Some grandparents move to be closer to their grandchildren, and, other times, it’s the other way around. Marlys DeBettignies feels like her life is brighter because her grandson and family, including four great-grandchildren, live just a few blocks down the road from her home in Sauk Rapids. Grandson, Matt, and his wife, Jen, moved there from Rosemount, in the Twin Cities area, after they were married.
Matt believes his grandma brings stability to the entire family, sharing her love and understanding and a sense of calm. “She is someone you can always go to,” he said. “You could be feeling the weight of the world, or you’re alone or worried, but you would always have grandma, helping keep everything okay.” He recalled one incident, which stood out in his mind, when he tried to fix her broken radio when he was just 8 years old. He took it apart but couldn’t fix it. “I thought she would be mad,” Matt said, but, instead, she was proud of his curiosity.
Marlys DeBettignies, just hanging out with her great-granddaughter, Rianna. Contributed photo
He has vivid childhood memories of holidays spent with Grandma and Grandpa DeBettignies, eating grandma’s homemade lefse, raiding a fully-stocked candy drawer and eating dinner downstairs at the kids’ table with cousins. “Holidays at grandma’s were the best.” During the summer, he and his dad spent weekends fishing at Lake Ida, north of Alexandria, where his grandparents had their camper. They would spend the whole day on the lake, and after the sun went down, the fish were cleaned, and grandma would cook fish for supper.
Matt and Jen’s 10-year-old daughter, Rianna, has a special bond with her great-grandma. During the summer, she spent Wednesdays with DeBettignies. “I just like to hang out with her,” she said. “She taught me to play solitaire and other card games. And she taught me to work the oven and to run the washer and dryer so I can do it at home.” They talk about everything from her love of art to fishing, and they play silly games, such as Rianna concocting “a surprise” for DeBettignies to eat and then having her guess what’s in it. When Rianna plays basketball in the driveway or rides her bike, DeBettignies sits in her lawn chair, soaking up the sunshine. “I’m just happy to watch and take it all in,” she said. “It would be boring around here without the kids.”
Matt thinks that the special connection between his grandma and his daughter is due to them having similar personalities.
“They’re both kindhearted people, and they enjoy helping others more than themselves,” he said. “They always have something good to say and always seem to have sunny personalities.”
Rianna was born shortly after DeBettignies’ husband, Duane, died in December 2005. Holding Rianna and rocking her was therapy for his grieving grandma. Their close relationship began early on.
DeBettignies feels blessed. “I’m so fortunate to have my family, and I thank God all the time for them,” she said. She has a garage filled with bikes and toys to entertain her great-grandchildren, who are frequent visitors. There’s also a freezer stocked with ice cream and other frozen treats. “The kids know where to find the treats better than I do,” she said. “One thing I make is chocolate chip cookies. I use the cookie dough from Schwann’s. But they don’t last long, especially right out of the oven.”
DeBettignies grew up in western Minnesota, graduating from Canby High School. She knew her own grandparents well and visited them at their home in South Dakota when she was young. Her grandparents originally came from Norway, and she’s traveled there several times over the years to visit relatives. The family continues to hold annual reunions, most recently in Hendricks, and people attend from all over the country.
She learned to value family, and she developed her strong faith at an early age, and she has always shared the importance of both with her children, grandchildren and, now, great-grandchildren. “I actually have 12 great-grandchildren,” DeBettignies said. They are all 10 and younger and full of energy, but she feels grateful when she can spend time with them.
DeBettignies spent her career working as a registered nurse. After her retirement from the Department of Public Health, she continued to be active in a number of areas, including sharing her time and talents and joyful spirit in the Befriender ministry at her church, Bethlehem Lutheran. She visited homebound church members and others who were living in assisted living and nursing home facilities, offering her friendship and sharing news from the church. She made weekly visits to people who didn’t get regular visitors, remembering birthdays, inquiring about family and dropping off devotional books. Befrienders are trained to befriend and to be good listeners, something DeBettignies does well.
Life is quieter these days, except for the occasional one when her great-grandchildren are hanging out. Then, the house is filled with activity and excitement. You’ll hear no arguments from DeBettignies, however. She loves the company, and it keeps her busy baking more batches of chocolate chip cookies. Kids always have room for cookies.