Category Archives: grandma

Above the Horizon: Part the Last


My great-aunt Ethel and Grandma Dorothy as girls in Montan

The Saturday after his mother’s memorial service, my Finnish father, who would regularly answer the direct question of “What are you thinking right now?” with “I don’t know,” talked to me about his life. As it turns out, he was more than just my parent, the guy who mowed the lawn and directed choirs and churned out homemade pear walnut ice cream (using Thomas Jefferson’s recipe); he was a fully-historied human being with a holster of experiences I’d not known about.

Francis and Dorothy as a young couple, holding new baby Larry; my dad is the three-year-old in the front.

On that Saturday night, as Dad and I sat at the dining room table alone, I learned that my grandfather–reputed as gentle and taciturn in family lore–had, through wordless reproach, made my father feel stupid, even worthless, for my dad had the ill luck to be born with a beautiful tenor voice into a world where handwork was valued. On the ranch, that this boy, my young father, would someday sing Die Fledermaus was secondary to his inability to fix a broken combine.

My dad (looking a bit uncomfortable), my grandma Dorothy, my grandpa Francis, and my uncle Larry

Because of family expectations, my elegant, artistic dad spent his teen years on the back of a tractor, circling in the fields; it was then and there that he began to shout songs to the clouds, angling for any activity that would make the time pass and draw his attention from the worry of a mechanical breakdown–which would require he seek help from big men in dirt-covered overalls, men who would squint with quiet scorn at his “useless,” tapered pianist’s fingers.

That night, as words poured forth from my father, he admitted to me, “My father and I never had conflict. We always got along. But we were never close. In fact, Dad would never assign me chores or tell me what to do on the farm–I could have stayed in the house all day, as far as he was concerned. It was Mom who, to keep peace, would notice what needed doing and then send me out to work. I’ve noticed that Finnish families, maybe all Scandinavian families, are matriarchies in which the women take the initiative. And the men like it that way. They’re comfortable with letting someone else take the lead and make sure things get done; that’s one of the things I like best about your mother and what my dad liked best about my mom.”

Awash in my dad’s reflections, I also learned that after high school, Dad was going to attend the University of Montana-Missoula but first won a scholarship for the summer to Billings Business School for being the 3rd-fastest typist in the state. So he took shorthand there and a vocabulary-building class in the mornings. He lived that summer just outside of Billings on his Aunt Louise’s farm (she who sang “How Great Thou Art” at the memorial), where he slept in the bunkhouse with his cousin Stanley. Everyday, Louise made my dad a lunch to take to school: a baloney sandwich. Part of the agreement about his living in Billings that summer and being released from ranch chores was that he would have to work, so he got a job with Service Candy and spent his afternoons filling vending machines with candy and cigarettes.

Then, one day, Phillip Turner, the conductor of the choir at the private liberal arts college in Billings, Rocky Mountain College, came into Service Candy and said he’d heard about my dad’s voice (from whom, no one knows) and asked that he consider attending Rocky that fall. When Dad said that he already had a scholarship to attend the university in Missoula, and he needed that money, Mr. Turner pointed out that Rocky had a “valedictorian scholarship” for $300, and my dad would qualify for that. Thus, in the July before he started college, my dad changed his plans. Grandma liked the idea of Rocky, as it was a church-affiliated college. With her approval, his course was reoriented.

A year later, having completed his freshman year at Rocky, Dad was ready to get away from Billings–more accurately, to get away from the ranch that was a mere 40 miles from Billings, a place he was still dutybound to each weekend, a place with an endless expectation of willing work. Plotting his escape, my dad applied to three Minnesota schools (liking the fact that his dad had grown up there): Hamline, Macalester, and Carleton. Ultimately, he decided on Hamline…but his folks told him he couldn’t go–they’d not help him.

He said he was going anyway. And he did.

For the next three years, every semester, just when Dad didn’t know how he would pay the tuition, a check for $500, the exact amount of tuition, would come in the mail from his mother, my grandma Dorothy. Even thirty-five years later, both of Dorothy’s sons remembered fondly, “If it weren’t for Mom’s egg money, we never would have gone to college.”



years and then in a professional picture a few years later

My dad during the Hamline

If it weren’t for my father’s talking that night in the wake of his mother’s death, I never would have known that my grandma, the woman who, at the end of her life, needed an elevating chair to help her stand up, had loved to dance. My grandfather would not dance, being too shy, but while he leaned against the wall, she would circle ’round the floor at the dances held in the local schoolhouse, turning, swirling with other fellows in the community, a fact that made her two sons elbow each other and snigger that another man was touching their mother, and she was having fun at it, too.

