Thursday, January 1, 2015


The first day of the year.

Always a time for pondering.

What will this year hold?  Good or evil? Pain or joy?  Life or death?

I have reached an age where, even more than the usual, every day is a gift I dare not count on.  I have buried every immediate family member but one - out of the 7 that made my original family circle.

I am the child of 2nd generation immigrants.

My grandparents on both sides immigrated at the turn of the last century.

Their speech was thick with the accents of "the old country."  They spoke of it often - I can hear them still.  The lilt of Swedish is so musical, falling gently on the ears and alive with memories of growing up .

My paternal grandparents lived with us from the time of my 3rd year.  My grandfather was 6 feet tall, and our first meeting began with him snatching me up and tossing me in the air.

To say I was terrified would be an understatement.

I can still see through my 3 yr old eyes, can still feel like I was 20 stories up - and being thrown higher - by a stranger. And one who talked funny at that! Yikes!

Of course, we made friends.  I was only to know him for 2 more years before a stroke stole him away.  but I remember him well, and with affection.

He was a painter.

He painted houses to make ends meet.  And he painted his heart to keep his memories alive.  For my grandfather was a whaler.

This was back when the whales had a chance, and a whale run was 50/50 - the men were at as much of a risk of dying as the whales.

He sailed on windjammers - the many-sailed boats with 2 or 3 masts fitted with 3 large square sails.  Most of their down time was spent repairing said sails.  Or the nets used to catch fresh fish for food.  To the end of his life, his best times were on a charter, doing deep sea fishing and hopefully returning with a gargantuan tuna to feed us for a week.

He would clean the fish, which became my job as I grew up.  I loved to watch him, loved the process from start to finish - first the scaling.  Only when the skin was super smooth did he remove the head just below the gills, remove the tail - and here's where it got really interesting - slit the belly and remove the guts.  I remember asking him "what's that?" over and over - patiently he would point out the liver, the air sacs, the intestines, and, if we were lucky, the roe - the eggs a female carried hidden in her body.  I think this is where I became interested in nursing - by being a 5 yr old fascinated with guts!

My grandmother, 11 years younger than he, was made of spun sugar - and molten steel.  She cooked the tuna as a roast, basting it with butter and love.

She was from Sweden, my grandfather from Norway - at a time when the two countries were not exactly friendly.  Mostly, sons grew up to farm, in both countries, and daughters grew up to be farmer's wives - or nurses. She had 3 sisters, and all grew up to be nurses.  she herself was in nurse training when she left Sweden to marry my grandfather.  Sadly, she never was able to finish her training - in those days, married women did not become nurses.

Her home life had been rough.  She was the Cinderella of her family, with no fairy godmother in sight.  She never figured out why her parents used her as a drudge, to do all the cleaning and cooking.  Part of her task was to make cookies for her 7 siblings - and she was not allowed to sample even one.

So, at the tender age of 16, she and my grandfather had saved enough money for her to join him in America.  She bade her family  far vell (good bye) and set sail on the sister ship to the Lusitania.  The ship would be sunk during WWI, as well as the more famous Lusitania.

She was, of course, in steerage - the below decks accommodations of many immigrants in that day. - small rooms were fitted with 2 bunkbeds, leaving scarcely enough room to move between the beds. When they hit rough seas, people were too sick to run for the primitive WCs, and would simply vomit over the side of their beds. My steely grandmother, not seasick but getting sick on the smell, had brought lemons with her to fight off scurvy.  She took one of her lemons with her to suck on, and snuck out to the deck as the ship tossed and dived with the rough sea swells.  Water would flood the lower decks and she wrapped an arm around the railing and held on - she thought the danger preferable to the smell of the unventilated steerage quarters.

Only she found, as she hung on literally for dear life, that the fancy patrons above her hung onto their rails - and vomited over the side, which the wind blew backward to fall on her and the steerage deck, making it slicker than the blasts of ocean water did.  Yet still, she clung on, sucking her lemon to help control the nausea of being doused repeatedly with vomit.

She said she didn't know how long she'd been there when a crew member noticed her below.  He ran down to her deck and told her she couldn't be there - it was too dangerous, he said, she could be washed overboard.  And while she knew what he said was true, she couldn't stand being shut up with all the vomit in steerage.

But the steward pulled her arm from the railing and forced her back inside.

And she endured.

Eventually her baby sister Judith and husband John, also came to America and settled nearby.

Sweden is big on elves and trolls and folklore.  The deep snow and dark winters leave plenty of time for storytelling while the work is being done. Perhaps they  missed it.

Because one year my uncle John made a little house.

To my 6 yr old eyes it was enchanting.

Log walls with snow on the roof, dainty lace curtains - and through them, hazily visible elves at work could be seen.  Light glowed from the windows, and you could see the elves at their chores - and one was warming his backside at the blazing fire in the fireplace.  It was enthralling.

My 2 brothers (a third would come when I was 9) and 6 boy cousins were all mesmerized, too, and it was rare for the little house to be unattended for any length of time.

I found a photo of it when I was grown up and was shocked to find the walls were corrugated cardboard and the snow was rolled cotton.

I was astonished.

As a child at Christmastime, it had been pure magic. And in my memories, it has lost none of its authenticity - and never shall.

My memories of my grandparents are among my most precious - I look at kids today and feel sad that children are so isolated from the older generations.  I think God designed the nuclear family as a gift - for a child to know how to communicate with older generations, hear stories at their knee, be cared for when the parents are busy elsewhere, know there are open arms to run to, and learn that death eventually claims us all.  It taught me to cherish memories - and thank the God that built me with memories to store and savor.

My grandparents, uncles and aunts, brothers and parents - all are still in my heart.  I expect most of us wish we had paid more attention to them, made more time to listen and visit and love.  I wish I had written down every word, to better remember their wisdom.

But I look at the world today, and I am filled with gratitude.  My King and Lord blessed me with a life surrounded by caring and love - which, I suppose, makes it easier to know the love of my Father in heaven.

So, thank You, Papa. I'm so grateful for the love and the accents and strong faith that is my inheritance - thank you for the parents you gave me, and for their parents - and for Your plan for my life.  Every good gift, and every perfect gift, comes down from the Father of Lights, in Whom is no changeableness or shadow from turning. (James 1:17)

Thank You, Lord, from the bottom of my heart.

No comments: