Thursday, June 3, 2010

Memories of Photographs

I didn't get to know my Gramma Hazel anywhere near as long as I should have...

Hazel Solberg, my maternal grandmother was born Hazel Anderson in Mayville, North Dakota in 1913. In 1932 she married Arvid Solberg, who was nine years older than her. They had four children, three boys – Harlan, Norlyn, and Gene, and my mother – Kay, who was born in 1936. Gramma and Grampa lived their entire married life on a comfortable family farm in Norway Township, about nine miles from Mayville.

What is my first memory of my Gramma? Was it being bathed in the deep sink in the kitchen of the farmhouse? Maybe, but so many of my earliest memories appear to me like old snapshots looked at from an angle. Was I there when the photograph was taken? Did I see in a photo a scene I actually remembered? Or did I find in a glossy square paper window an event that was true in every way so I added it to my memory?

I remember Gramma putting the morning lunch – sandwich meat on white bread, coffee in a thermos, and water in a recycled gallon pickle jar – in a rusty brown wagon which my brother Steve and I wheeled out to the fields that were within walking distance of the house. I remember Mom and Gramma giving us our weekly bath in the wash tub in the yard outside the house. This was in the summer, of course, every Saturday evening whether we needed it or not. The tub was first filled with cold water from the cistern and then was warmed with a couple three teakettles of boiling water carried out from kitchen. When we got in the car she used to tell us “Hands up!” when the doors were being closed. Had there been seatbelts I’m sure she’d have said “Buckle up for safety!”

My brother and my male cousins went to the fields with the men, but I was allowed to stay behind to help Gramma. “I like you helping me because your name is the easiest to say,” she teased. I was concerned I might not turn out to be much of a farmer, but Grampa let me know – without words – that he very much approved of me being Gramma’s helper.

Dusting and polishing the stairs was one of my specialties. North Dakota had no shortage of dust so I got plenty of practice. There was an old-fashioned wringer washer in the basement. Gramma saw to the dangerous stuff – there were parts of those machines that would take off a kid’s finger, or maybe an arm – but I helped with water hoses and the heavy lifting. After the laundry had been wrung out between those unforgiving hard rubber rollers I’d carry the baskets of wash out to the clothesline, wrinkly iron wires spanning three Ts made of whitewashed timbers. In my earliest memories I handed clothes from the basket to Gramma because I was not tall enough to hang them myself.

I suppose I was too young to notice precisely when Gramma got sick. She developed scleroderma, a chronic disease that hardens the skin. She was part of a study at the Mayo Clinic, so sometimes Gramma and Grampa would visit us in Bloomington while on their way to Rochester.

While we were at the farm my favorite chore was to help Gramma “wax her arms” every evening. In the kitchen a double boiler full of paraffin was put across two burners of the stove and melted. Then my grandmother would dip an arm into the melted wax. When she withdrew it her arm looked like that of a marble statue. I wrapped the first arm in dishtowels, covered it with a plastic bread bag, and gently clipped the entire assembly in place with a clothespin. After we repeated the process on the other arm she’d retire to the front room to watch television for a while. Later, after the wax had cooled, we’d go back to the kitchen, remove the bags and towels, and peel the wax – which went back into the double boiler for use the next evening.

Scleroderma is a progressive illness and the wax was only a comfort not a cure. In time her elbows remained bent at 90 degrees. Her fingers were forever frozen as though grasping a can of soda. I can see in pictures now that her face became mask-like, but I didn’t notice that at the time.

Only once do I remember anyone ever talking about Gramma’s illness or its effect on her. Scandinavian stoicism is legendary for a reason. After our Saturday morning trip to town I was bringing in the groceries for my Gramma. In the kitchen she was talking with my grandfather about a new plastic pitcher she had just purchased. It had a tightly fitted screw on lid.

“Will you be able to open it?” my Grampa inquired with tender concern in his voice.

“Sure,” Gramma replied with a plucky pride “I just slide this cover off the pour spout and it makes a little handle.” She demonstrated her casually adapted technique, screwing the lid off, then back on again. For the first time I recognized that her stiffened hands might actually make simple things in life difficult for her.

“Okay,” Grampa said with nod.

In April of 1968 Dad took my brother and me to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. The next month when school was out I was very excited tell her all about it.

“It started when humans had just evolved from apes…” I began.

“You believe in evolution?” she interrupted. That began an hours long discussion about science, religion, God, and the Bible, that while good-natured and loving, had a rock hard undertone on her part. Neither of us relented. I never got to tell her about the rest of the movie.

My Gramma got sicker. We came home one summer to see that the dining room had been remade as her bedroom, but with an adjustable hospital bed and a tall green oxygen bottle with chrome fittings. I later learned that Hazel had the most serious form of scleroderma, the sort that turns on your lungs and heart after it finishes hardening your skin.

In 1971 Steve and I went to Boy Scout Camp for a couple weeks at the end of June. We went to say goodbye to Gramma as she lay on her bed. She wished me a good time. Then she asked me a question.

“Do you still believe in evolution?”

“Of course, Gramma,” I replied without pause.

“Oh,” she seemed sad, which made no sense to me at the time.

“Come give me a hug,” she said.

That was the last time I saw her. She died June 28, 1971 while my brother Steve and I were away at Scout camp.

Out of some misguided sense of kindness my parents chose not to tell us or retrieve us from camp until the day before the funeral. We had missed the viewing at the funeral home so on the day of the funeral my mother encouraged me to look at Gramma before they closed her coffin and began the service.

I couldn’t do it. I was afraid. Then I was ashamed I was afraid.

“You’ll see, she looks so nice,” my mom pleaded.

“Please Mom; I don’t want to have nightmares.” I didn’t look at my Gramma before the coffin was closed. Some of our decisions probably don’t make a big difference in the long run but I’ve regretted giving in to that fear ever since. I didn’t cry for her until I wrote about her illness and death for a course in college. That was seven years after her funeral. I might have cried that day had I taken one last look at her.

Rather than having nightmares about seeing Gramma in her casket I dreamt of her only once, about a year later. In the dream my brother and I flew effortlessly to the clouds above my Grampa’s farm and landed on another farmstead just like his. Only Gramma lived there and she was very happy to see us. Best of all she was healthy. We spent a beautiful summer afternoon with her, eating treats, drinking nectar, talking, and laughing. Then Gramma said gently “Thank you for coming to see me but it’s time for you boys to go home. You come back and see me real soon, okay?” She leaned each of us at an angle against a picnic table (which was strange as there had never been a picnic table at the farm), lit fuses under our feet, and shot us off her cloud like rockets. Try as I might in the nights that followed I never returned.

I think our lives might have been a little kinder and happier if she had been healthy and lived to a proper old age before leaving us. Over the years, and especially since my mother became a grandmother and great-grandmother, I revisited my memories of Hazel. Some are like my oldest memories of photographs, but most are genuine, if a little worn and polished around the edges. I remember the sounds of her house, the smell of her food, and the feeling of her stiff but loving hugs. If I concentrate I can just hear her voice calling my name, “Mike.

No comments:

Post a Comment