From my vantage point, she was the best—the best damn mother-in-law a guy could have. She didn’t try to tell me what to do, how to raise my kids or even how to cook.
But Taimi made a lasting imprint on my daughters, one, quite literally. Our older daughter, Kate, has tattooed on her rib cage Sisu, which she learned from her grandmother. Sisu, in Finnish, translates as determination, bravery and resilience.
Taimi was determined early on to lead a different life than her parents, dairy farmers who never left the town where virtually everyone spoke their language. Palisade, Minnesota, has fewer than 200 people today, probably as many as they did in 1918 when Taimi was born. The farm was on the Mississippi River, so far north that you could walk across it and keep your knees dry. Taimi thought there was more.
Taimi was brave enough to go to war. After finishing nursing school, she became a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy and administered to the wounded in a California hospital. It was there, she dated an officer she met while he was recovering. Returning to the front, he asked a new friend who was also recovering from his war wounds, Jim Leavelle, to watch over his girl. “Take care of her,” he told Jim, which he did—for the next 75 years.
Because she was an officer and Jim an enlisted man, she had to give up her commission to marry the poor itinerant farmer, who lacked her education and edge but shared her determination and resilience.
They moved to Dallas. She continued her nursing career while he tried to find himself. Perhaps it was that experience that led to her to instill in her daughters the notion that they should always be able to provide for themselves. Never be at the mercy of a man. For 50 years she raised a family and worked. Jim soon found his niche as a police officer and then a homicide detective. They both worked shifts. When one worked, the other was home. He retired, became a polygraph examiner and then a security guard. She continued to minister the sick, addicted, and insane.
Not surprisingly, her daughters followed her lead, one as a teacher, the other in business. Tanya’s children were the hundreds, maybe thousands, she influenced. Karla, my wife, instilled in our two daughters the same ethic. Take care of yourself. Value yourself. Be determined and brave and when you fail, and you will, get back up.
All the while, Taimi Trast from Palisade lived life to the fullest. Her humor was renowned. Her honesty, legendary. When Kate was visiting recently, she told her grandma that she needed to get dressed.
“I don’t want to get dressed,” Taimi said.
“You have to get dressed. Put on your underwear.”
“I don’t want to put on underwear.”
“If you don’t, I won’t make you coffee.”
Kate thought she now had leverage, and walked into another room. When she came back, Taimi had her underwear on—her head.
“Now give me my damn coffee.”
Kate also experienced her honestly. Once Kate came to visit, and as she walked into the door, Taimi was in another room. “Who’s here?” she asked.
“It’s your favorite grandchild,” Kate said.
Taimi entered the room and looked straight at Kate and said, “No, Hunter is my favorite grandchild.”
When Hunter was just a few months old and in daycare, Jim and Taimi lived nearby. Occasionally, we’d get a call from her to let us know that she picked up Hunter “because she needs her down time,” Taimi said. To this day, Hunter needs her downtime, but Taimi knew then.
And Kate must have learned something from her grandma early on. When she was about five years old, she had a t-shirt that read simply, “No Guts, No Glory.”
For more than 90 years, Taimi retained her phenomenal physical vitality. I would tell her she looked great. “I feel great,” she would say, “and I can still dance a gig.” And then she would.
But her mind began to escape. She would repeat herself.
“Where are my glasses, Jim?”
“Now where do you go to school, Zack?” even though our son had graduated two years earlier.
But she knew what dementia was; she’d seen plenty of it. And she didn’t let it bother her. It was a process she would endure, bravely, resiliently. She would laugh about it. It was life. And she would live it.
Rest in peace, dear mother-in-law. Thanks. Someday I hope to tell my grandkids about you and teach them about sisu. But if I’m gone by then, I’m sure my daughters will.