DeLores Vivian Engen, 92, died the afternoon of Oct. 13, 2021, in her bed at home. She survived much in her life, but dementia and colon cancer claimed her. She was comfortable until the end.
She was born in Valley City, N.D., in 1929 to her Norwegian-immigrant mother, Ragna Mathilda Aune, and father, Lloyd Nelson. No one got divorced in those days, especially Norwegian Lutherans, but Ragna and Lloyd did. When DeLores was shy of her second birthday, her mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis and went to live in a “sanitarium” called San Haven, near Dunseith, N.D., where she would live for nearly a decade. Lloyd must not have been prepared to be a single parent, so DeLores went to live with her maternal grandparents while her older sister, Geraldine, was sent to her paternal grandparents. DeLores got the better deal. Her grandparents had reared all eight of the children they brought on a boat from Norway and were apparently up for the task of starting over with DeLores.
DeLores’ grandparents spoke only Norwegian in the home and Oldus, her granddad, spoke broken English around Valley City without a worry. Mom learned English at the deep end of the pool when she was sent to first grade. Along with an older girl who only spoke German, Mom experienced English-immersion training in a little North Dakota farm town. With the help of generous and kind uncles and aunts and neighbors, DeLores enjoyed childhood and had many fond memories of family and friends, the antics of her granddad, who made a living first as a farmer then as a handyman, and her grandmother, who worked at home from early morning until bedtime. She was shy, as was her grandmother. She was brought up in the Lutheran Church, made friends and was a normal kid, with the exception of a case of near-fatal spinal meningitis that rendered her comatose for a week and forever cured her fear of hospitals and needles.
Upon recovery and after a few years of high school, the Sisters of Mercy took a shine to the teen-aged DeLores who worked in Mercy Hospital rolling bandages. When it came time for high-school graduation, the sisters made DeLores an unexpected offer. Come to our nursing school, get your degree, work for five years at the hospital, and you’ll have paid for your education. The deal was struck and DeLores became a registered nurse in a hospital run by strict nuns. She’d worked for a year when one of the sisters told her that her debt was paid in full and DeLores ran a medical floor, doing what seemed the essence of who she was, taking care of people when they most needed it.
Those years clearly shaped her. She was on the floor when her pregnant best friend’s husband died suddenly in his hospital bed. DeLores rolled a bed in the room and took care of her grieving friend, along with all of her other charges, through the night. She spoke often in later years about the human touch of nursing and the fact that a back rub at the right time was as good or better than morphine.
The lovely DeLores caught the attention of Roy William Engen, a soldier returned from WWII who was working as a printer at the daily newspaper. He told a mutual friend that he was going to marry that girl, and he did.
DeLores’ grandmother was Norwegian, and therefore incapable of accepting help around the house from her granddaughter, so anything having to do with running a house had to be learned through osmosis or went unlearned. DeLores found herself in a profession where she was responsible in life-or-death situations but didn’t know how to cook a thing. For Roy and DeLores, the day-to-day stuff of domestic bliss was subject to trial and error. Among the errors, a beautiful loaf of freshly baked bread that was raw underneath the gorgeous crust, steak cooked beyond recognition and more. But over time they figured it out and DeLores’ cooking was what Roy craved until the day he died. She also fed two big boys who managed to survive.
A whole bunch of life happened, including the birth of Michael Roy Engen in 1956. DeLores retired from nursing, Roy got restless at the Times-Record and they packed up and moved to Missoula in 1962. They’d visited a couple of times because Roy’s sister lived in Missoula and they decided to give the little city in the mountains a try. It took.
Mom set to rearing Mike, had a second son, John, and the family took in Roy’s mother, for whom DeLores was caregiver. In addition, the neighborhood around 734 South Second Street was disproportionately populated by widows who somehow knew that the young mom at 734 was a good hand. You name the chore and DeLores was game. She dressed hair, cut nails, gardened, did minor home repair, baked and was available at the most critical times just to listen to lonely old women over a cup of coffee and a cookie. She was a friend, sincere and honest and generous. In addition to caring for her mother-in-law, DeLores was her sister-in-law’s driver for 30 years, in addition to being what we’d now call her personal assistant. She did all of this without complaint or compensation because it is simply what you did and your life, in addition to the lives you touched, was better for it.
