Reminiscence

Boxes in the Attic

Boxes, boxes, so many boxes.

One of the corollaries of being in one’s sixties is a predilection for surveying one’s (often copious) belongings. The inventory of possessions—furniture, clothing, collectibles and antiques, memorabilia, papers, lots of papers, seems massive, daunting.

Our very first antique—the beginning of our material inventory—was purchased in the late 1960’s, before we were even married, from a trailer in Pittsburgh that masqueraded as an antique store, every nook and cranny filled, mostly with junk. There we discovered a 1920’s bridge lamp, with a marble base and a unique leaf-patterned shade for $5. We handed our cash over to the old storekeeper, fiercely guarding his cache of treasures. We still remember the enigmatic smile on his face—he thought he was “pulling one over on us,” getting $5 for a worthless old lamp. But it wasn’t—and isn’t—worthless, not to us.

We can walk through our house and remember, almost item by item, those few artifacts that date to our early years together—when everything we owned could fit into a one-bedroom apartment. That, it suffices to say, is no longer even remotely true.

Where did this looming mass of material possessions come from? Yes, we, Greg and Joan, are inveterate (incurable) collectors—and some of the inventory includes collections of porcelain, pottery, encaustic tiles, glass, and books. These we acquired deliberately, with knowledge of what and why we were collecting. Much of it is (and will be, we hope) documented—maybe for a museum or historical society to receive should our children’s interests diverge from ours.

This accumulation was intentional—but so much of what we have has simply come to us organically, in the inevitable cycle of family life. A grandparent moves; a set of lawyer’s cases, a desk, and a piano are offered—and gratefully accepted. A grandmother dies, and then a month later, a grandfather. Photographs, fishing rods, family bibles, and a myriad of objects imbued with sentiment and fond memory pass from one household to another.

Joan at her grandparents’ piano in 1958. Given to us in 1970. We’ve had it ever since.

As the years raced onward, inexorably, a parent, then two, then three, and unexpectedly a brother, succumb to age and disease. The contents of their lives, too, become our inheritance and responsibility. And we must decide—what to discard, what to keep?

These are hard questions. Especially when they arise at the same time we are faced with the endless details and duties that accompany funeral services and burial arrangements. How should the obituary read? What coffin should be selected? When and where do we hold the calling hours? Who will perform the service? What flower arrangements must be ordered? What stone and design for the memorial? We must phone relatives; choose our loved one’s clothing for burial; write notes thanking those who have sent their condolences. And, always, one must deal with the financial consequences of death. We won’t even begin to tackle that complex subject here.

Everything always seems to happen at once and sometimes on short notice. We need to quickly empty out the contents of our parents’ house and clear out brother Bob’s apartment. And so we furiously triage our loved one’s belongings. Discard the old newspapers and magazines, toss the old worn towels, give away the clothes in the closets and drawers. But so many other belongings are bound up with one’s own childhood and the memory of the home that came before this home, the life that came before this life. So, sometimes in the moment, numb with grief, one just boxes up the remaining contents, Soon there are many more boxes in our attic than there were before, waiting for us to sift through their contents, later, at a time when we are more emotionally ready and able.

Then, of course, if one also has children, they grow up and leave—but they don’t take everything with them when they go. They leave traces of their lives behind, with us. So, there are boxes of children’s drawings, hand-made Mother’s and Father’s Day cards, toys, picture books and school papers. It isn’t that these artifacts of childhood are valuable to the outside world; they are not. It is that they are precious to us, permeated with the emotion and memory of a time now twenty or more years past. These items, too, sit boxed and waiting in the attic for processing; and we ask, again, to keep, to discard?

So, here we are, at age sixty-six, surveying all these boxes, containers, albums, and trunks. We look at one another.

Joan declares adamantly, “I won’t leave all of this for my children to go through!”

So, we begin a determined campaign, an offensive, to move against this well-defended mountain of objects and papers and gain a foothold on its flanks. We will open each box, assess the contents, and begin to move objects out of the house into recycling centers, used bookstores, Goodwill shops and, as little as possible, landfills. (It is surprising how many things one has kept are broken and damaged.) Some we will try to give away to our two daughters and our son and their spouses—a quick picture posted to the intended recipient on Telegram—“you want this?” If the answer is “no,” then the item is banished, never to be seen again.

Going through the boxes and sorting the contents, deciding on their disposition, moving things out of the door—it is painful, but also liberating. There is a feeling of lightness, of a burden lifted. So much of this freight we simply carried around for years—boxes from our first apartments, first and second houses, simply migrated with us, unexamined. We repeatedly moved this weighty inventory around, and it got heavier and heavier with each passing year.

Yet, what we are doing isn’t the haphazard “downsizing” and wholesale tossing of a lifetime’s accumulation of artifacts into the void that you sometimes read about in magazines. “Experts” recommend to those of us in our “golden years” that we let go of these things quickly—they want to make it seem easy. Just last year the AARP compiled “20 Tips To Declutter Your House.” Some of their suggestions we accept—scan your important documents, back them up electronically, store and organize them. Others we reject—burn your parents’ love letters, make pillowcases out of your wedding dress, or sell Grandma’s china on eBay.

Throwing it all out is an abdication of responsibility and, in some cases, has tragic consequences. Many years ago well-meaning relatives cleared out Joan’s grandparents’ apartment and threw away her Grandfather Martin’s detailed diaries—the first diary was written in the late 19th century. Martin was a meticulous and literate observer of his times, and they, were, undoubtedly, true masterpieces of the diarist’s art. Joan has lamented their loss for over forty years.

So, there are real treasures in this trash. Old pictures of relatives, precious as gold to the genealogist in Joan—irreplaceable proof that her marvelous people, sturdy Norwegians and Swedes, lived and thrived. There are also family photograph albums, some very old, the kind where the photographs in black and white and sepia are held on the page by paper corners.

“I’d forgotten we had this!” Joan exclaims—looking through one album of old black and white photos. There she appears as a child, in monochrome, wearing an indisputably 1950’s baby bonnet. She’s in her father’s arms. Her mother stands near her with her siblings. It’s surprising to look at; it’s not so much that she is a child—but that her mother, her father, they look so young. It makes one stop and think, astounded.

The Nelson Family, Ruth, Joan (the baby), Don and brothers Robert and Richard. Summer of 1951.

Digging through the strata of our belongings, other artifacts emerge— a record of a trip Joan’s great grandparents took to Norway in 1932; a bundle of letters written home to his parents by Joan’s dad during the Second World War; letters we wrote during our year “behind the Iron Curtain,” saved for us by friends and relatives as a memoir of our difficult but life-changing months in East Germany between 1985 and 1986. And old love letters!

“God, was anyone ever as smitten as I was?” asks Greg.

There are more treasures to be uncovered. Much to her delight, Joan also discovers her parents’ old love letters, written during World War II after her dad was wounded in Sicily and stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Sometimes we get derailed—stopping to read some random letter or shed a tear when we find a child’s drawing with the words “I love my Mommy and Daddy” scribbled on it. But mostly we push on, through these poignant distractions, determined to make headway, no matter how overwhelming it all seems.

There are diplomas, even old school notes—these latter not so interesting in and of themselves but for the doodles—some very elaborate and cryptic—that appear in the margins. Greg used to draw, and write poetry—he doesn’t so much now—but these old artistic attempts surface too, rising up from the layers of paper in a dusty, collapsing box. These youthful gems are separated out with all the other treasures we are rediscovering (or discovering for the first time) among this mass of stacked and scattered boxes.

Doodling during Biology class at Arizona State University, 1969. An artistic (?) treasure discovered in Greg’s old school notes.

But not everything is to be saved for posterity. Both Joan and Greg were professors. Our old student rosters, teaching handouts, tests, grade books—all these must go. We were also students and homeowners, so the old tuition bills, the old bank statements long since replaced by electronic records—so many marked with social security numbers—must be tossed. Our shredder gets the workout of its life.

We are, one could say, examining, assessing—maybe curating is the best word. Organizing, labeling, assessing the value—to the family at least—of items that represent the history of our clan. These items tell stories—revealing a parent’s career, earnest courtships, and countless deaths and births. They tell of tastes, likes and dislikes, of trips taken, of opportunities accepted and refused. When we throw all of these out without some thought we deprive ourselves, and our descendants, of some important part of their heritage. We are fortunate, to be sure, that we, Greg and Joan, have the time, and the room, to curate our lives—and the lives of our ancestors. We don’t have to move into a nursing home next month and sell our house. We are not yet faced with those contingencies that would force us to yield up our unique material history.

Love letters…confidential…open at own risk! Please read!

So, we get new boxes, sturdy and white, from Office Depot. They have room for labels. We assemble file folders, archival sleeves, and Sharpie pens. The sorted material goes into these boxes and descriptions are written on them—“Greg’s Unpublished Papers,” “Memorabilia—East Germany,” “Shreve Genealogy.” We purchase whimsical decorative storage boxes—boxes that resemble old books and boxes covered in maps of the world. Our postcards from East Germany go in one. Postcards sent to Greg’s maternal family in a World War II Austrian refugee camp have their special place in another. We tie old love letters in small bundles with twine and store them in boxes marked “Confidential.” Will this box pique someone’s curiosity when it is discovered after we are gone? Will its contents reveal who we were to that future reader?

