Monday, April 27, 2009

Summer Unschooling- Family History Part Two

When I was young I didn't think that Minnesota and Wisconsin had much of a distinguishing culture. It seemed very "white bread" to me, having nothing much to compare it to. Then I moved to Southern California. It was like coming down from a mountain and really seeing it for the first time. The contrast in cultures made all of the little idiosyncrasies and affectations of my homeland stand out in bold relief.

It's the small things you don't necessarily think about. The standard menu at a barbecue changes from bratwurst and baked beans to carne asada and tortillas and people at the grocery store look at you like you just made up a word when you ask them where you might find the sauerkraut. Transplanted Canadians act like you are long lost cousins because you both know that "freezing" is an actual temperature, and it isn't 63F. People prepare for earthquakes and mudslides rather than blizzards and tornados. Don't get me wrong. I love carne asada and the beach, but until I went away I didn't appreciate home.

I love having a strong sense of roots. A sense that I come from something bigger than myself that stretches back into history and gives it a personal touch. Sitting around my great-aunt Beulah's table on Saturday it struck me, this connection to the past that my children are experiencing.

"Now, I didn't fuss," she always warns us, just as my grandma does and my great-grandma did before them before trotting out two ham loaves, three vegetables, some rolls, a jello salad, a plate of pickles and olives, a dish of rice pudding, a butter sponge cake with strawberries and fresh whipped cream, the famous ginger cookies and coffee. All for six people. The abundance is appreciated because it didn't always exist. It has always been important that we understand this.

Having children has given me greater perspective on history. When I was little The Depression, or The War seemed far off and distant, safely stuck in past so long before my existence it couldn't possibly be relevant. Now, it seems, that 75 years isn't really so long a time after all.

After the dishes are cleared and washed and Beulah is urged to sit down, which doesn't take quite so much insistence as it used to, we sit around the woodstove in the living room. The grown-ups chat while the kids, and usually a parent or two heads out to the woods or the orchard to play. When I was little Uncle Jim, who is gone now, would take us riding on 'The Gator" all over the property, down to the river, sometimes out to the road. He'd tell us how he'd like to build a cabin and hire men to live there and clean up the forest a bit, a holdover, I was given to imagine, from his slightly overorganized Scandinavian upbringing. Eccentric, even by rural Wisconsin standards, he'd drive us to the top of the hill and read us poems he'd written about his gun, or tell us stories about his plans to raise ostriches for riding on, or the time he ordered a frightened skunk not to spray him and it listened.

Finally, coats are retrieved from the coat hook by the door. A piece of candy is given to each departing family member, along with hugs and promises to do this again soon. Bags of leftovers, and there are always plenty of those, are handed out to the travelers with admonitions to drive safely. Children double check to make sure they have all of the toys they brought with and parents double check to make sure they have all of the hats, gloves, scarves and boots. The conversation follows us out to the car and waves are exchanged as we turn around the long dirt driveway and out of site.


  1. This sounds so very nice Stella! What a wonderful essay on your family and meaning as you grow older.