childhood, Uncategorized

The Letters

Recently I came upon some letters while looking for the right sized box to mail a package to my son at college in. The letters were not written to me, most of them were addressed to my mother. Quite a few of them were “Aerogrammes” received from Ireland in the early ’70s after my grandparents had suddenly passed away within hours of each other. There are also some from South Africa where her cousin has lived for most of his life. I must have tucked it in the basement cabinet after my mother died, with the intention of looking at them “some day”. My mother passed when my eldest was in her first week of middle-school and my senior in college was still an elementary student. “Some day” ended up being last week.

The box not only contained letters to my mother from friends, there was a copy of my father’s autopsy and a thank you letter regarding him being an organ and tissue donor. There was a letter on camp Ihduhapi letterhead postmarked from the summer of ’43 that my father had written to his parents. A letter that pretty much was a template for “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh. Here I am at Camp Granada.”  a song that was not released until twenty years later. There was a very formal letter from my grandfather, clearly in grief over the death of his own father that thanked my mother for her kind words to him in a previous letter. There was also a telegram telling her that her grandmother had passed and instructing her to share the news with family. I discovered a war bond book with carefully placed stamps from my mother’s youth.

The biggest gem in the box was physically the smallest. A tiny leather bound journal, a calendar from 1924, with space for a couple of lines to be recorded each day. A Belfast Ireland address is in the front cover, and also a Minneapolis address. I passed the treasure along to my daughter, who intends to write out the contents of it. It appears to chronicle the year my Grandfather immigrated, with details of dancing and “police raids” and a notation that reads “lost this book for a while – Found on road”. My grandfather lived in over thirty homes in his less than 70-year lifespan. How this small book survived the multiple moves around the US and back and forth across the ocean is somewhat miraculous.

Taking the time to look at these items caused me to do some reflection. How will a great grand-child “know” their deceased family members from this era some day, down the road? So little it actually recorded in a manner that will be preserved. Social media has taken on the role of a journal to document the highlights of life and Tweets, posts, text messages and rare emails are the efficient method of sharing our thoughts with others.

I feel like there is something different and introspective that occurs when a person takes the time to write a letter or compose a journal entry. There is a sense of permanence and thoughtfulness that is used when choosing the words or attempting to convey a sentiment. A person is required to stop, think and actually feel the emotions that a situation, event or person evokes in them. Without that catalyst, are people unintentionally less thoughtful as the result of those muscles not being flexed?

In my garage is a box that contains correspondence from friends and letters written on graph paper by my brother, that closed with stick figure drawings and “fill in the blank” lines for me to solve with a phrase reminiscent of our childhood. There are also letters from my husband chronicling our seven-month courtship. Reading them takes me back to that time where it seemed positively illogical that we get married but also captured the struggle it was for us to be apart. Receiving mail once meant more than bills and advertisements and the occasional greeting card.

I’m thankful for this box of insights from the past and I also appreciate that my children learned to read and write cursive. If the letters I have written and received last another generation or two, I wonder if they will simply look like scraps of paper with scribbles on them or if anyone will be able to decipher the messages we had taken the time to share.

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Christmas Traditions Change as We Do

grace-2016-christmasThere is a an evolution to Christmas, a continuum one travels throughout life. Though the reason for the season is unchanging, our relationship with it does change to fit not only one’s age but life’s circumstances as well.