Because of the words her death inspired in my father that night, I don’t picture Grandma Dorothy in heaven as I remember her on earth–sitting in a purple recliner with an oxygen tank next to her, complaining of dizziness, elevated blood sugar, shortness of breath.

Instead, I see her younger,

more vital,

kicking up her heels

against the backdrop of a broad Montana horizon

as she waits for her cows to come Home.

Above the Horizon III

In the hour before the church service that would publicly memorialize my grandmother, we immediate family members left the windy cemetery and headed back to her bungalow, where she had lived since moving off the ranch more than thirty years earlier. As we all rattled around in her house, eating bars and leaning against her kitchen counters just as we had in adolescence, I had a few minutes to consider my cousins and who they’d become.

Strangely, although I grew up close to these cousins, geographically, they always felt distant, perhaps because their father’s life had diverged so dramatically from my own father’s. These two sons of Dorothy always got along, always remained companions to each other, yet one, my uncle Larry, followed the life of ranching and eventually long-haul trucking. On the other hand, my dad became a choral conductor and opera singer. At best, their common ground was yodeling.

As well, my dad had one wife in his lifetime, while Larry had several, eventually ending up with three children of varying parentage and, for awhile, a fourth–a step-daughter who remained in his life as long as his marriage to her mother did. Ultimately, I was left with three cousins: Shelley, Mary, and Luke. They weren’t given every opportunity, and none of them had a constant mother. In fact, Shelley and Mary’s mother left them when they were toddlers to return to her “career” tending bar in a casino. At that point, it was my grandma Dorothy who stepped in and essentially raised those girls.

Thus, it made sense, on a day of memorial for Dorothy, that I would look to Shelley and Mary’s lives as evidence of Grandma’s impact. Mary, who lived with Grandma even through the rebellious years of high school, had attended cosmetology school before marrying. Her husband’s job took them to Nevada for some years, to a place Mary hated so much that she finally looked up one day and said, “God, if you get me out of Nevada, I’m yours forever.” Damned if God and his minions didn’t get her husband transferred to Washington, causing Mary and the Lord to strike up a little thing on the side. Luckily, Mary found a way to merge her two passions in life: she shaves “PTL” (as in “Praise the Lord”) into the hair on the back of her sons’ heads–or, in more spartan months, just a cross. You have no idea how much it pained me to type that previous sentence, incidentally.

Less shackled to her faith and her razor, Shelley, too, married well and is raising successful children. Luke, like the girls, was largely brought up by my grandma; he entered the service and likes nothing more than restoring old cars and, speculation has it, growing marijuana. While I have hardly any relationship with these cousins today, due to our lack of anything in common (blank looks greeted me the one time I ventured a “So, read any good books lately?”), I took a minute, leaning against the counter, to marvel at these cousins, and I credit my grandma with giving them the wherewithal to resist taking up knives in their adulthood and randomly stabbing people who might be loitering outside the Rockvale Cafe, waiting for a booth for five. Indeed, I had a little moment, there by the frying pan in Grandma’s kitchen, watching a box elder bug crawl along the linoleum, one in which my bar-fueled brain had a flash: with family in the midst of grief, it doesn’t necessarily matter if people have a lot in common–just one commonality can carry the day.

After an hour of kitchen chat and gnosh, we wiped the crumbs off our chins and went to the memorial service at the Lutheran church. At the front of the church, an 8″ x 10″ photo of my grandma presided up front, which struck the worst part of me as a little hokey, but it ended up being quite affecting–it felt very personal to be confronted with Grandma’s steady gaze as the pastor spoke of her life on the plains, about her always knowing if even one of the cows was missing at the end of the day–not because she knew how many cows there were but because she recognized each of their faces–and about her being a helpmate to my grandpa.

