By Dawn DeSart, ACE Steering Committee Member
“Dearest Dawn, How did the cookies and pie taste? How long did the cookies last? I love you!”
As a kid, my family moved around the country a lot. My dad worked for the same company from the time he graduated from college until his retirement, and every time Dad got promoted within his company, we had to move to a different city, a new home, a new school: Mansfield, Ohio; Poughkeepsie, New York; Orchard Park, New York; Naperville, Illinois (my senior year of high school), and other cities I was too young to remember. One constant in my life was my loving grandparents, Orville and Hazel Olson, salt-of-the-earth corn and soybean farmers whose homestead was an 80-acre farm in Hartland, Minnesota. Mom was their only child, so wherever we moved, they traveled to visit as often as they could. And when we were old enough to travel alone, my two brothers and I would fly to Minneapolis, where Grandpa and Grandma Olson would pick us up at the airport and drive us the hour and a half trip home to Hartland, where we would stay for the magical summers.
February 19, 1982
“We heard you on the radio last Saturday, but we missed you yesterday. Will try again tomorrow. You sounded real good. Keep up the great work.”
Despite the distance, Grandma was a constant in my life. We were pen pals from the time I could read until her passing. Not a week or two went by without an exchange of mail —real mail, pen-to-paper, handwritten notes, letters, and cards. Her words, advice, and wisdom were my touchstone, grounding me in my life. I credit Grandma Hazel with my future career as a journalist. From my earliest memories, all I wanted to do was to write and tell stories.
September 29, 1981
“Dearest Dawn, Thinking about you a lot. Wondering how you like school? Have you made many new friends? (Boyfriends?) Did you go to the football game?”
When I volunteered to write this month’s ACE “Speak Out” for Women’s History Month, I thought about incredible, famous women from our country’s brief history. Harriet Tubman came to mind first. I saw the inspirational movie, “Harriet,” last summer, which told of Tubman’s extraordinary bravery, freeing hundreds of slaves through the Underground Railroad network. Her story will stay with me forever. I thought about Ellen Martin, a lawyer and a courageous suffragette who had the remarkable audacity to be the first woman to vote in Illinois at a Lombard polling place on April 6, 1891. Then I thought of this utterly incredible woman: Hazel Violet Olson. She didn’t make history. She didn’t free slaves or earn women the right to vote. But Hazel was a cigarette-smoking, rough-handed, hard-working farm wife who lit up my world with wisdom, laughter, and unconditional love.
“Happy Graduation, Dawny! I can’t wait til you’re in school at Mankato. We’ll get to see you all the time.”
Hazel was not an educated woman. She didn’t attend school past junior high. She didn’t even get her driver’s license until she was in her thirties or forties. But she was wise beyond wisdom, and she knew how to do lots of other essential things like how to sew a beautiful dress for Sunday morning church services; how to make pies and cookies from scratch; and how to chop off the head of a chicken with an ax, pluck off all the feathers and down, and make it into the most juicy and flavorful bird for dinner.
February 19, 1978
“Happy Birthday, Dawn, How is my cute fifteen year old granddaughter? I’ll bet you are getting cuter all the time. Grandpa and I are very proud of you.”
Summers with Grandma Hazel were spent sweating buckets in her garden, helping her weed and pick fresh snap beans for our dinner that night, which would be fried to delicious perfection with ground black pepper and bacon grease. We’d spend summer afternoons baking thousands of sugar cookies, with only a ceiling fan to whisper air into her farmhouse kitchen. We spent cooler summer evenings outside, her sitting in the freshly mown grass watching me on the wooden-seated rope swing, reaching for acorns on the giant oak tree to which the swing was tethered.
April 28, 1982
“Are you still going to work at the radio station this summer? Have they changed call numbers? After you came on at 5 after 5, we can’t get you anymore. We used to get you.”