Postcard to Mitzi Zerweiss (sister to Greg’s mother). Posted to the Ebelsberg resettlement camp (Hiller-Kaserne) near Linz Austria, 1942.

Now we know what’s in these new boxes; we know what’s important and what’s not. When the fancy strikes us, we can spend an hour or two perusing the treasure box of our choice. And, if we’ve curated well enough, weeded, and disposed well enough, then some family member who comes after us might recognize their value and care for them too. They might recognize our boxes and the artifacts they contain as a legacy. They might, through these items, because of these boxes, come to know us, their parents, their in-laws, maybe their grandparents, more deeply, more completely, than if we had simply made it all disappear into the past without a second thought.

Chaos and Krister Henriksson

Krister Henriksson in character as Kurt Wallander

In 2015 Joan and Greg had the opportunity to visit the Canary Islands, to attend a conference hosted by Ricardo, a good friend of ours, and professor at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. This was not our first visit to the Islands; we had been there some two years earlier for another iteration of this same conference.

Having been there at all seems miraculous, much less twice. The Canary Islands is one of those places that we had both heard about growing up—far, far away and deeply exotic—a small set of dots in a broad expanse of Atlantic blue off the coast of northwestern Africa. As a boy Greg could locate them with a single finger on his old Replogle globe. Yet, quite improbably, here we were, in Las Palmas on a pleasant evening in January.

Ricardo and his spouse took us to dine at a small restaurant next to our hotel. As we sat down to look at our menus, Greg glanced at another customer sitting relaxed at a table, eating al fresco as the southern sun went down. He looked familiar, and for a minute Greg couldn’t place him. Then the realization dawned; it was Swedish actor Krister Henriksson. We had been watching him in the title role of Wallander (the Swedish version) on Netflix in the weeks just preceding our trip.

On the Calle Ferreras, January 2015

Unlike his rumpled, stubble-faced character, Krister was impeccably dressed and groomed, a sweater draped casually but perfectly over his shoulders (at least as we recall it now). A glass of wine on the table, he gazed serenely out over the blue Punta de Arrecife, a small slice of it visible down the narrow Calle Ferreras.

Some unruly part of us wanted to go over and talk to him, to tell him how much we enjoyed his work—and how well he seemed to inhabit Henning Mankel’s iconic character. But, he seemed content and quite enjoying his solitude, so we left him alone, as we’re sure he much preferred it. We only remarked to our friends that it was quite an improbable coincidence—to have traveled so many miles, to arrive at just the right time to sit in the same restaurant with him in, of all places, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.

A view over the Punta de Arrecife

What strange butterflies in the Amazon rainforest precipitated the chain of decisions and actions that would eventually lead to three people taking their leisure in the same café—such an improbable nexus of time and place that it beggars the imagination? We like to imagine that Greg and Joan and Krister simply and quite randomly decided to go to the same place at the same time—but life is not that simple is it?

Some complex set of initial conditions had to be in place for each partner to arrive at this meeting—conditions that could lead to this outcome. This conjunction didn’t have to be, need never have occurred; but, yet, it did. Chaos theory tells us that life isn’t as random as it seems. It is just so complex, influenced by so many interacting variables, that it is, more often than not, simply profoundly uncertain and unpredictable in its outcomes.

We can’t speak for Krister at all, but for Greg and Joan to be on the Calle Ferreras one fine Tuesday evening in January was the result of a long and complex series of precedent decisions and events. Greg wouldn’t have been invited to Las Palmas if he hadn’t been a translation scholar, if he and Joan hadn’t met Ricardo some 14 years earlier in Granada, if Joan and Greg, with a toddler in tow, hadn’t taken the opportunity to live in East Germany for a year where Greg met and worked with an eminent translation scholar and colleague. If Greg hadn’t been dismayed by the state of his career in the fall of 1984, if Joan and Greg hadn’t met at a county hospital geriatrics ward, fallen in love, and married…

Our lives are products of chaos; that is, not to say they are random and senseless, although they may sometimes seem that way. Rather, our lives are emergent patterns that arise out of the complexity of living, of doing this rather than that, of going here rather than there, of marrying this one instead of that one, of making love tonight instead of tomorrow.

Our mind valiantly cobbles together some order out of chaos—memory strives to perceive patterns, to create a coherent narrative of our past experience. We lose this memory, slightly edit that one; we censor those we may wish not to remember; we elaborate those we do. We make the variable lurching path we took through life a bit more ordered and maybe more meaningful than it actually was—a way of exerting control over the uncontrollable—but also just a way of getting things to make some sense.

We are, to a very great extent, a construct of what patterns we make and retain of the actual chaos of living. Our memory is our resident biographer, and it often takes some creative license in assembling its story—the internal narrative we call self. Indeed, some of us tend to create great works of fiction, while others, of a more non-fictional persuasion, if you will, hew more closely to some objective rendering of the past.

As Joan and Greg remember Krister gazing serenely into the setting sun, they cannot help but think of Henning Mankel’s Wallander, at the end of his fictional life, succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease. The precise, clever mind of Skåne’s greatest detective comes undone. A mind that once uncovered the minutest details of other peoples’ lives and misdemeanors to assemble a pattern of motive and means and opportunity, could no longer maintain the details of his own story—as the narrative woven by his own memory falters, dissipates, and concludes—as his sense of self disappears.

Krister Henriksson in the Swedish television series Wallander as Detective Inspector Kurt Wallander

That sad unraveling struck close to home. Joan lost a father to the disorder of Alzheimer’s disease. We say disorder and not chaos—chaos sits at the boundary of order and disorder; it is the substrate from which the patterns of cosmos, life, and mind emerge. But for Joan’s father there would never again be order—the spinning of pattern and meaning from the chaotic bits and pieces of living one’s life.

Instead, the entire carefully constructed edifice of her father’s life, the architecture of his extraordinarily organized memory, came apart, neuron by neuron; this memory and then that one broke away and disappeared. Like a dark star, his self collapsed, until at the very end he remembered only the smallest, densest core—his traumatic experience in the Sicilian Campaign of 1943—and then that too was gone, past the event horizon, irretrievable.

A memory from the life of Donald T. Nelson. One of many that slipped away.

So, by the time we, Joan and Greg, reach our sixty-sixth year, the year we write this blog, we’ve seen Krister Henriksson, against all probability, in an improbably exotic place. We want to attach some cosmic significance to this meeting—but realize, alas, there probably is none. Except that, perhaps, in pondering Krister Henriksson and his portrayal of the last days of the damaged Kurt Wallander we can find, amidst the chaos of life, expression for, appreciation for, the evanescence of memory and the fragility of self.

(more…)

The Inadvertent Symbolism of Aprons

1962-sept-29-joan-nelson-setting-the-table-pittsburgh-pa

An apron-wearing Joan, almost 12, learning the domestic ropes!

In our last blog post we talked about the mysterious “holes” problem—you remember, right? We ruminated about those tiny holes that mysteriously appear on the bottom front of blouses and tee shirts. Maybe it is just one hole, or two holes, maybe a mysterious pattern of multiple small holes—like the crop circles of the apparel world. Where do they come from? Who made them? Well, as we decided in our last post, we are the culprits! We make these tiny holes most of the time by trapping the fabric of our clothes between the edges of counters and the buttons of our jeans. So, the pressing question is—how to avoid them?

Searching the internet yielded some solutions, including a few advocated by domestic maven Jessica Hewitt. You can avoid the holes by adopting one or more of the following simple strategies: wear high heels when you work, wear pants with no buttons, tuck your shirt into your jeans, or wear an apron.

Let’s take each of these in turn. High heels? Let’s just say that this is not an option in our household. In a text exchange about the holes with our middle daughter Kristyn (who also suffers from this mysterious malady), Joan explained that wearing high heels was a solution we had discovered during our inquiries into the topic.

Greg, however, interjected, “I can see you and Mom doing housework in heels…not!!!”

“Yeah ain’t going to happen LOL” was our daughter’s reply.

Pants with no buttons? We just don’t see Joan in pants with an elastic waistband if they aren’t pajamas. Also, Joan is passionate about jeans (in the same way Imelda Marcos was passionate about shoes). Hello, my name is Joan, and I have a denim problem. Her collection of jeans is all one specific brand (Levi’s, yeah you guessed it) and only certain numbers—numbers that have some arcane meaning to her. The collection is curated carefully, let’s put it that way, and has mostly been assembled from “Goodwill Hunting.” Joan looks for the correct size and specific Levi Strauss number (505, 512, 515 or 550, the number she claims as her work jeans).

So, if it is a choice between the jeans and the holes in shirts…well shirts are cheaper, especially those purchased through careful coupon use and Goodwill purchasing.

As to tucking a shirt in? Well, possibly, but Joan has yet to do that and frankly, it’s not her style.

So that leaves aprons—a very sensible solution indeed. Those of us who came of age in the sixties remember a time when mothers and grandmothers routinely did their housework in dresses protected by aprons and sometimes in heels as well. (Those holes were certainly going to be held at bay.) As forty some years have since passed, the practice of wearing aprons has declined—but not entirely disappeared—the apron is not extinct and still roams the American cultural landscape. Food service workers have continued to wear them, and aprons are certainly sported by grillers at outdoor barbecues. Aprons even seem to be making a comeback in American homes, as evidenced by the “retro’ and “vintage” aprons popular on Etsy and Ebay. A variety of aprons are even available now at stores like Kohl’s and Walmart.

