On bravery

BRAVE (adjective):  “having or showing courage, especially when facing difficulty, danger, or pain”

Bubby is a brave boy. I need to remember that and not worry so much.

I admit that the fact that he still cries easily at eleven years old and is very sensitive emotionally sometimes makes me worry that he is wimpy.  I shudder to think of where I got this highly gendered notion of appropriate behavior.  I guess for all my feminism, I am, after all, still a product of my time and place.  I try hard not to let that influence too much how I respond to my son.

But the thing is…he is really so incredibly brave. He feels a lot.  He gets anxious and worries too much, and he can really exercise that imagination of his to come up with all sorts of potential disasters.  But time and again he’s shown himself to be stunningly brave.

For example, last night. He lost his first molar.  Big deal, right?  Well, when was the last time YOU lost a tooth?  It hurts, and when you’re eleven and a sensitive kinda kid, it’s a little scary, too.

“I think something’s WRONG, Mom.  This isn’t normal.”  He went on to describe the perfectly normal sensations of losing a stubbord molar that is half out and half in, digging into the tender flesh of the gum line.

He had tried several approaches to getting it out, but nothing had worked.  Finally, I said to pull it down as far as you can and then twist it.  He repeated the instructions aloud, and then he just reached in his mouth and did it.  I watched him closely as he began to twist the tooth and his face became distorted with pain. He kept twisting and then SNAP it was out.

Nobody likes to see her kid writhing in anguish.  But I tell ya, it was an amazing thing to me to observe him push right through it, tears in his eyes, pale skin but not letting go.  Where did he get that strength?  How can he be so brave when he is so fearful?

I admire his pluck.

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When I had cancer…

When I had skin cancer, I thought a lot about what would happen to my family if I died. I also thought a lot about what I would change immediately about the way I was living my life. How would my teaching alter? Would I even be able to continue teaching? What would I tell my students or would I even tell them? Would I finish those scrapbooks of my son’s last eight years that I keep meaning to get to…just in case? How would I complete Grandma’s book?

I had gone in for my annual skin check at the dermatologist and asked about a suspicious mole on my back. It was irregularly shaped and was two-tone. Uh oh. So when the doctor asked if I wanted her to take a biopsy, I jumped in with a resounding YES. Then I pretty much forgot about the whole thing. I had other matters to attend to.

A week passed and then I was supposed to call to get the results. But the nurse refused to speak to me about it, and in a grave voice said she would have to have the doctor call me back. So for two hours I panicked, thinking, oh, great, now I have cancer.

The nurse called back, not the doctor, and said the doctor told her, “There’s no cancer, nothing abnormal. The cells were absolutely clear.”

Wow! That night at dinner when my family did our little ritual thing we do every night now where we each share three things for which we are grateful, I kept saying I’m grateful I don’t have cancer. 🙂 Then…

The next day I got a call from my regular doctor’s nurse about my recent mammogram. She said, “Well, the technician said that it was ‘questionable’ but that there appears to be an emerging mass on your left breast.”

Stunned silence. Oh, shit! That’s what I get for gleefully reveling in the no skin cancer diagnosis. Now I have something worse.

“We’ve made your follow-up mammogram appointment for September 11th, and they’ll also do an ultrasound to investigate further.”

“Yeh, okay, 9-11. But you said they said it was ‘questionable,’ right?”

So then I waited for two weeks further before my appointment. Mostly I was able to move on with my life, but the sobering realization that this time there really could be something wrong made it hard to dismiss the whole thing out of hand. Once more I went through all of the questioning and reevaluating, which made the start of this school year just about the most bizarre ever.

My cousin reminded me, “Nothing’s happened yet. Try to remember that.” And mostly I did. Then the day of the mammogram re-do came and with it all the gloom of remembrance for the great tragedy on that day in 2001. I was fine until the technician had to re-do one of the pictures she just did. Then I lost it.

At first I couldn’t speak as the tears flowed. Then I squeeked out, “Usually these things are nothing…right?”

