From a conforming citizen

The Honorable Governor Herbert,

Speaking as the oldest child (and trustee of my parents’ estate), my 66-year-old sister described her frustration at my lack of marital and financial success: “Why didn’t it work for him? Dan had all the advantages offered the rest of us.”

Yes, my parents supported my schooling. I was given music lessons, had my teeth straightened, I was driven to part time and summer employment. They attended my concerts and plays. They supported my LDS mission. My marriage to Paula (as another, 29 years later, briefly to Barbara) was as much or more celebrated compared to those of the other five siblings.

But I was an obedient son/citizen: I kept myself hidden. I stayed properly ashamed.

Not necessarily inspired by my sister’s statement (heard through another sister) four years ago, I have made concerted effort to come out of the closet as a gay man. I have had frank discussions with my LDS bishops and stake president. I have had professional counseling. Along the way, while reading the introduction to Carol Lynn Pearson’s No More Goodbyes–Circling the Wagons Around Our Gay and Lesbian Brothers and Sisters, I allowed myself the possibility of unconditional love. I believe this to be the most moral thing I ever did!

It is immoral of society to pressure people like me to hide and/or ignore ourselves. What have you–as a citizen of Utah–missed out on because I have been doing what I was told to do? It is immoral of society to not give the children of gays and lesbians the same standing as other children. I have stellar offspring who only now–as adults–are dealing with the realities of having a gay father. But, how much better for them if they could have grown up with the truth and without stigma? It is immoral of my church to insist God loves me . . . except. It was immoral of me to believe it.

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Be moral, Governor Herbert. Recognize me, my children, and others like us as full human beings, full participants in society. You might risk your position in your party but you are poised to be an emancipator! The people and institutions of Utah–including members of the LDS Church–need you to take the lead.

Sincerely,

Dan Christensen

Find what’s yours . . . truly, danscir52

copyright 2014 Dan Christensen all rights reserved

“What’s happened to Hattie?”

“Hip! Hip for Hattie!” 

It was the winter of 1962-1963. In the chapel of the 9th-21st Ward, Rosa Croshaw–with music leaders from the rest of the stake–convened a large chorus to begin rehearsal for a new Church musical. Set a hundred years before, the script fictionalized the story of building the Salt Lake Theater.

