MADISON LAKE —
“Soil expands and contracts, freezes, thaws, cracks, rises, sinks, and worms move through the dirt, paving the way for water and air to flow through and shift the soil. It happens so slowly that we cannot feel it. We don’t notice the change until a giant rock emerges and breaks the plow.”
Hanel encountered many of these metaphoric fieldstones in the graveyards she explored at the side of her father, a man who styled himself Digger O’Dell and approached his grisly labors with a certain cheerful and philosophical zest.
At Woodville Cemetery, she encountered Vicki Mittelstaedt, a young girl whose gravestone locket held a picture that enthralled Hanel’s young imagination.
Elsewhere, she encountered the Rux family who died in a tornado, Sheriff Don Eustice who was gunned down on the job, a pretty young waitress who died in a house fire with her young daughter, and the wife and six children of Jim Zimmerman who all died in the same car during a horrible accident with a train.
In her family’s photo albums and scrapbooks, she discovered that her father’s mother, Anna Hager, buried two infant daughters that succumbed to whooping cough within months of each other. She finds that her mother’s father, Greg Zimny, was just 7 years old in 1918 when the Spanish flu pandemic killed his mother, father and infant sibling.
Finding herself always drawn to the stories she gathered from graveyards, Hanel said it’s apparent now that she was staving off the isolation that already existed naturally in stoic Midwestern families, and was only exacerbated when her father died suddenly from a vicious cancer.
“Growing up with that and having these stories around me made me feel not alone,” Hanel said. “Like I was saving them all for a reason.”
That’s not to say Hanel’s upbringing wasn’t a loving one. Her father was good-natured and available to his youngest daughter that craved his attention. Her mother was an encouraging sort, an avid reader who supported Hanel’s interests and indulged her curiosity.