Tuesday, August 18, 2009

My Miracle Year: Wide Open Spaces

(To the left: wide-open Wyoming skies) After the busy-ness of California and its crowded highways, we're traveling the vast open distances of Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.

As we make our way over each stretch of elevation, the view before us is wide open, all the way to the horizon. Climbing, then openness, climbing, then openness; sometimes it feels like we do the same section of highway over and over and over again. What does change are the patterns and density of the clouds. It all makes us think of Gus & Call, in Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove," running their herds over prairie and through rivers, under a thousand miles of the same skies, from Texas to Montana. The Dixie Chicks' album, "Wide Open Spaces" is playing.

(To the right: the pack [not seen: the photo-grapher, Steve]) The dogs are patient, ready to be out when we gas up, happily sniffing, everything new. They only need two things: food and for the pack -- the six of us, three dogs and three humans -- to be together. We try to model their behavior: really, what else is important?

Cheyenne skies are black as we coast in, looking for an overnight den. It looks like a good summer thunderstorm could be unleashed any minute. Which we think would be pretty cool.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

My Miracle Year: The Family Grows

(To the left: son-in-law,Tom; daughter, Selima; husband, Hassan; son, Jason; me and Jason's then girlfriend, Danae, at Lake Tahoe, Hyatt Regency's floating bar) A couple of days after I’m back from visiting Sandy, my step-daughter Selima calls me and asks me how my trip went. I’m momentarily puzzled: how would she know about the visit? We hadn’t talked about it. Surprise -- I learn she’s been following me on Twitter as well as reading the blog.

As we talk, a kernel of an idea pops into my head. Selima reminds me so much of Sandy. They both have the same wonderful qualities. They should meet.

(To the right: from left, Buster, Riff Raff & Bodhi) Selima, comes from a very small family. Her mom (now deceased) and dad were both only children, as is her husband. She has one brother, Jason, my stepson. The most 'people person' I know, she could use more family! I think I may have the perfectone for her: the one I’m going to be getting to know at the upcoming family reunion.

I think that maybe Spring Break, 2010, would be a great time for a shared visit…

And now we’re off on our 4,000 mile adventure: My husband, Hassan; my brother, Steve; me and our three dogs – Riff Raff, Buster and Bodhi.

To be continued...

My Miracle Year: A Window in Your Heart

(To the left: my dad & mom in a snowy Minnesota) Uff da, again! When it rains, it pours! The day after I got back from Sioux Falls, I got a packet in the mail from my seldom heard from cousin Becky,* who lives in Michigan (and who will be more in touch after reading this :-).

Becky’s mom and dad were seriously into photography (they had their own dark room, very mysterious to me as a child). She had sent me photos of my mom and dad and a couple of my brother and me soon after my mother’s death that I had never seen before.

(To the right: Grandma Schlinsog holding Steve, Becky & me) It was to Becky’s home (her mother was my dad’s youngest sister) in Washington State, that we fled after my mother’s death. My dad’s mother, Grandma Schlinsog, came with to take care of me and the new baby, Steve. Not very happy times. My aunts told me that for months after my mother’s death I kept asking, “Where’s my mommy?” I wonder if anyone ever told me? I think not.

For those who lose parents at a young age, there’s a black hole that never completely heals, is never made entirely whole. Paul Simon, in his song “Graceland” summed it up perfectly:

"And she said losing love

Is like a window in your heart,

Everybody sees you're blown apart,

Everybody sees the wind blow."

Quite a few years ago, I bought a book called "Motherless Daughters: A Legacy of Loss" by Hope Edelman. It sat on a shelf for a long time. I picked it up from time to time, opening it randomly, then I'd put it back on the shelf. Finally, last year I donated it to a library, still unread. Perhaps someone else will get more use of it than did I. Still can't go there...

*Out of my maternal grandmother’s six children, five had girls within eight months of each other; Bonnie (June), me (October), DeVona (November), Becky (January) and Kathy (February). A great example of the American diaspora, we now live in, respectively, Hawaii, California, Minnesota, Michigan and Washington State.

To be continued...

Saturday, August 15, 2009

My Miracle Year: Roots

(To the left: Borgund stave church, near Laerdal, largely unchanged until the present day. As long ago as 1721 it was described as ”an old and extraordinarily special stave building.”) So here I am, full of fresh information, getting in touch with my Norwegian-ness. I’ve always joked with people that the Norwegian half is the ‘nice’ half, the other half being German. But, truth be told, I’m actually half German, quarter Norwegian and quarter English (whereas Sandy is three-quarters Norwegian and one quarter English).

