In Tracy’s memory — He dreams of a ‘Sanctuary House’

Tracy was his soulmate.

He knew her. He loved her deeply.

But when a thousand people turned up, between her funeral at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Mandan and her celebration of life party at Cashman Nursery in Bismarck, Bruce Rittel was still astounded.

So many people — “I had no idea,” he said.

At her funeral Friday, he told the crowd that he’d be lucky to fill three pews; for Tracy, it was standing room only.

It made him wonder — “Did I really know my wife?”

People turned up from all over the state, from out of state. People whose names he didn’t even recognize sent cards. People who knew her from years ago turned up.

Tracy Rittel, 44, was a passionately-involved soccer mom. She was a party planner. And she pushed her husband to do the same.

For 15 years, the couple owned Ken’s Flower Shop at 211 S. Ninth St. in Bismarck. At Tracy’s funeral, the video montage showed her and Bruce and their two daughters, often in Halloween costumes and party clothes.

In the montage, Tracy as the little girl in frilly lace-trimmed hat evolved into a grownup in a white wedding dress, a new mother, a mother of growing girls, and finally, that last photo of them as a family, lined up against the Chicago skyline.

It was on Aug. 9, on the way back from that trip that the family vehicle rolled. Bruce, one daughter and another passenger survived. Tracy, who was not wearing her seat belt, did not.

Five sleepless and tear-filled days later, Bruce Rittel had a middle-of-the-night revelation.

When he was spending anguished hours in the corridors and waiting rooms of the Fargo hospital where Tracy was fighting for her life, the staff was great, he said, but there was no quiet or private place where he could go away from the hospital, to find some kind of sanctuary.

Bruce Rittel wants a house. He wants to find a house for people who need moments alone when those they love are in the hospital. That, along with countless people who remember her, will be Tracy’s ongoing legacy.

Places such as Ronald McDonald House provide for families who have long-term needs or terminal loved ones, he said — what Bruce Rittel wants is briefer, someplace where people can stay for 24 or 48 hours, where they have an Internet connection and phone line to stay connected at a moment’s notice, where they are just a few minutes’ walk from either medical facility.

What he wants is to give them a home in Tracy’s name.

“I’d love it to be a home, a place where, when people walk in, they feel God’s presence and Tracy’s smile looking down on them,” he said.

He wants a house with Tracy’s memories, a gingerbread home filled with new appliances and furniture, a house filled with joy and serenity, he said, “Tracy’s Sanctuary House.”

“A place to ease and comfort those who will come and will go, and their families.”

Bruce Rittel wants to honor Tracy’s vivid personality. At the funeral, he left a MasterCard with her — a lover of shopping on a first-name basis with local store clerks — in case she wants to buy a halo and wings, he said.

“She was well-liked by everybody, so easygoing,” said Dan Cashman, owner of Cashman Nursery, where Tracy worked.

Tracy really did everything, Cashman said, running the greenhouse, propagating, seeding, tags, scheduling, buying.

“More than that, we called her the mediator. She was ‘steady Eddy,'” he said. In a stressful business with lots of deadlines, Tracy was patient, the glue that held things together, Cashman said.

She was also like a mother to some of the younger female workers — “some girls called her ‘mom,'” he said. At the wake held at Cashman’s, hundreds showed up, he said, especially young people.

It’s so sad, Cashman said — “it’s hard to believe you’ll never see a person again.”

Bruce Rittel wants to tell people to forget about the small stuff. For 20 years, Tracy left the curling iron out, he said. He always grumbled about having to coil the cord up and put it away.

Don’t do that, he said.

She was the “better half” of the marriage, no doubt about it, he said. And “you won’t know how loved (she was) until it’s too late,” he said.

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