She handed me some Kleenex, ignored my question and instead replied, “Everyone feels this way. Whether they show it or not, everyone feels this way. It’s perfectly normal.” She took the re-do of the re-do and then showed me where the bathroom was so I could calm down privately.

I sat back down in the waiting room, trying to grade some student’s essay. I have to get my mind off of this…. Then the radiologist came out and told me that there was something, indeed, on the mammo and that she was going to take me over to ultrasound right now. “They will determine what it is and you should get the news today. Nine times out of ten, these things turn out to be nothing serious.”

Waiting in the ultrasound area, I was too stunned to cry anymore. I had convinced myself — at least it was my party line — that the original pictures were just flawed and that there was nothing at all to see in my left breast. But now there was confirmation that something WAS there. I felt a sense of dread mounting.

By the time I was stretched out on the ultrasound table in a very dark and very large room, I was crying again. Then the ultrasound technician, whose cheerfulness I will never forget and for which I was immensely grateful (for, who would be so cheerful if the patient in front of them had cancer, right — so it must be good news!), chirped, “Oh, that’s a cist. Don’t worry!” She took a few more pictures and added, “The radiologist will come in and say the same thing in a minute. I’ll go get her.”

When she arrived after a long while (where WAS she that it took that long to come and confirm that I will live to see another day?), she took a quick look and said, “Clear cyst.” But I wanted to know HOW she knew that and how SURE she was. I was not content after all I had been through to sail on blithely through this experience as if nothing had happened. I had cancer, damn it. If I NOW did NOT have cancer, the story had to be as convincing as when I DID have it.

So the stately radiologist lady explained all about ultrasound technology and the way that tumors (solid masses) block the ultrasound waves from penetrating and thus can’t imagine the breast underneath, but how with clear cysts the waves pass through and show the breast tissue on the other side. She showed the cyst on the screen, my cyst. And there was the breast tissue on the other side. Okay. I bought her story.

This little blip on the screen looked huge, by the way, but it was only .83 centimeters. I had not even caught it on a self-exam. But the diligent technicians did. And I am grateful for their caution and care.

I have a big imagination. It’s generally a good thing. Sometimes, though, not so much. Yes, of course, I did not ever really have cancer, thank goodness. But in my mind, I did. I really did. And the experience — just a tiny taste of a much more shattering reality for so many others, I’m sure — did make me stop and think, once more, about what matters, about my priorities.

A sobering reminder not to take any second of this precious life for granted.

…and to get regular mammograms and complete regular breast self-exams.

P.S. I asked for a picture of my cyst from the ultrasound machine so I could put it on my blog! They thought I was NUTS and were ultra concerned about my privacy — really freaked out, actually. But I assured them I would only put the picture itself up without any identifying info. But the printout I did manage to get from them was too dark to scan, so I’ll just have to leave it to your imagination. For the life of me, I can’t think of a good reason not to post about this experience, though the way those two women freaked out gave me pause and delayed my posting by a couple of weeks. Ultimately, though, I decided it was an important story to share. I want to remind women to get those mammograms and do those self-exams. It’s really important. And though it was a scary experience, nine times out of ten everything really is okay!

Dear Grandma…

Dear Grandma,

I miss you.  Lately these flashes of memories keep intruding on my day.

Your laugh.  You looked so regal, so classy.  But your laugh was down home, real folk, spilling out of you whenever the smallest opportunity for mirth arose.  How much we laughed, working on your book, our book.  Every Sunday night when I called you on the phone, we inevitably found our way into a laughing fit.  Such simple things, too. Silly, really.  But you and I, fifty years apart, found so much to chuckle over.  No cynicism in you.  Honest and kind good humor.

I miss you.

