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By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — Even though Ilene Pingel was upset when she was a little girl because her brother had broken the only doll she had received for Christmas right after she got it, by the time she was an adult, Ilene had not thought about the doll in years.
Not until one certain Christmas.
Ilene is a resident at the Colfax Health and Rehabilitation Center, and she grew up on a farm in Chippewa County near New Auburn with three brothers but no sisters. Jerome was older, and Max and Clyde were younger. Jerome and Max died in the same week some years back. Clyde still lives on the home farm.
“Clyde was born on my birthday, and I was eight years old when he was born,” Ilene said.
“We weren’t very rich, I guess you’d say, and we didn’t have a lot of things at Christmas time,” she said.
“For Christmas, we just had cotton socks. In my sock one year, I had an orange and a pink toothbrush. I still remember that toothbrush. I don’t know why it stands out that it was pink,” Ilene said.
“When we went to bed on Christmas Eve, that’s when we had the Christmas tree,” she said, explaining that her parents would get out the decorations and decorate the Christmas tree after the children had all gone to bed on Christmas Eve.
“Us kids thought it was great,” Ilene said.
“We had the Christmas tree decorated, but there were no other decorations. Back then, we didn’t have all of the pretty things there are now,” she said.
“I think all of us, the family and friends around us, I think all of us were in the same way. They all didn’t have much money, either. I think we were so young, we didn’t know about (the Great Depression). We just did the things that kids did,” said Ilene, who was born in 1925.
And then came the year of “the doll.”
“My mother had gotten me a doll one year. I can’t remember if it was the year of the orange and the pink toothbrush, but my brother broke it. I was so disgusted,” Ilene said.
“And I never got any more dolls after that. But then after I was married, Irene, Jerome’s wife, she heard about it, and she went and bought me a doll and gave it to me. And it’s still at home in a box yet (on display),” Ilene said.
“Just think, after I’d been married a long time, here she came with that doll. I couldn’t imagine. She said, ‘Here’s the doll you didn’t get to have when you were younger.’ And it’s still in the box. It was sitting on my dresser. I haven’t been home since May. I was sick. They had to take me to the hospital. I was there for quite a while. Then they brought me here,” Ilene said.
“Our grandma and grandpa lived right across from us (when Ilene was growing up), and we’d take little strips and pieces of paper and make (paper chains). I don’t know why that grandma put up with us kids anyway. But I loved her to death,” Ilene said.
Ilene and her husband, Wayne, were married in 1943. They raised two daughters, and they have four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Wayne passed away in 2015.
“We were both eighteen when we got married,” Ilene said.
Peanuts in the shell were a big deal, too, when Ilene was growing up.
“I do remember that one time, my mother had bought some peanuts. My dad liked peanuts. For Christmas. She hid them. And we found them. And when she wasn’t there, we would go and get some,” Ilene recalled.
When asked if they had eaten all of the peanuts before her dad got any of them, Ilene smiled. “No. No, we didn’t want to eat it all.”
“Our school, out in the country, at Christmas time we’d have the program, and we’d have to sing. After the program was over, everybody got an apple. We thought that was great,” she said.
Ilene recalls that her mother made Christmas donuts and that her mother always baked bread.
“But we didn’t make candy, or anything like that. After I was married, we lived with Wayne’s folks for five years. And at Christmas, they made cookies with frosting and good chocolate candy. My grandma sent a small box of candy once, a brown sugar candy, through the mail. I can remember that,” Ilene said.
“Things were different. Thinking about my mother — nowadays the kids will have cookies and frosting. My mother always made donuts. That was quite a thing for us,” Ilene said.
“When I stop to think about it, it was a lot different than it is today,” she said. “We all got along okay, anyway. But that’s all we knew, I guess.”
“When we lived with Grandma Pingel (after Wayne and Ilene were married), every Christmas we had to have a lot of cookies and baking. Then when we moved over to the farm, I did it for myself. I made candy. We weren’t very rich then, either,” she said.
“Wayne would have to go get the tree, and then we would decorate it. I remember we had bells. I don’t think Wayne and I had gifts, but we did get Susan a little rocking chair. She loved her rocking chair. And she’s still got it,” Ilene said. “She was eleven before Julie was born. We had her for ourselves to spoil her. And we did.”
When asked what Susan thought about it when her sister was born, Ilene said, “She thought it was okay. Because she knew I was going to have a baby. But my mother, when she had her baby (Ilene’s younger brother), I didn’t know she was going to have a baby. When I came home, and it was my birthday, and here was Mother in bed. I couldn’t believe it. (An aunt) came and got the baby and showed me. Nowadays, even these little kids, they know what you’re gonna have. We didn’t know that. It was a big surprise on my birthday,” Ilene said.
“I think about what happened before me, when my grandma was living. If she was pregnant and would be sewing diapers, but when the people were going by with the horses, she would hide those diapers so nobody would know she was going to have a baby. She always wore a long dress,” Ilene said.
Sledding and ice skating in the winter were important activities, too, when Ilene was growing up.
“We went to a friend’s place that had kind of a little lake, this was when I was in high school. And we’d all go skating on that pond,” Ilene recalled.
“But the day when we got word of the war (December 7, 1941, the date of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the United States into World War II), all of us kids just stopped because it scared us to death,” she said.
“Us country kids didn’t have much, but we had a (school) program. And the folks came. But we had fun though. We’d go sledding and ice skating. That was a lot of fun for all of us,” Ilene said.
“When Susan was little, she made a horse out of snow. And it was very good. And of course, she went to college, and she’s an artist. She loves to paint, to work with the kids and other people. But she doesn’t like to do walls,” Ilene said with a gentle smile.
As it turns out, Ilene Pingel is the grandmother of Colfax Health and Rehab’s administrator, Jill Gengler.
“My granddaughter, Jill, is the administrator of this place,” Ilene said.
“I took care of that little Jill when she was a baby because her mother and dad were both at college. Then they went to live in Eau Claire. And oh. I missed her so. Wayne did too,” she said.
“On Thursdays, every Thursday, we went to get Jill. We were going to Eau Claire to get that little one. We loved her so,” Ilene said.
And of course, the advantage to living in the facility of which your beloved granddaughter is the administrator means that your granddaughter can come to see you frequently.
“She stops in to see me every day, unless she has to go away somewhere. She stops in to see me for a little while, and I do so enjoy seeing her,” Ilene said.
According to Wayne Pingel’s obituary, Wayne died at the age of 89 on June 22, 2015. He married Ilene Shipman on November 3, 1943, at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Bloomer. He and Ilene loved working on the farm, where they taught their children the value of hard work and family togetherness.
Wayne served two terms on the Auburn Town Board and enjoyed meeting and talking with many people in the area while he removed their unwanted tree stumps. He found great joy dancing and singing, watching baseball, skiing and watching others have fun skiing at Pingel Hill, chainsaw carving, anything to do with horses, and spending time with his family and friends.