Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Cardboard Doll Carriage

Aunt Doreen and her husband, Jack, in 1987

My husband, Carn, was on the phone with his delightful, chatty elderly Aunt Doreen not long ago. Since I answered the phone first, we exchanged hellos and she told me the cutest story before she talked to Carn.

When she was a little girl in the 1920's in western Canada, one bright summer day she decided she wanted to take her dolly for a walk.  As she was from a family with modest means, she didn't have a doll carriage. But being the smart and imaginative child that she was, she found a discarded cardboard box, made a small hole and tied a string to it.  She padded it with a soft and cozy worn-out blanket and gently placed her dolly inside.  She took the string in her hand, then proudly, with her head held high, curly locks just so and a spring in her step, she began walking down the sidewalk dragging the cardboard-box doll carriage behind her.  

She came upon a horse and buggy left waiting in the street while the owner, a local merchant, delivered goods to a neighbor's house.  This brought a big smile to little Doreen's face as she loved horses. How could this day get any better, she thought to herself, pleased as she could be.  Naturally, the box scraping across the pavement was rather noisy, having no wheels and all.  As she walked by, the grating noise of her "carriage" spooked the horse so fiercely he suddenly reared wildly and bolted, buggy in tow, galloping through gardens and flowerbeds, bringing down clotheslines until he finally found his way home.

Of course, as Aunt Doreen put it, the horse wasn't the only one that was scared out of his wits.  She grabbed the dolly and ran madly back into her house, hid behind the curtain and peeked out the corner of the window.  She watched breathlessly as the horse left a trail of destruction behind and disappeared out of sight.  The merchant was left stranded and not too happy. Hands on his hip, he looked all around to see if he could find what caused his poor horse to take flight. He notice an empty box on the sidewalk. But that wouldn't scare a horse. Aunt Doreen said she never told a soul for years....

It has only been in the last couple of years that Carn has re-established a close relationship with his aunt.  He is continually surprised at how much family folklore he gathers talking to his mom's youngest sister. Some of it has proved to be life-altering. There were unfortunate gaps in Carn's infancy and early childhood due to the five-year absence of his father during WWII.  Then immediately after his discharge, his dad was
Carn, age 5 with his cat & hat,
still two of his favorite things today
diagnosed and hospitalized for twenty years with tuberculosis. The long separations due to the war and illness eventually led to the divorce of his parents when he was 7.  He remembers seeing his dad only a few times as a young boy making it impossible to truly know or bond with him. Over the years, he has experienced a sense of abandonment which was further complicated by misinformation, sometimes negative, about his dad.

It just so happens Aunt Doreen lived with my husband's parents for a period of time shortly after they were married and she became well acquainted with his dad.  Her affirmative comments about him 65 years years later strengthen his image in Carn's mind. Everyone genuinely liked his father who earned the nickname "Goody" because he was such a generous and amiable person.  He would never have intentionally abandoned his only son.  Had it not been for WWII and contracting contagious TB in the battlefields of Europe, Carn would have had the dad he always wanted.  With her enlightening and warm-hearted stories, Aunt Doreen has filled in some of those painful gaps, leaving Carn with new and positive memories of his father.
Carn's father, Canadian soldier WWII

This is huge, really.  Who would have thought that simply chatting on the phone with his only remaining aunt could be a source of life-changing encouragement for Carn?  Hooray for Aunt Doreen!  And hooray for Carn!  Restoring a lost family tie serves to validate and honor his aunt who is in her 80's.  As we journey through life and finally near the end of the road, we all want to know that our lives were worthwhile, that we were heard and what we had to say mattered.  Aunt Doreen's stories really "matter"!  This revitalized family bond is of mutual benefit to them both.

This is why our relational Triune God created the relational human family. We need each other. It is never too late to seek to restore family ties and fill in the gaps. And you never know--not only is it possible for much needed validation, peace of mind and emotional healing to occur as a result, but you may also find yourself fascinated and entertained by charming stories of the "olden" days--you know, like the one about the pert little girl taking her dolly for a stroll  in a cardboard doll carriage....

The sunset of life can be beautiful....


Friday, April 26, 2013

The Richest Lady Around

Grandma Swenson 1890-1971

I always had mixed feelings about visiting my maternal grandparents when I was a child. We lived in town, small as it was, it was still "town."  However, they lived in the country, way out in the middle of the flat cotton fields of south central Texas.  They were hard-working share-croppers, farming land they did not own in exchange for rent and a modest share of the annual crop proceeds.  Their unpainted wood-frame house had no indoor plumbing, but they did have a bathtub located on the closed-in back porch.  Once a week the tub was filled with water from the well in the backyard.  In summer, buckets of water were poured from a barrel left sitting out in the hot sun for warmth.  In winter, the bath-water was heated in large pots on an old kerosene stove. Then everyone took their turn, usually children and ladies first.  I remember being pouty and crabby about the lack of privacy on the few occasions when I had to take a bath at grandmas.  Not fun.

Everyone entered the house from the back through a squeaky screen door to the porch, walking past the prized bathtub and into the small kitchen where Grandma prepared her mouth-watering meals on an old coal-oil cooking stove. I can still picture it. There was a sturdy wood "pie safe" in the kitchen where dishes and food items were stored on shelves covered with faded but decorative shelf paper--the only nice touch in the kitchen. In one corner, there was a smallish table protected by crackly, aged oilcloth where many a tasty and flaky pie crust was rolled out.  There was not a single thing in that cramped little kitchen that made Grandma's job easier, yet she managed to put together Texas-style feasts that brought rave reviews. She never sat down with us to eat, but rushed around refilling plates if anyone slowed down. Eating at Grandma's, now that was fun.

