Sunday, November 28, 2010
This blog was an important part of my journey from a productive member of the working class to a lay-about retired person. But it’s time to move on. There’s only so much a person can say about walking 2 to 4 miles a day. And I think I’ve said it all!
So thank you for reading for the past couple of years. Happy trails to us all!
Friday, November 19, 2010
My mother is the hands-down Queen of Euphemisms, adhering strictly to the unwritten 1950s Norwegian immigrant code of modesty: Never use an expression that may offend when you can substitute a less offensive expression in its place.
As I mentioned earlier, I have tackled the daunting project of transcribing my mother’s 52 years of diaries, from 1954 to 2006. These are not your tell-all soul-baring diaries. These are your “I baked six loaves of bread today and washed the bathroom rugs” kinds of diaries. But hidden amid the faithful recording of her daily tasks are bits and pieces of intriguing history and gossip.
But often this history and gossip is written in code. She doesn’t betray people. She doesn’t give judgmental color commentary on others’ behaviors. She doesn’t divulge any information that might be seen as critical or personal. She uses her euphemisms carefully.
It’s refreshing, it’s maddening, it’s curiosity piquing. “What does she mean by that?” I continually find myself asking, trying to decode her secret language.
Some of her euphemisms are obvious: Charlotte wrote with “news” . . . my aunt Ellen “beamed with news” . . . Edna “announced her news.” The “P” word is never used. (If my mother didn’t think it was right to use the “P” word, then I’m not going to either.)
Many relatives “went to the hospital” without ever having their maladies specifically named. Some medical problems were all right to discuss: “blood poisoning” seemed to be a popular diagnosis in the ‘50s. But other relatives might spend days or weeks bedridden, and my mother wouldn’t give a hint as to what their problems were. How much do you want to bet that they were “lady problems” and “men problems”? (See, she’s got me doing it, too.)
Mental illness existed in their families, but wasn't openly discussed. Occasionally someone might have a “nervousness” or a “collapse.” But diagnoses and outcomes were never mentioned.
A favorite dog is run over by the milk truck. Seemingly, we never mourned. We buried it and looked for another dog. A beloved aunt suddenly dies. A complete report is given on what was served at her funeral lunch. But for Pete’s sake, we don’t get into that touchy-feely stuff.
So the diary transcribing has also become an exercise in reading between the lines, reading into the euphemisms. I’m not critical—in fact, I might be nostalgic for a time when people used a little dignity when discussing the lives of others and themselves.
So if you grew up in our neck of the woods and are living in fear that your long-hidden family secrets will surface as I transcribe my mother’s diaries, you can rest easy. Your secrets are safe. It would take Samuel Morse himself to decode some of the allusions created by the Queen of Euphemisms, my diary-writing mother.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Like a ripple-less river.
Like a picture window freshly washed in ammonia and vinegar . . .
(It also seems to be a time of the day when I can’t stop writing similes.)
My brain is normally a sludgy, oatmeal-like mass of low-functioning gray matter. But for some mysterious reason, for about two hours after I get up in the morning, my medulla oblongata clicks in harmony with my pons. My left brain’s logical sequential function and my right brain’s intuitiveness get along like small-town-casserole-swapping neighbors, and my neuron synapses fire with the precision of a 21-gun salute.
Like a well-oiled engine.
(Oops, there go the similes again).
In the morning, an unfinished crossword puzzle from the day before suddenly seems head-slappingly obvious.
In the morning, a frustration miraculously forms a solution.
In the morning, the schedule for the day (after tossing and turning all night) suddenly unfolds like a Google map.
And in the morning, problems seem smaller; everything seems do-able.
Sometimes during my morning clarity, I feel envy. “Just think,” I marvel, “some people function with this level of brain power all the time. ALL THE TIME!”
They probably just take that 24/7 clarity for granted, assuming that everyone’s brain operates at non-stop peak performance. I fervently hope those people are sitting in places like the White House Oval Office or in the cockpit of any plane on which I’m a passenger.
Some people tell me that their most productive times are mid-morning or mid-afternoon. Others claim to be night owls whose energy and creativity kick in at 2 a.m.
Personally, I like having my clarity time early in the morning. It’s quiet. It’s peaceful. Many mornings I get to see the sun rise and early birds catching worms. The hope for that clarity is my inspiration for rolling out of bed. If I accidently oversleep until, say, 7 o’clock, I feel disappointed. How could I waste the most valuable part of my day?
By 8 a.m., it's over. My superhero mental powers are already slipping away as my brain returns to its normal, pre-clarity level.
The cape goes back in the closet.
I am no longer able to think faster than a speeding bullet or leap tall problems in a single bound.
I no longer have the secret to saving the whales or the capability of finding the cure for Crohn’s disease.
I am once again 2to4aDay, mild-mannered retired school teacher in her knee brace and sweat pants, eating shredded wheat and making a grocery list.
But for those two early-morning hours, I am invincible.
Friday, November 12, 2010
This one said: “Look at the picture below close up. Then look at it from 15 feet away.” (Try it. It really works. Fifteen feet, no cheating.) From close up—Albert Einstein. From 15 feet away, Marilyn Monroe. It’s a miracle.
So I said to Tom, “From now on, I want you to look at me from 15 feet away. I have a feeling I’ll look better.”
So he stood 15 feet away.
“So who do I look like?” I asked hopefully.
“Albert Einstein,” he said.
“All righty then . . .,” I said, turning away. I guess it doesn’t always work.
It was always a crap shoot as far as who my tablemates would be. Sometimes I ate fast to escape the carping of a fellow teacher who just wanted an audience for his or her bellyaching. Sometimes just the right combination of people were at the table so it seemed more like a party than a 20-minute cram-the-food-in-your-face-and-run lunch session.
But occasionally, when the moon was in the seventh house and Jupiter aligned with Mars, I’d be lucky enough to be at the same table as Myron, an art teacher at the college. He was a quiet, soft-spoken man of incredible talent—an effective, respected teacher. And a wonderful lunch-table companion. I’d always feel like a more enlightened person after I ate lunch with him.
I remember one conversation in particular. It was years ago by now—years. But I still remember what he said. Somehow the conversation had turned to the subject of marriage.
“When I come home,” Myron said in his thoughtful, quiet voice, “I feel like I’ve entered a haven. My wife makes my home a haven.”
I don’t remember what I replied. Knowing me, it was probably something inappropriate like, “Well, my goal is to make my husband’s home a hell-hole.” Whatever I said in response is immaterial. All I know is that word ‘haven’ has stuck with me all these years.
Haven. A harbor, a place where ships may shelter from the weather. A sanctuary, a place of safety.
I think about that conversation every time Tom walks through the door and I shriek like a fishwife, “The dryer smells like burning wires!” instead of “Welcome home, my darling.” Or if I warn, “Don’t track on the floor—I just washed it,” instead of “I’m so glad you’re home, sweet love of my life.”
‘The dryer smells funny?!?’ ‘Don’t track on the floor?!?’ Ye gads, not something a Haven-Creator would say.
So Myron’s wife inadvertently set the marital bar high for me, even though I rarely measure up. And I'm not being modest; I rarely measure up. But I can’t think of any compliment greater for a spouse than to have a partner sit at a lunchroom table of co-workers and quietly use the word ‘haven’ when describing ‘home.’
Thursday, November 11, 2010
While I was looking up some family history information online about immigrant ships’ passenger lists, I stumbled upon an intriguing site:
“UFO-Roots” for “those whose ancestors arrived from outer space, to make connections with others sharing this problem, discuss their ancestry, and provide advice on possible avenues for further research.”
So while some people are bragging that their ancestors came to America on Erik the Red’s Viking ship or the Pinta or the Santa Maria or the Mayflower—and I’m checking passenger lists on the Norwegian immigrant ships Bark Nornen and Argonaut looking for my Norwegian ancestors, a few other earthlings may be looking elsewhere. Instead of trying to figure out if their ancestors came from the Romedal or the Stange municipality in Norway, they might be weighing the likelihood of coming from the Andromeda Galaxy as opposed to the more local Milky Way.
As Agent K said in Men in Black, “1500 years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was the center of the universe. 500 years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was flat. And 15 minutes ago, you knew that people were alone on this planet. Imagine what you'll know tomorrow.”
