This Memorial Day I decided to go to Minnesota. It’s what all the kids do these days. It turned into a bit of a family history trip. Both of my grandparents are from Minnesota, and both of them were the nicest, sweetest people. As a kid, I’d always understood that they were so nice because of Minnesota. I imagined it must be a paradise there: full of bounty, fun summer lakes and nice people. Why they ever willfully moved to the lonely deserts of Utah I couldn’t understand. I always imagined that Grandpa had one bad day on the dairy farm and mentioned, in passing, that maybe they should move to, oh… throw a dart at the map. Utah! And my grandma was so nice that she probably said “Oh, whatever you would like Don” when she really meant, “And leave paradise?” And then he thought, “Is she for real? Leave paradise?” but then felt bad that he’d maybe gotten her excited about it, and through the most blessed and sacred American temperament of Midwestern Nice they robbed themselves (and by patrilineal extension, me) of a lush, verdant existence and imposed instead one of dirt, weeds and lake stink.
Ah, just look at them :)
That’s all speculation of course. What I do know for certain is that my grandma made the best homemade hot chocolate, loved her parakeets and had the kindest, sweetest eyes. My grandpa did woodworking in his small garage while listening to opera, reluctantly became the mayor and loved to swim in the local pond. One day after swimming he got terribly sick. I don’t exactly know the details, but I believe it was something like pneumonia. The medication they gave to fight the disease had a terrible side effect; it caused total hearing loss. That was in 1982, just before I was born.
I only knew to communicate with him through a little notepad and pen that he kept in his shirt pocket. All those years I never thought to write “What in the h did you move to Utah for?” on the note pad. Since my grandparents aren’t around any longer for me to ask, I thought I’d go to Minnesota and figure out what happened.
Off to find family! I went to Minnesota for my first time and we met in beautiful, rainy Minneapolis!
Here we are on the steps of the house my Great-Grandparents Ethel and George lived in for over 45 years. Sweet Uncle Stan is 99 years old and fit as a fiddle. He is my grandma’s little brother and a fellow cellist. Even though I haven’t seen my grandma in over a decade, I’d recognize those same delighted eyes any day of the week. It was quite a thing for me to see Grandma in his smile after so many years. I feel very lucky.
Stan gave me some deets. My grandparents are from Iowa, not Minnesota. Ha! Wrong airport :) Back in Iowa is where Grandma first picked up a violin as a child. When she was a bit older she would drive around the county to distribute used violins for beginning musicians to practice with as part of a music education program. There’s an unbelievable part of this story that made me wonder if I was missing a joke Upper Midwesterners have among themselves; the used violins were of the “Stradivari-ety.” Was Stan telling me with a straight face that he and Grandma would drive around Depression Era Iowa with oil cloth bags full of Stradivarius’ to distribute to children who may not have known the difference between a violin and a loaf of bread?
Suspect historical details aside, I found out that Grandma and Grandpa left Iowa for U of M and married after she’d graduated. They lived with her parents for a year or so before Grandpa joined the civil service and got a job as a photographer at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. I had no idea Grandpa was a photographer! You’d think the dark room in the garage might have tipped me off, but my dad is also a photographer. For all I knew every house had a creepy, dimly lit room that smelled like developing chemicals.
Stan and my second cousins had other great stories for me. We were very lucky that the owners of my great-grandparents home were so kind and willing to hear all about the family that built a staircase to the basement of their home that could be easily disassembled to accommodate the hidden storage of multiple freezers. Shh, it’s fine. They weren’t serial killers. Freezers broke easy and they are heavy! Best to just leave it broken in the cellar and buy a new one. They were lazy and wasteful :) I found my roots!