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....