It was an "AHA!" moment, explaining a few people who have mystified me over the years. It made perfect sense that some of their ideas and behavior could be traced back to the landing of a dome-shaped UFO in Duncan, British Columbia, rather than a ship pulling into Ellis Island, New York. Or it might explain the "new neighbors" who, by eerie coincidence, showed up at the church pot luck with an odd-looking casserole the day after the crop circles appeared in the Bjornberg's barley field.
Or their residency on earth could be as simple as Captain Kirk on the Star Ship Enterprise reminding his crew after landing the Klingon bird of prey in Golden Gate Park, “Everybody remember where we parked!” If you forget where you parked your UFO, it’s tough to get home again, no matter where home may be.
"They" might be living among us, researching their roots on the Internet.
It would explain a lot.
Tuesday, November 09, 2010
I know that for a fact because I woke up that morning, looked out my hospital room window, and there it was. All over the ground—winter.
A nurse came in and encouraged me to get my lazy butt out of bed and clean up a little. Evidently, there was some arcane hospital rule about lying around in the same sweaty pigtails in which I had given birth the day before.
The nurse dug my maroon embroidered robe out of the bag I had packed for the hospital, trotted me down the hall to the shower room, and transformed me from a bedraggled-looking new mother into an ethereal creature with a striking resemblance to the Virgin Mary.
He had been studying our new baby very carefully, very thoughtfully, while she slept in the hospital nursery.
“I think she’s gifted,” Tom told me, as seriously as I’d ever seen him.
“Wha—what?” I asked groggily. “Gifted? How can you tell?”
“Well,” he said solemnly, “to begin with, she’s much more alert than those other babies in the nursery.”
“Good,” I yawned, “she’s alert. Anything else?”
“Well, she got that perfect score . . .” Tom reminded me, trying to appear modest.
Score? Score? What score?
Then it dawned on me. The APGAR score—Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, Respiration—the APGAR test that they administer to newborns to make sure they aren’t experiencing post-delivery distress. Our new daughter had scored a perfect “10.”
Her first test, and she had aced it. She was gifted.
I smiled. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she is,” I agreed.
And 31 years later, we know it for a fact.
Tom with his “gifted” daughter
Saturday, November 06, 2010
Listen up, folks. This balmy, Minnesota Indian Summer weather will not last forever (see ten-day weather forecast below):
Today, Nov 06, Partly Cloudy 54°/37°
Sun., Nov 07, Partly Cloudy 58°/40°
Mon., Nov 08, Partly Cloudy 56°/41°
Tue., Nov 09, Few Showers 54°/37°
Wed., Nov 10, Few Showers 45°/32°
Thu., Nov 11, Partly Cloudy 41°/29°
Fri., Nov 12, Partly Cloudy 38°/25°
Sat., Nov. 13, Snow Shower 33°/25°
Sun., Nov 14, Partly Cloudy 36°/25°
Mon., Nov 15, Partly Cloudy 36°/26°
Do you see that temperature plummeting? After next Tuesday, it could be cloudy, rainy, 30- and 40-degree temperatures. By next Saturday, it might be snowing. If this 10-day weather forecast doesn’t convince you that winter is coming, then what will?
Here’s my point:
1) We’re all not getting any younger.
2) The weather isn’t getting any better.
3) Get out and walk!
The next time Tom and I are walking on the trail, I’d better see you out there or you’re in BIG trouble. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
P.S. If you are lucky enough to live somewhere that the 10-day forecast doesn't include words like "snow," and "30 degrees," please disregard the above paid political announcement.
Friday, November 05, 2010
As a result of that visit, I learned all kinds of family history that I would never have known if we hadn’t gone. Between memories that they had and information my aunt had tucked away in her desk, one of many things I found out was that:
My maternal great-grandfather (Ingebret Sletvold) was never an “Ellis Island” immigrant. Instead, his name shows up on the passenger list of a "bark" (sailing ship) named the Nornen which sailed from Christiana, Norway (renamed ‘Oslo’ in 1925) and landed in Quebec, Canada. We were that close to being Canadian!
