It was 1958 or Nine

I grew up in a beautiful America.  Dad was Dad, and Mom was Mom and every home had those two individuals.  Kids were either boys or girls, and very generic after that.  When our mom and dad made friends with other moms and dads, we always demanded to know about their children, eager for playmates of our own age and gender.  When two families got together, it was an instant party, a house full of laughing people, with food the mother of the house had grown in her garden, baked in her oven, or “fixed for us” in her brand new kitchen.

It was an era when each American felt freshly vindicated by having conquered the Nazis who tried to murder millions of innocent civilians simply for being Jewish, or having Jewish “sympathies.”  We were born several years after the end of World War II, and knew no suffering, no lack, no fear.  Our parents were children of the Depression who had known hunger, lack, and bone-chilling cold in winters that seemed endless.  By contrast, our homes were heated in winter, and Union Gas showed up monthly to refill the fuel supply in our basement.  As a child I would watch out the window and call out to my mom, “The Onion Man is here!”  When she asked why I called him the onion man, I said, “That’s what it says on the truck.”  (I was a Phonics kid. For me, the word “Union” did not start with a “Y” but with a “U” so UNION man it was.

Our parents would never discuss the war, but the Depression was frequently mentioned.  The tone was unanimously informative and cautionary from parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.  It was as if they had barely survived total immolation, but for God’s hand, and if we were not careful, we would suffer the same.  This awareness of God’s grace, and their relief at His providential solutions to poverty,  genocide, and starvation was real, and no small thing, nothing to take for granted.  We were occasionally warned that our days of careless play and full bellies could well be numbered.  We laughed behind their backs, certain the stories were only fables meant to teach us manners and godly behavior.

Freshly laundered clothing flapped in the sunshine outside, and long white diapers and sheets caught breezes as my grandmother bent to the heavy basket and pinned up even more.  She would raise a cranky voice and tell us something in Norwegian as we chased each other through the wet billows in an effort to run without being caught in them.  We knew what she was saying, even though we spoke nothing but English.  In those days, children listened for tone, more than the words themselves.  Adults spoke “grown up” and we spoke “child” and it seemed two separate things.  We listened for “angry” or “inviting” or “pay attention” or “stop it.”  Other than these simple tones, we ran freely past them, paying no attention.

50s

We were so confident of their love and provision we took them completely for granted, and when they told us of their impoverished childhoods, they spoke in hushed and embarrassed tones.  They spoke of their memories in shame, and it humiliated us that our own parents had known that kind of lack. We would edge away from their sad narrative, scared and suspicious it might be congenital in nature.  It was not in keeping with the sunshine of our own experience, and we knew they were speaking truth, but we had no place in our hearts and minds to file these stories.  It was important to them.  It marked them.  It was our heritage and they wanted us to have it, but we were not willing to receive it.

to be continued…

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Alone Time

Arkansas River Valley

Arkansas River Valley (Photo credit: Pierce Presley)

My mom told my soon to be husband, “Be sure to allow her plenty of alone time, plenty of privacy.  She needs it,” which mystified me at the time.  I had never been aware my parents knew this, or allowed it.  I was one of six children!  We were seldom “alone”.

We were not just an insular FAMBLY.  At most times, we had grandmothers, uncles, stray cousins, and “shirt tail relatives” living under our roof.  Most of my childhood consisted of various combinations of adults and children coming and going, eating and working, and going to school under my Mom‘s watchful eye.  Everyone contributed and behaved themselves, or they did not stay long.  Those who did not pass the test found themselves packing to leave within a short time.   Not many failed the test, and we all benefitted by those who remained.

So where in the world did I get noticed for needing “privacy”?  I was in the middle of the pack.  I was third daughter, with three younger brothers.  I was not the prettiest, smartest, or most athletic, but I say with no arrogance whatsoever I was the most treasured.  The mystery of my life is why.  I got noticed among the crowd and not just by my parents, but by everyone.  I did nothing whatsoever to deserve special attention, but I will admit, I loved EVERYONE, and considered myself an observer of good in others.  I believe this ability to recognize the good in others is what it was that drew people to me.

But the “need for privacy” was a something I did not know I had enjoyed until my mother said so, and by then I was grown, engaged, and nearly out of the house!  Still, when she said it, I felt understood, loved, and accepted.  I was aware for the first time what I was leaving behind.  I left laughing, and with optimism in my soul.

The years that followed left me breathless with public and private demands that sapped my strength, leaving me empty, despairing, grieving for unspeakable losses, and knowing I had never been visible to the family I produced on my own.  I had failed to exist at all, losing myself in the process of attempting to be a good wife and mother.

One day I approached the electric doors at the grocery store, and they failed to open.  I knew they were operable, as I had seen others going in before me, and they were opening as expected.  BUT THEY DID NOT OPEN FOR ME.  I stood before them, and at that moment I knew I had lost myself, and I was not visible even to an electric eye, whose opinion had been universally accepting moments before.  It was real.  I was transparent.  I did not have any substance whatsoever, and it was not my imagination as I had hoped.  I will never forget the day I knew I had ceased to exist.  As suddenly as they had blocked me, the doors opened, and I stepped in, and relief replaced despair.