My early memories of Christmas involve the red vinyl stockings with jingle bells on them that we placed at the ends of our bed on Christmas Eve and were full when we woke in the morning. Falling asleep on Christmas Eve was always difficult, virtually anything in the Sears Wish Book might be awaiting me in the morning. I remember awakening to the sound of the jingle bells and seeing my father back-lit from the hall light, his hand on my stocking. “Just checking, he hasn’t been here yet.” was his reply to what must have been my curious Cindy Lou Who sleepy-headed expression. My own children’s stockings reside by the fireplace but the rules regarding the contents of stockings are the same, they can be opened whenever the “child” awakens but they need to leave Mom and Dad alone. This must seem like a rule to allow for parents to leisurely begin their holiday by sleeping in. That has never been part of the Rose family tradition, for at least three generations, though I suspect further back than that. The Rose Christmas breakfast involves gathering at 9:00 am, by gathering I don’t mean meeting up at the dining room table in ones pajamas. As children we had done our stockings, opened our Santa gifts and those from family and were scrubbed, polished and in our finery at Grandpa Roses’ pink house in Golden Valley by nine o’clock sharp. We arrived to the aroma of Grandpa burning the bacon and high ball glasses painted with festive holly that were filled with quality eggnog. Ten of us surrounded the same table where the “adults” of my family will gather this Sunday (you know what time) and there was always a candy cane at each place setting and perhaps some other little token item. After my grandfather died we had breakfast at home, in a less formal manner. After my own father passed we took our celebration to a hotel buffet for a few years and once my brothers and I all had places of our own, we began a rotation of hosting. As adults we have taken the item at each place setting to a new level we refer to as “table gifts”, sometimes amusing, often practical and occasionally inappropriate selections that I start looking for on December 26th for the next year.

My childhood Christmas Eves varied, sometimes we were at my aunt and uncles where the children played and the grownups consumed hot drinks called Tom & Jerry’s or sipped amber liquids from short ice-filled glasses. Typically we got to open a package from under the tree on Christmas Eve, a tradition we have maintained with our own children. As I got older I would often hang out at my best friend’s house and attended midnight mass which was festive with song and fragrant incense. Despite living only across the street from each other Santa delivered her families gifts during Mass and on my side of Vincent Avenue the gifts didn’t show up until the next morning. I’m thinking Santa needed some sort of routing system to help make his job more efficient and less labor intensive. Once I met my husband we began spending Christmas Eve with his family, though on occasion the Pribyl celebration would take place on another day entirely to accommodate a sibling traveling and rotating celebrations at their in-laws. On those “off years” we would stop in at my best friend’s parents house or attend an open-house hosted by the parents of the children who were in our wedding party. Though the people were not always the same, I always enjoyed the festive gatherings, the people and the food.

When it comes to holiday food traditions I loved any baked good my aunt Patty made; rum balls, corn-flake wreaths with Red Hots and fudge come to mind. My best friend’s mom was a veritable Mrs. Claus who baked twelve months out of the year, I can think of nothing she made that I didn’t like. At my house, the Christmas baking consisted of Spritz cookies, with the heavy buttery dough being so dense that we actually broke the seam on the metal cookie press one year.

Once we had children of our own, my husband and his siblings began hosting the festivities. Our traditions are less formal when it comes to food, though my husband loves to make multiple batches of Chex Mix from Thanksgiving through New Years and his Korean Chicken Wings are a family favorite. I make caramels. After the death of his brother and the aging of his parents, the Christmas Eve traditions have changed as well. This is the first Christmas since his father has passed away, having spent his last several years in a Nursing Home. It was a number of years ago at my sister-in-laws on Christmas Eve when I first observed how terrified he was of the Alzheimer’s that was eclipsing him. While we sat on the couch watching others open gifts he looked at me in panic and said “I’m afraid I won’t remember who gave things to me.” I tried to gently reassure him “That doesn’t matter Pop, when you wear something or use something just know that somebody who loves you gave it to you. Nobody minds if you don’t know it’s from them.” It was only a couple of years later while we were hosting that I noted a distinct change in his mother’s behavior. Almost immediately upon arrival she exuded an anxiety “Are we eating now or opening presents?” she asked. I told her that we were simply enjoying each others company while waiting for others to arrive. She was worried that it was getting dark, which at 4:00 pm on a December day is typical. She seemed to be made anxious by the crowd, though it was simply her children, their spouses and her grand kids. It seemed cruel that a gathering that she had once enjoyed was now clearly causing her stress on multiple levels. I suggested to her daughters that perhaps in the future each family could independently visit her on her turf during the last couple of weeks of the year, to help eliminate the confusion of so many people, the anxiety brought on by the travel and to allow her to enjoy time with each of her children. We continue to open our home on Christmas Eve, the gatherings are smaller as new traditions form and the next generation reaches adulthood. We continue to enjoy the company of Jeff’s uncles and others whose plans allow them to attend.

