My mother, Vivian Marcella Ellingson, was born 107 years ago in Fillmore County, Minnesota. Her grandparents – the Ellingsons and the Stensgaards – had immigrated from Norway to that area of southern Minnesota. That’s where she met my dad, Willard Johnson, descended from another farm family of Norwegian immigrants. My two older sisters and I were all born in Fillmore County too – in a small, rented farmhouse, delivered by the local midwife, while waiting for the country doctor.
But times were not good – farms were failing and there wasn’t much work to be had. And so in 1942 my parents packed up their three daughters and moved to Milwaukee. Later that year our brother was born – in a hospital. What a luxury for our mother!
When I imagine what it was like – taking care of four children all under age seven – I’m filled with admiration for my mom. The six of us lived with her mother – Grandma Ella Ellingson – on the third floor of an old, once glorious home on 27th and Vine Street. We lived there until I was seven. Meanwhile, my father, who had been working all those years in a foundry, longed for the country life and saved up enough cash for a down payment on a small farm 100 miles north. It couldn’t have been easy for my mother to say goodbye to family and the many friends she had made in the city, and move to a small farm on a gravel road where there was no indoor plumbing, no telephone. She had never learned to drive either – it made her nervous – but all those years on the farm I never heard her complain about the isolation she must have felt.
For our father, you see, needed to keep working his factory job in Milwaukee to support his family, so he rented a room during the week and took the train back on weekends. Essentially, he was a weekend farmer, and my mom a single parent for five days a week.
But she wasn’t a complainer – she had a courageous spirit and a happy disposition. She’s been gone now for 44 years, but the gift of memory keeps her close. What follows are a few of those memories.
Every Monday my mother washed clothes on the enclosed porch just outside the kitchen. That meant heating water on the wood range to fill the wringer washing machine. All year around the baskets of clean wet laundry were hung on clotheslines outside. I still have a vivid memory of Dad’s long-legged underwear frozen solid and then brought inside to finish drying over the hall railing. Mom had other chores too – feeding the chickens and bringing in the eggs, starting the wood fire in the morning and keeping it going all day – even in the summer, because most of our meals were made on top of the wood range.
Mom was an excellent baker – bread, cookies, cakes, pies – always something waiting for us when we came home from school. Before she was married, my mom had taught all eight grades in a one-room country school; now her children attended a school just like that. We walked or biked the two miles each way.
We didn’t have TV until I was in high school, but radio was Mom’s link to the outside world. I remember coming home to hear the latest installment of “Stella Dallas” or “Lorenzo Jones.” In the evenings we would gather around the console radio in the living room and listen to “Dragnet” or “The Lone Ranger” or “Fibber McGee and Molly.”
Mom had lots of sayings: “If it was a snake it would have bit you.” (That was after finding something that was right under our noses.) “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” When my sisters and I thought we were “too busy” to do dishes: “You can wash a lot of dishes in 10 minutes.”
I’ve found that the implications of that 10 minute challenge applies to much more than a sink full of dirty dishes. I can take any task, any project – no matter how overwhelming, break it down and start somewhere, anywhere. The key is to just start.
Mom had a lot of energy, didn’t sit too much, yet she could poke gentle fun at herself with comments like “The faster I go, the behinder I get.” Another of my favorites is: “I just seem to run around in a bushel basket.” These days we don’t usually preface the word basket with bushel. But I conjure up an image of it right away: a wooden crate which held apples or potatoes. It’s harder, though, to conjure up an image of my mom in miniature running around inside that basket. So my imagination expands that basket until it’s plenty large for a woman to run around in, not getting anywhere. Little basket or oversized basket, that image of my mother, Vivian, running around and around and not getting anywhere always amuses me. When I find myself suffering the “bushel basket syndrome,” I can step back, lighten up, and remember my mom.
On the wall next to my computer is a framed picture of my mother, about ten years old, sitting in a field of wildflowers with her two younger sisters and their mother, Grandma Ella. My cousin Dianne painted it, transforming the images from an old black and white photo into lovely pastels. Looking at it, I am always reminded how I’m connected to the many generations of mothers and grandmothers before me and to the many generations of daughters and grand-daughters after me.