A Grandson Remembers His Grandma

William Torgerson Olga Russell Winamac, Indiana Russell's Old Trading Post death obituary faith God prayer

Grandma and Me in Charlotte, NC

You might be surprised to know that my grandma Ogie was quite the volley balloon player.  This was a made up game that my sister and I used to play with her when we’d visit her house on Highway 14 across from the Tippecanoe River in Winamac, Indiana. Grandma would take two wooden chairs from the kitchen table, spread them out the width of the kitchen, and place a broomstick across the chairs so that we could swat a balloon back and forth over the wooden “net.” It was always my sister Anne and Ogie against myself. Other activities included a board game called Aggravation, regular walks across the back pasture to what was then Ben Franklin for a toy, and each fall we went to Russell’s Old Trading Post for school shoes.  There was a conveyor belt that went from the back room down to the basement and we used to ride it up and down.  The setting for my short story “Ye Olde Trading Post” in my novel Horseshoe was based on a drawing of the store as it used to be. My grandma and grandpa were fun.  As kids we weren’t afraid to break anything or make a big mess. Their house, and their lives for that matter, were for living.

Russell's Old Trading Post Winamac, Indiana Horseshoe faith God

sketch by John Sterling Lucas

(photo from artwork at Grandma’s house)

My grandma wrote me a lot of letters, and I’d like to use the content of those letters to write about the person she was. The letters have been coming my whole life, and I even received one as recently as this year.  I suppose at the peak of Grandma’s writing, she averaged about one every other month. Later than I would have hoped, I started saving thes letters. One of her latest is on my desk here in Connecticut where I live, and I have a file full of them in my office in New York. When I lay the letters from the past few years out in front of me, I can see the change in grandma’s handwriting, see how it became more painful and exhausting for her to write them for me.  I’d always intended to read from the letters at her funeral, but I was in a hurry to go see her in the last week of her life and I forgot them. It’s probably just as well because one of the lines near the end of most of the letters contained the phrase, “I don’t read them over.” The idea was that the letters had mistakes and if she read it over then she wouldn’t send them.  I don’t remember any mistakes. I think the line is more of an indication of Ogie’s humble way.  Her life was a life of service.  Service to those at the store, service to the people in her community, and service to her daughter Judy and her husband Bill in the time that preceded their deaths.

Olga Russell Aspen Winamac, Indiana William Torgerson death obituary funeral faith God prayer

Grandchild Aspen and Our Grandma

Whether I was nineteen or forty, Ogie’s letters contained a twenty dollar bill and the instructions to “Go eat!” That twenty dollar bill indicates how determined Ogie was to share her blessings. Whether it was money, something in her house, or love, Ogie was determined to give it away. Let’s say my cousin Aspen’s air conditioning broke. Ogie would often chip in to help fix it, and then without my sister Anne or I even knowing what had happened, we would receive a check in the mail for the exact amount that Ogie had given Aspen. I remember being in middle school when I was walking through the mall with my grandma.  We stopped at one of those talking parrots where you say something to the parrott, it records your voice, and says what you said back. I probably laughed and made a passing comment about the toy, and then I received the bird the following Christmas. You had to be careful what you said to my grandma. The first time my wife Megan met Ogie, I warned Megan as we sat in the car outside in Grandma’s driveway, “Don’t tell her you like anything in the house.” Well, we got inside and later Megan complimented Ogie’s paperweight collection. “Which one do you want?” Ogie asked. There was no way my grandma was going to let Megan out of the house without taking the paperweight.  Thank goodness Megan didn’t compliment Ogie on the concrete deer that stood in her shrubbery.

