The day Leona Varville married in 1938, she rode a bike in her wedding dress and laughed when her veil got caught in the spokes.
Days later, the new bride baked bread for the first time and was mortified by the brick that emerged from her oven. She quickly buried it in the backyard. In the spring, her husband, Gene, got quite the surprise when he rototilled the garden and unearthed an odd mass.
“He didn’t know what the heck it was,” said daughter-in-law Helen Varville. With a sly grin, Lee, as she was known, “confessed she had buried it because she didn’t really know how to cook,” Helen said. “She got better as time went on.”
Varville, of Minneapolis, died Sept. 15 at 103, just days after a stroke at Catholic Eldercare in northeast Minneapolis. She would have turned 104 in October.
The petite woman, known and loved for her pea soup, liver and onions, almond cookies, family dinners, card games and love of parish socials, was adored for her dry, wry humor. One year, she slipped a plastic cockroach magnet onto the refrigerator of her then-small grandkids. The discovery sent the kids scrambling.
During one visit to Georgia, Varville insisted she didn’t like a meal prepared by her daughter-in law. She never cracked a smile but had three helpings.
“She liked joking,” Helen said. “She had lived through so many presidents and so many inventions and technologies since she has been on this Earth. Way back then, they had a crank [handle] phone. She kept saying, ‘I never thought I would live to be this age.’ ”
While the years brought sorrows, such as the passing of her son, Don, in March 2018 and her husband, Gene, in 1996, they also delivered smiles, travel and lots of wonder. “Last year when she turned 103, I had her do her first selfie” on a smartphone, said granddaughter Sherry Nater of Plymouth. “She had a big smile on that one. She thought that was cool.”
The woman born during World War I “would talk about going through the Depression and [World War II] and about when they got ration cards for luxury things like coffee, sugar or rice,” Helen recalled. But the ever-adaptable Lee took it in stride.
With older sister Angeline and younger brother Lawrence, Varville grew up in Proctor, Minn., before moving to northeast Minneapolis as a teenager. Varville left high school in 11th grade after a clash with school nuns.
At 21, she met Gene on a blind date and later quipped that she wasn’t immediately charmed. That took a second date. The young couple lived in Minneapolis but soon left for Chicago Heights, Ill., where there was work for Gene. After son Don was born in 1938, they returned to Minneapolis, where Gene worked for Electric Machinery Co. in northeast Minneapolis.
The neighborhood would be a lifelong hub. The couple joined St. Clement’s Church, settled into a rental on 19th Avenue NE. and had daughter Karen (Miskowic). They soon bought a duplex on Jefferson Avenue NE. Leona worked part time at Electric Machinery for a spell, and later she took a night job as her children grew older.
Ever the hostess, she always had a ready supply of butter cookies, salami sandwiches and Kraft macaroni and cheese for her kids and grandkids. Even at Catholic Eldercare, where she had lived since 2016, she used her “bingo bucks” to buy chocolate-covered mints for guests.
“She was a very sweet lady. She was easy to get along with,” said daughter Karen. “I was lucky. I had good parents.”
In addition to her daughter, daughter-in-law, brother and sister, she is survived by 11 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. Services have been held.