Today is Louisa May Alcott's birthday. She is the author of "Little Women". In my heart, I believe that Louisa May Alcott was my Grandma Gert's favorite author. She very well may have been, but likely it was just a younger phase my grandma was in. She did own an old copy of the book that I still have in my possession. And Grandma did perform in the play while going to St.Olaf. She played the part of Jo. A fitting part, I always felt. Gram Gert to me was always the quintessential feminist....a tomboy that knew what she wanted and she would do whatever she needed to do to get there. She told me about what it was like to grow up in the 1920's as a teenager and into the 1930's as a young adult. She explained the social changes that were happening for women and how fashions took leaps toward a much more expressive demonstration. She told me about how most people smoked in a social atmosphere... it was just the thing that most people did.
She had majored in music at St. Olaf and minored in art. Her pastel cubism pieces were very good. They hung all over her house right up until the day we sold the house after she had passed away. Her visualizations of music onto canvas are things that I still dream about to this day. Warped and arching keyboards... music notes flying in and out of the the plane... she did bright color pieces and also some black and whites. I loved every one of them..
I came into existence long after Gert had gone through this phase and even the next couple phases of her life... I came in when Gert was shrinking physically but still held her post resolutely at the Johnson Drug counter. I have no idea how long she held that post in total, but I would venture to say it was the majority of her life.
I could copy/paste her history here that my dad had written for the Garretson History book. That would give you the facts and dates about when she got married and had her boys, Bob (dad) and Rolly (uncle). But that would only give you a sketch of who Gertrude Johnson Nelson was.
Gertrude was kind and warm soul that even with her frail frame, would give big hugs. I remember being scared more than once that I was going to break her. She had a great laugh and a wonderful sense of humor. She taught for a time, but never told me about it. She played at church, but that was before my time too. Come to think of it, I only saw her actually play piano a handful of times. I'd like to think that when we all left the house and she was done cleaning up the dishes, she'd hang that apron on the hook in the kitchen and walk into the next room and sit on that dark piano bench and play some ragtime piece from her youth. I'm guessing that that never happened as I think she was afflicted with bad arthritis and had a hard time moving her hands around too much.
But she was a fixture at Johnson Drug. She could handle that register like nobody else. She was the friendly face that greeted everybody that walked through the door and she could be the cold stare at the kids thinking about swiping a piece of candy or a comic book.
If she didn't know who you were, she'd figure out who you did know quickly. If you needed a hand explaining where to go, she was an encyclopedia and navigation system of the area. She knew who lived in every house... and she knew who HAD lived in those house for about 2 generations before the current resident as well.
When she and I were talking about going to college, back then vs my time, and how I always needed to find a ride up to school because I didn't own a car yet, she comforted me in the fact that neither did she. "But you just took the train or a bus, right?".... oh no.... she hitchhiked. Times were most certainly different. But she knew what she needed to do to get places and she did it. (Plus, I think she always travelled with others)
Gert was larger that life, most certainly. First impressions of a "little old lady" were soon rendered incorrect when she told you about her courtship with Emmett Nelson from Viborg, SD... and how their life at the end end of his professional baseball career was anything but your regular tale of midwest seclusion. She was a traveller at heart and had seen more than I ever knew about or will ever know about.
While I was at a very young age, she was training me to work the counter at the drug store. She showed me how to count out change to people; slowly and calling out the amounts so they knew what they were getting and that it was correct. She also taught me how to politely and properly answer the telephone. "You need to let them know who they called and who you are"... and after watching me hold the microphone end of the phone under my chin (which I'm sure resulted in just a muffled "wha wha wha wha" sound), she grabbed the phone as I was using it and lifted the mouthpiece up in front of my mouth. "Speak clearly!" ... forcefully enough to get my attention, but also important enough that I remember the lesson to this day. When I've worked multiple retail jobs and even in the corporate world, I've been complimented on my politeness and phone answering ability. You can thank Grandma Gert. She taught me everything I needed to know. She was an amazing little woman.
She was Garretson High School's first Homecoming Queen in the year 1928. I was fortunate to be voted Homecoming King 60 years later in 1988. She had gone to school in a much different time... in a much different world. The town was much the same, but so much had changed in her lifetime. I remember we had her give a speech at the homecoming coronation as a 60 year alumni and to mark the anniversary of the 60th year of the homecoming court. She was so diminutive by 1989 that her head barely reached above the podium and they had to force the microphone on the silver flexible shaft down close enough for her to be heard. I believe her speech came before I was crowned king, and that I don't remember a single word of it, but I remembering being so proud to be this little woman's grandson. This "world traveller" (in my eyes) who then returned to the community and has been such a big part of it for so long. Being an active church member, teacher, and pillar of the business community. Not to mention putting up with her 2 boys and their antics...and all the other little boys for so long that came into the store and tried swipe something. She knew what she wanted to do and she figured out how to get there.... Right there at home in Garretson.
The following poem was thrown out on facebook on November 26th, 2014. This was just over 2 years after my mom had passed away and more than a year after we lost dad. I was having vivid dreams that led to me wanting to begin writing more and more. I utilized facebook as a place for this to happen, knowing that it would be a place that it would be shared with my brothers.
Swimming in a dream
I built a ladder of mac and cheese and memories
my mom moved deftly my way
my dad held my steady hand
Together we laughed
at little things we had all forgotten.
Soda Stream, owls in trees,
routes to school by Grandma's house.
Give the house a knock,
Give Gert a wave,
Off to learn everything and nothing.
I'm just a creative guy that's looking to throw all this spaghetti onto the wall and hope something sticks.