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.


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.