I learned to drive when I was eight. Grandpa had an old, beat-up, rusty blue pickup truck that started and stopped with the push of a button. Around the farmyard was a worn dirt path. When Grandpa was out working in the fields, Grandma Hazel would sneak the pick-up out of the garage and let my brothers and me take turns driving around the farmyard. We couldn’t reach the accelerator, so the truck only had one speed—slow. I’d line up my dolls on the cracked leather bench seat next to me, and off I’d drive around the yard. If I veered off the path, I’d turn off the truck and race into the kitchen where Grandma Hazel was baking a fresh cherry pie. She never complained. She just followed me back to the truck, reversed it, got me back on track, and walked back to the kitchen to finish her pie. (As an adult, it isn’t lost on me that this is a perfect metaphor for the relationship I enjoyed with my grandma.) Meantime, with the truck back on the right path, I’d ramble around the farmyard, on the dirt path for hours at a time, with my dolls enjoying the ride just as much as I was.
November 17, 1982
“Our dearest Dawny, Got your new letter. Thank you. I understand that you were going to spend Thanksgiving with a friend in Owatonna. If you aren’t, you’re welcome to come here. Well sweetheart, take care of yourself. You’re very welcome to come here. We love you. You’ll have to let us know.”
The farm was home to cows, pigs, and a flock of chickens. We were schooled from the youngest age to never go into the barn without Grandpa or Grandma with us. But boys will be boys, and on one hot, dry summer day, when Grandma Hazel and I were down at the well hand-pumping water into buckets to water the garden, my older brother ran out of the big red barn screaming. I’ve never seen a woman run so fast. In no time, Grandma Hazel was in the dusty barn looking at my younger brother inside the pig pen. A fat, dirty pink pig was menacing him. He was trapped in the far corner of the pen. That day, I learned that pigs can be mean. I am convinced that Grandma Hazel saved my little brother’s life that day. In a flash, she scaled the pen fence, raced to the corner, snapped up my 10-year old brother, and bolted out of the pen with him in her arms. Grandma wasn’t angry that the boys broke the barn rule. I’ve never seen her truly angry. But she was scared and then relieved when she knew my brother was safe.
January 10, 1983
“Dearest Dawn, We’ve tried so hard to pick up your radio station, but Northfield is stronger, so it comes in on your number. Sweetheart, take care of yourself. I love you. Write.”
Summers are especially busy for farmers, so while Grandpa stayed home to work the farm, Grandma Hazel took my brothers and me to the county fair every single day of the two-week event. The Freeborn County Fair was a family affair. My mother was the Freeborn County Fair Dairy Princess as a teenager. My godfather, Howard Recknor, served on the Freeborn County Fair Board for 25 years, many of those years as fair manager. He also served on the Minnesota State Fair Board for 25 years, the last two as fair president. With Howard giving us carte blanche to every corner of the fair, my brothers and I would go on the rides from open to close. We were the luckiest kids in Freeborn County: tilt-a-whirl, roller coaster, bumper cars, vertical drop, repeat. If we needed anything, we knew to find Howard in the fair office, or better yet, Grandma Hazel in the Bingo tent, playing Bingo all day, every day with her church lady friends. And whatever our request, Grandma Hazel would only always say, “Yes.” Corn dogs? Yes! Cotton candy? Yes! Ice cream? Yes! When we got home at night, tired and full of fair fare, it was bath time, then we brushed our teeth and went off to bed so we could get up and do it all again the next day. For my brothers and me, it was paradise. What kid could ask for more?
July 7, 1982
“I was asked to be on jury duty, but I said I didn’t trust myself. I’d stand and howl.”
Eventually, I went to college at Minnesota State University, Mankato, just a 45-minute drive away from Hartland. One weekend every month, I would drive out to the farm and spend the weekend with my grandparents, doing my laundry and eating like a queen. Saturday nights were spent dancing in the living room with Grandpa when the “Lawrence Welk Show” was on the television, then laughing to Buck Owens, Roy Clark, and Grandpa Jones on “Hee Haw,” while Grandma Hazel sat watching and laughing, mending a pair of trousers or darning holey socks. There’s truly no down time when you’re a farmer’s wife. Nearly every moment of Hazel Olson’s life had to be productive, including on Saturday nights.