One of the songs Rosa introduced that night depicted the pioneers’ excitement as the theater neared completion. My older sister and I sang from the east side of the chapel (I was only ten; Karen was teaching me to read chorus parts for the first time). The tenors and basses on the west side–including many high school boys–became increasingly rowdy during the song. Rosa smiled patiently as they laughed at lyrics that described ingenue Harriet’s stagestruck state. For poetic purposes, the authors had us sing a diminutive form of the character’s name. I thought my fellow singers’ laughter was a cue that the song was very silly. Then suddenly Kent Wallis jumped to his feet. Taking command of the west section of the chapel, Kent gestured wildly and shouted the phrase we had just sung: “Hip! Hip for Hattie!” Karen sensed my bewilderment and explained, “They’re making fun of Hattie Morrell.”
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Last Wednesday, I was working with Kathleen Blair, president of a Relief Society that shares our building. We talked in the cultural hall as we finished a project she had begun with the people in her branch.
Kathleen grew up in Brigham City and went to USU in the 1980s. She described being in English class one day when her instructor, a Logan High alum, regaled his students with a horror story about diagramming sentences with “Hatchet-face Morrell,” his high school English teacher. Afterward, Kathleen approached the instructor and watched his grin dissolve. She thanked him for insight into her Aunt Hattie’s Logan High teaching legacy. As the man apologized, she sensed “it had been a foreign concept that this old maid school fixture came from a family, that she was loved, that she was a real person.”
I then asked Kathleen if she knew the worst, how, at the start of one of Hattie Morrell’s last years at Logan High, the maligned teacher happened to be outside when the lunch bell rang. She was knocked down and trampled by students running from seminary, the business building and the boys’ gym. Of course, as a member of the family, Kathleen knew this. My brother Roger, an upper classman then, reported on the incident at home. I would never have her as a teacher. Miss Morrell retired at the end of my sophomore year, two years after returning from her long recuperation.
But I do remember overhearing a smart, pretty sophomore classmate who took English from Miss Morrell that year. The girl respected the seasoned teacher’s knowledge, appreciated the individual concern she gave her students, but couldn’t help cringing at the decades-worn dresses and the condition of her teacher’s hair. Perhaps those not angered by Miss Morrell’s lack of attention to fashion felt obliged to be embarrassed about it for her.
Here was a woman whose reputation was never neutral apparently. Her (actual grand-) niece Kathleen looked beyond the style-less orthopedic shoes; she grew up adoring her aunt. The two exchanged letters weekly wherein Aunt Hattie often recommended books for Kathleen to read. “I credit her for my education!” Kathleen is aware of others among her cousins who were similarly fostered.
Kathleen sketched some of the family’s broader history: Before Hattie Morrell was born, her parents set the tone for her unorthodox position in society. They entered into a polygamous marriage (in the Logan Temple sealed by a prophet) after the Manifesto had officially banned such unions. Hattie was the eldest of their children–born in 1902 when her mother was thirty-four. Her mother, Mary Ann Daines Morrell, then gave birth to Hattie’s twin siblings, Lillian and Lyman, not long before her father, English immigrant Joseph Morrell, died at the age of fifty.
That was 1906. Logan High was founded in 1917. I wondered to myself if Miss Hattie Morrell could have already qualified herself as a teacher for the new school. However, I found online that both Hattie and Lillian attended Utah State Agricultural College in the mid- to later-1920s. Neither Hattie nor Lillian married and made their home with their mother until she died in 1952. Hattie’s job provided for them; Lillian kept house.
Then this morning, while my bishop described the start of this Christmas season, it hit me that Hattie’s is a Christmas story. She had a message (perhaps grammar and syntax wouldn’t have saved our world–but it certainly helps). And she was an outcast. Her story reminds us that those close to a misunderstood person often comprehend that person’s value. It reminds us of each one’s worth as a member of Heavenly Father’s family.
After testimony meeting, I brought up with Kathleen my thought that Hattie was an outcast. She asked for more details about the trampling incident at Logan High. We both wondered how those students could have done such a terrible thing. Kathleen compared it to the story in 2nd Kings (2:23-24) where God allowed forty-two children–who had ridiculed the prophet Elisha’s bald head–to be killed by she-bears. Kathleen is a tender-hearted person and, for years, the idea of executing “innocent children” bothered her. Finally she realized that the children reflected their parents’ disrespect and it was a problem in the community that the behavior would be tolerated. Perhaps a terrible tragedy was the only way the adults would look at themselves.
 “What’s happened to Hattie?” 
During the 1980s and 90s, as young parents, Kathleen and her husband Dell lived in Logan. Besides sharing her beloved great-aunt’s last days, Kathleen assumed the role of opening Aunt Hattie’s house as relatives came for her personal property. The executor then invited Kathleen to take what she wanted and dispose of the rest. She chose Hattie’s collection of children’s books–probably two thousand!–including many first editions.
 
Kathleen said Hattie and Lillian had regularly added built-in cabinetry to keep their possessions organized (there goes a working woman’s budget for clothes). As part of cleaning out, Kathleen tackled banks of drawers along an entire wall dedicated to linens. Tucked here and there within the folds of tablecloths, napkins, sheets, pillowcases, Kathleen and her young son discovered the Morrell sisters’ petty cash. Adding up all the small denominations–including a multitude of two-dollar bills–they retrieved eight thousand dollars!
 
Perhaps Hattie Morrell also lost track of what she was worth.

Find what’s yours . . . truly, danscir52

copyright 2013 Dan Christensen all rights reserved

 

Return to Logan

It was a perfect day to see fall colors at the top of Sardine and down Wellsville Canyon. Stunning play of fiery maple leaves, the lighter red almost salmony scrub oak, bright yellow and yellow green quaking aspen, the deep evergreens. In the foreground, straw-colored grass–the background for purple gray sage shaded with trunks made black by rain.
Amy opened her window as we drove the diagonal highway through rural Young Ward and College Ward. I said this would be perfect air to help us locate exactly where we were but it was still too cool–or perhaps my sense of smell hadn’t awakened yet.
She had told me about the new Ag Science building on the east side of the Quad so, after dropping her off at Fine Arts, I parked on the south side of 4th North (There’s a pedestrian underpass now–today’s students have it so easy!) and scaled wet grass on Old Main hill. I climbed up through the amphitheater and looked back at the view of the valley. The only change to this structure (upon this return after forty years) was that the wood planks used for seating are now attached with grabber screws–still no match for the extremes of weather that also popped the nails.
I used a south door into Old Main. The space has all been remodeled into classrooms and offices. The original front entrance and hall have been incorporated into a wide suite for the president and assistants. I missed the auditorium where I took history and lined up for commencement (and where theatre students would entertain us those days we trudged up from Adams Elementary). I walked by classes in session, looking through two-decades-old Victorian-design light oak trim around interior windows and doors, as I exited onto the Quad.
You know how the scale of a remembered space usually seems smaller when you return. Funny. In this case the Quad felt bigger or, at least more empty. I haven’t quite figured out why. Maybe because I took the walk right through the middle with a much different mindset than I would have in my twenties. Today there was no one–crossing my path or on the surrounding sidewalks, in cars, looking out from buildings–no one who I had gone through school with, who I had taken tests from or turned in papers to, who had watched me weed the fitzer beds with summer grounds crewmen, who knew me, my parents–or who wanted to date me. But I had the sense that it didn’t matter. No one was expecting me. No one there had even known to miss me. No one knew that I had come back. Except me. Yet, even in my own mind, I couldn’t claim–as a conquering hero–the center of the Quad. It isn’t that kind of space. Yes, a person or group might define it temporarily. But you always move on–there is nothing to keep you there. You pass through it from one place to another.
Agricultural_Sciences_building
Needless to say, cell phones and computers have changed the texture of USU just like everywhere else. But I wasn’t expecting the new Ag Science building to smell like Starbucks when I walked in. (The old College Bluebird is gone but its function continues live and well.) Made way past fumes into a gorgeous atrium with its long, linear stairway to the third floor. Study rooms like glass treehouses project here and there as one ascends. Suspended sculpture forms a screen, new landscapes by local artist decorate the solid walls. A wall of glass–made private with an earthtone graphic of abstract cattails (yes, cattails can be even more abstract)–encloses the offices where I would have expected to find Dad. He wasn’t there. Neither was Lew, his office mate. Nor Paulette, their secretary.
At the east end of the third floor, I happened onto Journalism (my undergraduate major). It felt like home–or I felt happy that it had a new home in this finely detailed building that opened to vistas of the valley.
The grand finale was the dean’s office, the western terminus of the fourth floor. As I approached, its reception area framed a perfect view of the Quad side of Old Main. But, better, this was a floor-to-ceiling glass bay. I stepped into it to see mountain ranges to the south and west, campus trees. The sidewalk along the eastern border of the Quad coursed below me leading north to a view of the Art Barn and the empty quarter acre where Dad’s old building stood. “That site won’t be green space for long,” the dean’s secretary said cheerily and then surprised me by asserting the old building was intended to be temporary.
No, I didn’t correct her. But that was far from my impression when I was very young. If she wanted to talk temporary, I could have dredged up memories of the wooden, wartime structure Dad had first moved into for an office and how, not long after, ag science main entrance
Dad’s key to a brand-new building let us onto polished green terrazzo stairs with smooth aluminum railings, the smell of new plaster, and state-of-the-art communication reach-through technology that allowed his secretary to answer the same telephone he would take the call on. (Well maybe THAT feature did become quickly dated. Telephones on each desk soon seemed necessary. Perhaps the dean’s secretary is not completely wrong; the universe can come back in balance.)
I guess I could delay in endless paragraphs the key reason I started writing. How about just one more: A huge addition to the Business building is under construction on a parcel that includes the cleared site of a 1940s dorm, the first housing for “coeds.” I walked along the contractor’s security chain link fence to enter a beautiful library–located north and east of the one I knew. From there, I circled past the still-standing Natural Resources with it’s signature mosaic mural–perhaps a little faded but still disturbing with that glaring woman’s face. Then might have glared toward the empty site of Dad’s building, its edges awkward because they weren’t originally designed to be a level field (maybe they could lay out fertilizer test plots there–maybe I should). The Union hasn’t changed that much and I’ve returned to the Institute in other, recent years. Widstoe Hall has been replaced but not renamed. Old Main Hill central stairs are still the same.
Back to the car. Heading toward the north. The family names for houses along 4th East come easily to my mind. Homes of my classmates. Still there even if their parents are not. 10th North. “ROAD CLOSED Local Traffic Only.” I drive through the barricade onto gravel road base; the pavement has been removed. I don’t even notice how uncharacteristically quiet the streets are. The world has stopped but it seems right. Sister Larkin’s house is gone. The Cooks. I turn onto 2nd East, pull over to the right stopping short of another traffic barricade. I hope I’ve parked far enough out of the way of a front-end loader whose thick treads climb down a pale clay bank that used to be our south driveway.
I feel a sensation in my chest. A panic I instantly wish to escape. It’s enough to remind me of losing Mom, Dad or, the first time I felt it, losing Scott. I start to cry but this time it doesn’t last too long. The loader returns with long plastic pipes balanced and bending across its prongs. It uses our dual driveways to bypass the traffic barricade. I consider following it to continue north but an official-looking small pickup arrives and threads through two cones. I realize I can do the same to pull back onto the pavement.
On to 14th North to meet my cousin at the DI and then to lunch.