Last night we celebrated Christmas with Jeff’s mother Grace. While Betsy worked selling Christmas trees, Eddie and I joined Jeff for a visit to Le Sueur. We arrived at 4:00 and gave her her gift. As the years have passed we have moved from the frivolous to the practical. It’s a clock designed for those with dementia, it not only provides the time but also the day and date and when in the day it is (six settings ranging from morning through night). Unlike his father’s Alzheimer’s which had him confusing who people were to eventually no longer recognizing them, his mothers dementia has erased her short term memory and has her fixate on a topic. During this visit she asked Eddie how tall he was perhaps a dozen times, then would follow-up with whether or not that was taller than his dad and ending with whether or not he thought he was done growing. On a couple of occasions she wrapped up with “Probably when you’re 18 or 19.” (he’s 21). Other trips it’s been the large trucks on the roads that catch her attention, yet another recent visit she was fixated on a child with special needs who was in the restaurant we took her to. Despite the confusion and the repetition, visiting her in her own space and taking her out locally for a meal or coffee as a small group seems to keep her anxiety at bay. So despite it not being “the same” as how we used to enjoy the holiday, it’s the best way for us to allow her to enjoy the holiday now.

Throughout this year and especially in recent weeks, I have seen a lot of social media posts regarding the loss of loved ones, parents and spouses alike. I know for many that as family situations change, so do many of the traditions that we hold dear. The changing of traditions to accommodate the needs or situations of others does not detract from the memories of Christmas past or the hopes for Christmas in the future. Situations change and whether it is financial, travel, health or loss of a loved one that changes your celebration this year, may you find comfort in the special memories and traditions that have made this holiday your own. Merry Christmas to all and best wishes for a happy and healthy 2017.

 

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Celebrating My Irish Heritage Like My Ancestors Didn’t

Rueben

My husband and I will dine out this evening. As much as I enjoy the taste, I am not a fan of the smell of cooked cabbage or sauerkraut in the house, so on St. Patrick’s Day we often let someone else prepare our meal. He will likely indulge in Corned Beef and Cabbage with Irish Potatoes and I will feast upon a Reuben sandwich.

As a kid hearing the word “Reuben” brought to mind Reuben Kincaid, the manager for The Partridge Family, played by Dave Madden. His wacky escapades with Danny Bonaduce have nothing to do with the sandwich but I feel compelled to share this fact as my first knowledge of a Reuben.

I loved Pastrami on Pumpernickel with some Spin Blend or Miracle Whip as a kid but I was likely in college before I actually consumed what would be considered a Reuben. I actually credit the Reuben with some responsibility for my marriage. Having only known the man who eventually became my husband for a week the first time he came to visit, I had no idea what foods he liked. Living on a college campus with dining hall privileges, despite having a full kitchen I typically had an empty refrigerator. I decided to do a little grocery shopping before his arrival and found myself craving a Reuben sandwich. While gathering the ingredients I recall thinking “What if he doesn’t like Reubens?” and then responding to myself “Would you really want to pursue a relationship with a guy who doesn’t?”. So we ate Reubens that weekend and we have been together ever since.

My maternal grandparents were born and raised in Northern Ireland, moved to the United States as young adults and became US citizens after having three American offspring. They retired to Ireland where they died a short time later when I was only eight years old. I remember my grandmother’s accent (my grandfather worked very hard to lose his) and her teaching my how to jig, those two recollections and the heavy cream-colored fisherman sweaters that they brought back for my brother’s and I from one of their visits are the only truly Irish recollections I have of them.

Despite being only a second-generation American of Irish descent, I celebrate St. Patrick’s Day like most non-Irish Americans, the way people in Ireland never did, until tourism made it clear that embracing these non-traditions would be profitable. So bring out the shamrocks, tacky green beads, bedazzled bowler hats and green beer. Irish whiskey may be among the only truly Irish consumable ingested in the US on March 17th.