She kept her "spending money" tied up in the corner of a handkerchief, stashed away in her dresser drawer.  If I happened to be visiting when she made one of her infrequent trips to the store for flour, sugar or coffee, she never failed to buy me yummy ice cream or some candy. More fun.

Even though the old homestead was not comfy or beautiful or convenient, it was the center of family gatherings.  After eating all you could eat, the table and chairs were moved to the side of the room and corn meal was sprinkled on the floor. Then the dancing started.  All of my relatives could play some type of instrument--a guitar or mandolin or fiddle or harmonica.  Just outside the back door were over-sized wash tubs chock-full of blocks of ice and bottles of beer.  Grandma didn't care what the people she loved did to her house as long as they had fun.  The adults really "kicked up their heels" and it scared me a little.  I have to admit I was a bit of a party-pooper as a child.

Me in my new green & while bathing suit
On one visit to my grandparents when I was about six, I wore my brand new green and white striped bathing suit that I thought was soooooo cute.  So my mom got out the Kodak camera and took my picture as I proudly struck the most glamorous pose I could come up with.  Feeling very pleased with myself, I sashayed  back to the house, stepping right smack into some chicken droppings along the way.  Every self-respecting kid in south Texas went barefoot all summer long and "stepping in something" was always a probability and one of the things I hated most!  Well, that pretty much burst my bubble....  Not fun.

And I don't need to go into the outhouse stories with the torn-up Sears catalog and the little hole for kids and big hole for adults.  Again, not fun.

It's noteworthy that my big brother absolutely loved visiting the old farm and riding the tractor, fishing and hunting and playing in the barn.  He would have lived there permanently if he could have and so would my four other cousins who all happened to be boys.  I was the only girl and felt more than a little overwhelmed by somewhat primitive farm life.  I believe if there had been another  little girl cousin to play with, I like to think we would have giggled when we stepped in something and pretended the outhouse was a cute enchanted cottage...well, that's probably stretching it a bit.  I just  remember in the summertime when my parents occasionally left me on my own at Grandma's for a day or so, I spent hours amusing myself midway down the long, dusty driveway that led to the house anxiously waiting for them to come back and rescue me.  I'm sure it broke Grandma's heart looking out the window at her forlorn little granddaughter shuffling gravel with her feet pretending to look for bits of pretty colored glass.

Now sixty years later and a grandma in my own right, it's hard to hold back the tears as I relive the times I  spent with Grandma Swenson. She was empty-handed when it came to physical possessions and lacked  educational opportunities. As was typical of her generation, I don't think anyone ever bothered to ask her whether she had her own hopes and dreams.  I doubt she was aware she could have dreams.  All she knew from childhood as the firstborn of seven siblings was taking her place of responsibility in the family and doing never-ending chores.  When she married and bore six children of her own, the dilapidated, but scrubbed-clean farm house with its barns and acreage became her world.
Grandma & Grandpa Swenson next
to the squeaky screen door.

Born in 1890, Minnie Swenson was a tall, heavy-set lady.  At least she seemed tall to my child's eye when she stood next to my grandfather who was of short stature.  She certainly wasn't fashionable.  Her dresses were timeworn, often a little tattered and sometimes held together here and there with safety pins.  Getting her hair styled was out of the question.  Her hands were not nicely manicured, but rather rough and calloused from all the hard labor indoors and out. Her round face was sunburned and prematurely wrinkled.  Taking care of herself just wasn't practical in any sense of the word.  But she had clear, sky-blue eyes that sparkled and lit up her serene, but weary, countenance.

In the years after we moved and lived out of state, we never received any letters from Grandma Swenson. The daughter of Swedish immigrants, she could speak English, albeit with a strong Swedish accent, but had never been taught to read or write.  My brother has sweet memories of her sitting every evening in her rocking chair in the bedroom, holding up the newspaper as though she were reading it, but in reality she was only looking at the pictures.

One could say Grandma Swenson didn't have much to offer.  Well, one could say that but it's so not true.  Bereft of physical possessions, she was nonetheless the richest woman around.  She left an opulent legacy of generosity, kindheartedness, self-sacrifice and the priceless knack of facilitating authentic family bonding.  No one in the family has any memory of her complaining about her lot in life.  She and my grandfather never argued. Just good times, family gatherings filled with laughter and singing and dancing.  Her youngest daughter said of her "What a beautiful life....what loving and caring parents we had."

My maternal grandmother deserved loads of honor which I was unable to give her personally when I was young.  But I've found it's never too late to honor someone's memory.  Now, searching through my childhood memories of her is like discovering hidden treasure--prized tidbits of information and stories that I can entrust to my children and my grandchildren so she will live on in their hearts as well.

As happened too often in those days, Minnie (Nygrin) Swenson eventually became old and in the way and spent her final years sharing a tiny musty room with a complete stranger in an "old folks' home" that was devoid of the  warmth and family that had always surrounded her. She had children that wanted to take her in, but none of them lived locally and Grandma simply refused to leave. The uplifting goodness of God was very much in evidence during her lifetime. She finished her work here on earth with grace and dignity. Her dazzling inward beauty never faded.  I feel privileged to have been her only granddaughter.

Grandma and Grandpa Swenson (center) with their adult children
in front of the old farm house.
The sunset of life can be beautiful....