Decade Three: Exploration of my body, mind and environment.
The hissing locomotive lurches, and sunlight glinting off ribbons of steel parallel their river companion. Hills on either side tint green-to-black as leaves rustle into and out of the morning light. Smoke and steam billow and obediently trail the perspiring engine as do the cars laden with cattle to Chicago, wheat to Milwaukee, and two pilgrim passengers in the single Pullman to Fond-du-Lac, Wisconsin. Tracks and river separate. The procession of cars-trailing-cars briefly appears until the plume of black smoke obscures Rose’s view from her window seat. A sensation of rising, and the canopy of opaqueness turns translucent white, and dissolves into sunlit open air. Through the monotonous melody of the puffing piston and steel wheels clacking, she revels as a familiar vista unfolds—fields of corn, tassels flittering in the breeze.
Rose’s heart flutters. Seated beside Matt, husband of less than twenty-four hours, as he releases puffs of smoke from rum-flavored pipe tobacco. The pleasant aura surrounding the man that her brother, George, introduced to her had limits. No-smoking house-rules in their home might seem harsh, but he loved and respected her, even agreed to wait until she was accepted by his Wisconsin people before claiming God’s sanctioned plan to create their family.
The Pullman readjusts its position demanding attention on the curves to be ignored on the straight-of way. Unconcerned of the lead-and-follow game being played-out between locomotive and smoke and cars, she was on her way to Fond-du-Lac to become consummated wife; roles of mother and grandmother (my mother’s mother) back home in St. Cloud, Minnesota.
Wave after wave of tingling sensations alternating with fear and apprehension overwhelm her. Perhaps touching his hand would increase the thrills and diminish her chills. She must be careful not to appear too bold.
Brazen would describe her sister, Anne, who, like herself, had been hastily forced from their home by their rascal brother, George. As oldest son with temper most like their father, George inherited the family farm, a time-honored tradition from the old country. Pa died and George began clearing the homestead to replicate it with his lineage. He and his new wife, a plump girl of nineteen who was conveniently a neighbor and conveniently predisposed to escape her parents to clear a space for their eldest boy, an empty house to refill with his progeny.
Poor playful Anne! She possessed none of the experience and wisdom needed to find her way to a comfortable marriage.
Rose understood the sophistication that her younger sister lacked. As maid in some of the most elegant homes in St Cloud, like that of Matthew Hall, the lumber baron, Rose understood how silver and crystal could accent a meal set out for the dignitaries from all over the state and beyond. With her practiced curtsey, she could greet these important people, but her broken English would betray her origins.
Antonia was Rose’s role model. Her older sister had married and moved to the strange and illustrious city of Minneapolis. She and her husband with their new daughter returned to St. Cloud to attend Rose’s wedding.
If only they could talk sense into their wayward kid sister.
Rose’s touch brought Matt back from the privacy of practicing a conversation he would soon be having with his family. He left the area ten years earlier with only his carpentry skills, and now he was returning to present his wife. Business success had eluded him. His marriage was a delicate negotiation that left a few undesirable truths undisclosed. His true age would, no doubt, be revealed but Rose would be okay with it. He didn’t know why he lied about it in the first place. Thirty-seven is acceptable for a 22 year old bride. At her age, she’d been lucky to find a husband. He needed the additional years to accumulate property which consisted of a house he built and half dozen vacant lots for additional homes.
If the whiskey deal hadn’t gone sour, his bar would have prospered; oh well, those debts can be put off for now.
Matt pulled his hand back as if a fly landed.
“I just needed to check if I’d been dreaming.” Rose tested the waters of the poetry or lack of in their romance.
“If you want to nap you can put your seat back. Here, I can show you how to do it.”
Dream, not sleep, thought Rose. I must soften this man. During our private time.
Rose did not dread sexual contact with her new husband, but put off intercourse until they were well into their honeymoon. No, better yet, back in our own home. If he respects me, he will wait.
The dream flowing through Rose’s imagination and the reality check of nearly 50 years of marriage merged on many points; husband, children, grandchildren. Matt’s quiet manner as he contemplatively drew and released little puffs of smoke, a miniature replica of the machine chugging along the first leg of her dream journey, continued to an old man in the rocking chair patiently awaiting children and grandchildren to visit on Sunday afternoons. Many of my childhood earaches were treated with wafts of warm tobacco smoke, an old wife’s tale with some merit.
Where her imagination failed was the degree of pleasure this domestic setting would have to offer. The trials of a lifetime of struggles through the Depression, misdirected goals, and silent communication, coupled with the social trauma experienced as an emerging liberated woman, created scars on her soul. Not that sadness outweighed the joy in her life, but rather the joy often came from the spirit of survival, having risen above the difficult events that plagued their marriage.
The greatest source of her anger directed toward her brother George for enticing Matt to sell his property in town to purchase a farm just before the Depression, and at a German immigrant who convinced her husband to distill whiskey in their hen house. The building caught fire and Matt went to prison for nine months.
Relating the hen-house fire to me one day, she retaliated against my grandfather. “Sometime I feel like digging him up and scratching his eyeballs out,” followed by, “Yea Gott in Himmel.”
For a short time while attending college, Grandma invited me to live with her in the small upstairs apartment where she sewed alterations to support herself. I heard her voice while working the treadle on her sewing machine. Embarrassed that I was within earshot, she admitted to feeling lonely and just needed to talk.
The few months we spent together sealed our mutual affection and yielded precious stories to pass on to family.
Grandmother outlived Grandfather and three of her five children, an eleven-year-old boy who passed away shortly before the bank foreclosed on their farm, followed by her oldest son and only daughter, my mother, as adults with dependent children.
Grandma Rose touched the lives of many people who, through her spirit, will pass on her blessings to the lives of generations to come.