The Reuben sandwich, a Jewish deli mainstay. The bread upon which the delectable ingredients will be layered is of German origin. While the sauerkraut is often deemed a German food, I will credit the Chinese whose laborers consumed the fermented cabbage while working double shifts on the Great Wall. While Swiss cheese seems to have obviously come from Switzerland, if you want to purchase some while there (or most places in Europe) you will want to ask for Emmental cheese. Some put Russian Dressing on it (which is either from Russia or New York, depending on who you ask) and others (myself included) like a slathering of Thousand Island, which my research indicates is an American concoction that originated somewhere in New York.

Like much of food history, many lay claim to originating the Reuben. Restauranteurs with a son named Reuben and the last name Reuben both have compelling arguments. Locations from New York to Nebraska claim to be the birthplace of the gastronomical creation. Most indications are that somewhere between 1897 and 1920 the sandwich was invented. In 1956 the National Restaurant Association made it the National Sandwich Winner.

I am entirely unclear if my Irish ancestors ever consumed a Reuben or Corned Beef and Cabbage. It seems that in Ireland, the impoverished dined on pork and potatoes, a cured pork or “Irish bacon”. When arriving in the United States most Irish immigrants lived in poorer communities with other “undesirables”; the Italians and Jews. It is believed that economics and proximity is how Irish people became associated with Corned Beef, it was cheaper than pork and accessible at Jewish delicatessens.

On St. Patrick’s Day the United Nation of sandwiches is Irish, despite having no actual ties to Ireland, in the same way that everyone is Irish on St. Paddy’s day, regardless of where they came from.

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Day 18 in a month of writing: The Brief and Peculiar Memories of My Grandparents

My first piece of jewelry

My first piece of jewelry

I have a large Limoge urn painted with pink and yellow roses, and lilacs so vivid you can almost smell them, it was something that my grandmother wanted me to have, if I ever came to be. My father’s mother died of breast cancer a couple of years before I was born. She knew she was dying and directed my grandfather on how to proceed if their youngest were ever to add a daughter to his duo of boys. Grandpa arrived at the hospital after I was born with his deceased wife’s amethyst and diamond cocktail ring. It would be years before I would wear it, actually I didn’t even have hair for quite a while. Her favorite color was purple and my favorite color has always been purple, like an amethyst. My mother brought the ring to the hospital on the day my own daughter was born, in the original box it came in.

My mother’s parents were on a ship headed to England when I was born and found out that I (who was to remain their youngest grandchild) was a girl via a telegram or some shore to ship communication. Six boys, three girls. I remember their visits when I was young, they would return from England and we would go to the airport. One time I recall them arriving by train. There are photo booth pictures of my cousin Greg and I waiting for one of their arrivals, confused toddlers looking different directions, not knowing why we had been put in the large metal box with the curtain. When Grandma and Grandpa were in town we served tea and cigarettes were put out in a marble holder for guests to help themselves to in the way a person would grab candy or nuts from a dish. They moved back to Minnesota before I started elementary school, built a lovely home, bought a horse and after a few years my grandfather retired. Upon my grandfather’s retirement they moved to their native Ireland and sadly died before their dogs (Black Labs; Rex and Dusky) were even out of quarantine. During the few years they lived in Minnesota during my lifetime I recall grandma teaching me how to jig and playing “Snakes and Ladders” which is exactly the same thing as Chutes and Ladders but you slid down snakes which was creepy.

There are many things I recall about the home they built and those few short years when they lived in Minnesota during my lifetime. Sledding with my brothers and cousins down the road which was their driveway after  a holiday meal is one that comes to mind. I remember there being a sort of elegance and grandeur to their home and also in photographs of the other homes they lived in on Emerson, Bryant and Mount Curve in Minneapolis, as well as on the Rum River in Anoka and their overseas homes in both England and Ireland. The rooms were designed for entertaining with numerous seating spaces, sofas facing each other by the fireplace like a hotel lobby. I loved that there was a pass-thru from the kitchen to the  formal dining room where enormous Waterford candlesticks framed a giant Waterford pedestal bowl. There was a large and fragrant cedar lined closet for storing woolen items, it resembled the size of my bedroom much more than it resembled the size of my own closet, which was only six inches wider than the door into it and was placed awkwardly at the angle of the roof-line. The rooms at Grandma and Grandpa’s were filled with furnishings of dark wood, large floral patterns, ornate lamps, trinkets and oil paintings. Many of those items found their way to the home I grew up in and some of the more special pieces remain in the homes of my brothers and I. A China music box from Ireland that played a tune “The Hills of Killarney” while the back slowly tilted out (to hold playing cards or cigarettes) sat prominently on their coffee table and was a favorite among the grandchildren. We buried my mother’s ashes in it at Fort Snelling.

