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.