Monday, April 29, 2013

Covert Action

I don’t remember ever doing what I did yesterday afternoon. I feel my face flush with embarrassment just thinking about it. I was in a dreadful hurry, the clock ticking away, when I remembered I had to get a birthday card and I needed it NOW. There was a Target store nearby so I parked and raced toward it. As soon as I entered, I saw her, a woman I did not want to see. She’s a lovely woman, a writer like me, an old hippie desperately clinging to her old hippie ways, but she talks, and talks, and talks, and half the time I’m not sure what she’s talking about. And I was in a hurry. 

I thought about the PBS series I had enjoyed watching, an English thing about spies. How did they go about not being seen? I raised my coat collar, turned my back, pulled my phone out and used it to hide my face. I sneaked further into the store and saw her ahead of me. I watched her back until she disappeared around a corner. Carefully, looking both ways, I made my way to the card section. I thought about buying a hat or scarf to hide my identity, but with the problem of time, gave it up. I scampered to the express lane, again sneaking glances, checked out, and made it to my car. Whew!

My relief was short-lived as I pulled out of the parking lot. I thought about this older woman, no husband, no lover, no family, desperate to make friends, still locked in an old hippie style of dress, her long grey locks hanging limply beside her pale cheeks. Her old tie-die blouse peeking out from the cardigan. I could have at least said hello. Maybe this time she’d have shut up. Maybe…


Friday, April 19, 2013

Fathers and Mothers

 I got an email recently from a friend. He wanted me to know his father had died. It was a blessing really, for his father had been ill a long time and his mind had been “iffy” for even longer. My friend said he hardly knew his father, had never  been close, but he was sad and shocked at his depth of grief.

My mother never got along with her mother. Throughout my childhood I knew that when mother got a letter from grandma, it meant several teary days. And yet, when grandma died, my mother grieved. When my father died I felt suddenly naked in the world, as if some protection I’d hardly known was there had disappeared. When my mother died I was surprised at my reaction. I’d always been her mother, her confidant, her support, and yet at her death I felt like an orphan.

I’m not surprised. My friend’s FATHER had died. My mother’s MOTHER had died. We live with more icons than we realize, those figures Jung wrote about. They seem to draw from history, from all the civilizations throughout time. Primal figures. Mother. Father. Regardless of what they were in living form, they were representative of the great iconic MOTHER and FATHER. Those images we hold as our nurturer and protector.

What strange creatures, we humans are. But how lovely that we are—human, for it certainly keeps life interesting.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Daddy’s School

My father (Daddy) loved telling stories about his family. And we loved hearing them. This was a favorite.
My father’s father, (Ludvig), was a Lutheran minister with country parishes in South Dakota. He’d immigrated from Hamar, Norway at age eighteen, as he wanted to be a minister. That wouldn’t have been a possibility in Norway for some reason I never figured out. The story of his arrival and early years here are inspiring, but that’s not where I’m heading with this today. Grandpa was also head of the local School Board in their county and responsible for the hiring and firing of teachers and he took this job seriously. He seemed to feel the need to be a leader in their community; owned the first automobile in the county. Was on all kinds of boards and committees. They owned a farm and Grandpa kept his boys busy. I think he took everything rather seriously. (Daddy thought so too.) 

Most of the teachers were young; many were recent high school graduates with little or no experience. South Dakota was not exactly an easy place to be living in those days. The family farm near Webster, South Dakota on a winter's day 1896.

 Parents took turns boarding the teachers in their homes, a month at a time. When Daddy was six years old and a first-grader, the teacher in their one-room school was a very pretty young woman. Daddy said he looked forward with a combination of excitement and dread for the time when his family was to board her. She would share the attic bedroom where Daddy slept. She’d be nearby, but she’d see him in his nightdress, a source of great embarrassment for him. I’m sure with Grandpa hiring the teachers, they all spoke Norwegian, for this was what Daddy called “Scandahoovian country.” English was spoken along with Norwegian in Daddy’s home for my Grandmother (Laura) had been here since age one and was fluent in both languages. Grandpa never got rid of his strong Norwegian accent. I don’t think he really tried, as he was proud of his heritage. I loved hearing him sing in Norwegian, and Daddy said he chanted the church liturgy as he had a nice singing voice.

Farmers were responsible for their children’s schooling and all donated materials and built a one-room schoolhouse. It had a pot-bellied stove and they supplied the wood for heat, as the winters were bitterly cold. The teacher had to come early to get the fire going and warm the building. Children not only had to be sure they did their schoolwork. They had to see that the schoolhouse was taken care of, cleaned and supplied with wood for heat. There was no janitor, no cleaning services. I’m sure they used slates for writing, as paper was probably “dear” and pens and ink as well. I wonder what books they used as early readers were not available in those days. I do know that when Daddy started first grade he was reading books from his parents’ library. Said he was working on The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. My grandparents bought the inexpensive library versions of the books and I have several on my bookshelves, all obviously have been heavily used. I love those old books. But back to my story.

