Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Senn Sisters

Their names were Gertrude and Anna Senn or better known as “the Senn Sisters”. Purely Victorian, the type of women who would wear full-length pastel linen gardening jackets and carry tightly clasped leather pocket books had they ever left the house. Their home was like a museum, quiet and still, preserved in time with them in it.

My eldest grandmother lived downstairs, it was now a duplex where she had lived for many years with her husband, by this time deceased of 25 yrs., and two grown sons who had served abroad during WWll. Such a wonderful home of brick and character that once exemplified my now fragile and aging Grandmother. For as elderly as she was then in the eyes of a 7yr. old, The Senn Sisters were even older. The “ladies” wore black from head to toe. A substantial fabric with a sheen to match their sturdy orthopaedic style shoes. I knew them for 12 yrs. until my Grandmother died, and never, ever remember seeing them wear anything different. The eldest sister, Anna, wore her hair in a tight bun and spectacles, the little wire rims one might associate with a school marm. Her dress and shoes were more sensible than sister Gertrude’s, no frills, no nonsense. The two would be seated side by side with feet lined-up and planted firmly against the level hardwood floor, their frail hands clasped neatly in their laps. They sat erect and proud, an inward expression of their prominent upbringing and class. Gertrude had beautiful white silken locks of wavy hair, tamed with sterling silver combs. I was fascinated…jewelry for the hair. It wasn’t the only jewelry she fashioned. Her most apparent feature were the gilded chandelier earrings characteristically Victorian and precious, dangling all the way down the nape of her now crepe-ish neck. I knew they must be very special and had a story of their own to tell. “Why weren’t these classic, educated women ever married”, I’d wonder. “Who would ever choose to be spinsters?” The earrings were for pierced ears . This was not surprising to the 1960’s -‘70’s American girl but they were a “tell”. Their agreed quietness perhaps revealed more than they let on. My own Grandmother had a similar secret about her familial background, necessary for the turn of the century. Gertrude’s earrings hypnotized me, and her girlish grins and toe tapping to my piano music led me to nick-name her “the gypsy one”, differentiating between the two. Anna could silence her with a glance, although she typically didn’t make a sound. Anna would answer for them each, Gertrude nodding in agreement. Not particularly conversational, they were quite pleasant and sociable, but treated words as if they were a rare commodity, perhaps costing a price and wise to be rationed as everything once had been.

Every visit I saw them I was more and more spellbound by them - by Gertrude. I knew so little about them and was certain to discover even less after Grandma Laura died. The Senn sisters were in attendance for Grandma’s visitation, the first time I ever saw them outside their home. The funeral home was a mere 6 houses away at the end of their residential street. There they appeared in the same position, same clothing, same hairdos and accessories, same gypsy earrings. It was as if they had been frozen in time and deposited there in the parlour, like my Grandmother. There was no mistaking that the Senn Sisters were full of life, joined by their equally statuesque Brother, Charlie, who I learned of for the first time that day. His hair was stark white and full of personality, much like his Sister Gertrude, the “Gypsy one”. Charlie asked me all sorts of questions about my likes and dislikes, activities, friends and school. I felt flattered by the attention and comforted by the fact that these folks were from such a time in history I was reading about in textbooks, yet connected me with my Grandmother.

Our families were only there for the weekend, to honor my Grandmother and to empty her house. I have but a few things of hers, all of which have a visceral memory. I was quick to retrieve the detailed miniature carvings of “Grandma & Grandpa” who always sat simply and still, side by side in the same place of Grandma’s home, smiling and special.

Her glass encased anniversary clock stands on the center of my mantle just as it did hers, the centerpiece to her home, without time or motion since her passing. Behind it hung the prominent beveled mirror that reflected all who entered her home, preserving their memory within.

In memory of “Aunt R.” who was so tickled by this story and always encouraged me to write about it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Wizard of WI 1984

25 years ago I was preparing to have my first child. Not knowing what my due date was, the general medical consensus was 3 weeks earlier, making me a little anxious. It was Father’s Day and my husband then, a professor of psychology, thought the birth of our child would make a great gift. I figured any time now would be just fine.

