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Family of Origin

The first house I lived in was built by my father on his parents’ farm. Mom and Dad moved in after their wedding, adding one room at a time as money allowed. His two brothers lived in homes on the same property, all within easy walking distance, which allowed gatherings in Grandma’s kitchen each afternoon for coffee. Everyone came—aunts, uncles, and cousins. Children too, although our beverage consisted of more milk and sugar than caffeine.      Grandpa entertained the youngest ones by pouring coffee through a sugar cube held between his teeth. I loved watching this drinking ritual, second only to watching him eat peas on his knife at dinner.

            Grandma and Grandpa were raised in a Swedish-speaking area of western Finland, although they didn’t meet until each made their way to Berkeley. My memories of them are vague, as both died when I was five, but one of my favorite possessions is a 16” x 20” brown-tinted wedding photograph. It’s a formal portrait, the first thing anyone sees when they enter my home. Grandma sits in a high-back chair carved with flowering designs. She’s a thin woman with straight posture, pale skin, and dark hair set in large, tight curls that end at the bottom of her ears. The top of her white dress is covered with delicate lace, leading toward long see-through sleeves, and skirting that gathers at the waist and flows downward, stopping above the ankles. White, pointed high-heels tie at the top into small bows. Two chains and a locket end just above her small bosom, and a bracelet adorns one wrist. One hand touches an attractive bouquet of roses placed on her lap while the other rests on the chair’s arm.

            Grandfather stands at his wife’s left, angling slightly in her direction. Family members described him as short, and this photograph looks as if Grandma would be tallest if they stood together. A thin man with neatly combed dark hair, barely reaching the center of his forehead and stopping above his ears, he wears a dark suit with a matching buttoned-down vest, lightly colored tie and shirt, with a curved, stand-up collar. Perfectly creased trousers cover the top of his shoes. One arm is tucked behind his back, and a large boutonniere of greenery and flowers is pinned onto his lapel.

            The two newlyweds do not touch each other. Both look ahead in the same direction, as if it were necessary to hold their poses for a very long time. Neither is smiling. Instead, they have blank expressions, as if watching to see what will happen next.

            The photograph is different from how I remember them. Grandma was stocky in build, and always wore an apron over her dress, with a simple design made of washable fabric suitable for housework. My strongest memory of our time together is when she fell asleep once in her rocker and I quietly climbed onto a chair, then onto the kitchen counter, reaching high into a cupboard, straight for the cookie jar. I knew exactly where it was kept. I pulled it down so I could reach inside, only to discover they weren’t the kind I liked. Without taking one, I replaced the lid, reached above me to return it to the shelf, and tumbled over the back of the chair, hitting the floor hard. My loud cries woke her, and she came to pick me up and offer comfort. It wasn’t until later that my mother found a tell-tale lump that announced my broken collar bone.

            Grandpa wore suspenders, long sleeves, and a small cap,and was usually clothed in varying shades of grey. I remember him driving his tractor on the farm, and the wooden smokehouse he built for preparing salmon.  The final photograph taken of him was in a rocking chair holding my new baby sister on his lap.

            One day, when he didn’t arrive at my aunt’s house for their daily morning coffee together, my young cousin was sent to fetch him. He didn’t answer her knock on the locked door. She pushed a chair over to the window and peered in. When she returned home, she announced, “Grandpa’s sleeping on the floor.” As they broke into the house, water for his first cup of coffee could be heard still boiling on the stove.

            My parents believed he waited to meet his new grandchild before joining his wife in heaven. She had died six months earlier, and he did not seem to know how to live without her.

           After his death, our family changed. We gradually quit attending the Finnish lodge in Berkeley, where I danced the polka-like schottische with my father, accompanied by live accordion music. The tradition of afternoon coffee with neighboring relatives stopped. My father, now a general contractor, built a house on the last remaining plot of the family farm. The rest had been sold and became a street of new houses. Ours was at the end of the courtyard, with my neighborhood school sharing a chain link fence with our backyard. The other two sons and their families dispersed to houses farther away, resulting in less contact between cousins. My father could still swear in Swedish, even just before he died, but the generational connection that had been such an important part of my early life was gone.

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