Although he landed in Canada, Ingebret's plan always was to immigrate to the U.S. because the Norwegians had been promised that they could get 160 acres of homestead land in Minnesota at $1.25 an acre—a whole farm for $200! They took a ship that landed in Canada instead of New York’s Ellis Island because the shipping companies much preferred sailing into Quebec. At the time, the Canadians weren’t nearly as fussy about overloading ships with passengers—and it was more profitable for the shipping companies to cram as many Norwegians into steerage as they possibly could.
Ingebret’s brothers (unknown number, but ship’s passenger list definitely includes Evan Sletvold, age 20) had emigrated two years earlier on a sailing ship called the Argonaut. They had paid the adult fare of 15 speciedalar (the Norwegian dollar currency of the time, eventually replaced by the kroner). They had boarded the ship on April 25, 1866, and arrived in Quebec on June 5, 1866—a trip lasting about seven weeks.
Unfortunately, two years later, when our great-grandfather Ingebret’s group sailed on the Nornen, they ran into a becalmed Atlantic. Instead of seven weeks, they were at sea from April 19 to July 6, 1868—a total of eleven weeks. According to the ship’s log, the food provisions ran so low that at one point, the ship’s crew had to put down a mutiny by the hungry passengers. Judging by my own appetite four generations later, 20-year-old Ingebret was probably a mutiny leader. I come from a long line of eaters.
He staked his 160-acre claim in Oscar Township, enduring many hardships, and slowly built a farm that today is owned by my mother’s cousin. He married and raised seven children (one of them my grandmother Emma).
Ingebret and Marte Sletvold’s family in 1885 (our grandmother—my mother’s mother—Emma is on the far left).
One of the stories remembered by my mother’s cousin about Ingebret happened in 1910, when he was in his 60s. A man from Elizabeth, the neighboring town, had bought the first automobile in the area. Many of the men around the community were curious, so Ingebret and a couple of other neighbors asked the auto owner if they could have a ride to Fergus Falls in his new car. Back in those days, none of the roads were paved. The automobile driver was inexperienced, and the worst happened—the driver lost control of the car and had an accident.
Poor Ingebret was the one most badly hurt in the accident, and he spent three weeks mending in the hospital. That incident just about cured him of automobiles forever. In fact, the next time he rode in an automobile was three years later in 1913—in the undertaker’s hearse.
When I look at the shrinking ranks of my elderly aunts and uncles, I feel sad that so much of their history and experiences will be lost when they are gone. I need to have more tea parties with these precious people—and take the time to listen and learn.
Three of our uncles, ages 94, 90, and 83 (wonderful photo by my sister Marian)
Wednesday, November 03, 2010
And now that I have the luxury of having the time to read, I also have a time to appreciate (or maybe envy) the thought and skill that go into what other people write.
These are my three favorite quotes from the last three books I’ve read:
From Healthy Aging by Andrew Weil, M.D.:
“ . . . Aging and death give meaning to life. Without them, life would eventually be horrible, intolerable . . . to yearn for eternal youth and escape from death seems to me the height of foolishness.”
Think about that, would you . . . just think how different our lives would be if we knew that our physical time on earth was endless, that we would always be here, that there would never be an end or an escape or a conclusion to our physical existence. Put that in your pipe and smoke it for a minute . . . and gosh, I wish I’d been the one to write it first.
Another quote from Little Bee by Chris Cleave, which I loved because of its imagery in describing a situation that seemed hopeless:
“ . . . Handing out inflight meals in a plane crash.”
Don’t you just love it? Don’t you wish you had written that (or if you’re really unselfish, don’t you wish I had written that?)?
And a final quote from The Solace of Leaving Early by Haven Kimmel in which two recently traumatized little sisters in Haddington, Indiana, rename themselves Immaculata and Epiphany after the Virgin Mary makes seemingly daily appearances to them by the mulberry tree in their yard. Their caretaker makes this observation when one of the little girls asks her if she believes them:
“ . . . If I could be an innocent in history, and were presented with two notions, Nazis or a visitation from Mary, I know which one would seem less likely.”
Ha! Again, wish I’d written that. Sometimes I read an entire book and yawn the whole way through until I get to one line—one nugget of truth—that makes the whole book worthwhile. And for five or ten minutes, I actually believe that knowing that nugget of truth will change me and make me a better person.
