Ron Rudolph awoke at 1 a.m. on a January night, just days after his wife, Pat, died. He remembers feeling strangely claustrophobic in his spacious ranch-style home in Corcoran. But grief turns everything upside down and inside out, so Rudolph, feeling the walls closing in, got dressed and headed out into the biting cold to his workshop.
Once there, the 63-year-old carpenter began cutting scraps of cedar into distinct shapes. Two pieces for the sides. One for the back. One for the top. One for the roof. One for the door.
Rudolph lost track of time cutting wood. “I didn’t go out there with the idea of making hundreds of bluebird houses,” he said softly. “I did it kind of … to just calm down.”
Over the next few weeks, he built one bluebird house after another, until his workshop was filled with them.
“Bluebirds were her favorite bird, and he needed one last connection to her,” said Rudolph’s daughter, Kristy Boike, noting that her mother, who died Jan. 4 of a brain tumor at 60, loved the little bird’s color and its connection to happiness.
But soon he confessed to Boike, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with all these birdhouses.” That feeling of helplessness watching him in so much pain “was pretty awful,” she said.
Boike, a New Prague mother of four, got an idea. She posted a notice — “bluebird houses for sale” — on Facebook garage-sale sites. She attached the story “of how we lost my mom and how my dad just needed to keep his hands and mind busy during this time of tremendous grief.”
As of this week, they’ve sold nearly 700 houses with a waiting list of more than 60 people. The birdhouses come as kits ($10), assembled houses ($15) or houses mounted on 6-feet steel posts ($25). Retirees, young families and 4-H groups all want them.
“I had no idea this was going to snowball like it did,” Rudolph said.
The family is keeping the proceeds in a fund until they can decide how to appropriately honor Pat’s memory. But no amount of cash compares to the value of hugs Rudolph receives from friends and strangers who buy his birdhouses and share their own stories of loss.
“You think you’re alone,” he said. “But there’s nobody who hasn’t been affected.”
“People say, ‘I don’t even want a bluebird house,’ ” added Boike, “and they order five, six, 10. I couldn’t keep track.”
Ron and Pat were married for 35 years, after being fixed up on a blind date. Pat, from Bloomington, was a labor and delivery nurse at North Memorial Medical Center. He was raised on a farm. He’s worked for 40 years at Scherer Bros. Lumber Co., where his managers “let me take the time I needed.”
The couple raised three children — Nicole, of Richfield; Boike; and Peter, of Tampa, Fla. — and have eight grandchildren. They cherished family time and getaways to a cabin in Itasca State Park.
In 2004, Pat was found to have breast cancer. She had a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. Boike, still in high school at the time, remembers picking out a wig with her mom.
“We thought we had it beat,” Rudolph said. On July 4, 2016, he was walking with his wife in Duluth when she got dizzy and began walking “off-stride.” Tests revealed a brain tumor the size of a softball. She had surgery, but died 18 months later.
“Looking at retirement, ya know … all of a sudden.” He wiped away tears. “Right after she died, there are people everywhere. The kids were all here. But the kids go away. That’s how these bluebird houses happened.”
The bluebird houses are a decidedly family affair. Rudolph’s 90-year-old father screws on the tops. Boike’s 11-year-old daughter, Grace, helps drill entry holes. Ten-year-old Ryan helps with the sawing. Matt, 13, assists in mounting birdhouses on poles. Rudolph loads them into his truck and drives them to New Prague, where his 2-year-old grandson, Noah, helps hand them out to happy buyers. (For information on buying a birdhouse, e-mail email@example.com.)
Rudolph has developed a routine. He works his day job from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m., then comes home and builds. Things are still “a bit tender,” he said. So he’ll keep making bluebird houses, and Boike will keep selling them to keep her father busy.
“We’re kind of a two-man band,” she said with a laugh. “In the face of this horrible time, we’re spreading joy and happiness, and we didn’t even know it. I feel like Mom is sitting up there, guiding this.”