Find what’s yours . . . truly, danscir52

copyright 2013 Dan Christensen all rights reserved

Remarkable Woman

Half serious, Aunt Marrian, my mother’s sister, used to describe the cemetery monument she expected to be placed in her honor: A carved figure of heroic proportions–an ageless woman with face toward the sun, loose hair flying and voluminous skirts billowing behind her. Aunt Marrian wasn’t asking much. She just wanted to be remembered and respected.

This while her husband, my father’s brother (yes, brothers married sisters), Uncle Owen, persisted in calling her distant hometown, “Dogpatch”–as if he had rescued his wife from a barefoot, toothless, uneducated existence. Truth be told, both my aunt and uncle seemed plagued by feelings they would never measure up to the expectations of their respective parents–most of whom had already died before the two became an item.

As a teenager, Owen–his older siblings had moved out–was suddenly the man of the house. He experienced up close and personal his mother’s terror at losing the breadwinner of the family while having debts all over town. The Depression had been running for many years. Banks, businesses and utilities couldn’t afford to forgive these negative balances even though the Christensens were their friends. Owen’s mother’s emotional needs were an unhealthy burden for his eighteen-year-old shoulders. He disappointed her by dropping out of college. Two years later, his mother died also. From then on, Owen spent his life working endless hours–except for the three weeks in 1966 he stayed home to recover from a heart attack–insulating himself from obligations to anyone else.

Marrian was sixteen when her father died. Her mother bore grief and loneliness stoically while she sent sons into World War II, cared for two daughters still at home. Three years into family life without a father, Marrian was in college and began dating the orphaned Owen. He was anxious to marry her and Marrian’s mother pushed the idea of her daughter settling down. The match was made. Marrian gave up mostly-carefree co-ed life for total enmeshment in Owen’s quest to save the family farm.

She moved from the familiarity of her hometown to join a family distressed by recent deaths, financial problems, other incidents. Owen was strong. Strong enough to keep everyone happy–he must have believed.

With much to prove to her new in-laws who, by nature, were offish to outsiders–especially toward this petite, teenage wife–they immediately judged as pampered–who was even younger than their youngest brother–Marrian threw herself into the chores of processing and bottling milk, churning butter, gathering and packaging eggs–while cooking, baking, and keeping house. She carried on housewifery much as her mother had practiced it–and who had essentially chosen it for her–but marital bliss eluded Marrian.

She felt herself compared unfavorably to the former lady of the house who, granted, was a remarkable woman. A wise neighbor, seeing what was going on, told Owen he wasn’t going to find a wife like his mother (whom Owen had observed as an accomplished matron forty-five years Marrian’s senior). Perhaps the neighbor got tears in her eyes or a catch in her throat when she said this–after all, she had lost a close friend. However, this remark and others were interpreted by the family that theirs had been the rare blessing–if but for a few short years–of sharing the presence of an almost supernatural being, highly-favored of the gods.

We call this perfectionism and OCD now. I don’t know what the mental health professionals of the day called it when Owen’s unmarried sister was treated at the state hospital with a breakdown. Marrian would care for this sister-in-law–but was not to speak of it.

Owen occasionally escaped all these pressures taking trips with friends. Marrian resented being left alone. Yes, she was among plenty of other young wives surviving by themselves–after all, it was wartime. But they probably didn’t like it either. (Actually, there was a bit of cultural shame that Owen and his friends weren’t fighting overseas–even though their exemptions came from health or being stewards of the nation’s farms.)

Marrian was nineteen. She couldn’t see that, a half-century later, she would be included with the people one author called “The Greatest Generation.” Her motivations were close to home: expectations of Owen, pulling her weight in the relationship, keeping a clean house, hanging out spotless laundry. But the drudgery was wearing on her.

Insult to injury, her own mother pronounced disapproval about Marrian’s appearance. Upon arriving for her first visit to the love nest, Mother uttered the fateful words: “Marrian, you’re looking a little ‘married’.”Image

 The remark galvanized the young Marrian. As a single girl, she had always been careful with the way she looked, particular about her clothes. She redoubled her efforts. As her babies and other life changes came–bringing extra pounds–she experimented with weight-loss dieting. Her determination proved she could sometimes lose a pound a day in preparation for a trip “down home.” She kept her fashion flair alive to accent her slim figure and stunning face–black eyes, pale skin, high cheekbones, radiant smile. She eventually regretted some of the measures she took for vanity–having crooked teeth extracted, wearing shoes sized too small. Oh, and there were naysayers when she got a nose job in her forties, a facelift in her seventies. And, despite great effort, she couldn’t endure wearing contact lenses.