Grandmother made sure all of her children learned to read before they entered their one-room school, and Daddy said he remembers helping older children with their lessons. Daddy’s first year, his teacher was a young woman, a pretty young woman. She was doing very well and had no serious problems until winter began. In the wintertime, the young men on the farms had little to do, and so they went back to school. So here was this pretty young woman, probably only twenty years old, with young male students who were that age and older. And the young men were all “sweet” on her. She was successful in rebuffing their advances, but one afternoon, she went to the outdoor “privy”, stepped inside and closed the door. The young men immediately tipped it over, door side down and all ran away. Pandemonium. Finally, a rescue was made, the young woman went to the house where she was boarding (my father’s home), packed her bags and left the very next day.

Grandpa quickly hired the next teacher, this time a man. Daddy said the man arrived and the first thing he did, after welcoming the children, was to tell the young men they had to leave. All went except for one, the oldest and largest. He told the teacher, “You’ll have to make me go.” The teacher, a much smaller man, knew this would be his most crucial test. He took a deep breath, took off his coat, and told the fellow to step outside. Daddy said the kids all rushed for the windows and watched the fight. The young man was larger and stronger than the teacher, but the teacher was very determined. His job was on the line. It didn’t take long. When the fight was over, the young man started for home. The teacher came inside, put on his coat, and called the classes to order. There were no further problems.

I think about the education those children received in that little one-room schoolhouse. It was probably cozy and smelly; little pot-bellied stove belching smoke, a cloakroom that smelled of wet wool and mucky galoshes, left over lunches, and warm little bodies. A one-room schoolhouse with limited supplies. No fancy science labs there. No gymnasium. Art and music only if the teacher was so inclined. Teachers with little training. It probably ended with grade six, maybe eight. For high school, Daddy and his siblings had to go to boarding school in a nearby town. Yet Daddy and all his brothers went on to college and all did well. They read books in those days, serious books, and talked about them. Everyone knew the importance of an education. In the evenings after dinner, Grandpa had the children do their schoolwork and then read stories out of the Bible. Daddy said they all hid magazines in their Bibles. I wonder if Grandpa knew about those magazines. Daddy said his father was a hard taskmaster when it came to raising boys. But I was sure Grandpa knew and allowed. I knew a Grandpa who was retired from preaching and raising boys. He was sweet, and permissive. After all, he’d been a boy once himself. When we lived with them for that short time, you could set your watch by the times that Grandpa came in for his coffee and “a bit of something sweet.” He’d give me a sugar cube to hold on my tongue, and then let me sip coffee through it. Delicious. “Don’t tell your mother,” he’d say. I never did.

I loved these tales. They were like out of storybooks for me, out of a time long past, a way of living I could only imagine. I wish my mother had told more of her stories. She did tell a few. But that’s a different post…

Dear friend Jennifer Mackley surprised me by putting together a book of my first year’s blogs. Then she peppered the pages with photos from my Mother’s old photo albums. Here is the link if anyone is interested. She titled the book Quilting Reflections:

Friday, April 5, 2013

Secret Codes

I was having a soy latte with my friends at Green Lake—Peg, Tom, Mary Mc, and Smokey. I was telling them of a wonderful NOVA program I’d seen about dogs. “There’s this woman in the Netherlands whose dog recognizes hundreds of names.” I looked at Smokey. “How many does he have?”

“Two,” Tom said. “His name and…” He leaned over and whispered, “Squirrel.”

Smokey jumped up, eyes alert, ears at attention, and barked.

When my husband was little his parents spelled out “ice cream.” Little Dick soon learned what that meant. So Vi started using b-e-a-n-s to represent a treat. Didn’t take long before little Dick let them know, “I like b-n-s.” Busted.

I’m thinking of all those codes we use when we speak. When my eldest son was a teenager, “It’s okay,” meant he really liked it. My daughter’s, “I’m fine,” meant leave me alone. Bill’s was “I’ll handle it.” Doug just raised his hand, “Butt out.” Didn’t take a lot of talking to get the message across. We were a rather quiet family and had few arguments. I wondered about those families that talked and talked. I hoped their arguing was a way to say I care, just as our silences spoke loudly of our respect and trust.

While reading Roddy Doyle’s book The Snapper, I constantly felt anger at how the father spoke to his daughter. Nothing but put-downs and insults. And then, in the very end of the book he made a tiny gesture and I burst into tears. He loved her! And she knew it. Their language was that of their working-class Irish, a hard way of speaking that had grown out of centuries of hardscrabble living. For me, it was like visiting a foreign country.

Then while reading Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson, I came across this on page 296. “You are not the first man to miss a woman’s more subtle communications,” said the Major. “They think they are waving when we see only the calm sea, and pretty soon everybody drowns.” Ah yes, subtle communications.

I started out writing this blog hoping to find some way for us all to understand each other, have a kind of dictionary like those English/French ones. Eliminate all the misunderstandings. But then I thought of how boring and shallow our conversations would be. Better to let us all have our codes and spend our lives figuring them out. Does keep us busy and allows for all kinds of misunderstandings, which will lead to long conversations filled with all manner of explanations.  Let’s just keep talking.