Your reassurance.  When I sometimes had not had a chance to work on the book that week and we spoke on Sunday, I knew you were disappointed, but you always said such kind words. You knew I had other responsibilities. You never pressured.  You had faith in me to carry on after you were gone.  And I feel so bad that sabbatical is over and the book is still not finished.  I’m sorry, Grandma.  I’m still working on it. I thought I’d get farther.  Of course, I traveled a lot to research the book settings and stories.  And that was a jolly good thing I did since I found so much usable information that the book is being transformed into a much fuller account.  You’d hardly recognize chapter one anymore, Grandma.  Did you know that Grandpa Skaug’s mom was illegitimate?  Did you know your Dad’s relatives were soldiers back in Sweden?  Did you ever hear about the shipwreck at Kløkstad, Norway?  Did you know our famiiy church was built in 1240 and is still standing?  Did you know that the sea off the coast of Bodø can be as still as a pond and turn savage within minutes? Did you know in Sweden they had a big stick in church to poke people with when they fell asleep during the sermon?  No, you never knew these things.

I miss you. Lately all I want, suddenly, is write your story.

But timing is everything.  I know you’d say now that I ought not to be too hard on myself.  That I have to work and take care of my family.  You’d never begrudge me that.  I was thinking only the other day about the story you told me of when my mother was a baby and Grandpa wanted to go to a movie (always go go going, that Grandpa).  So you swooped up the baby in a blanket and got your coat.  In the theater, you wondered what was poking you, only to find the coat hanger still inside the coat you were wearing.  I understand such exhaustion. I know it’s okay with you that this project is taking a while longer than anticipated.  After all, we moved at a snail’s pace, and I asked you if you wanted me to speed up.  You said, “Do it right!  It’s more important for it to be good and to be read than for me to see it finished.” So you died without seeing it.  And here I am pluggin along over two years later. Still.  I’m sorry, Grandma.

I miss you.

In Sickness and in Health…

The hubster and boy have been wicked sick with some nausea virus for the last few days.  So far I’ve avoided it.  I am just far too busy to get sick.  My defenses are up and my armies of antibodies are on high alert.  After all, next week I go back to the classroom! 🙂

In any case, they are sick and I am taking care of them.  I’m also trying to do all those extras to help me to stay well.  Incessant hand washing. Extra zinc vitamin pill last night.  Emergen-C drink yesterday.  Water.  Peaches. Pesto.  (Yeh, right, you say. Is pesto a miracle cure?  I don’t know, but I had made some over the weekend, so I’ve been eating it this week. Hard to cook for one and pesto on some leftover noodles or bread — whole grain, of course — is yummy and easy.  Especially when the sight of most food makes my family want to, well, you know ….)

Anyway, I’ve been wondering what other folks do to try to stay well.  Any teachers out there?  What do you do to stave off the creepin cruds?  Folks with small children?  How do you stay healthy in the face of so many bodily fluids in your parental presence? For that matter, how do you stay SANE?

Sorry I have nothing more to say today.  My armies of white blood cells are on the move, and I’ve gotta keep movin, keep movin, keep movin. Left… right… left, right, left.

A Whirlwind Trip Across England: On the Trail of the Immigrants

We arrived in Newcastle, in the northeast of England, on Monday morning and disembarked from our ship, The Queen of Scandinavia.  What we didn’t know was that we were not actually in Newcastle and had to catch one of the DFDS Seaways buses to the city.  Having waited until the majority of people left the boat to get off because our backpacks were so heavy to carry as we just stood around in line, we missed the bus.  Not knowing there was such a thing as this bus, we had not realized how waiting our turn would mean a costly cab ride.  Ah, and then there’s the fact that we had acquired no English money yet and the bureau de change was closed in the boat terminal!  So we walked with our heavy packs to a mall down the road and got some cash.  Then we stopped in at a hotel and asked the receptionist to call us a cab.  Turns out we had a very interesting taxi ride into the city with an entertaining cabbie who pointed out all the best drinking spots in the neighborhood on the way to the train station.  Great guy, very friendly.  Even gave us a break on the cost of the trip.

Discovered that trains do not run as often out of Newcastle as the internet had indicated, but only had to wait an hour and a half.  Ah, well.  Ate a picnic lunch of some leftover bread and cheese and apples from Norway and bought some nice little chocabits, our word for anything sweet, in this case freshly baked cookies. Took the train to York and transfered to a train to Hull. Only one minute to spare but the train was waiting for our delayed train from Newcastle, and it was literally sitting right beside our train when it arrived.  Nice!