But, in all, Marrian succeeded at beauty.

 Try as she might, Marrian didn’t find the satisfaction her mother had as a full-time homemaker. She cooked, she gardened, she canned produce, she sewed, she collected antiques. Her children were well-dressed, well-thought-of, smart. Her home beautifully appointed and maintained. She and my uncle socialized with other couples, joined Rotary but, when he was at home, Owen worked in the yard. He left before dawn–before the house stirred. Aunt Marrian was restless; she was in her mid-thirties; her marriage was troubled; she declined going through another pregnancy.

 In youth, there were limitations on fulfilling her dreams–some imposed by the Depression and war. But she had money and time now. Her youngest had started school. What would she do? Her older children were taking music lessons. Playing piano had been very important in the home where she grew up but there hadn’t been much money. She now began serious study with a teacher. She also became a church organist. She planned a new house and oversaw all the details of construction.

 Marrian then decided to enroll in a nearby university’s interior design program. She kept at it and finished the requirements for a bachelor’s degree–except the class in rendering. Her stated reason for avoiding the class was fear that she wouldn’t have the skill. But I wonder–since she later became an accomplished oil painter–if she resisted graduation with its attendant expectations of getting a job in the field. Part of her still lived for the carefree young girl.

 Sometime during this part of her life, I began studying Spanish at the same nearby university. Like Marrian’s son, my cousin, I was on a mission for our church. My aunt offered to pick up my laundry, paying it forward in hope that someone in another part of the United States would take care of her son. I accepted the offer. She and I passed the clothes back and forth without seeing each other (except one Wednesday when I sensed she would be coming up the walk and staged a brief, unplanned meeting) but each week I included a note when I left my bundle in the dormitory mailroom. When my white shirts appeared on hangers (ironed), my undergarments and socks washed and folded, there would be a note pinned on for me. For nineteen years, I had held somewhat equal status among the forty nieces and nephews she and Owen shared. Now her service and the messages we wrote started to make me someone special.

Five years later, I returned to that university ostensibly to train myself for a career. Unlike my cousins and siblings–my age, older, and some younger–I wasn’t married.

Like Marrian, I had been born into my nuclear family after traditions were established, expectations set. Also like my aunt, I was good in all the arts. Perhaps like her, I was taught that what I wanted to do with my life was considered play, not work. Graduate school was supposed to teach me to work.

Aunt Marrian became an important mentor: I don’t think either of us was clear about my post-baccalaureate pursuits. We carried on anyway.

 It was a sunny, mild fall. We had both been noticing milkweed pods–unspoiled because of delayed storms–that dried along fences, the marsh grass plumes–like buff-colored cotton candy–that stood in receding wetlands, and the dark red seed stalks we called Indian tobacco. We sensed an urgency to gather in (what we hadn’t sown)–beauties of the season to make dried-weed arrangements–all the rage in DIY decorating at the time. Aunt Marrian had experience with these things. We planned our first joint project for a particular Saturday.

 I learned some things about design: 1. Offered a seemingly endless harvest of weeds, I succumbed to the temptation of hauling too much; 2. Some plants that sang to me in the fields when seen against other vegetation or dirt didn’t translate well when placed in a container (“It looks like you used all your dogs,” was Aunt Marrian’s unvarnished appraisal of my first attempt on the design table we set up in her basement); and, 3. Uncle Owen–who had spent the day at his place of business with the other men in his family–complained at coming home to the chaotic wake of my creativity. (Aunt Marrian sent an SOS to remove leftover weeds from their storeroom. “Good thing you’re Owen’s nephew too!” she communicated later with a note of alarm.)Image

I was also learning about dynamics in my aunt’s and uncle’s marriage–which, on the surface, seemed so different from my parents’. I didn’t know my Mom and Dad to distinguish between families or to assign blame for the actions of the other’s blood relative. But, when you’re interested in finding power chips, one is just as good as another.

Unfortunately, twenty years later, I had fallen into assigning blame to my wife for my unhappiness. I have come to believe that humans who feel their lives are controlled become focused on controlling the people to whom they have abdicated. “I am powerless to make myself happy so YOU must do it for me!” Blaming is the way we excuse ourselves for failing at this mis-directed endeavor.