Olga Russell Winamac, Indiana death obituary faith God prayer

Ogie and her Great Grandchildren

Ogie always drew a smiley face somewhere in her letter and sometimes there was a big yellow sticker affixed to the back of the envelope.  It was an ordinary “Have a Nice Day” smiley face, except for that Ogie’s smiley faces had tight curly hair. I took the image to be Ogie’s self portrait, and it’s no accident that it’s a cheerful one. Ogie taught me a very important lesson: she showed me how to be sad about those we love who are gone but at the same time fill the life we have left with joy.  Just about every time I saw my grandma, she talked about how much she missed her daughter Judy and then later her husband Bill. Ogie showed me it was possible in one moment to be full of sadness remembering a loved one who was no longer with her, and then in the next minute say something to me that caused her shoulders to rock with laughter. She taught me a lesson I’ve tried to learn myself and now pass on to my daughters:  it’s often up to us whether or not we are going to go through life cranky and complaining, or whether we’re going to choose to be positive and try to help those around us.  Ogie was incredibly positive, even in the last week of life.

Olga Russell death obituary love God faith Russell's Old Trading Post Winamac, Indiana

a letter from Grandma 3/7/2010

As with my grandfather’s funeral, my mom asked the family to brainstorm adjectives to describe my grandma.  (as mom joked, “…apparently this is what English teachers do.”) Somebody suggested the word “stubborn,” and I know there was some doubt on my mom’s part whether or not such a word should be included at someone’s funeral. I can tell you there is a thread of stubborn that runs at least from my grandma Ogie through her daughters, to their children, and then to Ogie’s great grandchildren. When Ogie’s daughter Judy was a little girl, she said something that hurt my mom’s feelings. Grandpa and my mom were set to head off to work at the store, and Judy was told to sit on a step until she apologized to my mother.  Judy sat on the steps and refused to apologize. My mom and grandpa went to work. When they came home for lunch, Judy was still on the steps and still refusing to apologize. My grandma liked to tell that story.  As for her own stubbornness, when Ogie moved into my parents’ spare bedroom, I was told that as she came in with mom, my dad said something to the effect of, “Welcome to our home.” My grandmother’s response? “Thank you, but I don’t want to be here.” It wasn’t that my grandmother didn’t like my dad or my parents’ house. Right up until the end, Ogie was worried about everyone else, and she hated the idea that she was being a burden. She wasn’t. We were all so thankful to get to spend time visiting with her.

Without fail, Ogie’s letters always had a sentence that told me she was proud of me and that she loved me. When loved ones pass away, I often hear phrases that begin something like this: “If only I’d have known…Or, I wish I could have told her…”  This wasn’t the case with Ogie. My whole life, whether it was in person or through letters, both of my grandparents told me that they were proud of me and that they loved me.  They didn’t say this in passing. They told me in a shoulder grabbing, make full eye-contact, tell-me-twice kind of way, and that’s just one of the many ways that the lives of my Grandpa Bill and my Grandmother Olga will live on. My daughters will know that I am proud of them and that I love them. They have already played volley balloon ball across a broomstick and hunted plastic Easter eggs with treasures inside just like I did when I was a kid.

Bill and Olga Russell Winamac, Indiana Russell's Old Trading Post

My Grandparents: Bill and Olga Russell

My grandma and grandpa didn’t want anything in return for what they gave us. They wanted us to do the same for the family members who would come after us. They were able to help us financially, spiritually, and emotionally, and they hoped that someday we might be in position to do the same for somebody else. I told grandma during the last week of her life that she and grandpa will always be a part of why I do what I do. I will try to stay focused on taking actions which would make them proud. On the day my grandma died, she told me that my girls would grow up fast. She also said about dying, “It’s not hard. It doesn’t hurt.” Grandma did hurt some even thought she wouldn’t admit it, but we were very thankful that she was mostly comfortable. I didn’t see a bit of fear or doubt on Ogie’s part when it came to what was going to happen to her after death. That she passed away with miminal pain after having spent the week with her family, was exactly what she wanted. It was an answer her prayers and ours. My grandmother’s faith was strong and she was anxious to get to Heaven.  Thank the Lord for that.




Notes For Jan. 17 Music and Movies Book Club

My own novel, Love on the Big Screen, now available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble

On Monday night Jan. 17 at the Fresh Meadows Barnes and Noble at 7:30, we’ll be discussing Rob Sheffield’s Love is a Mix Tape. We’d love to have you join us either face-to-face in the store or else here online with a comment to this blog post.  I also want to share that my novel, Love on the Big Screen, is now available in the states online through Amazon or Barnes and Noble and soon to be available internationally.  Coming soon to Kindle and Nook.