My father’s father had remarried by the time I was born, so my memories of him include his wife Ruby who outlived him by about fifteen years and passed away just a few weeks before my dad did. Grandpa and Ruby’s was where the tradition of the Rose family Christmas breakfast came from. We arrived at the pink rambler in Golden Vally by 9 a.m. Christmas morning and my aunt, uncle and their teenage daughter arrived sometime before 10:00. This gave Grandpa sufficient time to burn the bacon, which was one of many traditions that my brothers and I have tried to maintain with our own rotating Christmas breakfast. Egg Nog (full strength) was served in tall glasses painted with holly leaves, there was a good high quality candy cane at each place and some other small item. We have grown these keepsakes into full-on “table gifts” which some years are truly the highlight of Christmas morning. We have replaced the scrambled eggs with egg-bakes and have for the most part substituted a caramel coffee cake for the Christmas tree shaped pastry with icing and red and green cherry ornaments. The fruit in the fruit cups can vary but pomegranate is not optional, it’s required.

We loved to play in Grandpa and Ruby’s basement which unlike the home I lived in was referred to as “finished”. The laundry room was aglow with lighting for his African Violets, there was a bar with fancy glassware and bottles lined up behind it, one of them labeled “Ruby Rose” which was his wife’s name. He had built a game that my brothers and I loved to play, it had wooden dowels through an open-topped box, each dowel having a bicycle handlebar grip on it. You moved the dowels back and forth and tried to get the pieces suspended from it to make contact with a ping-pong ball and score a goal against your opponent. Years later I was introduced to it as Foosball but my grandfather’s basement is the first place I played it.

Grandpa Rose was a Shriner (my Grandpa Browne was a Mason as well but just like with the homes he lived in, when he mastered something he quickly moved on)  and I remember him bringing circus tickets over when I was a kid. I also remember him arriving in his Rose Electric Van (with a picture of a Rose in bloom on the side) with pumpkins that we carved on the back porch. When my mother was visiting her parents in England he and his brother Ralph (the plumber) helped my dad gut and renovate our bathroom; new fixtures, new linoleum flooring and white with gold speckled Formica counter and sliding mirrored medicine cabinet. I recall when our dalmatian had puppies that Grandpa brought by one of his other brothers, Vern, who had suffered a stroke. I was only about six but remember knowing that when I set a puppy on his lap and tears rolled down his cheeks that it actually meant that he was happy.

By the time that I was ten all four of my grandparents were gone. In some ways I attribute that to why I have such a good memory, I opted to retain the things that happened with those people because there was not going to be an opportunity to make additional memories with them. I envision my Grandpa Rose wearing a shirt with inch wide vertical stripes in gray, cream and pink and can picture him slicing the Neapolitan ice cream which reminded me of his shirt at our annual July birthday gathering. My Grandpa Browne was always in wool, scratchy in texture like his mustache. He was formal. My Grandma Browne was petite, sweet and generous and I can only recall her wearing dresses and often a cardigan with fussy details over her shoulders. I would derive pleasure listening to a person with an Irish accent read directions to assembling an IKEA bookshelf because it would remind me of the lovely lyrical sound of Grandma Browne.

Memories. Just odd, disjointed associations of moments spent in places and occasions shared with people. My time with them was brief. Somewhere among my things there is a black and white photo of me with both of my grandpas, on a downtown Minneapolis street, I am between them in my spectacular dance recital costume with cardboard tiara. I was six. It is the only time I recall being with both men at the same time.

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