My marriage ended in divorce, unlike Aunt Marrian’s–although at one point, she drew up divorce papers. I’ve had the good fortune of being alone with the consequences of my choices long enough to consider I might not have been right. As a shift in the foundation of my thinking, it’s  been liberating. It’s helped me be patient with others.

It’s helped me be patient with my aunt who–although she likes me very much–actively disapproves the way I look, my career choices. I recognized that being unable to make her happy is just as it should be.

Saturday before last I made the hour drive to her home to wish her Happy 89th birthday. I arrived to find Aunt Marrian in the studio she converted from my cousins’ former bedroom. She hasn’t painted for a few years so had placed an ad to sell her art supplies. Two women were there claiming spoils from Aunt Marrian’s organized piles. She totaled the charges–mostly in her head–and offered them some cake in the kitchen. She tottered–a result of fused vertebrae–but didn’t stop moving until each plate had been served with a fork and paper napkin. Then she settled on the loveseat and began explaining how my long hair and beard would be unacceptable to my dearly departed mother, her sister. One woman argued that it wasn’t as important as all that but Aunt Marrian returned a volley about how handsome I would be without . . .

I interrupted. “Do you want me to make you proud by singing for them?” I went into her formal living room and opened the pecan grand piano (she acquired twenty-five years ago when she withdrew the divorce suit that would have ruined Uncle Owen financially). By the time I finished the song, the women were watching from the entry hall. We all walked through the front door into the sunshine.

While Aunt Marrian looked in her mailbox, I told one of the women about my blog. “Dumpster!” Aunt Marrian had overheard, “Why would you call it diamondsinthedumpster?”

She seemed to get quite tired during the soup and salad we shared at her kitchen island but she did one more math problem in her head when I brought up how much water a person should drink based on body weight. While we cleared the dishes, she passed along a housekeeping tip she had just picked up.

We hugged just inside the back door; then she walked me into the carport to my car. I pointed out a bright side to outliving her brothers and sisters: “You get to have the last word.”

She leaned backwards against her ride these twenty-five years–a sporty convertible–to relieve discomfort in her back, I presumed. “Oh, I’m so lonesome for my family now,” she was serious. “I’m ready to go at any time.” I didn’t cry like I did the first time she told me this some months ago. I understood she wasn’t talking about quitting. Nothing in her character is about to quit.

I slid into my car commenting on the nice life she continues to sustain. “You’re a remarkable woman!” I said looking up through the driver’s side window.

“Am I,” she said over her shoulder, pleased but half mocking. “Yes, I guess I’m a remarkable woman.” Aunt Marrian brought herself upright again, balancing her capri-clad legs over her stylish sneakers. She squared her shoulders on a frame that without heels maxed out at 5’3, that this impromptu call to action transforms taller. Then, with a quick glance to make sure I was watching (and laughing), turned her face in profile, set a firm chin, a studied unconscious smile, instantly placid, eyes fixed in a faraway gaze both resolute and mysterious. Before me I see the woman carved of granite, billowing skirts, the forger of frontiers, the aunt I’m to remember, the woman she was supposed to be.

And, in important ways, is.

Find what’s yours . . . truly, danscir52

copyright 2013 Dan Christensen all rights reserved

The House with Two Front Doors

We didn’t grow up calling it that. A new acquaintance of my sister–just now, after our parents have been gone these many years and more than a half century since they designed an addition to our home with a separate entry–used the words. It was how a fellow citizen of the town let my sister know they were talking about the same house.

