|Florence with her Grandson, Tony Brewer|
She was confirmed at St. Luke's Catholic Church. She attended St. Joseph's Academy. Her father was a printer, a lithographer by trade. Two of her uncles were St. Paul firemen. She recently shared memories of great white horses harnessed to a coal-fired water pump, hooves clattering, bells clanging and smoke and steam streaming as they charged past this little girl down the cobblestones to a St. Paul house fire.
In 1937 she married Leonard Neilson in St. Paul. This union brought four children, Mary Louise, Daniel Leonard, Kathleen Ann and James John. Their marriage was interrupted by World War II when Leonard served in the Pacific Theater. Their love letters are reread and cherished by her grandchildren and others to this day. After Leonard's return from the Philippines, the couple reunited at 1142 Marshall Ave in St. Paul, sharing residence in the Gander family home, where Florence had been caring for her widowed father.
Florence managed the household, raising not only her own children, but caring for members of her extended family who lived there as well. She cooked three square meals a day, every day, usually feeding eight, including her brothers, Uncle Willie, Uncle Dan and family friend, Frank Fahey. Frank was a professional baseball scout and object of considerable family pride. He was a regular visitor to Florence's table and often left a dollar with her to help pay for groceries. This traditional family unit gathered at the same mealtimes every day, said grace together and shared conversation. They were bound by necessity, habit, family ties and good food. It was Florence who made it work.
Family style, home cooking, whatever you call it, it meant chicken ala king, roast beef, tuna hot dish, macaroni and cheese, pumpkin pies, and, of course, big turkeys on Thanksgiving and Christmas. After school, hot rolls or fresh-baked cookies often greeted the children coming in from the cold. She scrubbed their clothes in a wringer washer next to the basement coal furnace, then hung them out to dry in the back yard.
Florence cooked everything from scratch on a tight budget. Leonard often told a story of shopping with her at the old Golden Rule department store. He once wandered away to a bakery nook and naively returned with a special treat --- beautiful finished brownies, ready to eat. His lesson in such extravagance was swift, he would laugh, much later: Florence kicked him a good one in the shins.
It was this kind of leadership that earned the diminutive but feisty matron of Marshall Ave the nickname "Big Shorty." She never stood more than five feet tall. She served as the neighborhood yardstick for growing kids who would check their height against hers in hopes of accelerating their progress to adulthood.
Twenty-nine years ago, Florence lost her husband to cancer, ending their partnership but not his enduring memory. Faithful to the end, Mrs. Leonard Neilson always spoke fondly of "Pa" as though he had just left moments ago. In 1994, she bore the loss of their son, James, to a sudden heart attack. He succumbed while mowing the front lawn. He was only 49.
During her 99 years, Florence was blessed with excellent health, a particularly notable achievement since her food pyramid favored meat and potatoes and gravy……..and the occasional "tako" from "Tako Johns." She had no regular doctor. In 1995, she suffered a heart attack, but it was no big deal, apparently. She phoned Kathleen because she had a stomach ache. But she couldn't depart for the hospital until her nails were cut and her makeup applied. Eventually they got to the emergency department. But Florence looked so good in the emergency room, that, despite pleadings, no one paid serious attention to her. Fours hours later she was finally diagnosed with a heart attack and then hospitalized for five days. Her remarkable health continued. Even during her last years at the nursing home she didn't have much use for the country's new drug plan. Her medication regimen was simple. Tylenol whenever needed.
Florence loved her St. Paul newspaper and read it daily. She was a publisher's dream. She never traveled far from home, but every day the world spread out before her as she turned the pages and read the stories on her kitchen table. She held a stunning command of local and world events and often surprised listeners with her insight into arcane and novel subjects.
She followed her beloved Twins and Golden Gophers on the sports pages, on radio and television. Her favorite team, of course, was the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. The science of rosters and records and her home team's chances came easily, naturally. Her boys played baseball in their youths and she loved to follow the action.
Florence had a goofy streak. It is a genetic characteristic that has been carried forward by her kin. She loved to confound her daughters when shopping. Florence could slip away and disappear easily because she was too short to be seen over the clothes racks. And since she was a little hard of hearing, it forced her adult daughters, in a wonderful role reversal, to wander from aisle to aisle, calling out loudly, "Mother, mother, where are you?"
She never lost that goofy touch. She was loved at the nursing home for her dining room antics. I joined her there once at a table with three strangers. One was a dignified elderly gentleman whose stoic demeanor was at odds with the white bib tied around his neck. Florence opened him up instantly with the question: "Are you a Republican?"
Throughout her life, Florence never had much money, always cutting corners and looking for bargains. Purchasing the new oilcloth for the kitchen table was a special event. That changed late in her life, when pension money and an inheritance from her sister accumulated in a brand new savings and investment account. But she never really got used to having all that comfortable cash on hand, try as she might. Concluding one shopping trip to Penny's, she signed her check with a flourish and announced loudly to her daughter and anyone else within earshot, "There's plenty more where that came from!"
The world is a little bit smaller today. The Pioneer Press has lost a loyal subscriber; the Fighting Irish a loyal fan; the St. Paul Fire Department has lost an advocate; St. Cecelia's Catholic Church has lost a devout member and the St. Anthony Park Nursing home has lost some of its sparkle.
If heaven is where all the best things happen whenever we want them to happen and the love we share on earth lives forever; if it is a place where happiness has no bounds,
If heaven is where Leonard, and James, and Bubbles and Uncle Willie, Auntie Gertrude, Frank, and so many other dear ones are just waiting on us, then it is time for them to slide the table out from the wall, put in the leaf, push up the chairs and gather around, because mother is home and she's making everyone dinner tonight.
Delivered by Stan Rolfsrud, her son-in-law at services held on January 10, 2006, at the O'Halloran and Murphy Funeral Home in St. Paul. Burial followed at Fort Snelling. Lunch was served at the Holiday Inn.