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Memories of Marion


generations of women
powerful 
brave
waves of immigrants
voices in her hands
calloused hold the love
of stories rich lines tough skin
the american dream pulses
in her veins


Marion Janet Arthur Jessen, 01 December 1918 - 20 December 2012.

November 2007 was the last time I saw my grandma (dad's mom). When I was in Europe in December I got an email from my dad telling me she passed away, shortly after turning 94, and 12 years after her husband Otto died at age 95 in 2000. I remembered a blog post I wrote five years ago reflecting on what I now realize was the last time I'd see her.

Then, as with now, standout memories for me include her stature. She was tiny at just over 5"3', but tough as nails and physically one of the strongest women I know. She was hyper pragmatic and rational, a savvy business woman, nonprofit Executive Director, a feminist before her time, a hostess and party organizer extraordinaire, and everything was straightforward with her. No fuss, just get it done. She was also incredibly sharp, intelligent with a dry humor. She cracked herself up the last time I saw her, at age 89, telling me this story: "One time a group of Missourians came down to Iowa to work on the farm and help bale hay. One of the women found out she was pregnant. She didn't even realize it. She must be a sound sleeper."

During that same visit, my then sister-in-law commented on my grandma's wedding ring, so Marion asked to see her ring. When they held their hands together, my grandma's face scrunched up and she looked around the room accusingly. "Hey," she persisted indignantly, "your ring is bigger than mine."

At my request she then told us my favorite story, the story of her courtship with my grandpa Otto. She was 19 years old, teaching grades K-8 in a one-room school house for $60 a month, when grandpa started coming around. At that time, she explained, female school teachers had to be single-not-married. When Otto proposed marriage... "I told him that I still wanted to teach. I liked to teach. He had two choices: Take it or leave it." Otto waited five years, courting her in the meantime, and helping her open the schoolhouse on early winter mornings to start the fire before the children came. Only when she decided she was done teaching did they get married in 1942.

Everyone in the family shares a memory of her infamous backseat narrations. To get anywhere in Iowa you drive for miles and miles and miles. She would take it upon herself to tell us who lived where, who was married to whom, what business existed, churches, schools, bus routes, anything. It wasn't just contemporary facts either, she would narrate 50 years of history about any particular place in the split second it took us to drive past it. When I was a teenager I didn't appreciate this gift. In the few times I saw her after college, I tried to make up the time I lost to being young and obnoxious, but I couldn't. This remains a signifiant regret for me. Particularly now as I'm delving into researching family history, I would give almost anything to have even just a few hours to talk to her. 

Most of all I remember her hands. They're iconic to me. They're rough and arthritic and beautiful. The poem above is something I wrote while visiting her in 2007. I took the photo of her hands at that same time. I knew it's what I wanted to remember about her. A black and white print of that photo hangs in my living room where I see it every day. 


My aunt Nyle wrote her obituary, posted in the Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier on 23 December 2012


Marion Janet Jessen was born December 1, 1918 in Aberdeen, South Dakota the daughter of Wilhelmina (Minnie) and Ray Arthur. The family moved to Waterloo, Iowa in 1919. She graduated from East High School in 1937. She attended Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls, Iowa for 6 months. From September 1937 to May 1942, she taught in rural one room schools in Black Hawk County.   
On July 12, 1942 she was united in marriage to Otto Jessen in Waterloo, Iowa. Together they owned a dairy farm and operated a retail dairy route with Otto’s brothers. In 1951 they bought a farm on Hammond Avenue in Orange Township. From 1941-1955 she volunteered for the Red Cross, Parents Teachers, and the American Red Cross. In 1955, she helped establish the American Cancer Society in Black Hawk County and became its executive director. On July 1, 1962 she bought her own business, Personal Gifts Company, a wholesale mail order business selling paper party supplies to retailers across the United States. In 1965, she bought a card and party shop in downtown Waterloo which was named The Paper Tree. In 1970, she leased a card and gift shop at the Crossroads Mall in Waterloo. She closed both stores in 1974 and operated the gift shop from the same location as Personal Gifts Company at 3306 Midway Drive, Waterloo.   
She was a member of the South Waterloo- Brethern Church, American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, and the Danish Brotherhood. She was the family historian for many years and visited German-Russian relatives in Germany to study her family geneology. She volunteered at a daycare center where she loved rocking the babies. Her joys were having family get-togethers, taking trips, and helping others. She will always be remembered as a loving mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.   
Survivors include sons, Tom (Nyle) of Iowa City, Jerry (Karin) of Orem, Utah and daughter, Lynet Lorenz (Randy) of Waterloo, 7 grandchildren: Kristine Hallaway (Steve) of Edina, Minnesota, Dawn Pawluk (Michael) of Arlington, Virginia, Gail Jessen of Salt Lake City, Utah, Ryan Jessen of New Orleans, Matthew Jessen (Heather White) of Waterloo, Patrick Berry of Waterloo and Derrick Berry (Jodi) of Guatamala City, Guatamala and 4 great-grandchildren. Also surviving are brothers Gene (Pat) Arthur of Waterloo, Dr. Jim Arthur (Shirley) of Villa Park ,California, Dick Arthur (Charlotte) of Foresthill, California, sister-in-law Helen Arthur of Tucson, Arizona and nieces and nephews. She was preceded in death by her parents, husband Otto, and brother Ralph.  
A memorial service will be held at a later time. Marion will be deeply missed by her family. 


Digging Deeper: Three Danish Generations

Crafting a catcher of dreams.