It made sense to my parents to build a door in the front corner of the large living/family room they would use the rest of their lives. Not that they walked through that door. It was rarely touched actually–unless my father checked the lock each night, which he probably did, after everyone else was in bed. However, the door was handy on the rare occasion large furniture came in or out or the carpet changed, which happened last the fall of 1973 (and, oh yes, to some extent shortly after this century began–although I don’t know if the door was used when an installer brought new carpet for the bedrooms on that end of the house).
It made sense to my parents, who had grown up in small bedrooms shared by multiple siblings and modest-sized front rooms for entertaining with a substantial share of each family’s resources dedicated to barns, stables, pens, coops, coal and wood sheds. At the time of their home addition, as fortysomethings with a half dozen kids, Mom and Dad didn’t know the future but their past included all those days before the prosperity of post-depression-post-war. Funny that, as the rest of life unfolded, they never seriously considered exercising the option built into the house of making it a duplex.
So spiders lived in the space between the 1950s-style hollow door and the eight-paned storm door (that swung opposite, directing all almost-nonexistent traffic from or to the stoop). In the spring, Dad would de-bug as he installed the screen. The door’s varnish blistered in the sun and the wood veneer faded. Sometimes, as we played in the front yard, visitors would ask which door to approach–although the question didn’t come up that much since our walk was a straight shot toward the original main entrance. And we lived in a smallish, uncomplicated town . . .
. . . where a few contractors controlled building. Ours had sold Dad and Mom a slice of ground to accommodate the addition. The next year he built a house between our re-positioned rail fence and the busy street beyond. The Cooks moved over the mountain from sleepy Garden City to be our new neighbors. Then the contractor partnered with a young builder to begin a row of higher density four-plexes adjacent to both our houses.
Apparently groundbreaking for the new project was a surprise to the Cooks and to Mom and Dad. The contractor they had all recently trusted was not present as trenches were dug the absolute minimum distance required for a side yard against the Cooks’ property line and much too close to the corners of ours. The city was called. An inspector arrived. Work was halted. It was within our rights to order the excavation moved and the concrete footings re-poured. That evening, our oily contractor and his handsome accomplice paid a visit.
Although not a lot of expense had been incurred, these wheeler dealers were anxious to leave the footings in place. Crowding our property would allow them to squeeze in more units at the other end of the land they owned. What could they do to sweeten the deal for my parents?That’s how we got complimentary concrete poured in the planter between our two front doors and a pro bono flat roof built over the resulting porch. (The agreement also included a six-foot high redwood fence to provide the Cooks and us some privacy.) The compromise (and proximity of early college-boy-tenant noise) helped the Cooks decide to move away within the first few years but eventually brought dozens of neighboring longer-term apartment dwellers to our front door–er, doors.

My parents welcomed them through the one or conversed in evening shade on the triple glider that graced the front porch from then on. They tended roses along the edge of the branching walk. The porch was a frequent setting for family photos. It was the first and last shelter from storm and sun. It was there one summer morning my nephew approached me from the car with his dad and announced, “I have a new baby sisto’.”

1035 color sketch brighter reducd

Three years later, I asked my parents to host my wedding open house in their home. It had been my dream to have such a party there. My sister and her husband helped work out logistics. The plan included routing guests directly to our receiving line in front of the fireplace. At last, the extra door investment paid off for crowd management. The house’s main entrance was the designated exit so, as guests arrived, my brother-in-law directed them to that other front door!

Just to say goodbye, I opened the seldom-used door again last winter. My sons (now grown), their partners, and I were salvaging fixtures and features of the house. You see, town traffic has overgrown its streets–even without our turning the old place into a multi-family dwelling. Ours, the Cooks’ and two other neighbors’ houses are slated to come down.

The storm door lock–original to construction–still works.

Find what’s yours . . . truly, danscir52

copyright 2013 Dan Christensen all rights reserved

 

Dream Dress

The Crash of Wall Street. The Great Depression. Ironic that, although these epic events in American history coincide exactly with my mother’s teen years, she would insist, “We didn’t know there was a ‘Depression’.”

Actually it makes sense. Her parent’s livelihood didn’t depend on cash. Their wealth was in their livestock, the land my maternal great-grandparents homesteaded, water shares, grazing rights, and the food they were expert at providing for their own table. Their security and status in the community came from family and neighbor connections, pioneer ingenuity, intelligence, good health, horse sense, and a stable of four beautiful daughters with their three strapping cowboy brothers.

I assume my grandfather would be disappointed that I inherited little of his talent and fascination with horses. Well-known in his region, he was awarded a contract with the Remount Service. Having run short during previous wars, the US military acquired stallions with good bloodlines and placed them with farmers and ranchers throughout the country. These horses could be used for farm work, transportation, racing and breeding while in reserve for military applications. Grandpa was entrusted with government Thoroughbreds, a hot-blooded, big-hearted, courageous, somewhat temperamental breed–much like himself, Grandma, and their children.

How did I get this far from my intended subject, a dress from the 1930s Mother kept more than sixty years in her cedar chest? Or did I? Imagining life for my mother and her mother (who made the dress) rightfully includes what went on in the corral and barn–although male and female worlds were drawn as distinct. Perhaps this is how I needed to introduce my own connection, the 21st century male descendent who dared claim the cedar chest as part of my inheritance (despite having sisters among my siblings).

