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by Niomi Rohn Phillips, AARP Bulletin, April 15, 2009
The Internet has connected me to kids, grandkids, former colleagues and friends since I retired to the woods in northern Minnesota eight years ago. Now it’s my connection to a precious relationship from the past.
Memoir writing motivated me to visit the rural North Dakota town where I grew up. Boards covered the school’s windows; only a couple of abandoned buildings remained on the once-bustling main street. Discarded appliances and old cars replaced the flower beds and vegetable gardens I remembered. Another dying town on the prairie.
One of the survivors was Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, and, to my surprise, the door was open. Inside I found the beauty I remembered, a church in the European tradition with a crucifix above the center altar and life-size statues in each side niche. Two hundred families, descendants of German-Russian settlers, once filled the pews.
The only nod to modernity was a guest book on a pedestal in the vestibule. I opened it and found a childhood friend’s name—Antoinette Klevgard née Schmaltz, with the date of her visit but no address. I hadn’t seen her since 1953.
As soon as I got home, I googled North Dakota State University’s Germans from Russia Heritage Collection. “Can you help me find Antoinette Schmaltz?” I inquired. The word went out on the list serve. Responses came from across the country:
“She’s my first cousin. You can reach her at … ”
“Her aunt lives in the same nursing home as my mother. I can get her address.”
“I’m an artist in California, graduated from high school with Antoinette. She’s in Roanoke, Virginia. Here’s her e-mail address.”
Connections with that small town on the prairie arrived via the Internet every day.
Last May, Antoinette and her husband, Duane, stepped out of their motor home onto our woodland road. My heart filled. The magic bond that formed when we were 4 years old lives. We’re grandmothers now. We’ve both been married near 50 years. She’s lost a son; I’ve lost a grandson. We both wear aprons when we cook.
My parents and only sibling are gone, but I now have Antoinette to share my memories and confirm or deny my recollections of our small-town past before I give them permanent ink in a memoir—thanks to the Internet.
The AARP Bulletin’s "What I Really Know" column comes from our readers. Each month we solicit short personal essays on a selected topic and publish some of our favorites in print and online. Niomi Rohn Phillips is a reader from Park Rapids, Minn.
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