Spring is slowly coming to our farm, with the days growing longer and the sun growing stronger.
Every so often we’ll skip forward a few weeks and have a day with temperatures in the 60s. Sections of green lawn emerge as the snow recedes and the earth warms. I like to think of them as patches of promise.
It would be on one of those patches more than 45 years ago where I would often see my cousin Lisa Kraemer. She’d be bundled up, her head covered with a hood, sitting on a blanket spread across the ground, her special quilt by her side, gently rocking back and forth in the sun.
Lisa was my first cousin who lived next door — in the house where I now live — under the care of our uncle and aunt Leland and Sara Clair. When Leland died in 1974, it was Aunt Sara and Lisa. She was the closest person to a sister I had.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Lisa lately. She was only 54 years old when she died Feb. 1.
lisa, clowns, empathy
Chris Hardie’s cousin Lisa Kraemer, shown in 1995, loved clowns and attended Clown Camp. (Chris Hardie photo)
Lisa came to live on the farm in 1969 — a year before my family moved. The daughter of my uncle Robert and aunt Dianne Kraemer, Lisa was born Dec. 10, 1965, a twin with her brother Greg — the only girl with four older brothers.
Lisa was diagnosed with autism when she was 2. The recommendation at the time was she be placed in a care facility, a gut-wrenching decision for any parent. But faith and perhaps divine intervention brought her under the care of Sara and Leland. They had no children of their own and agreed to take on an intensive program of treatment with Lisa, giving her a chance to grow mentally and physically.
“You see, Lisa wasn’t meant to impact only our family, but two or more families, along with her church and hundreds of individuals for the balance of her life,” her father wrote in a moving tribute shared at Lisa’s funeral.
We moved to the farm in 1970. The next year, the Kraemers moved to the neighborhood, so all the family was nearby. I saw Lisa almost every day. I didn’t know what autism was; I just knew Lisa was special.
Lisa loved collecting bugs — daddy-long-legs, to be specific. She would walk around the foundations of the farm buildings, collecting them in a plastic pail. I would sometimes help in her quest.
Lisa loved music. She would play records for hours when given the chance, lifting the needle and replaying her favorites — from children’s songs to hymns to popular music. She would happily, upon request, sing one of her favorites “Delta Dawn” by Helen Reddy.
Lisa loved photos — especially those with family members. In the days when everyone kept photo albums, Lisa would ask to see the pictures. It was common that some of them would go missing because Lisa would discreetly take those she liked.
Lisa loved marbles. She collected all shapes, sizes and colors. She would sort them, roll them, or drop them through her marble maze.
Lisa loved her special quilt made by Aunt Sara. Linus had nothing on Lisa when it came to a chosen blanket. The quilt accompanied her everywhere including the barn or chicken coop, where she would closely study the eating and strutting of the hens. She could also be found sitting on a hay bale in the barn, watching the cows chew their cud.
Lisa loved clowns and anything to do with the circus. She attended Clown College at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and was officially registered as Happy the Clown. She had clown friends from all around the world and continued a lifelong correspondence with some of them.
Lisa had dislikes — loud noises, cats, dogs and harsh language. She would sometimes squabble with Aunt Sara but they loved each other dearly. Lisa became the daughter Aunt Sara never had — and a blessing of companionship and purpose when Uncle Leland died suddenly in 1974. When Aunt Sara died in 2004, Lisa was under the care of her mother for a few years before moving in with a wonderful caregiver near Merrillan, where she flourished.
I have many memories of Lisa, from what had to be the world’s biggest smiles to her special way of greeting one by name, lingering on the vowels and consonants and dramatically drawing out their pronunciation. It was her tender way of saying hello.
She was inquisitive, asking questions on a myriad of subjects as she expanded her learning. Even if one didn’t see Lisa for months, she never forgot her special connection to that person. She remembered and treasured the bond she had with all who loved her, and who were often mentioned in her prayers.
As I grew older and understood more about autism, I marveled at Lisa’s amazing empathy. Her physical and mental challenges were no barriers to her true concern and compassion for others. It was a fitting tribute that Lisa became an organ donor, a final gift to others in need.
Our loss is that we need more empathy in this world, not less. That’s the lesson Lisa taught me and the legacy she leaves behind. She’s everything I could have wanted in a sister.
Today, I’m looking at one of those promise patches on our lawn. I can hear Lisa singing, “And did I hear you say he was ameetin’ you here today. To take you to his mansion in the sky.”
Chris Hardie spent more than 30 years as a reporter, editor and publisher. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won dozens of state and national journalism awards. He is a former president of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association. Contact him at email@example.com.