For we baby boomers, however, aprons evoke a plethora of mixed emotions. We get a warm fuzzy feeling when we think of the dear women—mothers, grandmothers, aunts—in our lives serving up comfort foods like meatloaf, pot roast, or one of Joan’s childhood favorite dishes “tuna spaghetti.” In our mind’s eye they are wearing aprons—bib aprons, pinafore aprons, and, of course, waist aprons. They are plain and frilly, patterned and plain, and almost always a bright, colorful testimony to the palettes of those decades.

1967-christmas-mom-aunt-helen-wearing-aprons

Christmas 1967: Mom Nelson and Aunts Helen and Evy

Television, newspaper, and magazine advertisements featuring women in aprons sold everything from foods, cleaning products, and detergent to kitchen appliances. We remember fondly our most well-known television “Moms”—June Cleaver in “Leave It To Beaver,” Margaret Anderson on “Father Knows Best,” and Donna Stone in the “Donna Reed Show.” They were the cultural exemplars of apron-wearing domesticity from our long-gone childhood, emulated to greater or lesser degrees of success by our own mothers

As a young girl Joan’s first sewing machine project was to make her own apron. It was a waist style made with pretty blue-flowered material. It had a useful pocket (something many dress pants don’t have!) and a fanciful bric-a-brac trim. She had forgotten about this apron for decades, but in 2005 when we had to sell the home her parents had lived in for almost fifty years, she found the apron nestled comfortably in a box along with her mother’s aprons.

For us, and maybe for you too, that apron is a symbol of a domestic world long gone. It harks back to a time when using a sewing machine was a skill taught only to girls in the family, and an apron was the perfect first sewing project. Naturally, a girl would need to wear it in her own kitchen some day.

mother-margaret-anderson-serving-her-family-in-father-knows-best

Mother serves…and Father knows best.

For those of us who emerged changed from the sixties, altered in mind and attitude in so many ways, a woman in an apron wasn’t just an avatar of our mothers but also a template for what we were expected to become. This once unobjectionable protector of clothing became a symbol of inequality, a marker of diminished choices and the constraints of domestic identity. A woman’s place was not in the workforce or the boardroom, or even, apropos to this year’s election, in the Oval Office. Her place was in the home: cooking, cleaning, and caring for children, with a husband as the sole and undisputed breadwinner for the family.

When Joan left home and left the sixties, she firmly put her apron-wearing days behind her—in a box, with her mother’s aprons. While Greg was in graduate school, Joan worked full-time and came home to a dinner prepared by Greg. When one of Greg’s many apron-wearing aunts found out, she chided Joan gently, “You let him do that?” It was almost unthinkable to one of our parents’ generation for a wife to “let” the husband do the cooking.

Even though economic and family circumstances changed later, and Joan took over cooking responsibilities and major household chores after almost two decades in the workforce—the decision to do so was her choice—made in order to stay home with the children and create a home life that she hopes they now fondly remember. It was not a decision made easily and without misgivings, but one she in no way now regrets. We are certainly aware that this choice is not always available to either partner due to economic or other circumstances.

So, let’s go back to the question at hand. Would Joan wear an apron to prevent those holes? No—probably not, for reasons both fashion-related and intimately entangled in the identity crises of many women of our generation.

Joan, ever practical, simply works in shirts that have already sprouted holes. But maybe, just maybe, as an ironic half-wink to who we were and who we are now, if she is ever in the kitchen with good clothes on, she might, just might, pull out that old bric-a-brac apron—the one that doesn’t have holes in it.

The Good Doctor

 

Dr, Andrew Novick Photo

Dr. Andrew Novick

On October 10 Greg had a strange and singular experience. All of a sudden, after doing nothing more difficult and remarkable than getting out of the bathtub, Greg began to experience severe double vision—dysplopia for those inclined to medical terminology. He was seeing two perfect images side-by-side, images that would easily resolve into one if he just closed one of his eyes.

Greg had so-called “binocular double vision,” which often appears as a symptom of a number of serious conditions ranging from brain tumors and aneurysms to multiple sclerosis and myasthenia gravis. This, quite understandably, triggered urgent phone calls, a flurry of medical office visits, and an emergency MRI of the brain and brain stem. It was certainly a series of strange and discomfiting days.

But, it was the MRI that really brought the memories rushing back—dredged up from sixteen years ago—memories of other strange days and other anxious visits to hospitals—and memories of a most extraordinary doctor. This wasn’t the first time that Greg had to lay, still and quiet, mind racing with morbid scenarios, inside a clanking, claustrophobic tube. It wasn’t the first time that Greg (and Joan) would have to wait for results—both trying their best to balance precariously on a knife edge of fear—listening for a single phone call that could bring with it greatest joy (you’re cancer-free!) or deepest sorrow (I’m sorry, we found a shadow, a lump).

Every time Greg has to have a CAT scan or MRI, the experience is tinged with dread. Every whine of the tube, every mechanical clank of the whirling magnets is an awful counterpoint to his racing thoughts. Am I already dying as I lay here, arms flat to my sides, in awful semblance of a corpse? Am I just killing time until I get the bad news? Or will this machine, a marvel of medical science, tell me I have years to go before I must close my eyes for good? Lying supine in these machines brings one’s thoughts very close to the possibility of death, the metal and plastic tube a premonition of a tomb.

As it turns out, Greg would be fine. Death was not imminent. The machine delivered the much desired good news. There was no tumor, no cancer, just a simple “insufficiency” of blood to the sixth cranial nerve. Cause unknown—nothing to see here—move on. In six weeks it will be as if nothing had ever happened. But it did happen; and we were afraid, again, after all these years, of all those bad things that can befall a long-married couple.

This was all dwelling on our minds when, just a few weeks later, on an otherwise routine November morning, while filling out a medical form necessary for seeing a specialist about Greg’s double vision, Joan googled the name of the doctor who had removed Greg’s kidney after a diagnosis of cancer.  Sadly, her innocent search uncovered the dark news that Greg’s surgeon, Dr. Andrew Novick, a world-renowned urologist at the Cleveland Clinic, had, unbeknownst to us, passed away, some eight years previously.

Deeply saddened by the unexpected news, we found our thoughts turning back to one of the darkest times in our life together. Fortunately for us, Greg’s brush with renal carcinoma had a happy ending—and we know all too well this is not the case for everyone. What we knew, for a certainty, was that sixteen years ago this extraordinary man, this most excellent physician, had saved Greg’s life.

In the summer of 1999 after a long and excruciating night in pain, Greg discovered a massive amount of blood in his urine—there is nothing like a toilet bowl full of scarlet to inspire immediate terror. An urgent visit to the doctor resulted in a “probable” kidney stone diagnosis.  Greg was advised to watch for the stone to pass—but when no stone appeared, our then family physician, Dr. James Waugh of Kent, Ohio, following medical protocol, ordered an intravenous pyelogram.  We both remember with utter clarity the call that came from him just the next day. Greg wasn’t home. Joan, unaware of what the test results were to show, gave the doctor’s office Greg’s cell number. Although something, perhaps a faint tremor of emotion in Dr. Waugh’s voice, told her that the news wasn’t good, she had to patiently wait to hear from Greg himself:  “They found a shadow on my kidney.”

Appointments followed. Greg, we need to discuss treatment options. Greg, we need to schedule a CAT scan. Greg, the CAT scan shows a 10cm tumor. Greg—it’s renal carcinoma. Greg, you need surgery. Greg, I think you should go to the Cleveland Clinic. Greg, I think you should meet with Dr. Andrew Novick. Greg, he’s the best there is.

There are many things about that time in our lives to blog about: depression; sleepless nights; regrets. All the deeds left undone and words left unsaid. Above all one could write about how one day life is, well, normal, quite unremarkable. You wake up in the morning, get coffee, send the kids off to school, put in a day’s work. And then suddenly, a two-minute phone call changes your world—irrevocably. In the hours and days that followed, we were both consumed by an almost overwhelming fear of what might lie ahead of us.

But that dark time really isn’t the only subject of today’s blog. It is also about a man named Andrew Novick and our brief but life-affirming connection.  By 1999 Dr. Novick had already been Chairman of the Department of Urology for fourteen years. During his tenure in the Department he led the urology program to the top of the national rankings (according to an annual survey conducted by the U.S. News & World Report). He had authored hundreds of research publications and held visiting professorships at academic centers around the world. Greg’s best chance of survival, we decided, would be to get treatment from the best.

The many trips we made to the Cleveland Clinic for testing that summer of 1999 are now mostly a murky blur to us, but the day we met with Dr. Novick—that day is crystal clear. It could have happened yesterday. His handshake was warm and genuine; his voice was confident and soothing. He explained the entire surgical procedure Greg would endure and what we could expect. Due to the size of the tumor, he said it was possible that the cancer had spread to Greg’s spleen and that the spleen might also have to be removed. As he spoke about the upcoming surgery, tears welled up in Joan’s eyes.  Dr. Novick gently took her hand and reassured her, “Don’t worry; we’ll get him back to health.” That moment and those words were a turning point for Joan.  Dr. Novick was not the kind of man to give false hope. If he felt confident of success, so did she.