After Roy’s mother died at 98, Roy retired and DeLores went back to nursing. Much had changed since she walked the floors of Mercy Hospital, but patients still needed attention and care and kindness, so the nursing-home setting was a good fit. She held herself to high standards of care while demanding the same of her colleagues. She retired after 10 years of hard work with a bit of money in the bank and a sense of accomplishment. She brought home new stories of lives lived, noted the daily drama of young folks working nights in a nursing home and collected more friends.
Everywhere she went, DeLores made friends. Whether it was her bright eyes, broad smile, empathetic nature or the fact that she was happy to listen when no one else would, she made friends. Some of them stuck with her from grade school and others came into her life at the end.
At some point in her life, the three syllables of DeLores, along with that pesky capital L, became too much for her friends and she became Dee. The women who swam with her knew her as Dee, as did her friends at Clark Fork Riverside and just about everyone who met her after she was 80.
Dee took care of Roy with a little help at first, then a lot. They moved from the house on Second Street to Clark Fork Riverside after nearly fifty years in the same place. Roy passed away in October of 2010 and Dee moved to a smaller apartment, where she lived independently until December of 2020. She loved her friends and hated the food.
It was a good thing that Dee overcame her fear of hospitals and needles, because the last 30 years of her life involved long visits in hospitals and lots of recovery. She had two knees replaced, then two hips and, at 90, a new right shoulder was installed. She griped a bit, but not a lot, and suffered with rheumatoid arthritis and all that comes with the disease without ever resigning herself to sitting around and letting life go on around her. She had time to think and in her late 80s struggled with why her mother and father all but abandoned her when she was little. She wondered what life would have been like living with her sister. She regretted avoiding her dad, who continued living in the same little town where her grandparents lived. But she bucked Norwegian tradition and let go of grudges too easily. She was the person her half-brother called when her mother was failing in a California hospital. Dee showed up and was her mother’s advocate until medical staff stumbled on the right course to get Ragna eating and home again. She was there the next time, too, at the end. And when Geraldine was dying from cancer and her niece needed help, Dee was on a plane and got it sorted so Gerry could be comfortable in her last days. Uncles and cousins and in-laws all relied on her. You could always count on DeLores.
Late last year, DeLores contracted Covid-19 and her son, John, her part-time caregiver, became her full-time companion. DeLores moved in with John and recovered from the virus. In doing so, it became clear that dementia had a firmer grip than Dee had let on in bits and pieces. It was no longer safe or proper for her to live on her own, so John found a house with room for the two of them and they settled into a routine. Her sons were committed to making their mom’s life as happy and comfortable as it could be, so DeLores was surrounded with all of her stuff, spent time with her friends, especially her dear friend Rita Pray, John, Libby the dog, a backyard teeming with birds and deer, visiting companions, Mike on the telephone and John’s friends. She ate well, didn’t have to worry about her needs being met and slept in. Mike and his wife Sandy, John and his partner Lucy, friends and colleagues all made it possible to take care of DeLores.
In May, DeLores was diagnosed with colon cancer and the family collectively decided that the diagnosis would take its course without her suffering through painful intervention and recovery. Thanks to Partners in Home Care’s hospice team and Mike Caldwell, Dee was always comfortable. On the Sunday before she passed away, Dee suddenly stopped making sense, didn’t want to eat and slept, mostly. In the end, she slipped away, but not before Mike got home.
Like most of the stories that appear in these pages, DeLores’ life isn’t done justice even in a long obituary like this one. There’s much missing here, anecdote and myth and legend, but we’ve done our best to convey the essence of our mom. She was actively kind. She was brave and tough when called to duty. She was born to help, took satisfaction and meaning from that help and made so many lives better in large and small ways. She was a skilled parent despite her rough start and unconventional childhood and another person in the same circumstances would have found countless reasons to be bitter, selfish, unkind and miserable. But that was not her. She chose to be as happy and useful as she could be. And she was.
DeLores was preceded in death by Roy, her grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins and friends. Mike and John and their families and friends, her pal Rita and many other friends survive her.
DeLores hated funerals because she was adept at crying and didn’t like to show off that talent in public. At her request, there will be no services. The best way to honor DeLores’ memory is by taking care of someone, family, friend or stranger, every day that you’re able. If you were inclined to honor her through a philanthropic gift, please keep the Missoula Food Bank, the Poverello Center or the Humane Society of Western Montana in mind.