My Fergus Falls Writers Group (of which I am the noted and most highly enthusiastic groupie) is for people who are writing for profit as well as passion, and the gathering serves as a combination editing, critique team/cheering section. I also belong to Writing as a Spiritual Practice at the Unitarian Church in Underwood. Minnesota, which is all about connecting with the inner self and one another.
Our statement of intent affirms – “We write to break through clichés, to challenge old assumptions, and to step beyond our anxieties and discover what we really want to say. Sometimes it is difficult to uncover the authentic, the true, the spiritual. Other times it is a transcendent rush to find new insights for ourselves and with others.”
This past month the group decided to conduct a church Sunday service and, following the theme presented by the church’s 125th anniversary, wrote about and then presented thoughts on Heritage and Legacy. I was thrilled to see the amazing array of diversity, everyone following their own focus, genre, understanding, and path of discovery. Our writings encompassed everything from a remembrance of immigrant grandparents, a discussion on the provenance of values, poetry about forgotten family farms and towns, personal tales of boyhood, philosophical context, to a humorous fictional yarn about an elderly couple who take “…a long strange trip, worth remembering, but neither will.”
When I first pondered the theme, the first thing that came to mind was the tale of my grandfather who came across the sea from an island off the coast of northern Norway, at age eight with his seven year old brother and Uncle Simon. Simon, who had promised once he had secured good, fertile land, and the boys had helped him reap a crop, that he would send money back for the parents and three sister’s passage. But Simon didn’t keep his promise because he died upon arriving at the Red River of the North and the little boys were left virtual orphans, stranded in a strange land, and were never to see their parents and any of their family again.
A chilling tale with a lot more drama to come and so it began to feel more suited to a novel (there’s an idea) than a short church presentation.
I thought of my other grandfather who, after a storm dashed his little fishing boat to smithereens on the rocky shore (again in Norway), picked up what boards and pieces of wood were not too shattered and built a small chest in which he stowed his few possessions. He then, too, sailed off to the new land, settling along that same Red River, digging out a crude enclosure into the bank in which to sleep and huddle against the elements, at times skiing or skating over a hundred miles to Alexandria for supplies.
But that could easily be the tale of almost everyone in our little church.
I certainly inherited my two grandfather’s wayfaring genes, having gypsied up and down the Pacific coast throughout my lifetime, moving every year or so. And then, instead of settling down for my retirement years in my home state, decided to journey again, far across the country to Minnesota, settling not far from that same Red River of the North. Grandfather Jorgen arrived with a handmade chest and a cow and two oxen. I came with a small moving van and a husband and a cat.
I have told my familial tales many times over. The heritage is ingrained in my DNA and perhaps, my persona. But my contribution to the program that Sunday at the Unitarian Church, I realized, had to be centered on a more present reality, the “who” and the “why” of my being, and it was directly related to the two women who raised me.
My Grammy Marie sang softly to herself throughout the day, in a sweet Scandinavian soprano, whether she was taking a swipe at some dusty shelf as she passed by, making me cocoa with marshmallows on top, or working her magic in the garden. Our little, white-picket-fenced cottage was crowned with climbing roses on arbors, around the entry walk and clustered about the front door. Each spring daffodils encircled the yard, interspersed by sparaxis and irises and lilies. I played under her giant blue hydrangeas and fashioned ballerinas and Dancing Girls of the Old West, by pulling out all but two of the stamens from the fuchsias. My love and obsession of the garden comes from her. My understanding of sweetness and goodness all stems from her.
And from my mother. Mom was fond of telling the tale of how she came to California from Minnesota as a young bride and “saw the palm trees and the mountains and the ocean” and thought “she’d died and gone to heaven.”
But she also liked to reminisce about teaching in a little schoolhouse in Rustad, Minnesota in the early 1930’s and “making $65 a month and buying a fur coat and going to the World’s Fair in Chicago.” Imagine that! She also described the coat as having a Fitch Collar. All those years I knew that she didn’t actually own a full-length mink, and that she must have had a stylish but perfectly nice wool coat with a fur collar. And Fitch, I believed, must have been a style of the times, named after a place or person – like Eton collar or Nehru jacket. Imagine my surprise when I googled “fitch” to discover that it referred to polecat! Yes, polecat – which indeed, was the lower priced popular fur of the early 20th century, and so just perfect for the young teacher who makes $65 a month and goes on a road trip with her chums to the World’s Fair.
My mother was always the Fashionista. Well into her 90’s, whenever the J. Jill catalogue would arrive in the mail, she would say to me – “Look in here and see if there is anything that would look cute on me.” She prided herself on her vast collection of sweaters and earrings.
But she was so much more. I was certain that Mom would make it to 100 and get the congratulatory letter from the president. She almost did. When she died she had no illnesses, took no medication, and looked to be many years younger than 99. It’s true she was way ahead of the crowd when it came to healthy meals and natural supplements and at eighty she was still reveling in daily two mile brisk walks.
She advised my young friends about vitamins and minerals and how to eat for health when Adele Davis was the main and lonely proponent. And she understood ecology and the importance of saving our Mother Earth long before Rachel Carson had written “Silent Spring.”
Growing up I watched and absorbed the lessons of a mother who was often glued to C-SPAN, following a senate hearing, noting the number of each bill, citing the politicians and knowing who voted for or against, and following through by phoning her representatives and taking petitions around the neighborhood. And never with ardent stridency or a sense of harsh indictment, but colored by her Libran nature, perhaps, and with a heavy dash of her mother’s sweetness.
In spite of being widowed at a very young age, and having to struggle financially for a time, she was inherently happy and positive, had more fun and enjoyed life – truly so from the depths of her being – more so, than anyone I have ever encountered.
I had a mother who would teach herself reflexology at eighty, continue to make the best Swedish meatballs, stand up for her principals, truly believe in angles, revel in everything Christmas or Easter, and always enjoy a nice glass of wine.
When I looked back at the Writing as a Spiritual Practice statement of intent, I actually felt a “transcendent rush of insight.” Lucky, blessed me. It was not difficult, nor did I have to go very far, I realized, to “uncover the authentic, the true, and the spiritual.”
Harriet Sylvia Pederson Johnson – with Fitch Collar