When he had finished talking with us in his office, Dr. Novick suggested we go out to the main office and check the surgery schedule. August 9th was the first available date.

“Our first date was on August 9th,” remarked Joan.

“That was the day I met my wife,” Dr. Novick added.

We three decided that this was a good omen.

The day of the surgery, Greg had to be at the Cleveland Clinic at 7 am to be prepped for his radical nephrectomy at 9 am. It wasn’t until after 4:00 pm that Dr. Novick called Joan on the waiting-room phone with the news that the surgery had been successful. He felt confident that all the cancer had been removed. The tumor was self-contained, encapsulated on the kidney; “it was just sitting there,” he said. It hadn’t spread to the spleen. Greg had every hope of living many more years. And here we both still are, sixteen years later. Yet, sadly, Dr. Novick himself is not.

It is no small accomplishment to have the expertise and skill to perform a surgery like the one that saved Greg’s life. It takes years of study, hard work, and dedication. Such uncanny expertise mixed with personal warmth and extreme compassion; only one word comes to mind, extraordinary. What Dr. Novick did for us was no mean thing. It wasn’t just the surgery and the gift of his sure and capable hands; he also gave us a spark of hope, the courage to move forward into the darkness of an uncertain future. As it turns out, we could have many more years together.   Greg would be able to see his children grow and thrive.  For all these things we are deeply grateful.

In the years that followed we saw Dr. Novick just a few more times when Greg needed to go to the Clinic for his six-month check-ups. There were more CAT scans, all clanking and whirling, and more anxious waiting for results. After a while Greg’s cancer checkups and his CAT scans were done less frequently and more locally; we ceased making trips up to the Cleveland Clinic. Then, after a while, no more CAT scans were called for at all. Greg was cancer-free. We never saw Dr. Novick again after that.

During the nine years that followed the surgery, Dr. Novick helped create one of the most prestigious medical facilities in the world, the Glickman Urological and Kidney Institute. His urology program would continue to be ranked among the top two in the country. He championed the partial nephrectomy, a procedure which removes only diseased tissue and saves as much healthy tissue as possible. Always the innovator, Dr. Novick also pioneered a technique that used ice baths to spare kidney function. In recognition of his many accomplishments, he received the Ramon Guiteras Award, the American Urological Association’s highest honor, in May 2008.

On October 19, 2008, just two weeks before the Glickman Urological and Kidney Institute was to open its doors to its first patients, Dr. Andrew Novick passed away from complications of lymphoma. He was only 60 years old. It is impossible to determine how many lives he had already saved, how many more lives he could have saved—would have saved— had he lived. It is all so unspeakably sad and unfair—as life itself often is.

With his strong, capable hands Dr. Novick healed Greg—lifted him up as he lay dying. With his warm, compassionate voice, he gave Joan courage and hope when she needed it most desperately.

But he could not, in the end—all his skill and knowledge not withstanding—heal himself. His own cancer he could not cast out. We survived, and he did not.

Dr. Novick, Andrew, had touched us so closely; a relationship at once both unimaginably intimate and so clinically distant.  Yet, we did not even know that he was gone—had been gone for eight years already. Something seems very wrong about that. There is a debt owed, but it is one that can never be repaid except in remembrance and gratitude. For the man who was there, the man who reached out his hand to help and heal: farewell good doctor, farewell.


Photo courtesy of Cleveland Plain Dealer

http://blog.cleveland.com/metro/2008/10/dr_andrew_novick_dies_was_reno.html

A Day in the Life

Almost a decade ago in 2005 Joan’s father, Donald Theodore Nelson, died from the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Although in the end he wandered lost in a labyrinth of his own evaporating memories, we remember him as he was: intelligent, well-read, curious, incomparably meticulous, and, above all, a man with a deep sense of responsibility— to country, to work, and to family. (See our earlier blog “Donald T. Nelson, Hero https://sixtysixtyblog.wordpress.com/2014/04/14/donald-t-nelson-hero/)

He was a modest man with a keen awareness of the passage of time, of how the legacies of our past shape the contours of our present. He knew, instinctually, how a well-planned present could bring about a desired future. He had, consequently, an abiding and serious interest in family history and his Swedish ancestry—but also an unswerving commitment to ensuring the well-being of his descendants.

Since his death, the two of us have chosen to honor his memory by making an annual pilgrimage on Memorial Day to a small cemetery in Lemont, Illinois—the Bethany Lutheran Cemetery, known for many years by old-timers in the town as the “Old Swedish Cemetery.”  Donald and his wife Ruth, Joan’s mother, are buried in this peaceful small-town preserve about 27 miles south of Chicago. Indeed, almost the whole of Joan’s Swedish ancestry for several generations is interred here, including paternal grandparents, great grandparents and great-great grandparents—along with a plethora of great aunts, great uncles, and cousins of all sorts. The quiet hilltop is filled with memorials to those 19th century Swedish families who came to Lemont from the old country to build their futures in a promising new land.

On this Memorial Day, May 25, 2015,  the two of us are not alone in the Old Swedish Cemetery. We are joined by a small group of Joan’s extended family—all of us gathered to remember our forebears, as well as departed fathers, mothers, children, brothers, sisters, wives, and husbands. We sit on benches and in lawn chairs underneath the trees for a short service; we take a solemn walk to a loved one’s grave; we stop and think about times past but not nearly forgotten. Then, like our Swedish families before us, we gather together for a meal afterwards, where more is served up than food. There is an abundant portion of reminiscence, nostalgia, old stories, and the unspoken but deeply satisfying comfort of shared history and long familiarity.

Axel and Annette Nelson Family Circa 1891

The members of this hardy band meeting once a year under the trees at the cemetery are descendants of two immigrant Swedish-American families formed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some are descendants of Axel and Annette Nelson (born Axel Nilsson and Annette Andreassdotter), while others are descendants of James Ahlberg (born Johannes Ahlberg) and Christine Sandberg.  A few, like Joan, are descendants of both couples. But this post is about Axel and Annette.

It is quite likely that the Memorial Day tradition at the Old Swedish Cemetery began over a hundred or more years ago. A first cousin of Joan’s father, who was born in 1919, remembers that her parents had brought her to the cemetery on Memorial Day when she was just a small child.

Annette and Axel Nelson had eleven children, seven of whom have living descendants. During the nine years we have been attending the gathering, we have met with descendants of six of those seven Nelson children. But, who, really, was this family? What was it about them and their character that they could give birth to a tradition strong enough to survive year after year after year for over a century? Maybe if we understood a little more about this family, we could fathom the tidal pull, the familial forces that could hold their descendants together in the face of time and the inevitable dissolution of shared memory.

Thus, after returning to our home in Ohio, we pored over the many painstakingly recorded memories of the Nelson family that have been preserved.  We diligently studied Illinois census records from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One census entry, recorded on a single summer day in 1900, was striking in its detail and transported us back in time to Lemont, to the ancestral home of Joan’s great grandparents, Axel and Annette Nelson.

Axel and Annette Nelson Family 1900 Illinois Census

Axel and Annette Nelson Family’s Entry in the 1900 Illinois Census

It is Monday, June 18, 1900. Axel, age forty-three, and Annette, thirty-eight years old, have been married nineteen years, and Annette has already given birth to nine children. Of these, eight are still living.

A baby daughter, Anna Selma, only one month old has not survived. She died tragically in February 1886. Her cradle was near the small stove used to heat the house, mayhap moved there to keep her little body warm on a chilly winter day. Axel’s coat accidentally caught on the handle of a kettle heating on the stovetop, spilling boiling hot water over Anna’s small body. She didn’t survive. Anna would be the first member of the Nelson family to be buried in the Old Swedish Cemetery.

By 1900 the two oldest children, Minnie and Al, have already left home. There are six children now remaining in the too small, two-bedroom home. Anna Selma (named for her deceased sister) is thirteen; Emma is eleven years old; Ted (Joan’s grandfather) is eight; Esther is six; Emil is four; and the youngest, Sigfried, is but two.

It is morning, and Axel has already left for his job as quarryman at the Lemont limestone quarries. The work is dangerous and difficult, paying only about $30 a month, but Axel has managed, somehow, to acquire enough money to buy a small homestead for the family. It is a modest house and a barn located in a Swedish neighborhood about a half-mile from the Lemont city limits—a neighborhood known as Hazel Dell. It was also referred to by the somewhat mysterious name “Stray 80” for many years.

Annette keeps the home clean and tidy.  The Nelson home has only a kitchen, dining room, and two small bedrooms.  Although a bedroom and living room would be added later, the family never will have the luxury of an indoor bathroom.  When Annette first saw the home she and Axel had purchased, she broke out in tears, “because it was so full of bugs!”

Anna Feeding Chickens In Lemont

Anna Feeding Chickens in Hazel Dell

The kids are out of school for the summer. Annette sends Ted out to feed the pigs and milk the cow, affectionately named “Lillaboy” by the family. She tells Anna to tend to the chickens. Emma is taking care of the smaller children, so that Annette can get her work for the day done.

Annette is spending her Monday morning washing clothes by putting them in a boiler on the stove. Her boiler is a large cauldron in which the family clothes and soapy water are heated together. Axel’s extra set of work clothes are particularly soiled, so she removes them from the boiler and hands them to Anna to scrub the stubborn dirt out with a washboard. After washing, rinsing, and wringing the clothes, Annette and Anna hang the clothes outside on the line to dry. Of course, ironing will come later.