Even more, the pastor talked of my grandma’s last days, as her health faded. When she entered the hospital, she just wanted to “go home.” Later, when she was moved to an assisted-care facility, she was sure it was just a matter of time before she would go home. But my dad knew her stay there would be until the end, which turned out to be only two days. He felt guilty about that. Thus, when the pastor finally said, “Now Dorothy has gone Home,” fluttering shudders of sobbing passed through my dad. Sitting next to him, pressed against him, with no gusts of wind to distract me, I eyed the hymnals and hoped my left thigh felt warm.

Most moving was when the soloist sang “How Great Thou Art.” My grandma’s older sister, Louise, had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for seven years and was living in a memory-care home. By the time of Dorothy’s death, Louise did not recognize any family members, except sometimes my mom (not a blood relation…but occasionally she would pull my mom to her and ask, “Who are all these people?” when her sisters were visiting). We had not thought Louise would be at the service that day and, in fact, were unaware that one of her daughters had brought her–until that song. The soloist’s notes rang through the church, but after the first measure, he had a partner in Louise. Her voice, little used, croaked out the song along with him from her pew; she warbled a final duet. Strikingly, she’d forgotten everything else, from her own children to how to tie her shoes, but she remembered her hymns. For everyone in the room, it was humbling. After the service, greeting us over coffee in the basement of the church, Louise’s daughter announced proudly, “Mom never did need a songbook.”

As we made the rounds during the post-service reception, I grasped how important it was that I had made the trip to Montana, despite my initial reservations. With my sister in the Peace Corps in Moldova at that time, and my Air Forcean brother stationed overseas, too, I was Dad’s only kid that day. My father was not terribly touchy, but he kept me firmly by his side throughout the coffee hour, introducing me to every passing soul. At one point, my dad’s 8th grade teacher, Miss Huddleston, came up with her twin, Velma. I asked Miss Huddleston if my dad had been a good student for her. “Oh, yes, he played the piano for our class so nicely!” I pressed her further: “You mean he never misbehaved?” She assured me, “Oh, not Donnie! He was always very well behaved. But that Larry was another story…”

After the memorial service, we went back to Grandma’s house, where Mary and Shelley’s families were staying. We ate deli meats. We watched the kids play Nintendo. We sneaked glances at interesting bits of inheritance. We marveled at how much Stuff a person can fit into closets (Grandma never threw away a letter or card; she kept every aluminum top off of every yogurt she ate; she didn’t throw away milk containers; she had underwear in her dresser that was nothing more than shreds of fabric woven together with safety pins). We leafed through photographs, wondering who some of those faces belonged to, wondering why our mothers had let us wear such hideous orange-striped pants in the ’70s,

and we wondered if the presence of these pictures in her house had kept Grandma firm on the earth,

even when she’d left them in drawers for years,

even when her eyesight had failed.

Grandpa, Grandma, Larry, and my dad (looking rather fey)

Above the Horizon II

(my grandma, Dorothy, third from the left, surrounded by her sisters in 1951; she was 36 in this photo, 5 years younger than I am now. Sweet Carol Channing, but I’m actually holding up pretty well. This is also the photo that one of my favorite large galpals once spotted hanging on the wall, a photo that caused her to holler out, “All I see is a line of breasts and hips; you didn’t stand a chance did you, hon?”)

“Above the Horizon: Part Two”

We both interred and memorialized Grandma Dorothy on January 13th of 1999.


By day’s end, any self-possession I’d started out with had been adroitly flayed by the Ginsu knife that was my dad’s grief. His face had such a beautiful composition of lies and planes and dignity and character, and at the gravesite that day, during the interring of his mother’s ashes, all those lines crumpled upon themselves into the most terrible mask of agony.

He affected me so much that I couldn’t bear to look at him, for fear I’d have to drop to the frozen ground and pound my fists with the pain of seeing my uncomplaining, silent father attempting to keep his composure. Instead, I gloried at the backdrop of the Beartooth Mountains–a view that would prove sustaining when I stood in the same spot four years later, in February of 2003, interring my dad’s ashes next to those of his father, mother, and brother–and then distractedly browsed the surrounding tombstones, musing at how many Finns were buried on this Western plains hill. The sole thing that commanded my attention entirely was the unrelenting torrent of wind, a wind that caused the lanky pastor to yell out his words, lest they be blown away before reaching our ears.