I’m a relatively new American. My maternal grandmother, a Butler, was born in Bristol, England; and my paternal grandmother, a Dreckman, in Hanover (Mecklenburg-Strelitz), Germany; each entered the US through Ellis Island, New York.

Both my grandfathers’ fathers came from the Old World. I'd learned from David Husum that the Husoms came from the tiny village of Husum, Norway. My paternal great-grandfather, whose family name waaay back was 'von Harnack,' came from the Mecklenburg area of Germany, Prussian to the core. (All family records were destroyed in the massive Allied firebombing of Dresden during WWll.)

(To the right: the Borgund Vindhella road, near Laerdal, part of the old Konge-vegen (the King`s Road) at the crossroad between East and West, completed around 1748.) Some of this is new knowledge for me. For instance, I learned that my mother’s great-grandfather was still alive when she died in childbirth in 1952. Thomas Einer Husum, born in Borgland, Laerdal, Norway in 1863, died in Long Prairie, Minnesota in 1953, the year after my mother passed away (1952); he is buried in the same plot as she. I find this astounding. I’ve never heard of him before. Uff da!

To be continued...

Friday, August 14, 2009

My Miracle Year: Uff Da

After an all too brief visit to Sioux Falls, I’m back in San Jose, head in a whirl of emotion, elation and story. “Uff da!” (A new Norwegian term I learned from Sandy, it translates as: "I’m overwhelmed," especially for those with Scandinavian roots in the Dakotas and Minnesota.) (To the right: little Minnesota Scandinavians -- me & Steve)

I’m most anxious for my brother to be enveloped in the unconditional love and acceptance I’ve found within our ‘new’ family -- something we never experienced from our father’s side of the family. Shunted from aunt to aunt, then foster home to foster home, we learned early what a 'burden' we were, tolerated for whatever income attached itself to our care.

Rooted in a religion both judgmental and intolerant, my father's family practiced a stoic and dogmatic Northern Scandinavian brand of Calvinism where love and acceptance were luxuries, to be doled out sparingly if at all. In hindsight, I give them the benefit of the doubt; they were not bad people. But they were not very kind to motherless children either. And it didn’t help that my father frequently antagonized them as he had our mother's family.

To be continued...

Thursday, August 13, 2009

My Miracle Year: The Girls Together

(To the right: Shirley, me, Sandy - trying to figure out how the camera works!) Ever since my plane landed the day before, Sandy has been trying to contact another cousin of ours, Shirley (daughter of my Uncle Dean and named after my mother) who lives about an hour and a half away but who has been in Minnesota with our cousin Connie over the weekend, going through more old family photos for the upcoming reunion. Both products of our fractured family, Sandy and Shirley have only met recently themselves.

Finally Sandy connects with Shirley (who I only met briefly at my Grandfather’s funeral some 30 years ago when I also spent, maybe, 15 minutes at her house) -- and she says she can stop by Sandy’s on her way home. When she walks into the house it’s like we’ve known each other forever.

How does this happen, I ask myself in amazement. How can it feel so completely comfortable, familiar, ordinary and unexceptional to be with people I really do not know? Except I do. We do.

In minutes, we are into the pictures; in addition to the ones that Sandy and I have been pouring over -- some I brought, some she has – Shirley has more. We swing between laughter and tears. We all find ourselves correcting long-held erroneous information.

Like I had always thought my Uncles Harlen and Neil were twins; I learn they are not (!!). (Did my dad refer to them as ‘twins’ because they were ‘joined at the hip’? They did marry sisters. And they did keep somewhat apart from the rest of the family.) Other pictures thought to be Sandy are me, and vice versa. Some pictures have long been unidentifiable -- but now at least one of us can identify who’s who.

Some of Sandy’s friends come by as we’re seated around the table. More laughter. More tears. She and they have been there for each other. In some ways cursed, in some ways Sandy is very blessed.

To be continued...

My Miracle Year: How to Be a Mom

A sunny Sunday morning in Sioux Falls (a good song title?), my Saint Sandy gets a rare treat. Because I am in town, she and I get to visit her beautiful young daughter Kathleen, with whom she is estranged, and her beloved 3-year old grandson, Julian (Daddy is at work).

Kathleen is a lovely girl – and obviously a loving caring young mother. Julian, once he gets over his shyness, acts like the 3-year old he is. When his mother leaves the room for a moment, he lifts his leg, spreads his little butt cheeks…and farts, then gives a big laugh.