Like many other women at the time, Annette follows a strict schedule: washing is done on Monday, ironing on Tuesday, mending on Wednesday. Friday is the children’s favorite day because that would be the day Annette bakes fresh bread.  Yesterday, a Sunday, had been a relative day of rest for Axel and Annette because it was a day strictly set aside for attending services and activities at Swedish Bethany Church. Yesterday Axel had taught Sunday school, and the children who were old enough attended classes. Being short on cash, Axel quietly pilfered a few pennies from Annette’s yeast jar to give as a heartfelt church offering.

Annette speaks only Swedish to her children.  Although Axel learned English through his work, and some of the children English through school, Annette has still has not learned her adopted country’s tongue. She has little incentive to. The Swedish Bethany Church that the family attends holds all of its services in Swedish. She purchases her goods from Swedish-speaking merchants in town.  Her social life revolves around the Swedish prayer meetings that she and her neighbors hold in their homes. But she is nevertheless uncomfortable that she does not understand what her children are saying to one another. She tries to pick up English words and phrases. Sometimes she hears the children laughing while they’re playing outside, their voices, sing-song, imitating Swedish in a made-up language the Nelson kids called “Skonic,” probably so-named because the children had been told that the Nelson family had come from Skäne in southern Sweden.

Afternoon comes quickly this busy Monday in 1900. After a mid-day meal, Annette, Anna, and Ted go out to tend the vegetable garden planted in the family’s front yard. The family grows almost all of its own vegetables. While toiling in the afternoon sun, Annette thinks to herself that she is glad it is summer. The children are home from school and can help out. There is less coal for her to gather, less water to carry, maybe a few chores less in a chore-filled day. And she is glad, above all, that Axel is at home living with the family. During the winter months the quarries don’t operate, and last winter Axel tried to make ends meet by cutting down trees to sell as firewood. When that didn’t bring in enough money to live on, he had to leave Lemont in order to find work in another town.

Today Annette feels a little dizzy working in the afternoon sun; her stomach is a bit queasy. It dawns on her that she might be pregnant again. Except for her oldest daughter Minnie, all of her children have been born in the bedroom of their little home in Hazel Dell. If she is carrying another child, her tenth baby will be arriving early next year in 1901.

A census taker arrives while Annette is still working in the garden with the children. She tells the children that they can stop for a break and play for a while.  Emma has already put Emil and Sigfried down for their naps. Emma and Esther then go outside for some welcome free time with their siblings.

The census taker is Nels Anderson, a man in his late twenties, himself a Swedish immigrant. Annette offers him coffee and cardamom rolls, which he gladly accepts.  As they sit at the table, Annette answers all his questions quietly so as not to wake the younger children napping in the nearby bedroom. It is with pride that she tells him that she and Axel own their home, that it isn’t rented or mortgaged.

Axel had come alone to America in 1881; this is, coincidentally, the same year as Mr. Anderson himself had come over. After Axel managed to scrape together enough money for their tickets, Annette and her oldest daughter Minnie joined him, immigrating in 1883. She tells Mr. Anderson the story of her arduous journey—a story she would come to repeat many times in the years to come. With a little one not yet three years old, Annette endured a miserable voyage across the ocean. She had to furnish her own food and bedding and sleep on the deck with the baby. She vowed, after this experience, to never make the return trip to Sweden. And she kept that vow. Like so many before and after her, she would never again see those left behind—parents, siblings, friends.  While a new family was budding in a new land, an earlier one had to be left behind, abandoned to cherished memories and the fitful exchange of letters.

Nels Anderson thanks Annette for the refreshment and her time and moves on to his next household, coincidentally another Nelson family—but no relation to Annette and Axel, who had no other family in Illinois. Joan’s Great Aunt Ruth had once remarked that the lack of extended family was probably why Axel and Annette’s brood became so close-knit.

By the time Mr. Anderson leaves, Annette realizes she needs to get busy preparing for the evening meal. Anna and Emma will help while Ted is sent outside to do more chores. Esther will try to keep Emil and Sigfried occupied and out of the kitchen.

Axel returns home from a long, sweltering hot day in the quarries. The house he comes home to is filled with the noise of children chattering in both English and Swedish. One of Ted’s friends stops over, and Annette invites him to dinner. Axel and Annette are strict parents. Their children do what they are told. No playing games outside on the Sabbath. (See Ted’s experience in our blog here: https://sixtysixtyblog.wordpress.com/2014/06/17/grandpa-baseball-and-ebay/). Card playing is never allowed! But Annette and Axel always welcome their children’s friends into their small but comfortable home.

It isn’t dark yet, so there is no need to light the oil lamps. The Nelson household won’t get electricity for another twenty-three years. Dinner is at last on the table, and the children quickly take their places. A hush falls over the family. Bowing their heads, they begin to say grace:

“I Jesu nam till bords vi gå,
välsigna, Gud, den mat vi få”

(Translation: “In Jesus’ name we come to the table
God bless the food we receive”)

Axel and Annette Nelson in Front of their Home Early 1900s

Axel and Annette Nelson in Front of their Home Early 1900s

The day comes to a close, and we fast forward one hundred and fifteen years, to June 2015. In the years that followed that summer day in 1900, change, always inevitable, visited the Nelson family.  Two more children were born, Ruth in 1901 and Lee in 1904. Axel and Annette saw the untimely passing of two more children, Siegfried and Anna. About 1911 when work at the stone quarries slackened off and finally petered out, Axel found new employment with the Corn Products Refining Company at Argo, the company well-known for its Karo syrup, Mazola corn oil, and corn starch products. In 1928 at the age of seventy-two, he finally retired. When Annette died on April 3, 1949 at the age of eighty-seven, the couple had been married for over sixty-eight years.  Axel was ninety-four years old when he passed away on May 29, 1951. The last of their eleven children, Joan’s Great Aunt Ruth, died at the age of ninety-seven in 1999.

Yet, here we are on Memorial Day each year, gathered together in their name and to honor their legacy. What holds a family together when so much time has passed? What brings us second and third and how many times removed cousins together? Those of us who do genealogy trace nuclear families—parents and their children. When we locate a census record or a Swedish Household Examination Record, we pause at a moment in time when that nuclear family existed. We halt at that singular moment when the bonds are real and strong: mothers and fathers are with their children, a child is with his or her brothers and sisters. But we know it doesn’t last. Nuclear families are fleeting, ephemeral, as substantial as gossamer against the relentless sweep of time. Family members pass away, children become adults, move away, marry, start families of their own. New family units are formed in a constant ferment of nucleation and new beginning.

As genealogists and family historians we trace nuclear families down through the generations, watching with great interest as their histories play out in front of us. We watch family ties inevitably loosen, break, and then dissolve.

Yet, here, somehow, gathered in the Old Swedish Cemetery we’ve resisted, fought back against the entropy, tried to preserve something that Axel and Annette built and fought to keep so many years ago. Maybe, like Don Nelson, we understood, we understand that to build a better future we have to embrace our own past, preserving the detail and nuance of our family’s history in a shared chronicle of memory and emotion.

On June 13, 1976 a powerful tornado ripped through Lemont, destroying the beloved Nelson home in Hazel Dell at 211 4th Street on the west side of McCarthy Road. The nuclear family has passed, the home is gone. But the Axel and Annette Nelson legacy of family continues.  Because Donald remembered.  Because Joan remembers. Because we all take care to remember.

Memorial Day 2014

Memorial Day 2014, Bethany Lutheran Cemetery

Talkin’ Bout My Jell-O-ration

Perfection Salad

Perfection Salad

Greg keeps a daily calendar on his nightstand, a paper page-a-day calendar received as a Christmas gift—because otherwise he’s gone all digital with calendars nowadays. The calendar reminded us that February 8 is the first day of National Jell-O Week.

Ok, maybe we weren’t really reminded; in truth, we weren’t even aware that there was a National Jell-O Week. But we weren’t really surprised either. There are, seemingly, an endless number of designated days, weeks, and months to promote causes, raise awareness, honor dead people, and commemorate all kinds of historical events.  These named and designated chunks of the calendar are not holidays, like Christmas, Presidents’ Day or the Fourth of July. Many of these are something less, something more trivial and capricious, the poor relations of holidays, holiday wannabes.

The first Friday in June, for example, is “Hug an Atheist Day” and also “National Doughnut Day.” Some wise folks on Twitter and FaceBook have suggested, waggishly, that we be economical with our time and combine these two into “Give An Atheist A Doughnut Day.” Not a bad idea: a holy pastry for the devoutly unholy.

February alone has “Baked Alaska Day,” “Clean Out Your Computer Day,” “National Day the Music Died Day,” “National Thank A Mailman Day,” and an “International Pancake Day.” For those who need more time than a single day can provide, February also boasts “Solo Diners Out Week,” “Random Acts of Kindness Week,” and “Condom Week.” Guess which venerated romantic holiday falls during Condom Week every year?  February is also the month set aside as the “Bake for Family Fun Month,” “International Boost Your Self Esteem Month,” “Return Shopping Carts to the Supermarket Month” (no problem if, like us, you shop at Aldi’s and want your quarter back), as well as “Eat Ice Cream for Breakfast Month.” So why shouldn’t Jell-O, too, have a week set aside to celebrate its distinct and important role in American quasi-cuisine?