Once in Hull I was quite struck with the similarities with my own city of Lowell, Massachusetts.  Both cities have a reputation as a bit on the rough side, a lot of immigrants and poverty, industrial, but rich history.  I found Hull to be an interesting city with quite a lot to offer.  Would have been able to fill our time if we had been able to stay longer, but this was a short visit.

The exciting part:  Met an old fisherman, Bill (according to his tattoo), who talked with me a good quarter of an hour about tides and fishing and boats and all that.  Pointed out a fantastic statue on another pier that I made sure to see the next morning.  Amazing guy — real salt of the earth.  Only understood every fifth word, though!  Harder to understand the peopl in these parts of England than in Scandinavia!  He said if we were “loaded with cash” we could go to the Minerva Pub right at the end of the street at the water’s edge.  I had read of this place since it is almost 200 years old and would surely have been seen by my ancestors.

We weren’t rolling in dough, but I did want to go to the place.  Turns out it was quite reasonable.  We had a lengthy talk with the cook who kept getting in trouble because he was talking to us iunstead of cooking. Told us about how the place is haunted.  Showed us all the spots where supernatural things have happened.  Sadly, the pub is set to be closed in the fall.  I can hardly believe it, but they can’t break even, let alone make a profit.  We ordered the only thing on the menu that the chef said he cooks fresh: fish and chips.  My, oh, my!  Fresh indeed.  Lovely.  Had a half pint of cider to wash it down, too.  Got the tour of the place and took a thousand pictures of all the photos and drawings on the walls.  That place is a museum!

Unfortunately, we also found out that our hotel was in a bad part of town.  We had already checked in and noticed some of the telltale signs on our walk downtown, but we figured we’d just take a cab home instead of walking it at night.  It wasn’t that bad!  But the folks at the Minerva were so shocked. To me, though, I thought, “I’ve seen much worse.”  Turns out our B & B is a sort of rooming house for working class folks and a place where people can get breakfast.  Good, solid citizens, just trying to make a living.  I was glad we did not get scared away by the reaction of the pub staff. This, too, is Hull.

Well, anyway, before we left in the morning, I ran down to the statue that Bill the fisherman mentioned and was glad to have done it.  There were several plaques with immigrant information and the statue was wonderful — looked like my Swedish ancestors, a family of four with children just the right ages.  Ran, literally, back to the station to catch the train to Liverpool, via Manchester.

What we didn’t realize was that we had booked seats with built in entertainment: Wendy and Carol, two Hull women going on a shopping extravaganza in Leeds, cracked us up with their recounting of various shenanigans and their boisterous stories.  When they departed, they left a gap we could feel.  We had a quiet journey the rest of the way.

Once in Liverpool we were surprised once again by the kindness of strangers. A man approached us just outside the train station and excused himself and said, “I couldn’t help but overhear that you are going to the International Hostel.  I work near there but it’s a bit tricky to find.  If you’d like, I can show you the way?” We gladly accepted, though we both eyed the stranger with a little suspicion.  When he asked if he could help carry our bags, we both declined and kept feeling wary.  But it soon became clear as we walked through crowded streets where each block the road changed names that this bloke was truly just doing us a good turn.  Along the way, he told us all about where we should go when we were in the city.  Lovely!  Our own personal tour guide.

By the late afternoon when we had checked into our room, there was little time to do any research, so we visited the Tate Liverpool, a fantastic modern art museum.  Had a delicious meal at an Indian restaurant (always have had super good Indian food when I’ve visited the UK). This morning I spent a few hours at the archives at the Maritime Museum and discovered that the dates I had for my ancestors’ departure from the UK were wrong.  In fact, they spent only about 24 hours in the country!  Also, I learned that they stopped in Queenstown, Ireland, ony the way to New York.  Who knew?  Glad I spent the time tracking down those last details.  At least for the Norwegians.  The Swedes’ journey beyond Hull remains a mystery for now, but I have a better idea of how to pick up their trail later.

