Tom Bruhn addressed the red envelope to his parents, Earl and Elaine Bruhn. Inside, he placed a Christmas card with upbeat, stream-of-consciousness musings about the couple’s beloved University of Minnesota Gophers football team (not doing great but they’ll come along). About the beautiful lights of the season. About his two grown kids, who were doing well.
Bruhn placed two stamps on the envelope. He rechecked the address. Even then, he had doubts about whether the card would reach his parents.
But it did reach them — at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis, where the long-married couple who died weeks apart in 2015 are buried together.
Sometime in late December or very early January, when windchills plunged to 10-below zero, someone received Bruhn’s handwritten card in the Fort Snelling mailroom, wrapped it in green cellophane, walked it to Section 21, Site 679, and set it gently against the Bruhns’ grave.
Yes, Christmas is over, but I’m guessing you have room in your heart for one more tale of goodwill, one simply too good to pass up.
This one came to me via e-mail from grateful reader Bruhn.
“I’m not sure why I sent you this note, other than that I had to tell someone how nice this was of the employees/volunteers at the cemetery,” Bruhn wrote.
“I tried to find an e-mail address to send a thank-you note directly to Fort Snelling, but they Facebook and Twitter and I don’t do that.”
Bruhn eventually faxed to Fort Snelling a photograph he took of the card at his parents’ graveside, along with an expression of his deepest gratitude. “I hope they got the fax,” he told me, “and realized they made someone very happy.”
Bruhn, 62, lives in Burnsville where he’s self-employed in the insurance industry. His wife, Kristine Bruhn, is a client advocate. They have two grown children, Emily, 32, and Tim, 29.
Bruhn grew up in Owatonna, Minn., with three sisters. His father, Earl, was athletic director for Owatonna High School for 31 years. Mom, Elaine Eide Bruhn, took a job midlife with Federated Insurance and became one of their prized programmers.
Sports brought Earl and Elaine together as young adults. Her game was softball, but she could play anything, her son said. “She could whip a baseball. She was good.”
Earl went on to letter in football and baseball at the U, then joined the Marines in college, before being honorably discharged due to losing partial sight in one eye after being hit by a baseball.
He was always embarrassed about the discharge, his son said. “He wanted to complete his service.”
Earl and Elaine married in 1947. They raised their four children, worked hard, and continued to live and breathe sports. Bruhn remembers going with his parents every Saturday to Gopher football games from the time he was 7.
About a decade ago, Elaine developed Alzheimer’s, “but never forgot the people who sat next to her at Federated,” her son said.
The couple eventually moved from their home in Owatonna into assisted living, before Elaine moved into a memory care unit. Earl visited his wife several times a day.
Drives from Burnsville to Owatonna eventually became a daily occurrence for Bruhn. As his mom’s memory slipped away, he was content to just sit with her. “I’d done my grieving,” Bruhn said.
It was different with his father. “You become the person who has to tell them what to do at times,” Bruhn said. “It was hard on me, having to say, ‘Dad, you can’t be calling the police at 2 a.m.’ To have to take the keys away. Nobody should have to go through that.”
Elaine died Oct. 19, 2015, at age 90. “He gave up at that point,” Bruhn said of his dad. His father died six weeks later, on Nov. 28. He was 92. That holiday season was rough on everybody.
Friends told Bruhn he might find comfort in journaling, but he never tried. His grief eventually lifted.
Last December, Bruhn and Kristine were reviewing their Christmas card list. His parents were still on it. Bruhn, always a jokester, told his wife he was going to write them a card and send it to Fort Snelling.
She was highly skeptical of what might happen to it. “It was kind of crazy,” said Kristine, who lost her own mother when she was in 10th grade. She has known and loved his parents since she was a teenager. “I said, ‘If you want to do it, have at it.’ ”
She laughs. “Part of his reason,” she said, “was to prove me wrong.”
Bruhn bought a Christmas card. He began writing. “If it didn’t get there,” he said, “it felt good writing it.”
He mailed the card on Dec. 24.
Several days later, he stopped by the grave in darkness, guided by a flashlight. No card. “Busy time of year,” he told himself.
On Jan. 4, near noon, he checked again. “Even from the road, I could see something,” he said. There it was, wrapped in green cellophane.
“Somebody there made a decision to deliver it, no matter what. There are a lot of gravestones there.”
In fact, there are 178,000 gravestones there.
“And, to wrap it up,” he continued. “It blew me away. That person had no reason to put it out there, other than that he or she loves everyone out there.”
That person is a she.
She is the daughter of a veteran, who works as a cemetery representative. On one of those bitingly cold days, she delivered the letter between memorial services. She prefers to remain anonymous.
“From time to time, that does happen here,” said Bob Roeser, administrative officer for cemetery.
“We do our best to honor the vets who are buried here. We’re very proud of our employees and the care they take to do this.” (But he emphasizes that his tiny staff cannot possibly undertake a regular mail delivery service so, please, come visit your loved ones in person.)
Bruhn couldn’t resist also e-mailing to Kristine the picture he took of the holiday card at the grave. “I was like … my heart was just touched,” she said.“They came through.”
She’s happy for her husband, who finds “a lot of peace out there and, still a connection.” She said, “Sometimes, it’s hard for men to express their emotions. This was a way for him to acknowledge they were a big part of his life, and are still part of our daily lives, even though they’re not here.”
Bruhn has moved the letter, unopened, to his desk at home. “I’ve stared at it,” he said. “I’ll certainly keep it.
“I might open it next Christmas.”