Saturday, August 25, 2012

In Memory of My Dega

The native language of the Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) Tribe of Nebraska includes a word, dega.  Roughly translated, it means "the big guy who looks after me"  or "uncle."   Not every child has a father in the community, but every child has a dega.  It might be a big brother, uncle, cousin, neighbor or friend of the family who, when push comes to shove, will look after a child.  A dega is more than a mentor.  A dega, whether a blood relative or not, is family.

I'm not a member of the Winnebago Tribe, but I have often thought the term dega best describes my late Uncle Bill, Carl Quist.  He was my mother's younger brother -- the tall, strapping young sailor pictured above.   He was quiet. He never married.  But he was a wonderful uncle to three nieces and three nephews.

My earliest memory of Uncle Bill is his lifting me up to touch the ceiling in the farmhouse where I grew up.  He remembered every birthday, every holiday, every graduation with cards and generous cash gifts.  At my law school graduation, he came to the pre-graduation reception at the law school and said, "Your grandfather would have been proud of you."  I knew that what he really meant was, "I'm proud of you."  He just couldn't quite say it.  [Ironically, my grandfather, a retired lawyer and judge, who was still alive when I learned I was accepted into law school and had been awarded a scholarship said, "What's a nice girl like you want to go and do a damn fool thing like that for!!  You should be a teacher or a nurse!"  In hindsight, I should have listened to him.  I'd have made a lousy nurse, but I could have been a pretty good teacher, I think.  I love the law in theory, but I hate the practice of law.  So I hated going to work every day for over 30 years.]

He took all of us nieces and nephews fishing and boating-- in canoes, motor boats and his Flying Scot sailboat.  He towed that sailboat from Boston to Pierre, SD, to be the first to sail on the Oahe Reservoir.  We quickly learned that "Stand by to come about!" meant "Duck!!" (or be hit by the boom).

Uncle Bill graduated from law school the same year I started first grade.  He spent his entire career working as an attorney for the SD Department of Transportation, where, among other duties, he procured rights of way for all the land under Interestate 90, which spans the State of South Dakota from west to east, and Interstate 29, which spans the eastern corridor of the state from south to north.  He was active in the bar, and a highly respected litigator.  (A member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit and the Chief Justice of the SD Supreme Court were at his funeral.) But unlike most lawyers I have known (myself included), he managed to find a work-life balance.

He especially enjoyed hunting and fishing, and made annual trips to Juneau, Alaska, to visit his older brother, Bob.

My dad died of a sudden heart attack when I was 14 and my brother was 13.  And that's when Uncle Bill assumed the role of dega.  In his quiet, steady way, he looked after my brother and me -- and my mother--from 150 miles away.  He always shared pheasants and fish with my mom, and visited her frequently.  He was the one who helped my brother and me during the difficult week in 2004 when, due to Mom's rapidly deteriorating health, she was transferred from assisted living to a skilled nursing facility.  But he didn't attend Mom's funeral in February of 2005.  I think it was because he was afraid he would cry in public. He did not tolerate sissies.

He was the family historian, keeping the photos, journals, newspaper clippings, books, and scrapbooks that chronicled the lives of generations of Quists and Parrotts.  My cousin Bill, his namesake, has now assumed that role.

He retired to Florida (sort of) but he always kept in touch with short (very short, some might say cryptic) letters.  He kept his apartment in Pierre until shortly before he died, and kept SD license plates on his big honking SUV, which he was no longer able to drive, because he was a fiercely loyal South Dakotan who refused to consider himself anything other than an extended visitor to Florida.

His cousin Jeannie, a CNA who lived in Florida, and later Georgia, cared for him during the final years of his life as his health deteriorated.  She was there as he moved from walker to wheelchair and finally to bedridden, but in his own bed.  He remained mentally alert.  He loved crossword puzzles and word games, and at 78, could beat anyone at Wheel of Fortune.

He could be a stubborn old curmudgeon at times, but Jeannie was strong enough to take it in stride.  My brother calls her "the angel" who sacrificed time with her own family to do what none of the rest of us "kids", hundreds of miles away, were willing or able to do.

During one visit to Florida, he asked me to hem a favorite plaid shirt (he always wore plaids when he wasn't working) because it was "too damn long."  So Jeannie let me use her mother's Featherweight, and I gladly accommodated the request.  I mentioned in casual conversation that the alteration was fun, because I got to sew on a Featherweight--a collector's item for quilters.  A few months later I received a Featherweight as a thank you gift from Uncle Bill.  He'd ask Jeannie to find one for me because he thought I'd like it.

Uncle Bill would have been 81 this month, and so, as I remember his birthday, still circled on my August calendar, I felt a need to offer this belated tribute to my uncle, my rock, my dega.

LeAnn aka pasqueflower


  1. Thanks for sharing =) I'm from the Etsy blog team.

  2. Believe it or not, I am crying. And I hate crying in public, too... I am only confessing to let you know how deeply I was moved.

    What a tribute. Everyone would like to have such a dega. You are very fortunate.

    Thank you. I found you at the Etsy Blog Team. However, I did not expect to find something that would make me choke and get up for a glass of water...

  3. What a beautiful and moving tribute to your dega. You are very blessed to have had such a special person in your life.

  4. What a sweet and wonderful tribute to your Dega. It takes a special man to take on that type of responsibility. I know you must miss him.


  5. What a beautiful story of your uncle. You were so blessed to have such a good man as a mentor and uncle in your life.

  6. What a touching post! He sounds like a wonderful man! You were both blessed to have each other in your lives :)

  7. What a wonderful tribute to your dega. He sounds like he was a loving uncle underneath that plaid shirt!

  8. A wonderful tribute to your dear uncle and dega, LeAnn.

    You are indeed blessed to have had such a wonderful and caring man in your life, and a strong, connected family; many people, including myself, were never that lucky.

    He sounds like quite the fascinating character, too!

  9. It is such a blessing to have such a great man in your life. I know that the male examples in my life have really shaped who I am.

  10. What a beautiful tribute to your dega. He sounds like a wonderful person who meant a lot to you. I'm sure you miss him very much. Such a touching post, thanks for sharing.
    Everyday Inspired

  11. Ah-ho! I am ho-chunk and loved how you used the that word dega I am a dega too.

    1. You play a very important role as a dega!