Having completed that research, we hopped on the famous Mersey Ferry and then high-tailed it to the Adelphi Hotel for afternoon tea, having been told that they serve until 4 o’clock.  NOT true.  And the odd thing was that the people there had absolutely no idea of an alternative place.  Starbucks said one.  McDonalds or KFC said another.  As if!!  So we began to walk back to our hotel area, hoping to find something.  Now almost four and absolutely starving, having skipped lunch, we were getting desperate and cranky.

Stopped to take a photo of a strange sign across the street and when I turned around a sign behind me caught my eye: “Afternoon Tea.”  Bingo!  Ah, but that place is too above and beyond expectations to include at the end of this very long post.  I am going to post a proper review once I return home so I can give it it’s proper due!  Needless to say, we stuffed ourselves, walked around a bit, packed back at our hotel, and then stuffed ourselves again at a dinner place that the tea guy recommended.  What a perfect end to an incredibly fruitful and fun adventure.

Tomorrow we’re for home.  I’m ready to return to my life at home and my family.  Also, a bit of sadness for the end of such an incredible journey. At dinner tonight we drank a toast, to the immigrants, for their courage and for giving us such a lovely excuse to take this journey, two friends exploring together the past and the present.

Cheers!

And Then She Died

Two years ago on this day, Grandma died. She had a massive stroke the day before and let go on July 3, 2006. She was 92.

As fate would have it, this date is important to our family for another reason. On July 3, 1879, also a Thursday like this year, my grandmother’s grandparents left Norway for America. I know this because last week I finally found the information for which I have been searching for the last several months. (Thanks to Norway Heritage: Hands Across the Sea.) All passenger lists of ships sailing from Norway have been destroyed from the time period through which I was searching, but I just learned that the police in Norway kept records of emigrants. The Norwegians passed a law dictating that emigrants had to sign contracts with shipping companies in front of the police. This was to help prevent scams! The further benefit is that these records remain and fill the gap.

Here is what I discovered:

Rikard (Richard) Skaug, though he had changed his name at twenty years old, registered for emigration by his birth name, Hanson. His wife, who went by her middle name, Maria, registered with her first name, Hannah. They sailed from Trondheim, which is the biggest city south of their hometown of Bodø, far above the Arctic Circle. Out of Trondheim, they sailed on the Wilson line’s steamer, S/S Tasso (1).

A total of 48 passengers boarded that ship in Trondheim, including another young family from Bodø, headed for Minnesota. Their ship stopped in two cities in Norway before heading across the open North Sea to Hull, England. The journey took 3 or 4 days, so they probably arrived in England by Sunday.

In England, Maria stayed on the ship until the emigrant train was ready to leave the station at Hull on Monday morning. Women and children were not allowed on the docks. Richard may have stretched his legs and strolled by the Minerva Hotel where many emigrants congregated. In any case, on Monday they took the train to Liverpool, a few hours journey across the industrial midlands. One more leg of the journey over and a welcome stopover in a strange land before braving the trans-Atlantic crossing.

After a couple of days in a rooming house in Liverpool, they boarded one of the Inman line ships, most likely The City of Brussels, bound for New York City. The ship left on July 10th, and it took eight days to cross the oceam in the steam liner. They took their passage in steerage, at about $30 a person. There were 363 passengers. Inman was known as a middle-class liner, with more comfort than some of the most notorious shipping companies, but Richard and Maria would not have been able to afford more than the basic fare.

Once in the United States, they made their way from New York to Decorah, Iowa, where they wintered with friends. The following spring, they headed north to Beltrami, Minnesota, where Richard’s sister Caroline and her husband had already settled. They homesteaded land that is still in our family four generations later.

What must it have been like to leave Norway and all their family and friends, the familiar sights of mountain and harbor, and head thousands of miles away to a land where they did not speak the language, where they would never see the ocean again?