National Jell-O Week was a brainchild of the Utah state legislature. It was first declared an official week in 2001 and is now celebrated annually every second week of February. It is unclear whether the Week is for Utah residents only or if any of us can celebrate the venerable but wiggly concoction. Utah claims to have the nation’s highest per-capita consumption of Jell-O, thus, it is no surprise that Jell-O is also Utah’s official state snack. If you doubt the veracity of our gelatinous tale, you can read Utah’s original “Resolution Urging Jell-O Recognition” here: http://www.le.state.ut.us/~2001/bills/sbillenr/SR0005.htm

Although Jell-O was invented long before baby boomers came along, it was really during the decades of the 1950’s and 1960’s that Jell-O came into its own, grew into its mold, so to speak. For a certain class of people—you know who you are—Jell-O was served everywhere and at all times. Jell-O was a staple at church pot-lucks (at least at Lutheran ones, Joan can attest), children’s parties, in school cafeterias and in our homes, especially when there were large family gatherings.

Back then Jell-O didn’t come in some of the “unusual” flavors you can buy now, like blueberry (because back then blue Jell-O would have just been “weird”), watermelon, “tropical fusion”, and margarita.  We were served the relatively simple, Jell-O “Classic” flavors: orange, cherry, strawberry, lemon, lime, grape, and the ever-present raspberry (never one of Joan’s favorites!).

During the two decades when we baby-boomers grew up, prepackaged and easy-to -prepare foods also came of age and into vogue. And what could be easier that adding water to a package of Jell-O? It was likely one of the first foods our moms allowed us to make (yes, women pretty much did all the cooking—even Jell-O making—back then). Jell-O was so easy to make, it became the subject of classic “Yo Mama” jokes: Yo mama is so stupid she can’t make Jello; she can’t fit 2 quarts of water in the box!”

That didn’t mean, however, that Jell-O wasn’t used in all kinds of creative or unusual ways. Speaking of unusual, back in October Joan read Scott Berkun’s latest book, The Ghost of My Father (http://scottberkun.com/). In the book he recalls his grandmother offering him hot Jell-O to drink, which he admitted sounds “disgusting now but was sweet and warm then….”

We ourselves never tried hot Jell-O, but looking back, many of the Jell-O dishes we were served back in the day now seem bizarre and disgusting. At one Lutheran church supper Joan remembers having something called “Perfection Salad” that was anything but. It had pieces of celery and (to Joan’s horror) olives in it. During our childhood years there were actually vegetable flavors of Jell-O, including celery and tomato! These are mercifully now extinct.

While hunting through her mother’s old recipe box, Joan discovered a recipe for something called a “Green Gold Salad.” It is similar to a gelatin dish called “Sunshine Salad” that you can find on the web. The recipe called for a box each of lime and lemon Jell-O to which three grated carrots (“salted” no less!) and canned crushed pineapple were added. Fortunately for Joan and her siblings, this recipe never made it to the family table because Joan’s mother hated pineapple in all its forms.

Green Gold Salad, Ruth Cornelius Nelson Recipe circa 1965

Green Gold Salad, Ruth Nelson Recipe circa 1965

This isn’t to say all our Jell-O memories are of unappetizing concoctions. Joan’s mother Ruth made a delicious “Frosty Orange Dessert” recipe using orange Jell-O, orange (or lemon) sherbet, and mandarin oranges. This dish is still served as comfort food on holidays in the Shreve household. For occasions like Christmas Joan’s Grandmother Tilla prepared a so-called “Jell-O salad”, quite simple in its ingredients and presentation. Her grandmother would make lime Jell-O in a rectangular pan and press canned pear halves into the gelatin. Once they were chilled, she would cut the Jell-O into individual rectangles, each rectangle with its own pear half. She would carefully place the rectangles on a bed of iceberg lettuce on individual salad plates. Good, simple comfort food. A classic any good Lutheran girl from the mid-West would recognize!

Christmas 1963

Christmas 1963 Gary, Indiana with Grandma’s “Jell-O salad”

Christmas 1963 Gary, Indiana

Christmas 1963 Gary, Indiana with Grandma’s “Jell-O salad”

You can’t think back to the Jell-O of the 1950’s and 1960’s without also thinking about Jell-O molds. Tupperware parties were all the rage, and Jell-O molds were, of course, included in the Tupperware product line. Joan’s mom had a “Jell-N-Serve” mold that had interchangeable lids. You could choose a different design to “top off” your molded gelatin: a star, Christmas tree, tulip, or heart.  Here for your delectation is that sherbet and Jell-O mandarin orange recipe we mentioned earlier as prepared for Thanksgiving many years ago in a “Jell-N-Serve” mold.

JellNServe Mold

Jell-N-Serve Mold Jell-O with Mandarin Oranges

“Frosty Orange Dessert” Prepared in the Jell-N-Serve Mold

In Joan’s childhood (Lutheran) household, cheesecake was an unknown dessert. Her first introduction to cheesecake came via Jell-O pudding, when she heard about the now classic Jell-O No-Bake Cherry Cheesecake recipe and prepared it for her soon-to-be sister-in-law’s bridal shower in 1967. According to Wikipedia the Jell-O pudding “No-Bake” dessert line was launched the previous year, in 1966. The cheesecake Joan made required no baking, and was quick and easy. If you Google it, you’ll see the recipe is still very popular.

In the tumult of the late 1960’s, children of the Jell-O generation began to experiment with change. We changed our hair styles, our dress; we revolutionized our music and our sexual mores. We experimented with spirituality, communes, and obscure and mysterious substances.

But, on a more mundane level, we also expanded our culinary horizons. For Joan the Jell-O cheesecake recipe was a revelation, a seductive gateway to more exotic foods to come. Learning that cheesecake even existed was the beginning of a new gustatory and culinary awareness. It’s difficult to imagine now, but back in the homogeneous culture of the 1950’s and early 1960’s many of our generation had never eaten lasagna, tortellini, sushi, knockwurst, burritos, croissants, Reuben sandwiches, baklava, tacos, or even, yes, cheesecake. Pizza was eaten, yes, but never as a meal, only as a special snack or by teenagers on dates. So many ethnic foods, now normal parts of today’s everyday cuisine, were unknown to us back then.

Jell-O, in its simple, uncomplicated way, and certainly without intending to, was a symbol of our culinary innocence, our white-bread palates, our ignorance of a vast and variegated world waiting to feed us with so many wonderful and delectable foods.  Happy National Jell-O Week!

Constant and Faithful Companion

Sasha

Sasha

Twenty-six years ago this month a sixteen-year-old gray tabby cat named Sasha lay down on our bedspread and, content with the companionship of her lifelong friend and confidante Joan, closed her eyes and purred, consented to death, and left us behind.

We’ve owned cats most of our married life. But one cat has to be the first cat. The kitten you have when you are young, live in rented apartments, and are perpetually short of money. One day in 1973, during our second year of marriage, Greg asked Joan out of the blue, “Do you want a kitten?” Prone (sometimes) to quick decisions, Greg had decided the young household of two needed a feline companion. Joan, although with no previous experience of cats, was, as per usual, game to try this idea out. So, off we went, prospective cat-owners, to inspect a litter of rambunctious kittens whose newly-arrived presence in this world had been discovered and announced by a graduate school friend of ours.

The kittens, as all kittens are, were intrinsically adorable. They readily and easily plucked those emotional chords that their domestication of our species has instilled in some of us. One of them, following some ancient feline instinct, recognized her one-and-only, her true and constant companion. She boldly climbed up on Joan’s lap, fell asleep, and the contract was consummated then and there. Joan, always a good judge of character, knew this was the one.

We were told this kitten was a male. Of course, as first-time cat owners, we had no idea how to sex kittens. So Sasha (the diminutive of the Russian boy’s name Alexander) lived as a male for the few days it took us to take her to a vet for her first checkup. By then, of course, we (and she) were used to the name, and it stayed with her for the rest of her life.

Sasha was petite, a diminutive cat just as her name implied. She was mild and loving, with an even personality; neither of us remembers ever being bitten or scratched. She loved to have Joan hold her and talk to her. At night she slept with us in our bed, nestled usually on the pillow by her closest friend, whose long dark hair was a source of constant fascination and comfort.

Of course, she was a predator when the occasion demanded, evolutionary heiress to sabre-tooth tigers and cousin to lions. Joan still remembers the live cockroach (from one of our first university slum apartments) brought to her as a gift and dropped on her leg as she lay in bed half-asleep. And there was, of course, always the odd moth or mouse or dim-witted insect.  We remember a time when Sasha leaped high into the air to catch a housefly. With the fly still buzzing in her mouth, Sasha swallowed her prey with great satisfaction. We were duly impressed.

A few years before she died, Sasha allowed a homeless young orange tabby we were to name Goldberry (yes, Greg is a diehard Lord of the Rings fan) to move into the house. Tiny little Sasha, many years the new cat’s senior, established some house rules quickly.  She took a small chunk out of her housemate’s ear, and allowed the intrusion. Maybe she was anointing a replacement, mindful that her wayward human charges should not be without a cat to keep and protect them.