The visit is bittersweet, but afterwards it feels like at least one brick has been removed from the defensive wall. It’s a long story, a rupture in the family fabric that goes back years. In fact it’s true origin goes back to when Kathleen was five years old and her father left the family on Christmas Day, saying as he slammed the door, “I’m not the problem, all of you are.”

Anger, angst and abandonment; that’s the legacy of Sandy’s ex.

Although she doesn’t recognize it until I point it out, Sandy’s biggest legacy has been on display today. “Who do you think taught Kathleen how to be such a good mom?” I ask Sandy as we leave. "That may be the biggest gift a mother can bestow." Sandy finally smiles.

To be continued...

My Miracle Year: Saint Sandy

(To the right: from left, my dad, me, Grandma Husom [the only pic I've seen with her holding me], Great Grandma Butler, Sandy, Great Grandpa Butler, sometime after my mother died) Saint Sandy. That’s what I’m calling her. The most purely good person I’ve ever met. Sandy has turned a lifetime of one bad experience after another into a heartwarming chicken soup for the soul, one that’s nourishing, satisfying and wholesome in the best Mid-West tradition. Big surprise that she’s a fabulous cook and baker. Sandy’s mission is to nourish.

So, no blogging, just talking for 3 ½ days…talking until we are hoarse and dry as we share with one other, trying to cram in the most important experiences of our past 55 years. As I listen to Sandy’s stories, I don’t think she’s ever done or said the wrong thing. The lone adult in a 'Disneyland for Adults' country of immediate gratification and win/lose, Sandy always has her eye on the long-term goal, not the quick reaction or retort. She’s an adult in the most fulsome sense of the word.

Abandoned by a mother who for whatever reason, chose a new husband over an inconvenient child, then kidnapped at the age of six by a father she had never seen before, Sandy survives. She survives brutal beatings and attempted sexual assaults by a father who’s a respected deacon in the local Lutheran church, family upfront and center every Sunday; loves a new grandmother who she finds out years later encouraged her father to beat her mother when she was pregnant with Sandy – because no one was good enough for her son.

But the heart of Sandy’s stories is her experience of being a mom -- and too soon a single mom -- raising three good children on very little besides unconditional love, undivided attention, a vivid and playful imagination and the Norwegian pioneer spirit. Some stories are heartwarming, others bone chilling; she now has grandchildren she’s allowed to see only rarely. But through it all, she builds a life in which others are the center, never herself.

To be continued…

Friday, August 7, 2009

My Miracle Year: Savoring Every Moment

So here I am, in San Jose (up at 3:45am this morning!), about to board my 6am flight to Sioux Falls, SD. In approximately 5 hours, Sandy and I will meet once again.

When I asked one of my BFF’s “ how are Sandy and I going to recognize each other?” she just laughed and said, “Oh, everyone will know you’re the California girl.”

I already know what kind of reception I’ll be getting.

In my early 20’s, I spent 2 days in Minnesota, attending my grandfather’s funeral. I don’t remember a lot, mostly the unprotected wind-swept cold of a Minnesota November day as he was laid to rest in Bearhead Cemetary (where my mother is also buried) and the blur of many unfamiliar faces – Husom family and friends -- as I tried to come to grips with the fact that my grandfather, whom I hadn’t seen since I was 11, had been killed in a tractor accident two days before my scheduled visit.

Nonetheless, what I do remember is that I was treated as though I had just descended from heaven for a visit. I was overwhelmed…and at the time not appreciative enough. My father had raised very unsentimental children.

This time I will savor every single moment.

To be continued…

My Miracle Year: A Connection

Unlike the hesitancy I’ve experienced, Sandy’s email in early June is exuberant and loving. She says, “It is such an exciting joy to find my family!!!!” She ends with “I would love to talk to you. Love your long lost cousin, Sandy.” I reply the next day, “Wanted you to know I got your email and am thrilled…. We will talk soon.”

(To the left: from the left, my father, Sandy's father, her mother and my mother) Still I stall – partly because I always stall when it comes to picking up the phone for any reason. It’s like I have a ‘beware of phone’ gene wired into my DNA. And my husband and I are getting ready for a well-deserved weekend in Santa Barbara. And then I am preparing to drive to Portland to spend some quality time with my BFF and her daughter, my goddaughter. And then my husband is flying up to Portland and we’re driving to Seattle to see my stepson and his new girlfriend. Busy, busy, busy, eh?

