Above the Horizon: Part the Last


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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.

Jocelyn

About Jocelyn

There's this game put out by the American Girl company called "300 Wishes"--I really like playing it because then I get to marvel, "Wow, it's like I'm a real live American girl who has 300 wishes, and that doesn't suck, especially compared to being a dead one with none."

Comments

Above the Horizon: Part the Last — 27 Comments

  1. Beautiful. I love the professional b&w photo – he looks like a movie star! Thank you… I’ve really enjoyed the whole story – each and every installation. :-)

  2. I’m guessing that your Grandma Dorothy would be extremely pleased for you to remember her the way you do. I’d bet she hated the decline of her body and the betrayal of age and illness.

    What a life well lived.

  3. I waited till you got to part last to read all of these. Isn’t it amazing, the life our parents, grandparents have had that we don’t even know about. Beautiful story.

  4. I have your blog on my reader and though I read all your post, I confess, I mostly lurk. I love your writing, your style, your wit and your sentimentality that you allow to creep in too from time to time. Especially so in these pieces about your grandmother -and the rest of your family too. Beautiful post -wonderful, heartfelt series about your Grandmother. She should rest in peace with such words of tribute to her by you.
    Looking forward now, as usual, to your next piece.

  5. What a touching story. I have so much admiration for those who do such good, kind things, yet haven’t the need to talk about them.

  6. There’s a Vonnegut line (I believe in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, where the Rhode Island Rosewater doesn’t know he’s related to the Indiana Rosewaters) that goes something like, “Like most Americans, he knew nothing about who his grandparents were.”

    It sounds fortunate that you are not like most Americans in this respect.

  7. What a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing it so beautifully.

    By the way, (because I know you’ve been wondering) A RIver Runs Through It, is possibly my favorite book of all time. I’ve always wanted to go to Montana.

  8. how wonderful that you had that time to learn your dad
    s history and gain a deeper understanding of grandma dorothy.

    there is something about grief that looses a formerly reticent tongue. i had a very similar experience with my grandfather in the days after my grandmother’s death.

    thank you so much for sharing. so glad you were given some joyous memories.

  9. I have so many things I want to say about this, but all of them leave me feeling like I’m going to blubber. So I’ll just say I am continually amazed at your storytelling ability.

  10. What a wonderful tribute. How lucky we are to have you remember such detail and share so eloquently.
    Your writing “voice” is amazing.
    Thank you

  11. What an amazing life history! I so love it when the women in history are the ones that make the difference! Egg money!

  12. I just read the entire Above the Horizon saga in one sitting, and I’m breathless. It’s such an amazing departure – not just your normal brilliance, but poignant as well. I’m thinking about directing an HBO mini series starring Richard Thomas and Glen Close. Family is such a bitter sweet soup. I’m ready to face tomorrow now.

  13. Lovely. My Dad and I never really communicated when I was younger but just lately I’m treated to glimpses of his history. I found out recently that he was a joyrider as a teenager – got arrested for pinching someone’s car!

  14. That was…well, I don’t really know what to say. Beautiful, lovely, moving…none of those overused words really cut it for this series of posts. Looks like the memory you have now is the memory your grandma would have wanted you to have. BTW I had to click on the professional picture to be able to see it…that’s a great photo!

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