“My dearest Dawn, I love you so very much.”
Grandma Hazel would call me on Thursday evenings prior to my Hartland weekends to inform me of what she needed me to bring from town always ending with, “and don’t forget to pick up my ‘medicine’,” which was code for running to the liquor store to buy Gram a fifth of whiskey. She enjoyed a nip now and then, and she didn’t want Grandpa to know. Other than allowing himself one can of beer on an occasional Saturday night, Grandpa Orville did not drink. I never once saw him drink anything stronger than an ice cold Schell.
April 28, 1982
“Dear Dawn, How are things going with you? Studying hard? Grandpa heard that you asked for a picture of him when he was little. He’s been looking.”
A farmer’s work is never done. It’s exhausting labor, and so farmers go to bed early. Even though farmers’ wives work just as hard, Grandma Hazel relished the night time quiet and stayed up late. I loved those Saturday nights after the “Lawrence Welk Show” and “Hee Haw” ended, and Grandpa went off to bed. Grandma Hazel and I would sit at her kitchen table. She, in front of a portable mirror putting Dippity-do and hard plastic, multi-colored curlers in her hair, smoking her menthol Kools, and nipping whiskey from a brown-stained coffee cup. With Grandpa asleep, from time to time, Grandma Hazel would slip me a cigarette, but never the whiskey. We talked for hours, played Crazy Eights and other card games, and I confided in her about every college detail, like classes, boys, stresses, and successes. There was nothing I would not tell Grandma Hazel. Nothing. She was my verbal diary. She knew every last detail about me. To say this woman loved me is like saying water is wet. Hazel Olson adored me and I adored her. I literally could do no wrong. Any challenge I shared, Grandma Hazel was uplifting, always on my side of every situation, even if I was in the wrong. Every success I shared, she would act like I had won an Oscar, a Grammy, and an Emmy all at once. I wish everyone could feel that kind of unconditional love in their lifetime. While Grandpa Orville was a quiet, wise, introspective man, Grandma Hazel was loud, fun, funny, vivacious, and larger than life.
“I hope things are good for you. I do hope to see you soon.”
My daughter, Kathryn, is the brilliant reincarnation of my Grandma Hazel. While trying to crack eggs neatly or screw legs onto a table or put together a shoe rack, I shout, “Grrrr! I’m not good at this!” Kathryn quietly, patiently, lovingly replies, “But you’re so good at so many other things.” Unconditional love and acceptance. Beautiful and full circle. A true blessing.
“Can’t wait to see you next weekend. Grandpa and I so look forward to your visits. We love you.”
I think sometimes when we consider honoring people during special months—like Women’s History Month—we seem to think beyond ourselves on the national or international stage, and not of the people who so deeply impacted our own lives in significant ways. This month, I’m choosing to honor a lesser-known hero: a loud, brash, outgoing, ordinary woman who touched my life and everyone around her with service, laughter, acceptance, and most of all, unconditional love. It’s been heart-wrenching to live without the sunshine that was my grandmother. The day the letters stopped arriving in my mailbox was the day it hit me the hardest; that she was really gone. My grandparents died two-and-a-half months after my son, Alexander Olson DeSart, was born. Oh, how they adored him for the short time they had with him. Hazel died on February 3rd—most likely, the menthol Kools killed her—26 years ago; and her beloved husband, quiet, introspective Orville, died just four days later. He couldn’t live without her, either.
Dawn DeSart is a member of the DuPage County Board representing District 5. She has spent her career as a journalist working in every field: newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. While at NBC5 in Chicago, Dawn earned five Emmy Awards for excellence in journalism. A graduate of Minnesota State University, Mankato, she has a bachelor’s degree in mass communications.