Turns out I found another source, a diary that I didn’t know that I had, written by Grandma’s uncle, who visited Norway in the summer of 1939. He met several people in Bodø and the surrounding villages who knew his parents and grandparents. They told him of the night before the family left and how all the people of the little town of Skaug gathered at the Hanson home crying and singing hymns in unison long into the night. Sounds like a wake. I guess it was.

On this anniversary of my beloved grandmother’s passing from this world, my tears mix with those of my ancestors, mourning and celebrating. Loss and love. On Monday I will “return” to the land of Richard and Maria, my great-great-grandparents. I will walk in their village, pray in their church, sit and face the sea they left behind forever, a beautiful but dangerous companion. Life in this frontier was beyond difficult. I have no romatic notions of how lovely it would have been like to live like that. But, still, it was home to their families as long as anyone could remember. I can’t, as an American, imagine feeling so rooted. How painful, physically excruciating, it must have been to be ripped out of the soil and transplanted into the American Midwest.

I will honor their sacrifice, a sacrifice for the child Maria was carrying inside her during that dangerous journey that began this day one hundred and twenty-nine years ago. The sacrifice they made for me. They braved it all to try to make a better life for us. My grandmother appreciated their sacrifice and wanted to convey its enormity to the younger generations through her book. I have taken up that challenge with her death. I am writing grandma’s book; I am finishing what she started.

Wildlife Refuge? Suburban Yard? Whatever…

Yesterday the neighborhood decided that summer had arrived. For the neighbor kids, who all go to public schools, yesterday was the day after the last day of school. They were running around the block like a pack of wild animals, joyous, leaping, laughing critters.

I went out to get the mail in our box and stopped dead in my tracks when I saw a turtle parked on my husband’s side of the driveway (he was at work at the time, so his side of the blacktop was empty). My first thought was that some kid left their toy in our yard. Then, I suspected they were playing a trick on me, watching my reaction behind some tree. Then it moved. EEEK! “A turtle, a turtle,” I yelled to all kids within earshot. And they came a runnin’.

I was concerned that the turtle might turn around and head back towards the road from whence it came. This time of year we see a lot of squashed turtles on roads. It was clearly headed towards the conservation land behind our house, but had stopped when we approached and tried to turn around. Then it gave up and hid its head in its shell. I was eager to make sure this little guy made it to the forest safe and sound. But I knew the kids would all want to see the creature before I ushered it on its way.

Once a crowd of kids gathered around, the turtle decided hiding its head wasn’t the best plan, so it started bookin’ for the forest as fast as its legs would carry it. Not all the kids had made it to our yard yet, so I decided to pick it up so they could get a closer look. That turtle had pretty sharp claws, though, and kept flailing around trying to scratch my fingers as I held it. I almost dropped it more than once.

[hmmm….WordPress isn’t letting me insert a picture here…I’ll try to put it in the comments section later. Sorry!]

Now, on hind sight, I should have asked my son to bring the cardboard box on the porch (filled with “habitat” for the snakes he keeps catching) to me so I could put the turtle in it for the kids to see and touch its shell. What a great educational opportunity lost! But I was worried that the littlest kids would either get bitten or hurt the thing. You may recall my earlier post about the neighborhood snake murderers across the street…

So the kids got to catch a quick glimpse, and I hightailed it to the backyard and let the poor guy go. Man, he took off in a hurry, clean disappeared in the undergrowth in a flash. The children dispersed soon after. Then a lone nieighbor boy started running to our house. Oops. I forgot about that kid. “Sorry,” I hollered across the road, “we already let him go.” Drooping with disappointment, he slowly walked away.

These days, we are getting lots of visitors to our yard: skunks eating the grubs in our yucky lawn, a groundhog family of five eating our clover, and a family of deer running across our yard to get to higher ground. This is what I love. To live side by side with the animals as if we can all coexist peacefully. Maybe that’s why I was in such a hurry to help the turtle on its way — I know we are an imposition on these native creatures and we destroy them and their habitat like we own the place. I wanted to make sure this turtle was not only safe but that its needs came first. After all, we may own that conservation land but it is HIS home, not ours.