Vina Mikkelsen dreamed about him every night as she cried herself to sleep in a home run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Helena. “He was tall and wore a khaki uniform and a funny hat, and had a book in his hands,” she said, and she knew he was the man who would love her.
Her father was dead and her mother couldn’t or wouldn’t care for her large brood. “Welfare came and took us away from my mom when I was 14,” she recalled. “I cried at night. You didn’t cry during the day or the girls would’ve teased you.”
Vina’s brothers and sisters were sent to various foster homes and an orphanage, while she was sent “where bad girls go,” she said, and shrugged her shoulders. The lonely teen found comfort in her dreams of a mysterious young man.
When she was 18, Vina moved to Billings to be near her older brother. She found a room in a boarding house and got a job in a medical office. One day she returned home to find the man of her dreams standing in the living room. Everything about the handsome, young sailor was identical to her dream – even the book in his hands.
But she thought fate had made a mistake. “I wanted a man who could dance,” she said. And 27-year-old Pearl Harbor survivor Denis Mikkelsen was no dancer. So that night she went out with another young man. Unfortunately, though, the fellow could dance, “He also had 10 hands,” Vina said, shaking her head.
When they got to a restaurant she didn’t want to have to get back in the car with her date, but she had no money for a taxi. She spotted her landlady, Gert, and asked for cab fare, but Gert and her date didn’t have cash or a car either. “Let’s ask Denny,” she said, leading Vina to the table where her dream man sat.
The evening stretched into the wee hours of the morning. “It ended up being a double date,” she said. At 2 a.m. they had a fried chicken feast at a local restaurant, and at 5 a.m. Denis took her to Mass, even though he wasn’t Catholic at the time.
Two weeks later, 19-year-old Vina and 27-year-old Denis were married. When asked how he proposed, Denis replied, “I said, ‘Why don’t we get married?’ ” And then he grinned. “Not real romantic.”
According to his wife, “He hasn’t changed!”
“She’s nuts,” said Denis with a fond smile.
“He always says that,” Vina replied. “We had no money, of course. I had $11 saved.” And by the time their honeymoon was over, they had a baby on the way. When Denis took his bride to Wilbur, Wash., to meet his family, she was greeted warmly by his mother. He recalled his mother taking Vina into her arms and looking into her eyes. His own eyes grew teary at the memory. “My mom said, ‘Thank you for marrying my son.’ ” For a girl who longed for a mother’s love, her mother-in-law’s welcoming affirmation offered proof that she’d made a wise choice.
Her 14 years as a Navy wife weren’t easy. “I tried to tell her Navy life wasn’t going to be like in Billings,” Denis said. “She didn’t realize how tough it was going to be. She had a baby and I was gone.”
The couple lived in Hawaii and Japan, among other postings. A second son and two daughters joined their family. When Denis was at sea, she wrote to him daily, but it took two to three weeks to receive the letters.
“In those days women didn’t work outside the home much,” she said. “He (Denis) said, ‘I married you to take care of you.’ ”
He retired from the Navy and they lived in Spokane Valley before purchasing 20 acres in Medical Lake. There, the Mikkelsens raised beefalo, and Vina ran the CCD (Catholic religious instruction) program for the Fairchild Air Force Base chapel. She recently self-published “Class Assignments,” a collection of essays and stories about her life, and gave copies as Christmas gifts to their children.
The couple celebrated their 58th wedding anniversary in September. “We just take it a day at a time,” quipped Vina. As they reflected on five decades of married life, laughter punctuated the conversation. Vina recalled making her new husband a lemon pie. It was tart – very tart. She watched Denis take that first bite. He chuckled when he remembered her words. “She said, ‘Shut up and eat it.’ ” So he did. And that Christmas he bought her a cookbook.
To many people getting married after dating only two weeks may seem foolish, but not to this couple. Denis admitted they didn’t know each other at all when they first married, but his voice grew thick with emotion. “She’s always there for me – always.” Then he grinned. “I’m gonna hang onto her. Where would I find another?”
For Vina, being married to the man of her dreams has been better than she could have imagined. She said “I figured somebody was trying to tell me something in that dream and I’d better listen.”
She looked across the table at Denis and added, “I’ve always known that he loved me. It’s been a good life.”
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