For five or ten whole minutes--after which I immediately slip back into being my old ordinary self. I can only hope that nugget of wisdom lodged itself deep into my subconscious to be pulled out later, at just the right moment.
And I hope that maybe, someday before I die, I can write one thought, one little line, that will cause someone else to exclaim, “I wish I had written that!”
Monday, November 01, 2010
Every Monday, she washed clothes for her family of eight—pumping water from a cistern in the basement, heating the water on a wash stove, and pouring it into her wringer washing machine. In fair weather, she hauled the wet clothes (for a family of eight, including one in cloth diapers) up the basement stairs and hung them on the clothes line outside. In cold or rainy weather, she hung the clothes on lines strung across the basement or over wooden clothes racks next to the oil stove.
Nothing was wrinkle-free; everything had to be ironed. Sheets, pillowcases, dish towels, men’s t-shirts, blue chambray workshirts, overalls, children’s clothing, men’s dress shirts—it was classified either as dry ironing or sprinkled ironing. It often took a full day on Tuesday to finish the ironing.
She baked bread twice a week, six loaves at a time. She grew vegetables in her garden, and either canned or froze endless pints or quarts of vegetables for later use. She bought crates of fruit (pears, peaches, apricots, cherries) and made them into sauce, jam, preserves, canning until the basement shelves were filled with mason jars. She picked apples from the apple trees in the back yard and made pies and sauce enough for a family of eight—and the endless parade of family, friends, and workers that came to her table.
During the summer, she made meat-and-potatoes meals every day from the pork and beef that her husband had raised and butchered. She fed whoever was helping on the farm that day—her own six children plus two, three, four men with hearty appetites: her father-in-law, brothers-in-law, hired men.
She rendered lard, she fried doughnuts, she made cinnamon rolls, she baked endless batches of cookies and bars, lefse and flat bread. She planned lunches for PTA, Farmer’s Club, Ladies Aid, and Home Management meetings. She made turkey dinners, lutefisk dinners, ham dinners—depending on the holiday. She donated her baking to bake sales at the school and at the church. If surprise company stopped by on a Sunday afternoon, they would always be invited for supper and there would always be enough food. If someone in the family had a birthday, 20 or 30 of her and her husband’s closest relatives would show up for a meal and birthday cake.
Our mother in the spring of 1954 with the youngest of her six children, my sister Laurie.
Every Saturday, she cleaned the house from top to bottom. She waxed and varnished the wood floors. She sewed house dresses for herself and play clothes for her children. She sewed “twin” feedsack dresses for the two youngest. That year, she taught her oldest daughter to sew her own clothes, too. For a special treat, she went to town and bought a dress and hat for herself so she would have something new to wear on Easter Sunday. And when she got home, she baked her husband a cherry pie as a “thank you” for her new clothing.
In a spare moment, to relax, she would crochet doilies or knit mittens and scarves for her children. She would read books she borrowed from the Ladies’ Aid lending library at church—books about missionaries or inspirational stories about people who lived their lives in the shadow of God. She sometimes had to study and prepare the Bible Study for Ladies’ Aid. She taught the high school aged kids in Sunday School on Sunday morning. She read books to her own children.
Her children were sometimes sick, and she gathered soggy sheets in the middle of the night. She dealt with one feverish, measle-y child after another (so much simpler if they had all gotten the measles at one time). Sometimes she helped out a sick or busy relative or neighbor, babysitting for their three or four children in addition to her own six.
When a neighbor or friend had a death in the family, she would make a hotdish, a pie, or a cake and bring it to their house.
Sometimes her husband would take the children with him—to town, to a social gathering—and leave her home alone so she would get a little break. But that didn’t happen very often. In July of that year, all eight of them piled into the car and went on a road trip: to Itasca State Park, to Bemidji, to the Duluth Zoo, to the open pit iron mines in Crosby-Ironton, to Brainerd. They stayed in a motel one night and went swimming in Lake Bemidji.
She wasn’t a saint. She didn’t always feel cheerful. Sometimes she felt overwhelmed. But when she looked around, it was the way all the other women in her community were living their lives, too.
I told you I was transcribing my mother’s diaries. This was her life from 1954 to 1955.