Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Importance of Being the First Ernest

When I was a kid I thought of my grandparents as just that, grandparents. It never occurred to me that they were human beings just like me, that they'd had a history of life and love and passion; that they harbored memories that I could only dream of at my young age.
Nor did it occur to me that they still would "live" in that way, that life was still something to be cherished, fought over, thought out and managed in the same fashion that it was for myself. They were too old for that according to all my learned stereotypes; those that said that life was effectively over at 30 or so, after which people padded around in bathroom slippers and thought of little more than buying constipation remedies.
My father's father was near 65 the first time I'd actually had a one on one conversation with him. It shattered all I "knew" about age.
I rarely saw him growing up. A few times a year maybe, but the big event was Christmas Eve.
He was a Swede immigrant and his bride, a 2nd generation Norwegian. She'd learned to cook a Swedish Smorgasbord for Christmas dinner in honor of her husband and it was our duty to share it with him.
None of us kids liked most of the food but it was a holiday so we tried our best. I, being the oldest and a boy to boot, was watched for signs of swededom and was encouraged to eat everything set before me. I did, but the icky faces and quiet whines escaped me without my knowing.
My grandpa would roar and point. He thought it was the funniest thing in the world to torture his grandson with foods like lutefisk and pickled herring, foods he lived for. As the years went on I grew to love all but that slimy, stinky fish, and Ernie grew more fond of me, though I've never been sure if it was all about my growing to love his favorite foods... or just because I'm me.
He was a brusque man, not mean but curt...a man of few words. His accent was pretty severe and at times I could hardly understand him. He so dearly wanted to be American and have all Swede removed that he couldn't bear to be told he had a speech problem making it obvious "he 'aint from around here", so like my aunt Lisa he denied he had an accent at all and thrashed anyone who brought it up.
In his lifetime he'd been one of the poor laborers who'd build the trans-alaskan highway, sleeping in mud and sending his checks home to his family. The dust stirred up from roadbuilding gave him a bronchial problem, adding to that which he and his deep addiction to cigarettes had already created. He wheezed all day and when doing labor, having to force air out of his lungs, he'd whistle. During the times I'd wander around behind him as he did his apartment building caretaker chores, I'd smile at his whistle. I thought it was a little funny. Now I know how much he was struggling to breath.
To say Scandinavian men are stoic is putting it kindly. If you can squeeze emotion out of most of them with a garlic press, you have a real talent. So it was with no expectations when I sat down with him one day, committed to find out what made him tick, and what my heritage was. We'd never said more than ten words to each other to that point. Surprisingly he unfolded the whole story with just the slightest prodding. 
He was illegitimate, the product of a crippled storeowner and his live in nurse. As is the custom with an unwanted child he was adopted into a foster family, the Jacobson's. He knew who his father was, where he lived, but had never seen him.

He was allowed to keep his surname. My grandmother always argued that it sounded Finn and not Swede, but she never said that to his face to my knowledge. Never tell a Swede he's actually a Finn.
His birth mother showed up once at the Jacobson home looking for her baby. She'd married after his father had died leaving her unemployed. Now a farm wife she needed a chore boy and came to claim her flesh and blood servant. Mrs. Jacobson told the woman that if she could come up with all the monies it had taken to raise the child from birth to age twelve, she'd gladly give him up. I can only hope she snickered softly when the woman refused and set out on her way.
He was in the merchant marine when he first saw America, his foster brothers new home. He fell in love and vowed that he too would move his life to a new land.

This is where we started having problems. As he was telling me about his emigration from Sweden he began to weep. This icon of unfeeling Swedism, my strong, never faltering grandfather, a man 65 years old, was crying like a baby. As I tend to do when people cry around me, I joined in.
He was so in love with his birth country that he wept for his ever leaving it. But he was also so in love with his new home and all things American that talking about it moved him to tears. Then the floodgates opened and everything he loved was put on the table, his family, his sweetheart, his children and me. It was a little like a drunk fest "I love ya man" thing.
We talked for hours, me at times holding his worn, callused, wrinkled hands, he letting the tears drop to his shirt or dry on his cheeks. I was blown away. In one sitting he'd spun the story of his entire life and all the loves he'd ever known, all the dreams he'd ever had, all the feelings he'd never spoken. That I was the recipient of this gift made me feel incredibly blessed, though I admit my man card crapola made me a little ashamed to feel blessed because my grandpa was crying at me; but I got over the latter.
He changed my perceptions of people in such a profound way I can only call it a gift. Whatever preconceptions about old, cranky, bitchy hags and doddering, foolish, blithering shells of men went away, replaced by a new and incredible curiosity about a new and amazing creature I'd rarely before acknowledged... the "elder".
 With that 2 hour conversation he made his grandson a better man and I'll never forget him for that, blood tie notwithstanding.
I only hope they serve Lutefisk in heaven. He'd deserves that reward.

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