Syttende Mai has meant a lot of things to me over the years.

As a middle and high school student, it was the pseudo-end of the school year. Each year, for six years, I would cross my fingers that I would have a nice gym teacher who would make the day’s lesson a walking one that involved the FFA Cream Puff and Cheese Curd stand.

The meaning of Syttende Mai changed as I got older and became an intern reporter who photographed it for the Stoughton Courier Hub, and a few years later, had my best friend join me. Ask anyone on the Hub staff – for three years, that festival belonged to Amber and me, and we refused to let anyone else help us photograph it.

We knew Syttende Mai 2020 would be different for us because we weren’t going to photograph it together, as we were passing the torch to others on staff for the 2020 event. This year, we were going to enjoy the festival together for the first time in a long time.

But then Amber died last August.

I spent months grappling with the fact that the upcoming Syttende Mai would mean something completely different to me. I was expecting this year to be tinged with grief and sadness, a monumental reminder of what I’d lost in the last year.

And then COVID-19 came and took away Syttende Mai, too.

Without Syttende Mai – or any of our other community events, which are the bread and butter for our local papers – I’m relearning what the festival means to me, yet again.

It might sound cliche, but Syttende Mai, the celebration of our community and its history, is something I’ve always taken for granted. No matter the weather outside, be it the ridiculous May heat, rain or the weird combination of chilly and humid we dealt with on the Saturday of last year’s event, the festival continued. You were guaranteed to get your fill of lefse, Norwegian meatballs and a to-go container of cheese curds and cream puffs.

And the people-watching, as a photographer, was always fantastic. Nowhere else in the world can you see that many little kids and dogs dressed up in bunads cheering on runners on Main Street on a Saturday morning.

I never thought I’d see a Stoughton without a Syttende Mai, or a Syttende Mai without Amber, and both are still difficult to wrap my mind around. When May 15 arrives, I’m going to miss my usual trifecta of Syttende Mai food that I would take back to my desk in the Verona office (to carb up before running around later that night to capture the paddle and portage canoe race, obviously).

Syttende Mai, when it returns in 2021, will mean so much more to me than it used to. It will be a celebration not just of Norwegian independence but of the difficulties and adversity we’ve gone through together individually and as a community – and even as a planet – as COVID-19 has uprooted our entire lives.

It will be a symbolic testament to the fact that COVID-19 can reshape how we live our lives and keep us inside away from one another for weeks on end, but it can’t change the pride we have in our community or how important we are to one another.

And I will never take those things – or Syttende Mai food – for granted ever again.

Kimberly Wethal is a Cooksville native and Norwegian descendant who believes the best lefse is made with real potatoes and has yet to use a krumkake iron successfully.