Ethel Victoria Palmberg

January 13, 1903 — March 31, 1997

by David Hawkinson

Ethel Palmberg was a good friend of Pietisten. She waited eagerly for each issue and made contributions — for example, her poem, "The Pioneer Pastor" (Spring, I995). The words, taken from one of her Christmas letters, "Det ar roligt att leva och se hur det gar" (It's fun to be alive and see what's going on!) were painted on her casket. They sum up Ethel's refreshing posture. David Hawkinson paid the following tribute to Ethel at the funeral service in Bethlehem Covenant Church, Minneapolis.

There are many passages from the texts already read that offer rich soil from which a tribute to Ethel can be grown. This is one of the remarkable features about her life there is so much Bible in it, so much in her that is connected with that landscape, a landscape familiar to pietists.

I will return to this in just a moment. It seems necessary, first, to mention the other landscape which gave shape to her life and spirit — the vast plains where she grew up and raised her family. Kathleen Norris, in her book of spiritual geography, Dakota, seems to be describing Ethel when she writes: "The silence of the plains, this great unpeopled landscape of earth and sky is much like the silence one finds in a monastery.... The deprivations of Plains life and monastic life tend to turn small gifts into treasures, and gratitude is one of the first flowers to spring forth when hope is rewarded and the desert begins to bloom" (pp. 15, 18).

I thought about this as I sat with Stan [Ethel's grandson] beside her bed on Easter morning — waiting for her last breath, which didn't come for another 24 hours. In fact, I said to her the week before at the hospital, when Susan and I visited her: "You're pretty tough!" "Yeah," she said, "I am." Like the Dakota soil, she persisted without water or food far longer than one could expect — a tenacious life, formidable, enduring, rich, and deep. Her life was not a straight line, but one filled with twists and turns, moving from joy to the brink of despair, from drought to fecundity. In this place she learned to find in the little, an abundance; in the short, an eternity; and in the small, the great.

This leads me to the gospel from Matthew, to that other landscape that brought Ethel and myself together so often. In Matthew 18, a disciple asked Jesus: "Who is the greatest in the kingdom?" So many times in Bible, so many times in our daily lives, the overlooked is the most important. Like the kids running around the knees of the adults, underfoot and overlooked, shoved out so that the important issues can be discussed — like who is the greatest. There, says Jesus, running right around your legs, there is the greatest. You sitting right here [addressing Ethel's beautiful, young great grandchildren], loved by your mor-mor. You are the ones Jesus is noticing, and he tells us that we should be more like you. Your mor-mor understood that.

Like the hymn we are going to sing, Ethel enjoyed thinking of herself as a child — and also acting like one. Full of excitement at new stuff, like massages and lessons on making lace and needlepoint and singing and telling stories. Like the one about the rattlesnake and the time the Klu Klux Klan showed up in town when she was a little girl. Like when she went to Chicago and sat in a classroom with people like Nils Lund and David Nyvall and Eric Hawkinson, my grandfather — great teachers and leaders of the Covenant church, who opened her mind and heart to the larger world. There she was in Chicago — wide-eyed, excited by the big town. Yet, also anxious to return to the land she loved, the land of silence, a place city people often drive through because they think there is nothing there to see.

There wasn't very much that Ethel didn't see; not much went overlooked. She had learned not to take things for granted, and she learned to wait for what she wanted — except when she was in the hospital and wanted to go home.

This is what Jesus means by humility, like standing on the great plains in the West and finding out that you' re not so big as you think. Like finding your place in the whole rush of life as one person among many, no greater but no less important either. Like being thankful for who you are and for how much you are loved by the God who first breathed life into you.

I sat in Ethel's room a number of years ago and we talked about the Covenant Church, using the imagery my grandfather had found helpful for describing all the different parts of the kingdom of God. "It is like a great garden," he said, "filled with great banks of azaleas and orchids, lilies and roses." These, he said, were the great denominations, powerful and ornate, overwhelming to the eye, magnificent and colorful. And we in the Covenant, this little band of believers, where were we? Over there by the side of the road, a bluebell, a flower of the spring, inches from being crushed by the wheels of the wagon or the bustling feet rushing over to see the big stuff.

This is Ethel a bluebell with a grace and beauty overlooked by those who search for the dazzling. But, filled with a grace and color that could pale a lily: white haired, dressed in an embroidered blouse, thankful for everything around.

Ethel Palmberg was a good friend of Pietisten. She waited eagerly for each issue and made contributions — for example, her poem, "The Pioneer Pastor" (Spring, I995). The words,taken from one of her Christmas letters, "Det ar roligt att leva och se hur det gar" (It 's fun to be alive and see what's going on!) were painted on her casket. They sum up Ethel's refreshing posture.

David Hawkinson is a teacher of Bible, editor of Pietisten, and Pastor of Covenant Community Church, Jericho, Vermont.

See all articles by David Hawkinson