Rob Sheffield / The Guy:

  • What do you think of the Rob Sheffield you meet in the book?  His relationship with Renee?
  • If you finished the book, what was it that kept you listening to Rob’s story?
  • “I listen to Hey Jude now, and I think two things:  I never want to hear this song again, and in 1979, my dad was around the age I am now, and given a Saturday afternoon he could have spent anyway he pleased, he chose to spend it with his twelve-year-old son, making this ridiculous little tape.  He probably forgot about it the next day.  But I didn’t.”  (17)
  • “How do you turn down the volume on your personal-drama earphones and learn how to listen to other people?”


  • Do you have a wish list for a potential romantic partner?  Is this sort of mental exercise helpful when it comes to navigating love? (67)
  • When you get married, you hope__________? (129)
  • “If she breaks my heart, no matter what the hell she puts me through, I can say it was worth it, just because of right now.”  (70)
  • What did/do you and your romantic partners fight about?  (102)
  • How do you know when it’s love? (4)


  • Did/do you make mix tapes?  Tell us about them?
  • Did your parents listen to music?  If you listen, how did you find your way into what you listen to?  Why _______ and not ________?
  • That night, I learned the hard way:  If the girls keep dancing, everybody’s happy.  If the girls don’t dance, nobody’s happy. (34)

Sheffield writes, before Murphy's death, "Remember Brittany Murphy..." / from TheJC.Com

Death / Life:

  • What would you leave behind? (10)
  • The moment when we find out what happened to Renee. (14)  What book did you think you were going to read?
  • Remember Brittany Murphy, the funny, frizzy-haired, Mentos-loving dork in Clueless? By 2002, she was the hood ornament in 8 Mile, just another skinny starlet, an index of everything we’ve lost in that time. (215)
  • Some hope in tragedy:  “We know the universe is out to burn us, and it gets us all the way it got Renee, but we don’t burn each other, not always.”  (167)

An Argument For Church From Someone Who Doesn’t Go

My father-in-law Jim recently passed away from cancer.  Several weeks before his death, my wife received a call that her dad had checked into hospice.  We began packing immediately and drove 800 miles through the night to North Carolina so that we could be sure to see him as soon as possible.  In addition to our emotional worries regarding Jim’s health, there were a lot of practical matters to consider:  Where would we stay?  I had to get back to work.  Would I rent a car or would we rent Megan one?  For how long?  At what financial cost?  Who would help Megan with our girls?

All we focused on was getting to the hospice to see Jim, and before we even had a chance to start doing the math and thinking about money, Jim’s wife called with the news that her Sunday school class had met.  Someone had an extra house outside of town that Megan and our girls could stay in indefinitely free of charge.  We arrived at the hospice, spent the day there, and then another member of this Sunday school class met us so that we could follow her out to the home we were being lent.  She did this after a full day’s work and the drive was at least thirty minutes out of her way, over an hour by the time she would get to her own house.  When we arrived at the home, the owner was already there inside cleaning it and changing the sheets.  Next, the two women took a grocery list Megan had been putting together and got ready to head to the store.  On their way out, they asked if we had any need of an extra car.  They paid for the groceries.  Everything that had just begun to hang over us had suddenly been taken care of by these  two women and the members of their Sunday school class.  My family, especially Megan, was free to concentrate on what was important, to spend time with Jim.  After I departed, this Sunday school group was in constant touch, offering to help, watching my girls, and just letting everyone know that they were around to love and help.

It’s been a long time since I’ve gone to church, and by that I don’t mean that my family doesn’t pray together, that we don’t talk about Jesus, or that I don’t read the Bible, but we haven’t been attending church as a family.  What transpired in the day or so that we all rushed off to North Carolina caused me to begin to think just how much we were up on our own up in New England.  We do have a growing group of friends, and I realize that it’s not just church folks who can rally around and help out those in need, but the kind people that were friends of Jim’s, those who came together as a part of Sunday school class, they all created for me one of the more convincing arguments I’ve experienced for church attendance.  I thank them for their example of Biblical love.   It’s an example I’ll be sure to try and put into practice myself.