Sasha lived with us in our first Ohio apartments, in Bexley, Columbus, and East Liverpool. She moved with us into our first real house in Pittsburgh, and then later to our home in Burton, Geauga County, Ohio. Sasha, with her large green eyes, witnessed our first real jobs, our first real tragedy, and the births of our first and second children. She was with us when we were young and just starting out and stayed with us, faithful and fond, until we were homeowners and parents—grown-up people with respectable jobs.

We’ve had cats since then.  Goldberry, the favorite of our middle daughter, stayed with us for sixteen years as well. Ariel, our curmudgeonly caretaker after Goldberry passed, came in 1999, the year Greg had cancer and we feared for his life. A stray already five years old, Ariel was adopted as a token of his recovery and survival. Muffin, a beautiful Norwegian Forest Cat, was adopted and named by our middle daughter Kristyn (now, and maybe not by chance, a felinologist). Muffin ended up staying with us twelve years—until just a year ago last August when she, like Sasha, went away too soon and unexpectedly.

These faithful, constant friends were occupants of our hearts, and our children’s hearts. They provided, without particular condition or complaint, loving companionship and head butts; purring and soft fur; a languid little body in a cold bed in winter; a sleek silhouette in a window; a warm and comforting presence on a lonely lap. Now these things are gone, and we are alone. After almost 43 years of marriage it still seems strange to be without a feline companion or two. Now it hurts almost too much to love them and then let them go. Their lives compared to ours are too short by far. Sometimes in the night we think we can still hear them jump onto the bed and settle in next to us, keeping us company, constant and faithful, still.

Empty Nest

The Shreve family as it was, a long time ago.

The Shreve family, as it was about 1991-1992, at Grandpa and Grandma Nelson’s home in Pittsburgh.

Our first daughter, Jessica, had a fierce independent streak (as, in fact, do all of our children). She struck out on her own pretty early, renting her own apartment and working while going to school. Our middle daughter, Kristyn, followed a few years after, also wanting to live in her own apartment. Her younger brother, Justin, went with her. They lived together in their first apartment on the lower floor of an older home on Harris Street in Kent (Justin’s first cat, Harris, commemorates their first stop after leaving home).

After that, there was a succession of Kent and Stow, Ohio apartments for all of our children. They will always remember their first forays into independent living: Lake Street (an attic garret murderously hot in the summer), Park Street (with the odd layout and marauding squirrels in the walls and ceiling), West Main (with the drunken frat boys) and Ravenswood (with Noah’s flood in the parking lot during downpours). During the course of the last decade, they all left home and never returned for more than a few temporary weeks at a time.

Yet they were all nearby, close to home, just a short drive away or a quick walk around the block. They would stop by whenever they wanted to, opening the back door with their keys and shouting “Mom, Dad, where are you?” There were raids on our food pantry, expeditions to borrow this, that, and every other thing one could think of. Sometimes, there were impromptu earnest discussions in our family room about future plans and current problems, romantic, educational, and financial.

They were out of the house, but they were still here. Close by and within reach. They were independent, but still (sometimes) needing our advice, our experience, or, simply, our skills with cooking, plumbing and sundry repairs. And, of course, Mom and Dad, are the most indispensable resource of all when packing up and moving.

Kristyn, the middle child, was the first to move away from Kent, where she had lived since she was two. A couple of years ago she moved to Oxford, Ohio to attend graduate school at Miami University (Miami of Ohio to you Floridians!). We bought a modest A-frame on 3 acres near there as a summer house, and she and long-time partner Anthony lived there in the midst of the trees and leaves for a couple of years. They were four and a half hours away, but still, on Father’s Day or Mother’s Day or on our birthdays she would appear, a welcome smiling surprise, home for the special occasion. The best gift a Mom or Dad could desire. Her siblings were appropriately mum about her visit, which, most likely, they had helped her plan.

Greg understood all along that there would come a day when the family would change again, perhaps dramatically. Greg had left home for college in 1968 (moving to Arizona from Pittsburgh), and after a single summer home in Pittsburgh in 1969, never lived at home again. As an Army brat who lived in 21 places in 18 years, he understood well the impermanence of house and home. Joan, on the other hand, had lived in the same home for 15 years and left it permanently only when we got married. It was her concept of home we built upon and created for our children in our stately Colonial Revival on Prospect Street in Kent. It was her sense of stability and permanence that made that spacious house a home. Our children knew that. They know that.

A few weeks ago, on the 8th of August, we loaded a POD with the accumulated belongings that three twenty-somethings had accumulated during their apartment years (more than they thought, for sure). Then on August 10, Kristyn, Tony and Justin, the New Oregonians, loaded their cars with what remained, and gathered some good friends for a road trip. They drove away across country, taking the Northern route to the West, to their new homes in Oregon. Kristyn was to accept a doctoral fellowship at Oregon State University and Justin, well, as a software engineer who works from home, he went with her because he could. Because he was born with a wanderlust and could now finally indulge it.

When they drove off that Sunday morning, for Albany and Lebanon, we knew that something had changed, irrevocably, finally. The nuclear family, Joan, Greg, Jessica, Kristyn, and Justin, was no more. For a few years we were a wobbly little solar system with its center on Prospect Street. They were satellites, planets revolving around us, first near, then a bit further away. But, now, two of them have escaped the orbit entirely and gone off to (what seems to us) the Uttermost West. Only Jessica, the oldest, now also finally in her own home with her husband Patrick and no longer in apartments, remains nearby. Still, even she has recognized that when her siblings left for the Pacific Northwest something fundamental had shifted.

They, none of them, will ever come home again. Yes, there will still be visits, holidays home. Special occasions spent, all five of us together in a house well-remembered and well-loved. But this is our house now. Not their house. They have their own homes, with lawns to tend, flowers to grow, woodwork to mend, and blank walls to decorate with the trappings and mementos of their own lives. Their future opens up within another set of walls and under other roofs. They’ve left our embrace and flown the nest, up high and away, away, and away.

When I’m Sixty-Four

When I get older losing my hair
Many years from now
Will you still be sending me a valentine
Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?
If I’d been out till quarter to three
Would you lock the door?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me
When I’m sixty-four?

Greg turned 64 this past weekend: a significant milestone, especially for a child of the 60’s. The immediate association we sixty-somethings always make with this epic birthday is When I’m Sixty-Four from the Beatles’ 1967 Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

When we first heard this song (we weren’t together yet and would not meet for another two years), we probably thought that being 64, being that old, seemed as far away as the distant moon. Although, we should have known, with the moon landing only two short years away in 1969, that even the unimaginably distant can, with the inexorable passage of time, become very close: maybe much closer than we would ever want it to be.

Could we imagine then, in 1967, at the age of 17, who we would turn out to be, what we would witness, what we would celebrate, what we would simply survive? The future opens up before a 17-year-old like an endless and mostly empty highway running to a distant horizon where spectacles and miracles await, just out of sight and sound, to be discovered. At the age of 17, with his yellow Camaro and its racing stripes, Greg was ready to barrel full-tilt down the asphalt and look over the edge of the horizon, into the limitless future.

But now, at 64, many years from then, we’re peering a bit fearfully over the edge that was once so far away. The inevitable final horizon, looming darkly but indistinctly ahead, isn’t as inviting as the one we had imagined 47 years ago. We want to put on the brakes, let up on the gas, slow it all down. The endless days, the slowly turning seasons of our youth, rush by faster and faster now, with a disturbing momentum we are helpless to arrest and all too keenly aware of—the so-called wisdom of age we suppose.

At 17 the future waits eagerly for us, full of all manner of things that haven’t happened yet. Everything blooms with potential. Just leaving the cocoon of home and school, we haven’t had our first real jobs, haven’t gotten married—or wanted to; we haven’t bought houses, had our children, and met all of our once and future friends. We haven’t decided on and pursued our vocations and avocations. Everything is yet to be. Life fairly burgeons, bursting, like the swollen bud of a flower opening to the sun, the rain and the kiss of a butterfly. At 17 it is all springtime and the waning of the year seems far, far away; as the song says, many years from now.

But now, here, at the age of 64, careers are over or winding down. Houses have been bought and sold. Children have been born, have grown up, and are going, going, gone away. One dear boy crossed the final horizon before we will. Our friends, our peers, fellow children of the Sixties are beginning to fall away from cancer, heart attacks, and the sundry other visitations of old age, entropy and accident. There seems to be so much to fear, to rail against; the temptation is to turn our faces away from the future that we once leaned forward to embrace.

Yet, yet, at 64, with silvering hair and all the blemishes old age inflicts upon the face and body, there is a birthday gift, a consolation bottle of wine, a valentine. Over the years a lot was gained and much was lost, but we still have one another. We will have been married, Greg and Joan, for 42 of those 64 years; we met over 45 years ago. Those 45 years together, that is what those 64 years has brought us. The time together, the shared experience, the complex depth of the knowing that such intimate togetherness brings…it outweighs and outlasts the lamentations of our advancing age. And we know, finally, the answer to the question

Will you still need me, will you still feed me

When I’m sixty-four?

The answer is yes.

Culinary Misconceptions

Doris Neubert’s wonderful recipe for Quarktorte ohne Boden und Bohnen!

Doris Neubert’s wonderful recipe for Quarktorte ohne Boden und Bohnen!