Mother kept a multitude of treasures packed in cardboard boxes on basement shelves, stashed in bins under our concrete porches, buried in the soft folds of her dresser drawers, nestled into the velvet lining of her jewelry box, or latched inside an old pasteboard suitcase high in the hall cupboard next to her room. But exploring any of these storage venues lacked the ceremony of opening the cedar chest. Midst the drabness and disarray of our unfinished basement, treasures–unsullied, safeguarded, in secret order–awaited discovery. The chest’s waterfall profile lid hinged upward. That meant clearing everything off the top. The button-operated catch (with its never-used keyhole) mystified me for years; I trusted only Mother could access this personal ark or casket–yeah, there was allusion to waking one’s dead as the inside of the lid stood in warm, bright contrast against the gray concrete wall behind it.

Usually first to catch my attention were dried roses, turned almost black, fragile relics of her courtship, a Valentine’s Day, or anniversary shared with my father. At that same instant came the scent of cedar (one of the smells that recalls my mother). Combined with the red-streaked, soft-sanded wood–unfinished on the inside–this was an aesthetic experience with furniture like no other in my home.

As children, our quest was usually the chance to see Mother’s wedding dress with its sweetheart neckline, pointed sleeves and yards of train spreading in a semi-circle. If our knees weren’t encrusted from digging in the sandbox, we were allowed to hold the heavy satin across our laps. Overlooked during most of these cedar chest openings was the dress I’d like to write about today. (Her spectacular formal wedding gown eclipsed everything else Mother kept there. And she didn’t write specifically about the contents. It was left to my siblings and me to decipher each object’s story from what we knew about Mother–and from the object itself.)

For example, in contrast to the party dress I’ll describe below, there was the daytime outfit Mom wore to stand before a justice of the peace. (It’s true. My parents were married by a civil servant three days before their sacred ceremony–when they were both bedecked in traditional white.) This is the attire of a working girl in the early 40s: a black straight skirt and emerald silk blouse. My older sister knew why Mother had saved these pieces; my younger sister took them to enjoy.

I remember my older sister calling our attention to the ephemeral dress of fabric so weightless it is easily compressed to the size of a grapefruit. The light peach dotted net had been meticulously sewn unlined. My sister folded the dress back up and we forgot it again.

Fast forward seven years to a couple of Saturdays ago going through Mother’s things from the cedar chest. I noticed a stain on the net dress–probably from pinning a fresh flower at the waist the night she wore it. Having had good success using Basic H as a spot remover–it doesn’t leave a ring–I worked on the stain from the front and back of the fabric. Since Mother graduated from high school in 1934, I knew there was a good chance the stain was set. But, after a few minutes’ work, it looked like it had faded some. Sunlight can also fade old stains. It was a cloudy day; I decided the dress wouldn’t be hurt by those cool ultraviolet rays. I used a plastic jacket hanger to hang the dress against the full length window in my front balcony door, then turned my attention elsewhere.

During the next few hours, walking back and forth through the front room, I began to realize that the dress was very much like a painting hanging there. The plain gray sky behind the dress had enlightened my perception of it. The seams were the carefully executed lines of an artist. I stopped. A piece of art was exactly what I was looking at!Image

I end my writing where I began–only now filling in the details of my grandmother’s life. My mother, who was proud of her own sewing ability, said her mother was way more accomplished. Yes, an artist.

Grandma was pressed into learning household arts at a very young age. She was only eight when her mother died. She was also a good student and, like Laura Ingalls Wilder, began teaching after graduation from the academy. She was seventeen. At twenty-one, she married my grandfather. She gave birth to nine children, seven of whom lived beyond infancy. Her life could have been consumed by the endless tasks of surviving in the barely-tamed wilderness: gardening, canning on the coal cook stove, soap making in a tub over a fire in the back yard. She baked all the bread they ate, she and Grandpa slaughtered and dressed their meats, fed her ravenous family at least three squares a day, put on enormous feeds for the itinerant threshers. Mother said Grandma sewed everything the girls wore including slips, new dresses at Christmas and the 4th of July, outfits for their dolls. She cut her own patterns from catalog pictures or her daughters’ sketches. All on the treadle machine she kept in the kitchen hall. When fabric ran out, she remade clothes.

But Grandma did more. She grew flowers at her window and outside in her yard. She encouraged her children in music and dance. She was a dramatist. And, when she did handwork, dressed her daughters for an evening out, she worked her art.

The dress represents at least two threads of Grandma’s story: Mabel Behunin Guymon’s ability to guide a needle, bring fabrics together was one expression of her creativity. The presence of the dress among my mother’s treasures represents another: Mom must have sensed that–not only was her mother gifted–but this was her mother’s gift to her.

Now it’s my turn to admire both.

Find what’s yours . . . truly, danscir52

copyright 2013 Dan Christensen all rights reserved