His vestments flapping in the wind like Grandma’s laundry had, the pastor stood, raised, on the cement outline of the family plot and asked if anyone wanted to add some words of rememberance. For a few minutes, it was silent.

Then, of the eighteen immediates huddled in a bunch against the blasting gusts, those least disposed to words spoke up. First, my grandma’s niece (my dad’s cousin), Sandy, contributed, “Dorothy was a kind lady.” From there, Dorothy’s sister, my great-aunt Ethel, observed, “She was a hard worker.” It was Ethel who, alongside Dorothy, had milked the ranch’s 80 dairy cows, morning and night, throughout their childhood. In such a case, being yoked to a “hard worker” was good fortune, indeed.

Furthering the tribute, my grandma’s youngest sister, Ruthie, agreed: “She worked hard. And she was unselfish. She cared.”

After that, no one else spoke. At the time, I fretted about the lack of commemorative words, thinking that at my gravesite–at anyone’s gravesite–there should be inspired, seemingly-spontaneous, even lengthy words of regret and ongoing devotion; for myself, I fancy a mass outpouring of bereavement, a stampede of verbal processing, so heartfelt that the sky will hear and know that I had been below it for even a short while.

However, my hard-working, unselfish grandma would not have countenanced or even understood such a luxury of words and public emotion. A few carefully-measured sentences, stoically acknowledged, were more than full tribute for this deceased.

After the graveside interment, we had about an hour before the memorial service proper.

Above the Horizon I


I never felt particularly close to my paternal grandmother. She was pessimistic; she groused that I sat on the couch and read too much (“Don’t you ever go outside?”); and the candy jar in her living room only ever housed lemon drops and restaurant-style peppermint circles, which are the Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt of the candy world: ubiquitous and completely without redemption.

However, she knew how to cook a goose, and I respected the fact that she was–and remains–the only person I’ve ever known who could actually cook my goose (and trust me, it’s needed a good basting on occasion). Also, she was, fundamentally, a good person, and especially in junior high, a big part of me understood that finding a fundamentally good person was a rarity. I didn’t “get” Grandma–we’d never hitch up into a shoulder-to-shoulder percolation of “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang–we’d never hip hop the hippie the hippie to the hip hip hop, a you don’t stop the rock it to the bang bang boogie say up jumped the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat.

But Grandma was all right.

In the 7th grade, when I was assigned a biology project to collect and identify a slew of wildflowers, it was my grandma (having never sat on the couch and read all day thanks to the 80 cows on her Montana ranch with bulbous udders that had them lowing for relief twice a day) who walked the acres with me, plucking flowers out of the ground and handing them over for cataloguing with a terse, “Think this one’s called Shepherd’s Purse.”

So when she died in January of 1999, at the age of 83, her passing meant something. On a deeply personal level, I wasn’t affected, to tell you true. But she was emblematic of something bygone, and that fact moves me still.

She died in Montana, a handful of miles from her birthplace: a sod dugout on the family ranch, that passle of acres where she spent the majority of her life milking cows, feeding cows, cooking beans to feed the pigs, baking pies to sell to local restaurants. At 18, she married a Finn, and they raised two sons on their ranch of nearly a thousand acres (small stakes in Montana terms). In sum, she was a classic 20th Century Western woman, placing value on work and work again over words and emotions and how big and open the sky loomed above.

Despite my recognition that Grandma had represented something classic, her death came just as I was facing the first week of a new semester, just as personal debt was at an all-time high, just as I was willing to acknowledge that I had never felt intensely linked to this grandmother. I wasn’t sure I’d be flying to Montana to attend her funeral.

Then a sage, in the form of a friend, planted herself firmly in front of my head-down horizon and made my flight to Billings possible, telling me, “Funerals and the like, these kind of things are more important than you know. I think you need to go do this.”

I made my way to Billings to find that my friend had been smack-on right. On that trip, I found that, even though I hadn’t felt a one-on-one connection with Grandma Dorothy, I could, after her death, appreciate anew all those she had left behind, the crazy-quilt of individuals who were patched together due to her life, stitched more tightly in her absence.

Wednesday, January 13th, 1999, was my grandma’s day of memorial.