My two Irish blessings: Grandma & Grandpa Nolan
Updated: Mar 17
Happy St. Patrick’s Day! While many people celebrate in various ways, I choose to celebrate this day by thinking and writing about my maternal grandparents, Glenn and Leoma (Petts) Nolan, who were married on this day 88 years ago, in 1933.
Grandpa was Irish, through and through, and he absolutely loved St. Patrick’s Day, so I suppose that is why they chose it for their wedding day. I wished I could say that I knew a whole lot about Grandma and Grandpa’s wedding day or early years of marriage. Sadly, I do not. I do know they grew up in the communities of Barron and Ridgeland, Wisconsin, but I am not sure where exactly the wedding took place. Somewhere along the way, they moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, and in 1956 or thereabouts, they moved to the suburb of Bloomington.
They welcomed their one and only child, Sharon Kathleen, into the world on March 26, 1938. Over the years, I have heard stories that led me to believe my grandma was a saint and my grandpa was not always a very nice man. In fact, he was a bit of a philanderer and abusive to my grandmother and his daughter. I have no idea what made him like that, but by the time I got to know him, he was a much kinder and gentler man–in fact, a completely different person.
Seeking a fresh start, Grandma and Grandpa renewed their marriage vows two days before their 25th anniversary at my parent’s wedding on March 15, 1958.
What I remember most about my growing-up years is that my grandparents were a lot of fun! Both of them adored me, their firstborn grandchild, and loved on me generously, showering me with gifts and taking me on trips with them. They both had a marvelous sense of humor, and Grandma, in my book, had a heart of gold. I was Grandpa’s ‘Little Dolly,’ and I fondly remember sitting next to him on the piano bench while he played for me.
For years, Grandpa, a drummer, had a dance band, and Grandma always went with him whenever and wherever he played. Many times while I was in grade school, I got to go along too. The place I remember best was The Chart House in Lakeville, Minnesota. It was always so much fun because it made me feel so grown up, sitting there drinking Shirley Temples and dancing with Grandma or one of her friends.
Though I never actually saw him do this, I am told that whenever his dance band played on St. Patrick’s Day, Grandpa colored his white hair with green food coloring for the evening. It’s interesting to note that his hair turned white when he was 21 years old, so the food coloring resulted in really green hair!
My grandparents enjoyed vacationing together at a cabin on Lake Chetek in Barron County, Wisconsin, and often invited my folks and us kids to come for a visit. We enjoyed spending time together in the lovely setting, though I was deathly afraid of the water and didn’t really like to fish as much as they did. Those were times when we would visit Grandma’s niece’s family, who owned a dairy farm in the area, and I have some fond memories of spending time there.
Grandma and Grandpa also loved to travel and took me on some very memorable trips–to the Black Hills of South Dakota and Estes Park, Colorado, to the north shore of Lake Superior, and Mackinac Island in Michigan.
Christmas Eve was always the best! Grandma and Grandpa decorated their home in style, and the under the Christmas tree each year, there were, without exception, a ton of presents for my brother, sister, and me. I remember some wonderfully delicious holiday meals enjoyed around their dining room table, with lots of good conversation and laughter.
When I was in junior high, our family moved from the Twin Cities up north to Pillager, Minnesota. My mom missed her folks terribly, and Mom and Grandma wrote letters (I actually have a few of them) back and forth for a year until Grandma and Grandpa retired and moved closer to us. They bought 64 heavily wooded acres north of Motley, Minnesota, and dubbed it “Glenn Lee Acres.” There they set up a trailer house on the spot with a most spectacular view and plenty of room in the front yard to grill, something Grandpa enjoyed doing. It was always great fun to visit them and their puppy Mitzie (a German Shepherd Collie mix), at their little country home.
Several years later, when I was in college, Grandma and Grandpa sold their property and bought a house in Staples, where they lived together until Grandpa got sick. I was so fortunate to have them both in good health when Bob and I married in November 1978. Grandma and Grandpa wanted to do something special for us, so they hosted our rehearsal dinner at their home. Then after the wedding, they hosted a small dinner for our out-of-town guests and us, also in their home. Because Bob and I always lived at least six hours away, our visits over the years were few and far between–and always treasured!!
One of the most precious memories I have of them together was when they came to Great Falls, Montana, to meet their first great-grandchild–our firstborn–Joshua, when he was four months old. We had a wonderful time together, taking them to some of our favorite spots in the area, such as the nearby waterfalls and park, during that visit in the spring of 1981. Josh had a terrible diaper rash while they were there, and Grandma went right to work on clearing it up with cornstarch.
Of course, I visited them when I could, but that wasn’t often enough, as I lived so far away. In 1983, they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary and my parents their 25th with an open house held in their honor. I remember Grandpa looking so tired. If I remember correctly, it was sometime later that year that Grandpa was put in the nursing home after a severe heart attack and a series of strokes. After that, our times together consisted of staying with Grandma at the house and visiting Grandpa in the nursing home.
It was a hard time for Grandma, I know, because literally from his first days in the nursing home, Grandpa’s speech was slurred, which progressed rapidly to a vegetative state, making it impossible to communicate with him. Still, Grandma faithfully visited the man she loved several times a week, and every time she’d get a call from the nursing home to say he was dying, she would tell them to do whatever it took to keep him alive.
When Grandpa entered the nursing home, it became evident how much Grandma relied on her husband. Since she never learned to drive, Grandpa had done the driving, shopping, banking, and most of the decision-making. Poor Grandma was ignorant about how to keep a checkbook or pay the bills. My dad tells me he spent many hours reconciling the checkbook because Grandma would compare the bank statement to her checkbook register and then change her register balance to the amount the bank said she had at the time of the statement.
Despite the many difficulties and ups and downs of married life, the two stayed married for 56 years until death parted them at Grandpa’s passing on March 26, 1989. I wasn’t there on the Sunday he died, but much of the rest of my family was. They had gathered to celebrate my mother’s 51st birthday. (Mom had been a resident of the same nursing home since November of 1983, but that’s a whole other story.) I am sad I couldn’t be with him, but I am so glad to know he wasn’t alone.
Looking through the pictures of my grandparents today, I am reminded how blessed I am to have had such wonderful grandparents. Their love for each other and me greatly enriched my life. I hope that one day when I am gone, my grandchildren will be able to look back on memories of times spent with Bob and me and feel equally blessed–and that in reading this, they will know at least a little bit about Grandma and Grandpa Nolan, their great-great-grandparents.