In the 1980’s we spent a year (from 1985-1986) living abroad in a most unusual place, “behind the Iron Curtain” in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Most Americans referred to the country at that time as “East Germany,” but the Germans living there preferred their country be called the “German Democratic Republic.” In 1985 when we traveled there with our two-year old daughter, it was still the era of the Cold War, and Germany was still divided into two very different countries. As the result of a series of career decisions and (frankly) happenstance, Greg had the opportunity to teach as an exchange professor for Karl Marx Universität in Leipzig—a famous historic university once known, and now known again, as the University of Leipzig.

Our year abroad “behind the Curtain” will certainly be the subject of further posts, because it was at once a most difficult, but also quite a significant year for us. It turned out to be (although we didn’t know it at the time) a turning point in Greg’s professional life. But more on that later. Even under difficult circumstances, we made friends in that small socialist country, some of them would become not only long-term colleagues, but life-long friends. We learned a great deal during our time there. We learned some important things about ourselves, about the inestimable value of freedom and privacy, and about the pervasive, invasive nature of totalitarian states.

However, today’s blog post isn’t about these big, important issues. It’s about misconceptions—little things, little mistakes of thinking we make. We all have misconceptions about those who live in other countries and practice other ways of life. We Americans have them about foreigners, and those in foreign countries have them about us. But when you actually live in a foreign country for as long as we did, your pre-conceived notions about that culture, it customs, even its cooking, are challenged and, if you listen and learn, your notions change. Generalizations, misconceptions, and stereotypes dissolve and disappear once you actually meet and get to know those “foreign” people and places.

Misconceptions abound about many things but, and now we get to the meat of this post, they especially surround the topic of food. Hence our blog title, “Culinary Misconceptions.” Before living in the GDR, when Joan thought of German food, she, like many other Americans, mainly thought of beer, bratwurst, and sauerkraut. These were to her, of course, the main staples of German diet. Most of her knowledge of German food dated back to the 1970’s when we would frequent some old German restaurant haunts when we lived in the Columbus, Ohio area: the Leipzig Haus on East Livingston Avenue in Bexley, Ohio and Schmidt’s Sausage Haus in German Village. Greg, who had German relatives and had spent several of his childhood years living in Germany as an Army brat, didn’t grow up with these same stereotypes.

While it is certainly true that Germans drink a lot of beer and are justifiably proud of their immense array of brews, it isn’t the only thing they drink. Indeed in the GDR we were usually offered wine or bottled water first when enjoying a dinner at someone’s home. As to Bratwurst, well little did Joan know—but soon found out after her first visit to a Metzgerei (butcher shop)—that the humble Bratwurst is only one of a myriad of Wursts (sausages) found in Germany. There was Blutwurst, Bockwurst, Weisswurst, Knackwurst, and Leberwurst, just to name some small few of the ones we ate and enjoyed (with a staggering variety of mustards!). Most regions had their own special varieties of Wurst. In Lower Saxony there was Bregenwurst and Thüringia had its own unique large Rostbratwurst with distinctive spices like marjoram and garlic. When we visited Nürnberg we enjoyed the smaller finger-sized Nürnberger sausages that have become world-renowned.

When eating out or eating at someone’s home, we also sampled many delicious non-sausage dishes: Sauerbraten, Rouladen, Kasseler Schinken, and Schnitzel. One of Joan’s favorite dishes was Jaeger Eintopf, a kind of stew made from beef, onions, potatoes, and mushrooms. If memory serves us right, sauerkraut was never served once when we dined at someone’s home.

Before we lived in Germany, Joan’s idea of a German dessert was strudel and German chocolate cake (also something we recall being served at Schmidt’s restaurant in German Village). German chocolate cake? It was nonexistent throughout Germany. Turns out it didn’t originate anywhere in Deutschland. The recipe for German chocolate cake (a favorite of Joan’s brother, by the way prepared for him by his wife every year on his birthday) actually is derived from Samuel German, who in 1852 developed a bar of sweet baking chocolate while working for the Baker’s Chocolate Company. In 1957 a recipe using a “German’s chocolate bar” appeared in a Dallas, Texas newspaper, and the rest is history. Many Germans, in fact, would probably dislike German chocolate cake. Several have told us that they dislike most American cakes because they are too sweet for their tastes.

German desserts also turned out to be so much more than strudel: Lebkuchen, Stollen, Obstkuchen (an only slightly sweet thin cake topped with fruit). Indeed any early morning visit to a Bäckerei (bakery) would reveal a wide array of torts, pastries and other sweets. One of Joan’s favorites was a dessert made by her friend Doris called “Quarktorte ohne Boden.” It resembled cheesecake but was baked with “quark,” a kind of curd cheese. “Ohne Boden” which literally translates as “without a floor” meant that the dessert was prepared with no bottom or crust.

Before leaving Germany Joan made sure to ask Doris for the recipe, but mistakenly asked for “Quarktorte ohne Bohnen” (which translates as Quarktorte without beans)! When our German friends started laughing, Joan, quick to catch her mistake, insisted that the recipe was “auch ohne Bohnen” (also without beans)!

So, indeed German cuisine was, and is, about much more than beer, brats, sausages, and strudel. But Americans aren’t the only ones to have misconceptions about another culture’s food. Before and after the Wall fell, through our experiences living in the GDR and meeting people, as well as traveling in and visiting Greg’s relatives in what was then called West Germany, we learned, too, that Germans had many misconceptions about our American food as well.

Some Germans think our beer or wine to be of inferior quality. When we visited a local winery in the Rheinland of (then) West Germany, the owner told us they shipped their “inferior” wines to the United States for consumption. The implication perhaps was that Americans (as every German knows) wouldn’t know the difference between a good wine and a bottle of vinegar. While we certainly enjoyed very good beers and wines in Germany before and after the Wall came down, you can, indeed, get very good beer and wine in the States. A burgeoning American viniculture and the growth of American craft breweries have transformed our alcoholic beverage landscape. And we can testify that while we lived in the GDR, we did purchase some VERY low quality wines in the supermarkets! Although, truth be told, there were days where we were glad to be consuming even those inferior vintages!

Some Germans also have a low opinion of American food. We encountered this when one of our GDR friends came to visit us in Ohio. Although during those Cold War years, East Germans were not allowed to travel “to the West,” exceptions were made. If you were a pensioner, you could freely travel outside the country. If you were a member of the Communist Party and had professional reasons, you could also receive permission to travel. One of our friends, who was allowed come to Ohio for academic purposes, visited us after we returned from the GDR when we lived in the small Ohio town of Burton in Geauga County.

For the first dinner our German friend had with us, Joan had prepared stuffed manicotti shells, a salad, and had baked homemade bread. We had never encountered Germans who baked their own bread the year we lived in the GDR so it could be understandable that seeing an American do this was a bit surprising for her. She had expected, instead, the typical soft, spongy American white bread (think Wonder bread) that was a staple in the homes of those of us who were children in the 1950’s and 1960’s—indeed it is still a household fixture in many homes although, hallelujah, Americans finally seem to have discovered good bread along with good beer. This kind of bread is still sold in American supermarkets, of course, but is no longer the only or most popular choice available to consumers. We both personally have not eaten that kind of bread for many years! Germans have wonderful bakeries, even in the smallest villages, with a variety of marvelous breads that we still remember fondly. Our theory is that the Germans we knew didn’t need to bake their own loaves to get delicious tasting bread.

When our GDR visitor tasted the manicotti shells, she asked if they had come from a box that we had purchased. She had heard that Americans prepared their foods from boxes of pre-made foods; Betty Crocker Hamburger Helper is an example of exactly what she was thinking. While, true, the shells had not been home-made, Joan had hand-stuffed the shells and prepared the sauce and stuffing for the manicotti. We have since read that it is a common misconception for Europeans to think Americans not only eat mostly fast food but also prepare their dinners at home from boxed pre-prepared meals.

Sometimes, misconceptions are based on customs that have been slightly “warped in the translation.” One of our GDR friends, for example, thought Americans ate their cheese with ketchup. We had been invited one night to some dear friends’ apartment in the GDR for dinner (where are you now Knut and Angela?). As appetizers we were served toothpick-speared chunks of cheese topped with ketchup. While sampling the cheese, Joan mentioned that this was a German custom she had never heard of. Our friend, surprised, laughed and replied that it was not a German custom but had thought it an American custom. His father had told him that Americans ate their cheese topped with ketchup. After some discussion we decided that his father had probably heard that Americans liked to eat French fries with ketchup—this, obviously not a misconception but a pure and unvarnished truth. We eat lots of things, maybe too many things, with ketchup.

The thing about all misconceptions is that there is a kernel of truth behind them. You can find bratwurst, beer, sauerkraut, and (very good) strudel in Germany. There are poor quality American beers and wines. There are Americans who frequent fast food restaurants and routinely prepare Hamburger Helper type meals. Americans have been known to put ketchup on all kinds of things: steak, macaroni and cheese, eggs (just do a Google Image search if you have the stomach for the results). But it is always a mistake to generalize about another culture’s food or eating habits. Cultural culinary traditions are rich and diverse; immersion in a culture is without a doubt the best way to learn about them.

There are, of course, other misconceptions we encountered that Germans had about Americans. But these will be food for another day’s blog!