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Continued: Reporter never knew she had Minn. roots until job brought her … home

  • Article by: MAYA RAO , Star Tribune
  • Last update: May 16, 2014 - 6:19 PM

Painting the past

My mother had a hard time answering my questions about her father because he had been so reserved, and had died so young. I hadn’t thought to ask my grandmother about him before she died. Frank didn’t remember much, but Aunt Lore knew someone who would: Omar, his childhood best friend.

Now 95 and living in a nursing home in Northfield, Omar spoke haltingly, as though he were always short of breath. The retired St. Olaf College religion professor joked that the lives of some people, like my grandfather’s, were too short, while other people, like him, lived too long.

He told me how he and my grandfather used to make prank calls at the local store and how they spent their Sunday afternoons working on their stamp collections. Edward even brought stamps back from the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933.

Omar hadn’t seen Edward in more than 70 years and the details were fading, but he spoke fondly of my grandfather, remembering him as a leader, even pulling out their high school yearbook to show me that my grandfather had been the editor.

If I could never know my grandfather, knowing Omar was the next best thing. He was cheerful despite his flagging energy, always eager to show me photographs and tell me one more story. He took me around St. Olaf and invited me to dinner at the retirement home.

Before we ate, he bowed his head and began the prayer, “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest” — the same prayer my mother taught us to say every night. I had never heard that prayer at any other kitchen table on the East Coast.

On a wall in his room, he had a painting of a woman standing on the prairie. She was looking into the distance, holding a bouquet of wildflowers, her two children close by.

I had the same painting hanging in my living room. My mother had given it to me to help fill the bare walls of my first apartment, but I never thought it had any significance.

Omar did. He told me it was “The Prairie Is My Garden,” by prominent South Dakota artist Harvey Dunn.

It suddenly clicked for me. My copy of the painting had been passed down from my great-grandmother, moving from state to state and generation to generation.

And now, decades later, it was close to where it had begun its journey. In a way, so was I.


Maya Rao • 612-673-4210


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  • Rao had hung a copy of the painting “The Prairie Is My Garden” to cover a bare spot on her wall. She didn’t know it was a family heirloom.

  • Although Rao, right, never met her grandfather, his childhood friend, Omar, brought him to life through his stories.

  • Questions about her grandfather led Maya Rao on a quest to learn about her family history.

  • In a 1915 photo, Rao’s great-grandmother Clara and her siblings pose in front of their Albert Lea home, which was later torn down.

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