Thursday, June 14, 2012

Keeper of lessons

Yesterday I spent some more time sorting through the boxes of my Grandmother's cards and letters. I am still in awe of all she saved and am convinced I am just discovering them now for a good reason.

You've heard the saying, When the student is ready, the teacher appears? I am devouring these old letters of Grandma's like a hungry child, so eager to open the next envelope, unfold the next letter, read the next news from one of her three sisters, or her brother, Pete, who signed his letters, Your lonesome brother, Pete. Now, why was he lonesome? Until recently, I may not have been curious. Now I am.

I know so very little about my Grandmother's own family, and yet they were alive when I was growing up. Sure, maybe I heard them referred to as Aunt Johanna or Aunt Katie sometimes. But I never realized they were real people. With lives. That were connected to my Grandma. That my Grandma was ever anything but my Grandma. As if she were born that way, born just to be there in that time to be my Grandma.

Now I am realizing she was more than a Grandma (to nineteen of us), more than my father's mother, more than a farm wife, more than a cook, a gardener, a mender of socks.

My Grandmother, lower middle.
Johanna standing in back.
Mary on left; Katie on right.

She was a sister. She was a daughter. Someone's child. A teenager, a young woman in love, a newlywed, a young mother.

Somewhere during her young womanhood, she came from Ida Grove, Iowa to live as a housekeeper in South Dakota and met my Grandfather. I don't know if she ever looked back, but she never returned to Iowa to live, though two of her sisters and her brother remained.

Through the years that followed, letters were sent back and forth: first 1-cent, then 2-cent, then 4-cent stamps affixed to the yellowed envelopes.

Usually they started with, My dear sister or Dear Stina or sometimes just, Dear sister.

They told of ordinary occurrences: the flu bug going around, a wind storm in town last week, the price of eggs, butter and dry goods, butchering cattle, plans for Thanksgiving, kids coming for Easter, how are your crops doing this year, and so on.

Everyday things in everyday lives.

What was extraordinary was that these letters were filed and saved. Tucked away in shoeboxes with little notes written on the envelopes as to the date received and the date answered. It's just what was done back then. One didn't just throw them away. And now, these letters saved, I am learning about my Grandma in a role different from who she was as just my Grandma.

But it got me to thinking: Who is the keeper of the lessons of today? And what are the lessons of today?

Letter writing? A thing of the past. Photos? Taken with a phone, shared on Facebook, stored on the computer, if at all.  Lacey Valentine cards? Bygone days, from the past. Christmas greetings? Now an e-mail sent with one keystroke to a distribution list, or a duplicated generic letter.

How, I wonder, will our great-grandchildren learn about our ordinary lives of today? I pride myself on keeping the clutter down and too easily toss Mother's Day cards, Easter greetings, birthday cards and the like. I tell myself my children don't want all this stuff and certainly won't treat it with any reverence. Of no importance, this stuff, of no value that I can see now.

But in the future, these things may be clues. What may not seem worth keeping today may be my grandchild's delight to discover some day.

From now on, I think I'll take the chance and tuck these things away. I'll definitely save the postmark and the stamp, or note the date.

I can be the keeper of today's lessons; still teach and talk to my grandchildren, here or not, through these treasures of the past.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Hidden treasures

Little could my grandmother have known that the letters, news clippings, greeting cards and invitations she kept, neatly organized in bundles, would bring us so much joy a half-century or more later. And not only bring us joy but teach us of the past.

Following the death of Uncle Marvin last August, the century-old farmhouse in White Lake, South Dakota, of which he was the last occupant, had to be emptied. Its contents included boxes of memorabilia tucked away by Grandma: dried corsages, yellowed news clippings, a few recipes, calling cards, letters.

There was correspondence back and forth between Grandma and her sister, Johanna, telling of family news between Iowa and South Dakota, keeping in touch through the sadly-lost art of the written letter using linen paper and a fountain pen. I learned my Grandmother, whose given name was Christina (or Christena) was called Stina by her sisters and brother. I had never heard her referred to as Stina before.

What really struck me is how organized Grandma was. Each bundle was packaged in a recycled paper bag like the kind you got at the five-and-dime, and labeled: Pa's Birthday 1957, Mother's Day 1962, and one labeled:

There was a thick bundle of letters tied with string, and as I began to open them, I realized what this package was: every single letter written home from Uncle Marvin when he was in the Marines, stationed in California, from 1950 to 1952. The first letter told of his arrival and the last said he was leaving to come home as his discharge had been processed. Every single letter that warmed a mother's heart and assured her that her son was safe; every single letter bundled for safekeeping.

She had a similar bundle from my Dad when he served in the Navy ten years earlier, but she had given that bundle to my family already. My sister, Joan, has scanned each one for an album she entitled, Dear Folks, as all his letters began.

There were letters and cards sent to Grandma from her grandchildren through the years. They are priceless to us now. My favorite is one I wrote to tell her I was pregnant with my first child, and she would be a Great-Grandmother. That was 1966. Thank you notes from me for bridal shower, wedding and baby gifts were among the many other treasures.

I also came across something from a
bygone era I had never seen before: a formal engagement announcement. It was engraved on a little card such as you would get for a high school graduation. I hadn't realized that was done.

As I had offered to take on the task of going through all these boxes, uncovering their precious contents made me realize what an awesome assignment and honor this really was. I spent many happy hours just marveling at what had been kept by my Grandmother. She must have treasured these cards and letters as she was a practical farm wife who didn't place importance on frivolous things. I just think the messages and words spoke to her heart and she couldn't bear to part with them.

The packages have now been sorted and divided, pertinent papers shared with other family members. They, too, are enjoying reliving words and greetings of the past, recalling memories as told in the assorted messages.

And so, almost fifty years following her passing, Grandma is giving us gifts. Memories she kept for us, safely wrapped in bundles in recycled dime-store bags. Tucked away in back of her linen closet.

Waiting to be discovered.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Up early

If you know me even a little, you know I am not an early riser. You may also know that it takes me a long time to be fully awake in the morning.

I may appear to be awake. I am out of bed, moving, sipping my coffee, walking and talking (well, if you call "mmmm," or grunting, talking). But that doesn't mean I am actually awake. I used to be able to be fully functional at work without being totally awake. Is it any wonder I truly adore retirement?

So now I will really confuse you: I actually love early mornings.

There is nothing better than arising and feeling ahead of the game. I almost feel like I'm cheating: up before I have to be, watching the dark become light, night become day.

When my children were small, the wee hours of the morning were my only precious, alone-moments. Preparing my coffee pot the night before, it would quietly perk as I donned a bathrobe and brushed my teeth. Then I would tiptoe into the living room for a bit of time to read or stitch in perfect quiet.

Sometimes I would sit at the kitchen table, careful not to let my chair make any noise as I scooted it up to the table. There I would write a letter, pay some bills, look through a photo album, or, more likely, make my list of things to do for the day. I could hear my children's quiet breathing in their nearby bedroom.

Today was one of those rare days when I was up and fully awake before daylight. I almost get a high from it.

This morning it was just Catrina, the cat, and me. I watched her stretch and look at me oddly as if I were infringing on her peaceful sleep. I opened my devotional meditation book, taking the time to not only read it but absorb its calming message of the wonders of nature.

I don't know how one changes their body clock. But if I could change it so an early rise was a daily occurrence, I surely would.

No matter what the day holds, I feel so much better prepared. It really makes for a great day.

Ah, sweet serenity.