My parents had died, my sister was gone, and I was living a life far from my parents’ dreams and my own.  I had no one to talk to.  I had left all familiar friends and family in places many hours from Arkansas, and I did not matter anymore, to those closest to me, to those I had invested in most heavily, my husband and half grown children.

It was “alone time”.  I am not able to describe that day with any kind of clarity, but I can say I was keenly aware something had gone very wrong, and it would be up to me to set things right.  This much I knew:  Nobody else could see me, and if I were to become visible, I had to change my life.

I took my groceries home, put them away and made supper, acting out my role the same as always.  Even my closest child noticed nothing.  But I knew, deep inside, that I existed. That I was visible.  That God made me, sent me, and valued me, and would take me home someday.  I knew I mattered, and I realized it was pointless to be “perfect” anymore.  I had given all my goodness away to those who did not even care.

Oddly, this was not the end, but the beginning.

Thilda’s House

Board from the Holter House

What shall be done with THIS?

I received this board in the mail the other day from a loving cousin who knew I would appreciate the memento.  It is light, almost like balsa wood, painted long ago, over 30 years back.  Maybe longer.  I do not clearly recall when we all stopped caring about my grandmother’s house.  Perhaps when she finally died, there was too much grief to think of going there anymore.  Or it may have been the arguments between her children over the doilies and plates that made it difficult to decide whose responsibility it should be.

In any case, the initial peeling chip of paint did not make it through the first winter, and many other chips followed, blown away by the killing winds and snows in Oslo, Minnesota.  The darkened eyes of the house, shiny with its painful history, gazed at those who passed by,  those who always seemed to be looking the other way.  We were the priests and Levites.  The Good Samaritan never passed, not even on the other side.

The house sat quiet and empty, and children were cautioned to stay away. Thilda with her gleaming white hair and faded apron was no longer taking visitors.  The white farm house with painted trim had never failed to delight, with its lacy curtains visible through wavy glass.  The grass grew right up to the very edges of her place, and lilac bushes shook out their skirts over the top of it, providing shade for kids and honeybees, and the occasional litter of kittens.  More often than not, she had three rhubarb or apple pies on the sideboard, and coffee on the stove.

Gramma was always watching us from inside her immaculately clean windows.  We could not see her, but we knew she was watching because if we played with the clothes on the clothes line, she’d holler out the front door in Norwegian.  We could not understand the language, but there was no mistaking her tone.  If we knelt to sniff her roses or peonies, she’d smile, and we would study the ants on the petals and envy them for living in this fragrant world.

Thilda was not someone you took for granted. It was an honor to spend time with her.  She treated me with the same regard she did my mom, or any other grown up.  In her presence, I acted grown up to the best of my ability.  It was not enough for her to love me.  I wanted her to be proud of me.  A mark of approval from Thilda Holter set one apart in our small but highly populated Norwegian community.

After opening the package, I said to my husband, “Do not throw this away.” He picked it up and asked, “What is it?”  I told him it was a piece of siding from my grandmother’s farm house and he turned it over carefully, saying, “What are you going to do with it?”

“I am going to write about it, I guess. But I do not want you to paint it or damage it or use it for anything, OK?”

“We need to do something special with it,” he replied.  I am speechless, overwhelmed by his words.

Yes, this remnant, this old dry stick, this peeling painted piece of shit that had to make its way to Arkansas  to locate me in person before one of us, no an OUTSIDER said, “We need to do something special with it.”  We have done nothing to prevent the disintegration of her home, our home, the place where her babies were born and some of them died.  Her husband died there, the man who built it for us with two strong hands and an even stronger back.  I hold all this in my hands.

Her stamp of approval, given to me at such a young age burns into my skin, to mark my betrayal of her confidence in me, her trust, and her sacrificial love, so freely given.  Her precious home lies in ruins.  

Holding the thing in my hand I decide to keep it just as it is to remind me of my responsibility to preserve what is good, what must be passed down, what needs to survive.  The small house, once so full of life and all its beauty and complexity and layered secrets and stories and songs has died, and will be buried soon, rolled over by a bull dozer.  The hallowed ground of a century of building, farming, healing, praying, planning, grieving and hoping is over.

Each time I gaze upon this wood, I will know what I believed to be true was not the full story.  Starched aprons and crocheted doilies were true.  Her joy in life was true, and her courage held true until the end.  They found her cleaning rags below the sink, carefully ironed, folded and stacked, ready for use.  She was ready to go home to our grandfather, I guess, and left us in charge of all they had labored to produce for us.

But there was so much more to the story of that house…the secrets, the issues discussed above our heads in Norwegian, the petty jealousies, and the unresolved stuff they thought they left behind in the old country.  No, it came along with them, like a family of rats in the steamer trunk, ready to spring free and wild in the new lands they had chosen.

What shall be done with this?  What indeed.  I look down at the old chunk in my hand, testing its weight.  It is so dry, so light, I can only think how quickly it would burn if I tossed it into the wood stove.  It is a beautifugly thing, and it is mine to decide.  But is this really all that is left of their beautiful dream for a new life in a new land?  All that is left of my heritage?

My husband is right.  We need to do something special with it. And I do not mean this thing in my hand.  I mean this thing in the trunk, and with my grandmother’s cleaning rags, and the stamp of approval I have worn to shreds.

Thilda and her daughters and my sister. Thilda is second from the left.