My Swedish grandmother was the most hidden of my family relatives. First, she died before I was six months old. Second, the name we were taught to call her wasn’t really her own, but derived from her husband’s nickname: Papa Max, my mother’s forceful and successful German father: Papa Max.
His huge portrait in elaborate gilt frame hung over our piano in South Carolina, one of the many items of grandeur my mother brought from North Dakota when he died. No one can deny that he was handsome in a gentlemanly, substantial way: with his sandy hair and clear blue eyes, steady mouth and creamy shirtfront. Not the kind of businessman to stuff a cigar in your mouth, but one whose probity and forsight you could count on.
But there I go again, following my mother’s lead and talking about her father. To study Mama Max, we had to visit the big house in North Dakota, surrounded in those days by shady elms and spruce spearing a cloudless sky. Her portrait, uncolored–for they were photographs–hung in the gloomy parlor with its dark furniture and antique tales–the princes in the tower, for instance, or seamstress Mimi dying in her garret without Verdi’s sublime arias.
My mother rarely spoke of Mama Max; in fact she attributed only two traits to her: that she took naps, as did my own mother; and baked delicious cinnamon rolls. My mother was a mediocre cook, never venturing into anything involving yeast. Even as a child, wandering the huge North Dakota house on the long summer afternoons, I tried to give substance to Mama Max, pulling open the stuck drawers of her curved-leg bureau and feeling around in the back, or staring at the family photo albums where she appeared surrounded by my mother, her twin brother, and their two older sisters, enjoying picnics at Lake Elsie. A tall woman with a quiet smile and a halo of grey hair. Their father never appeared in such outings, as my mother called them, either working at the store or driving the countryside conferring with his tenant farmers.
Mama Max was Swedish, not German like Papa Max. I had to move to Minnesota before that meant anything more than a word. A few years ago I looked up her family Olein on the internet and discovered that they’d immigrated from Sweden in the 1880s and settled in Fargo. Even now, I can’t remember their homeland–Smaaland? Varmland? But the internet did confirm that she had arrived as a child, with two older sisters. I already knew that her parents would soon die, leaving her to be raised by those sisters, the ghostly Aunt Anna and Aunt Hulda who moved to the west coast when their job was done. Dead before I was born, they were occasionally mentioned in my mother’s sparse renditions of Augusta’s childhood.
So she had a name Augusta, and it turned out, a profession before my grandfather discovered her, teaching in a country school, and brought her to Hankinson to be a mother to his orphan daughter. For he had made a first marriage to the furniture store owner’s daughter, but she died giving birth to their child, and he, a young up-and-coming businessman, now part-owner of the store, needed a wife to raise their family.
It’s hard, if not impossible, to apply my contemporary notions of married affection and women’s lives to someone as effaced as my Swedish grandmother. So I simply affect fiction, and slip my hands into her capable ones as I approach the sink and stove. I think of her as my guide to household economy in the little province of homemaking. Conserving and saving, we pour water from drinking glasses into a pitcher for flowers; reuse soapy suds several times, even stopper the sink to rinse off dishes. Into a glass jar go vegetable and fruit peelings, limp lettuce and moldy lemons for the compost bin. I’m not her equal with pastry–my pies almost tasteless, my rolls dumpy and heavy. But her old-fashioned kitchen with its ice box and rain-water sink remind me that her large vegetable and flower garden lay across the backyard; farms for eggs, milk and meat only a few miles away. When the thresher ran over a rabbit’s nest, Papa Max rescued the babies and let my sister and me raise them with eyedroppers of milk until they ran away.
The earth connection, and the need to preserve, conserve, reuse, lay right outside the door. You spent money carefully, though during the agricultural depression which preceded the Great one, she promised my mother, a freshman at the University of Minnesota, a new coat with money saved from her housekeeping allowance. This I now read in her letters which have come to me, gentle, full of teachers’ gossip, for she took in boarders once all her children were gone. These single women protected her, as I pieced together with help from my travels with my own daughter to Germany and Italy. In the memoir about those travels, Falling for Botticelli, imagination and intuition weave a fabric to cover the gaps in lives barely mentioned in the public record.
Even now for Mama Max, I feel a melancholy affection. I’m glad that she evidently enjoyed my ebullient father and my mother’s early married happiness. In quiet moments I pull her to me to soothe occasional ills and to remind myself that gentle strength and sociability can sustain through hard times.