A little over a month before on Mother’s Day, the local grocer was offering a free pint of strawberries and ½ gallon of vanilla ice cream in honor of all Moms. There I was approaching my original due date, in line with coupon and berries and cream in hand, when the “wizard” says “You can’t get that stuff, you’re not a Mother yet”. I burst into tears. I was hormonal, emotional and it was already warm for May in Wisconsin. The ice cream did wonders soothing my hormonal storms but his unappreciated observations dug into my side like the baby’s heel.

After a lengthy drive in the sunshine, we found our way up in Milwaukee on that Sunday, Father’s Day afternoon, when I had decided I had had about enough. There in the park was a picnic table and before I could reason through my thoughts, my actions took over. I climbed up on that table and stood on my tiptoes so I could be as high as my natural height would allow, then leaped off the edge into the sand, with the hopes that it would jar the little one loose! According to friends “in-the-know”, I hadn’t even “dropped” so the wait was going to be indefinite.

As we drove home, the only thing visible for miles was the occasional blinding flash of sunlight reflecting off the silver silos in the distance. The rolling green hills of neatly planted furrows, each leading to the red barns and glistening silos, met with the white puffy clouds on the horizon in the eternal blue sky. It was a picture quiet and still. No activity, no movement or action outside or in. I wondered if that leap was going to have any effect at all.

Living in Wisconsin, southern, flat Wisconsin; always has the threat of breaking the peaceful pastoral stillness with weather - severe weather. At 11PM. as we were settling in for sleep, the sirens broke the blackness with a piercing scream only audible when a tornado had been spotted. Most residents had become desensitized since severe weather events occurred regularly. The sirens didn’t stop. Being from Ohio, I awaited the tell-tale sound of a train, but nothing. My heart started to pound and adrenalin coursed thru my veins in what seemed like tens of minutes, trying to convince my then husband to get out of bed and head down to the basement. My maternal instincts kicked-in and I grabbed the cat, the flashlight and radio and called the dog to follow as we scampered down the steps toward the enclosed cedar closet. The husband, feeling left out, followed soon afterward, nonchalantly closing the door behind him. We turned the exposed 60watt light bulb on by pulling the familiar rigged string attached to the ball chain. Fortunately, we still had electricity! The radio and flashlights had fresh batteries (thanks to my foresight) and we listened intently to the weather broadcast for a detailed update. Several tornadoes had been sighted in the area. My heart pounded faster and harder. The dog and cat stayed close and the husband bailed. “What if I go into labor” I screamed at him as he headed up the stairs. “Wake me up” he replied in a now distant voice, probably approaching the bedroom by then. All of sudden, my trusty light bulb went black. Because the closet was free standing in the center of the basement, there was no window, not even natural light from under the door in the stormy blackness. The tornado had hit and it was loud. I held the dog closer, petting her frantically, and waited. The radio station signed off, then broadcast nothing but static. The flashlight was dimming to that yellowish-brown hint of illumination that causes you to keep smacking in your hand to recover the light.

By now it was well after midnight and I finally grew very tired. The fresh air and sunshine, the long day before mixed with the hopes of giving birth and recovering from the adrenalin rush, helped me sleep like, well a baby. The phone rang, waking me up @ 8:30 AM to the sound of a terrified voice asking me to see if our neighbors had returned. Apparently, the Girl Scouts led by our neighbor and La Leche League Leader, had taken a canoe trip the day before, just north of us where an entire town had been obliterated by multiple violent tornadoes. My heart sank as I looked across the street and saw no action. Then it happened, I was in labor.

A thrilling 24 hours had brought the nine month-plus event full circle. At 11:02 PM, Laurel Ashley was born happy and healthy and ready to come out. Thank the Gods & Goddesses! Word was the neighbors were safe and sound, all girls accounted for and no casualties. There we were in the early darkness of the June summer night on the 5th floor of the hospital, breathing a sigh of relief until that familiar, screaming siren sounded in the distance…Ugh. We were all fine. Better than the many who perished in the nearby town of Barneveld. We were truly blessed.

Happy 25th Birthday Budgey! And to think, now she has children of her own…

More information about Barnevld, Wisconsin

Thursday, June 11, 2009

"How To Become An Artist"

While going through my portfolio, I came across this poem.

The best version I found online is on the Franklin MA schools website.

