Though she'll celebrate her 90th birthday Saturday, July 10, Marlys Swenson would probably still be working if her doctor and children hadn't forced her to finally turn in her apron at the Pine River Family Market last year.
Having had a heart valve replacement at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Swenson was at particular risk. Even though she left her job, Swenson still contracted the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, though she was fortunate to survive.
"But she did get COVID," said Tina Spielman, her youngest daughter. "And we were very lucky."
"I have a birthday party on July 10. The band I like is going to play and I'm going to dance."
— Marlys Swenson, turning 90
"I was down for three weeks," Swenson said.
It may be no surprise that Swenson wished to continue working for as long as she could. When she was born in Browns Valley, the United States was in the throes of the Great Depression. Employment and financial stability have been a particularly high priority from Day One.
Even after the Depression ended, for 20 years Swenson had 14 reasons to develop a strong work ethic. She worked many jobs to support her 14 children. Her ex-husband was working in the woods at the time, but with so many children they did everything they could to make ends meet.
"We did have a cow and one of the kids milked the cow," Swenson said. "We had some chickens and more or less I worked to feed the kids. When I worked at the Bertha Hospital I canned 500 quarts a year. I canned everything, corn on the cob and jam."
"We did have a cow and one of the kids milked the cow. We had some chickens and more or less I worked to feed the kids."
— Marlys Swenson, mother of 14
Life in a house with up to nine children at a time was like a story out of a book with as many as three kids in a bed and a pickup with a box built in the back with seating for all the older kids. Of course, when some kids got to a certain age, they helped with chores, watching their younger siblings and making a living to support the family until they were grown and able to move out.
Swenson worked from age 16, starting at Doty's Cafe in Sebeka. At 18, she was married with her first child 72 years ago. She took time off from work to raise her first child, then her second and third. She started working at Bertha Hospital, then Park Rapids Hospital, where one day she worked the morning and gave birth to her next child that evening.
From then on she worked a dozen other jobs, including Bertha Hospital, The Great Northern Restaurant, the shaving shed at Christiansen Lumber Company, Woodsman's Cafe, Mary Etta's Pies in Pequot Lakes and the Jenkins VFW.
She and her daughter then went into business with JJ's Pizza's in Pine River. Finally, after her son bought the pizza place from them, she went on to bake at Jerry's Supervalu in Pine River. She remained in that building through several new owners and names until last year when she had open heart surgery and the threat of COVID-19 loomed. Her doctor told her she had to quit.
Spielman said the doctor's orders weren't enough to stop her from going to work at first.
"We actually had to fight with her to stay home," Spielman said. "We actually had the fight with her and she thought she was going to still go up to work during COVID when her doctor told her not to. And one day she called me and told me she was actually going to work. And I said, 'Oh, no you're not.' I said, 'No. If you get COVID , Mom, it might not be good.'"
"I told him, 'I have to get up here and get to work to feed the kids,'" Swenson said. "I don't mean my kids, I mean the other kids."
"We actually had the fight with her and she thought she was going to still go up to work during COVID when her doctor told her not to."
— Tina Spielman, Marlys Swenson's daughter
In her retirement she spends time with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
"I had 15 children," Swenson said, noting that sadly, one baby died shortly after birth. "I have 35 grandchildren. I have 67 great-grandchildren and I have six great-great-grandchildren and we have at least two on the way."
She meets with friends once a week at the CommUnity Meals at the Pine Mountaineer Senior Center in Backus and goes for drives once or twice a week. She makes time as often as possible for her favorite pastime, dancing.
"I went up to the fair and danced the other day," Swenson said.
After recovering from COVID-19 and no longer working on her feet, Swenson was a little worried about her dance moves before the big day.
"When they had it at the fair she was kind of nervous because of the COVID thing and she hasn't gotten the exercise," Spielman said. "She was worried if she was going to be able to dance and I said, 'Well, you don't have to dance every dance. Dance every other.'"
That's why when they ring in her 90th birthday on July 10, Swenson's favorite band, The Frankie Lamb Band, will be there to provide music for dancing.
"I have a birthday party on July 10," Swenson said. "The band I like is going to play and I'm going to dance."
After 90 years and a lot to show for it, she will certainly cut a rug.
Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or firstname.lastname@example.org.