Finally, mid-July, I get off my butt. Another miracle, due to the Internet, is that Sandy foumd out in 2007 that she has 6 half-brothers and –sisters from her mother’s second marriage. This is the week that Sandy and her newly found half-sister, Jeanie, are flying to Montana to visit some of Jeanie’s brother’s and sisters (Sandy’s half-siblings), none of which she has met.

(To the right: baby Sandy and her mother) I begin digging into the family pictures – the ones taken when we were kids, most of which I got when my father passed away in 2000. It’s been probably that long since I looked at any of them. I am amazed. I didn’t even know it but I have a bunch of pictures of Sandy as a baby with her mother. I have many many more of her mom and my mom together. I doubt whether she has or has seen any of them.

So while she is in Montana, I scan and email some pics, like of her parents wedding. I get an email back the day she is back from Montana. Do I know who the wedding attendants are? Yes, I reply. They are my mother and my father. I realize that she has never seen a picture of my mother.

The following day Sandy calls. We talk for 3 hours. A couple of days later, Jeanie calls and we’re on the phone for at least 2 hours. Then Sandy and I talk for another 3 hours. Never a fan of delayed gratification, I decide I can’t possibly wait. I’m flying to Sioux Falls the weekend before the reunion. She and I can’t catch up on 55 years while my husband, brother and 3 dogs are present as they will be on the roadtrip to Minnesota. I purchase my plane ticket.

To be continued...

Thursday, August 6, 2009

My Miracle Year: A Long Time Ago

"People come and then they go, and

That's just the way it goes.

Listen to what we know - like water

We shall flow back to the ocean in

The body of the Lord.

Welcome home. Time to reap what

You sow. Time is overwhelming.

I just hope there's time for everything."

Kan'Nal: Dreamwalker, Time

(To the left: back row from the left, me & Sandy, front row, baby? & my brother Steve) The last time I’d seen Sandy was at my brother Steve’s 3rd or 4th birthday when we were living with my paternal grandparents in Minnesota. At the time, Sandy lived with Grandma & Grandpa Husom and they brought her to the birthday celebration. That’s the night Grandma Husom sprained her ankle badly sliding on an icy step. We didn’t know it then but she had very little time left. That might have been the last time I saw her.

A couple of years later, Steve and I moved back to the West Coast after our father’s third marriage. He preferred that we have no ties to my mother’s family. We didn’t know why. And then Sandy’s father kidnapped her; she was never to see her mother again or have any contact with her family. Our grandparents mortgaged their farm trying to get her back. They were unsuccessful.

And now I was looking at Sandy’s email. Through all the moves Steve and I made growing up on the West Coast (I attended 14 schools in 11 years), the one constant was my mother’s picture albums of her family and the few additional pictures of family that had been taken after she died but before we left Minnesota.

One of those pictures was Steve’s birthday. I’d always point and say, “That’s my cousin Sandy. Her mother was my mother’s sister. She is the oldest of the cousins and I’m the second.” And that was pretty much that.

To be continued…

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

My Miracle Year: Sandy & Me

"We're on the verge of something,
Something greater than we know.
Something that will rise above the ashes
Of the old, old where all things change.
Where no one, none of you are ever
Going to be the same."

Kan'Nal: Dreamwalker, All Things Change

(To the left: my Aunt Rhoda on the left, my mother on the right) Two sisters, best friends and confidants, each had a girl, the first of the Husom cousins, Sandy, daughter of my mother’s sister Rhoda, was born first, then me 10 months later. Technically, I guess, we’re really #2 and #3 as my mother gave birth to a baby boy in 1947, two years before I was born. My brother Arthur William, a “blue baby,” only lived 3 days; the technology that allowed blue babies to survive wouldn’t be invented until 1952. My mother’s heart must have been broken.

(To the right: me, Great Grandpa Butler & Sandy) I think it must have been several years before any of the brothers -- several still in high school and one in grade school -- had children. So it was just Sandy and me. Me ‘n Sandy. Doted on by our Husom grandparents, we were also the darlings of our great Grandma and Grandpa Butler who hailed from Bristol, England, birth place of Grandma Husom.

Things kind of went south for both Sandy and me around the same time.

My Aunt Rhoda left Sandy’s abusive father and Sandy ended up living with our Husom grandparents for a while. And my mother died, my father left with a 2 ½ year old and a new baby. Shortly after, my father moved us to Washington where he had sisters, then to Oregon where he also had a sister.