From my 1980 portfolio

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Uncle Sol’s African Violets

One of the first visits I remember making during my life was across the Detroit River and into Windsor, Ontario, to visit my Grandmother’s Sister, Aunt Edith and her Husband, my Uncle Sol. I was impressed by the fact that their house was built on the shore at the 90 degree river bend, where the merchant ships looked like they were sailing directly into the living room. I also remember the tapestry of purple African Violets that carpeted every inch of their back yard. As we were saying our “goodbyes”, Uncle Sol tiptoed among the violet waves of flowers planted in long neat rows, carefully choosing the very best and perfect shade of violet to give to each of my Grandmothers and Mother. They giggled with delight, in anticipation of adding another variety to their existing collection. Each of the women had an African violet menagerie from Uncle Sol’s Canadian garden, kept in their dining rooms turned greenhouse, where they captured the most sunlight. I can still remember the warm afternoon sun beaming down over the plant stands that displayed tiers of perky, vibrant pastel blooms among the thick deep green fuzzy leaves I liked to touch when no one was watching. I can still recall the soft, sweet smell of the tiny blossoms in the intense heat of the summer sunshine, and how it lingered in that corner of the house.

As the ladies accepted their re-potted plants, Aunt Edith presented each of us three kids with a crisp American dollar bill. I didn’t understand the significance of the fact that it was an American dollar and we were in Canada, let alone the value being worth twice as much in Canada. It was the early ‘60’s and here was this sweet, elderly couple of modest means, sharing the most profound and intrinsic part of their being with us as somewhat distant family. We made several subsequent visits, all ending with the same traditional exchange of African Violets with an American dollar bill for us each.

We all piled into the car, waving wildly to Uncle Sol & Aunt Edith with expressions of gratitude when my Mother, who was more skeptical and pragmatic about receiving such gifts, exclaimed, “How are we going to get these plants through customs”? There was a moment of silence while the four grown adults concocted their stories. Dad, who was driving the culprits, instructed the women as if he were debriefing his platoon for a mission. He served in England during WWll and was an Electrical Engineer, so his voice commanded their obedience. Personally, I got a kick out of him addressing his Wife, Mother-In-Law and his own Mom in this fashion-qualifying his action with the characteristic Irish twinkle in his eye. “Let me do all the talking” he’d insist. “Everybody else stay quiet”. Having been across the border countless times over the decades, those poor Customs Officers ask the same repetitive questions with that robotic tone and blank expression “where were you born?”, What is your destination?” “How long were you out of the country?”…like a bomb dropping from the sky overhead, the interrogation we anticipated as standard issue ensued: “Do you have any plants to declare”? Dad whipped his head around, threatening us children with a glare to melt us on the spot with the laser beams shooting from the depths of his blue eyes. I had only witnessed that look once again in my life when he was called from work to retrieve me from the high school office where the truant officer held me for cutting class. “Do you have any plants to declare?” Time had stopped. I swear my Grandmas were beaming with an air of school-girlish mischief as they had done this before. After all, who was going to question two sweet little ol’ ladies, appropriately accessorized at the time with matching hats and gloves on a Sunday afternoon? “No” Dad stated firmly and we were waved on through. Welcome to the United States, the sign read, where we all breathed a sigh of relief, mainly for me because I could talk again. I swear I could hear the plants let out a little sigh too while securing them painstakingly between our feet on the floor of the backseat. What a sight, the loose dirt clinging to the furry leaves & velvety petals vibrating in resonance from the motion of the car, teasing to fall upon the Grandmas’ pristine polished patent leather pumps. From my 3-year-old perspective, I couldn’t help but wonder if they tickled their ankles a bit through their tight fitting silk stockings.

Years later, after Aunt Edith had passed away, Uncle Sol & I became pen pals. I loved to send notes and while Uncle Sol had developed a palsy, he continued to write often against a ruler to hold his hand steady, although his penmanship had become barely legible. Bless his heart for continuing to humor me at such expense to himself. Tucked inside the fold of the card was a crisp, brand new American dollar which I sent back to him with my next letter, thinking that was the “custom”. When my Mother learned of this, she scolded me for insulting him. We exchanged that same dollar bill for years, not realizing that I was merely returning it. I felt it was something that we shared and understood just between the two of us. Two-score and a ½ a decade later (you do the math); I continue to visit Canada and always, always think of my Uncle Sol when I pull out my American dollar to exchange. These memories of Uncle Sol and Aunt Edith are worth far more than a dollar will ever be worth, American or Canadian!