correctly, because language is communication, it is power, it is joy, and it matters. Correct the NPR announcer if he says “controller” when he means “comptroller.”

Bring strays into the fold. Adopt refugee families, invite international students over for holiday dinners, foster a neighbor boy, rescue a dog.

Always bring home seashells, rocks, and sand from every outing. You can display them on trays, rearrange them periodically, and in the process relive the journey.

Love children’s books for your entire life. Frog and Toad Are Friends never stops yielding lessons.

Don’t be afraid to fill out a comment card. If you have already filled out multiple comment cards at the same place, it’s OK to make up fake names and addresses so the proprietors understand that many people in the community share your complaint.

Win every icebreaking get-to-know-you competition by announcing you have vomited into all of the Great Lakes.

Even when it’s hard, say “I love you.”

Spend 51 weeks a year preparing jokes for “LOL Sunday” at church. Always chuckle when you hear What made Mrs. Tomato blush? She saw Mr. Green Pea.

Owning half a dog is just as rewarding as owning a whole dog. Shared ownership with someone in another town is another opportunity for a new friend.

If you find a discarded set of plastic teeth in a parking lot, wear them proudly, assuring your friends, “Don’t worry. I bleached them first.”

Buy copies of Walter the Farting Dog in four languages.

Memorize poems that you love so they are easily accessible whenever you need them.

When you travel, put every item in your suitcase into a Ziploc bag.

If your cockatiel starts courting a leather glove, humor him.

Never throw away a partially used paper towel when it can be stored under the sink behind the garbage can for future use.

Set up your bank account so that there are 25 standing charitable contributions withdrawn from it every month.

Put on a silver bracelet during a period of mission work and wear it for 36 years. Refuse to take it off for any medical procedure. Make the nurses cover it during MRIs and surgeries because you will not remove that symbol of your servant heart.

When you are young, fall in love with writing. Decades later, marvel at yourself, admitting, “I am finally becoming the kind of writer I always wanted to be.” Take pride in growing, learning, and changing until the end.

Meditate. Apply the practice to your daily life. Feel your relationships transform as you work to “be impeccable with your word.”

Protect the planet. Save the animals. Feed the poor. Cheer for the underdog. Advocate for the oppressed. See the good in everyone. Love with intention. Express gratitude. Right your wrongs. Help every person you encounter see that they matter. Walk with wonder.

Remember: Jesus loves you, but Virginia was his favorite.

Virginia is predeceased by her parents, her step-mother, and her brothers Richard and Larry. She is survived by her wife, Kirsten; her brothers Dan and John (Debbie); her niece, Maren (husband Dan; children, Austin and Ryan Eby, Andrew, Henry, and Appy Townsend); her nephew, Jason (wife Michele; children, Meghan and Nicholas); her sisters-in-law, Carol Larsen, and Erika Pearson (husband, Chris; children, Jayme and Dustin); and hundreds of loving friends who will forever miss her dry wit at the dinner table.

On Friday, May 11 from 7–10 p.m., friends and family are invited to the Austin Area Commission for the Arts (300 N. Main St.), for a time of sharing and storytelling — a kind of Midwestern Danish wake. There will not be a formal visitation, as Virginia has donated her body to the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine. Her memorial service will be held Saturday, May 12, at 1:00 p.m. at the Austin Congregational UCC (1910 3rd Ave. NW).

Memorial gifts may be sent to the Austin Congregational UCC, earmarked for the Spirituality Center. Because Gin valued the work of the Center tremendously and took great delight in its birth, we would like her legacy to support the future growth of this community resource.

Hairs
by Virginia Larsen

I think a lot about hair these days
Because I don’t have any.
Chemo did this.
My profile reminds me of Mahatma Gandhi.
Only God knows how many hairs I’ve lost:
God said every one on my head was numbered.

But let’s look on the bright side:
I save a good hour every a.m.
Sudsing, curling, spritzing….
I save on shampoos, conditioners, and gels,
Also on electricity and hot water.
No leg hairs
No armpit hairs either.
Not even any old-lady bristles on my chinny-chin-chin.
My skin’s as smooth as a baby’s bottom.

But, folks! When the sun shines on the dark wood floor
Around 4 o’clock
And I see the dust motes floating in the air
Or huddled together along the baseboard,
Here’s what I miss the most:

My nose hairs!

Yes, those under-noticed, under-appreciated sifters
That God created
To keep our lungs from forming hairballs.

When is the last time you thanked God
For yours?

Really.

Let us pray.
Amen.