(To the left: back row, from left - my father, Grandpa Husom. front row, from left, my brother Steve, me & Sandy) Dad remarried, a hurried affair to “provide a mother to his children.” Of course, it wouldn’t last. My brother Steve and I ended up back in Minnesota, living with my paternal grandparents.

To be continued…

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

My Miracle Year: A Reunion?

"Welcome to the doorway. What is on the other

side? It's not for you or me to say, because the

blind keep leading the blind until the end.

Now here's where all things change. Where no

one, no one's ever going to stay the same again."

Kan'Nal, Dreamwalker: All Things Change

For several years I’d been telling my brother Steve that we should take a trip to Minnesota. I had been back several times as an adult: when my grandfather died in a plowing accident in the 70’s, a couple of business trips in the 80’s, the wedding of a cousin on my dad’s side in the 90’s. So I’ve had several opportunities to visit my mother’s grave, something my brother Steve – born shortly before our mother died -- had never experienced. I had always thought it might give him some small amount of closure.

Although we talked about it early in the summer for several years in a row, somehow I knew it would be this year. My art shows – where I’d either been accepted or waitlisted -- were spaced in such a manner that it was feasible. We had the will, the time and the means.

(To the left: my mom's family - sister Rhoda and 6 brothers including twins Neil & Harlen the same height. Is my mother the one taking the picture?) So when my cousin Steve emails me and leaves his phone number, I still think a while about calling. I have absolutely no idea what I’m playing with here, no point of reference. Cousin Steve’s a complete stranger, my mother dead several years before he was born. I’ve lived a long time without any communication from ‘the other side’ and it wasn’t necessarily bad. I think, maybe, don’t fix it if it ain’t broke, eh?

A couple of weeks later, after a nice glass of California Pinot Noir, I decide to call. No answer. I leave a message. A few evenings later, Steve calls me back. It’s not a chatty ‘girl conversation’ (how quickly we gals can get into those) but not awkward either. Steve tells me about his dad’s last days and that one of the original siblings is still alive -- Neil, his dad’s twin. I share with him that my brother and I have been talking about heading to Minnesota, maybe in July. Winding down, he says he’ll put me in contact with some of the other cousins.

(To the right: My Uncle Don (Connie's dad), my brother Steve and me) A day or two later, I get a short but welcoming email from my cousin Connie. Her dad, my mother's brother Don, had been my favorite uncle when I was little. Tall and handsome, always ready to pick us up and throw us in the air, he made me gasp and giggle.

And then, OMG. I discover Connie's masterminding the first ever Husom family reunion, scheduled for August 23, 2009. Will I be there? I say I think I’d walk if I had to.

The following day or two I get an email from my cousin Sandy. Another OMG.

To be continued...

Monday, August 3, 2009

My Miracle Year: Google Me This...

"I'm on the verge of something, something bigger than I know

Something born of nothing, infinite and whole.

At the place where, where all things change.

Where no one, no one's ever going to stay the same."

Kan'Nal, Dreamwalker: All Things Change

(To the left: my dad holding me and my mother) Sometime this spring, Googling my way around the web – a favorite way to spend waaay too much time -- a totally random thought came to me. I decided to Google my mother’s maiden name, Husom, which is Norwegian and also the actual Norwegian village her father’s family came from (but spelled Husum).

I remember thinking I probably wouldn’t find anything -- but what the hay… Other than a treasure trove of pictures, I don’t really know much about my mother, who died in childbirth when I was 2 ½, or her family. My father, who didn’t get along with many people, didn’t like her family either so I had little contact with them growing up. And then there was the fact that they were mostly in Minnesota, around Long Prairie – a small town right smack in the middle of the state -- and after the age of eight I was raised on the West Coast where most of my father’s family lived.

(To the right: David Husom's picture of Husum, Norway) Googling the name 5 or 6 years ago, I came up with zip, nada. But this time was different. I found a bunch of links. The first one I followed turned out to be the renowned photographer, David Husom. We discovered we are 5th cousins: our great grandfather’s were brothers who came to the US from Norway around 1875.

I continued searching; many links were dead ends. But eventually I found a one with the name Harlen Husom; it was an obituary site that allowed one to leave a message of condolence. I knew that among my mothers 7 siblings, two were twins, Neil and Harlen. So I composed a note of condolence as well as a tentative message identifying myself and my mother. I left the rest to the Universe.

A month later, I received an email from Harlen’s son Steve who identified himself as my first cousin.

To be continued…