Who we are, what we are, and the way we step into each day can be buffered by an insulation we replenish from our own pasts. I talk of that outside emotional coating formed around the soul, molded from ancestral stories and the exploits of relatives, or compacted by individuals and friends who’ve made a personal impact. It’s curious how one’s own small anecdotal history can formatively clothe an ego against hardship or against stress, or the occasional failure. At the toughest times, if one can develop that ancestral equity, the past plays as an inadvertent melody; a faint, quaint little tune whistling in your head that soothes when things go rough. The tune of the past can be heard during those moments when it might seem no one else is there to hear, or help.
Just listen awhile.
One early memory of riding with my mom in the car as a kid, was that I always heard whistling. Beautiful trills, with a steady tremolo, perfectly in tune. Her vocal singing sucked and she readily admitted this. Her whistling was a sound of just perfection, akin to a phenomenally talented and musical theatre-trained nightingale.
When my dad died in 1969, she stopped the whistling. It took me years to realize that she had stopped so abruptly. It’s strange that I didn’t notice it right away; as an adolescent, I suspect I was preoccupied with my own thoughts and needs. I think I heard it in my head always and forgot that she no longer whistled. I hear the flute-like notes now, and the song she often whistled - "Peg 'o My Heart". I can't so quickly recall the sound of her speaking voice.
One of the things she started to do after my father’s death was to slowly make connections with some of my dad’s family, so that I would not lose the paternal ties completely. Hers was likely a fruitless mission. I haven't been in contact with the few that remain for a couple of decades now, though a cousin from Minnesota called me just this morning - the first time we've spoken, though we've emailed quite a bit over the years. A touch of Wobegon, as I realized I was saying "Youbetcha" all day long after that call. All family of my dad’s age are now gone, and the cousins that remain are scattered across the US, though mostly in Minnesota. I remain preoccupied with my own direct family now, and long distance relations are sadly and inevitably not as essential. My bad.
For a year or two, 1976 to 1978, my mother initiated contact with my father’s favorite first cousin, Art Brunstad, a gentleman almost ten years older than my dad. My dad and Art shared a common cultural history. His father was my grandmother Jensina’s brother, and he emigrated to the US in 1920 with his family. Art was 12 when he and his brothers and parents arrived in New York on the S.S. Stavangerfjord. They crossed the US to the Puget Sound, and settled near Port Orchard, Washington.
Art had few English words when he arrived in the US. He was matriculated into the third grade as a strapping 6'2" twelve year old so that he could pick up English. He was a very quick study, and graduated easily at the age of 17 from South Kitsap High School with honors. He helped my dad accustom to the schools on the Kitsap Peninsula when my father moved to live with his older sister when he was 12. The older boys on the farm back in Minnesota were teaching the younger boys bad ways - cow tipping, outhouse explosions, and general mayhem and so Grandma sent dad out west to learn better English and to become a fisherman. Which is what my dad proceeded to do.
Art took a different route. In 1926, he started as a freshman at Washington State University, where he excelled in chemistry, going on to achieve a Master's degree and subsequently at some point, his PhD in Chemistry. Nuclear Chemistry, at the dawn of the age.
I’m relating tedious biographical detail here, because piecing together a life now gone from anecdote and residual internet documents can be difficult. Someday I'll research his archives, some of which are apparently stored at Washington State University. The background to Art’s life can be established as a curiously monotone scrim. Emigrant, accelerated student, college, graduate school. I suspect the actual details and actions of his life were far more colorful than he ever revealed to me verbally, or possibly disclosed to other family members.
From a few visiting sessions I had with Art, who graciously answered most of the questions I had for him when we visited, I know Art was a WWII veteran. But there is nothing anywhere - public records, US military draft card searches, veteran's organizations - about Art’s contributions to WWII. I’m now in the on-again, off-again process of researching military records to see if I can find any documentation that gives me third-party sourcing. I think his records were classifieds, though I have no proof.
To whet the whistle, the following is what I know of Art from the conversations we had.
He was a member of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) , recruited for his Norwegian language skills, as well as his ability in chemistry. Like most Norwegian OSS, he could ski and he could drop from a plane. He was scheduled on a drop behind the lines into Nazi-occupied Norway, when word came in about six hours before take-off that the previous team had been compromised and the operatives shot. The details of the rest of his OSS work regarding Norway are lost to time, unless a FOIA request produces more information, if I ever get that accomplished.
Art also worked with Chinese paratroopers, dropping in behind the lines in Northern China, and also south, near Tibet in the mid-forties.
In his capacity as a chemist, he worked at Hanford in the late forties. From reports in old microfilmed newspapers accessible only through a password account I own, I know there is likely more to the story, as he began at Hanford as early as 1938. And the rest of his public life has elements of interest that I have yet to flesh out. I know he worked with Dixie Lee Ray on the Atomic Energy Commission, before she became Washington State Governor. Art died in 2002, leaving behind an endowment program in his and Helen's (his wife) name, at Washington State University in Chemistry.
These facts and anecdotes become notes in my growing procrastination basket, as I ponder whether I should continue with research into Art’s past. Another to-do to add to the list; another relative with an illustrative history, whose past may be lost forever and undocumented.
Art's children are still around, though I've never spoken to them. I know at least one, George, has some fame on his own as the oldest swimmer to cross the English Channel, back in 2005. So...how do you start a conversation with a distant family member who's likely never heard of you? Do you find yourself reaching out to unknown family as you lose the ties to those close to you? Is this part and parcel of the aging, grieving, mourning, needing process as we grow older, more alone? Or simply a part of the "nexus-spreading" that we humans engage in, our whistling in the dark against the unseen, or the humming of the nervous happy tune against the chasm of time?
What becomes important to you? More family...more friends? There really is no answer, is there?
|Take only memories, leave nothing but footprints.
Chief Sealth (Ts'ial-la-kum)
If I hadn’t researched some genealogy threads, I would still have recognized George as Art’s son – he has the faint Norwegian look of his father, who would have been around George’s age when I knew Art in the 70’s.
And George carries the brow line, as I do, of my grandmother, Jensina.
|Memory moderates prosperity, decreases adversity, controls youth and delights old age.
Why is this a Grieving Room diary? Consider it a call to you to gather your details when you can. The insulation wrapped around you in the passing years, the external lining that adorns your memory and accents your soul, can be harvested from your own history.
Start recording. Life is a narrative, after all.
|What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.
This is part of The Grieving Room series on Dailykos. Here is a link to all the previous Grieving Room diaries.
Just listen awhile.