Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Look into the Past

A book can take us into another world, time and dimension.  Recently I started reading a book about Julia Child called Dearie.  It brings to life a lot of interesting information about a woman I had seen on television but whom I never found to be interesting when I was younger.   For me, the making of a meal is a chore, not one I wish to linger over, so I never looked beyond this middle aged woman who appeared frumpy to my then teenaged mind.  The book discusses her unmotivated early life and moves into a vision as a brave rule breaker who rarely let anything bring her ideas down.  She called herself a secretary during the second world war but she was a major secret keeper whose job seemed mostly mundane in its daily routine.  It made me discern a discrepancy between developed perception and reality.

The book brought me to a time in history I find quite fascinating--the beginning of the twentieth century with all the changes and progress it brought alongside the devastation of two world wars.   While we can never really know what it was like in another era, it's wonderful to imagine ourselves there.  With the rising popularity of delving into our own personal ancestries I realized that there was a whole generation striving to find our own family stories and how they fit into a larger picture of history.   Before my mother passed she helped me make an ancestry book that I filled with names, dates and places along with a few stories that had been passed down.  It was interesting, but mostly just dry facts without a true connection.

Reading the Julia Child story made me really start trying to put myself into the life of my ancestors, particularly my grandmother, Jennie Odegaard Tonder, who was raised in that generation, although not in the moneyed world Julia was raised in.  I came to realize that the grandmother I'd known as a child for her soft enveloping hug and laughter I can still hear, was actually a spunky young woman in her earlier days.   Somehow we can't see past the people we have always known, and recognize them for the younger vibrant beings they were years before.  Life intrudes to make us more careful than carefree as we age, and our younger lives and stories get forgotten in the pedestrian reality of our daily routine. 

When we would visit my grandmother's tiny house and it wasn't nice enough to play outside on the ancient swing set, I'd sit listening in to the exchange of gossip and information between my mother and grandmother.  Other times when I would finally get bored of tinkering on her old piano, I would ask my grandmother if we could look at her old photo albums and scrapbooks.  (I wonder now if that is where I learned to develop my photos into stories.)   She kept them all in a large, tall cupboard in her bedroom.  Opening the doors which were tied shut with twine was a wonderful experience leading to all her keepsakes and other treasures piled high in that shelved cupboard from floor to ceiling: vintage bedding, a two toned wooden game, a small globe coin holder, an old forgotten camera, and best of all, a pile of scrapbooks and photo albums. 

She would tell her stories as we sifted through the pages and each time I would sit enthralled because my young memory couldn't remember all the details, making each story new to me again every time it was told.  Jennie was born in 1908, the year Ford brought out the model T, before women had the right to vote, before women regularly wore pants, and when they were just beginning to be involved in mostly male careers.  Most women married young and didn't even realize they could have dreams of lives beyond motherhood and housekeeping.

Jennie graduated high school in 1927 and decided to continue on in nursing.  I now wonder what led her to nursing but perhaps it is a question hidden by time.  What an exciting prospect that must have been to a girl who had grown up in a town of only a few hundred people in northern Minnesota.   She moved down to Fargo, North Dakota to enroll in St. Luke's Hospital School of Nursing.   Her picture shows her as a vibrant young woman with marcelled waves in her hair.  She was required to wear a uniform made of blue gingham, shirtwaist style, long sleeves with two inch cuffs, with a neck cut to fit a Betsy Ross collar.   They also wore bibs, aprons and black stockings.  I can almost see her walking down the hall of an unadorned hospital, entering a world of medicine where between six to nine out of every thousand women died in childbirth and one out of five children died before the age of five.  It underlines some of the challenges she must have faced in her chosen profession. 

She graduated from the college in 1930, and went on to nurse professionally for several years and privately for many years thereafter.  Her scrapbook was filled with napkins from social engagements, notes about patients, cards, clippings, photos, and the footprints of the first baby she assisted in its birth.  The items are just fleeting images of the stories she could have told.  Each life that goes by is so intricately woven with others and we pass out of this world taking those amazing experiences and memories with us.  Perhaps it should be a reminder when we see someone of advanced age that we ought to sit down and spend some time listening to the stories they can tell.  It could be a twofold blessing--keeping the aged from being lonely and giving us a glimpse into stories that shouldn't be forgotten. 

Jennie married in 1933 and then began a family but never forgot her nursing background.   People of the little town would come to her for decades later for medical help when they couldn't see a doctor.  
In a time now when it is not an uncommon event for women to go to college and start careers, the focus on the past can become blurred by comparisons of the present.  Sometimes we need to look back and honor the ones who came before us just so we can be mindful of the steps strong people took before us.  I look back at the photos I have tucked away and realize there was a Jennie I never had a chance to know. 

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