Monday, August 6, 2012

Three Violins

August is like glancing at your watch and realizing it’s later than you think. 

It makes it important to get in the remaining summer highlights before the calendar runs out.

Fishing is Al’s intent as he pictures lazy August mornings ahead. My interest is for the other end of the day.

My pleasure is getting maximum usage out of the summer evening light. It shrinks with each new sunset and fills our rooms with an earlier dusk.

It makes me wonder how the approach of fall was awaited on long ago farms and homesteads.

Perhaps the rural community didn’t look past harvest, the make or break time of the year with its long hours of bringing in the crops. 

But certainly, with the wheat threshed, the corn siloed and the hay bales hoisted to the barn loft, the next phase of winter preparation took hold.

At night there may have been lights to see across the fields. These steady beacons connected through the quiet starlight. 

The farm lights, standing out above plowed acreage and neat belts of planted windbreaks, told the scattered farms they weren't alone.

Through the winter the farms mostly depended on their own households for company. This often was a mixed group.

It could comprise of family, parents who came to live out their years with them, hired help when it was necessary or could be afforded, or relations on a visit, or waiting out a tough spell when cities could offer no jobs.

Those on hand amounted to your human contact, your support. Everyone else was more or less on the periphery as days shortened and life drew in. 

After chores were done, and the cool night air began to descend, there  were socks to mend by such light as there was, or a bit of harness to repair, or time for storytelling or accounts to balance at the kitchen table.

The children played their own games in a warm corner. The cats – actual house kitties and not the half-wild barn cats who kept the mice population down – curled in balls of comfort completing the scene.

I’m reminded specifically of an old country neighbor. What thoughts were his as August days sloped toward fall?

He was our neighbor in a geographical sense. His farm wasn’t far away.  He was a bachelor. 

I don't think he was a recluse but he was very retiring, almost surely shy. I don't recall every meeting him. Knowledge of him came from what was said of him.

My mother knew him and his family, all of whom were older than she. They were a Norwegian family who came in the early 20th century. It was long after the main thrust of immigration to our parts. 

That first big group settled our area as pioneers of a land just opening up. This family arrived to find their fellow Norwegians well assimilated into American society. 

The Norwegian language had been shed, at least in public, and by the children altogether. Born in Minnesota they tended toward American ways. I wonder what the brave little group braced for as they realized the wide gulf in their experience from that of the others.

The family bought land and this was something they shared with the others. They knew how to work hard and tend well their farm animals and their acreage.

They likely attended the little country Norwegian Lutheran church near their farm. They’d have been faithful Sunday congregants.

The strength of the old Norwegian hymns, still sung at church in their native language, would have supplied courage from one week to the next.

There were trips to the country store, hardly a mile away, and perhaps to the cheese factory. They had a small herd of cows which gave them milk they could sell. Cows meant you were pretty much tied to the farm. The black and white Holsteins had their price.

The family consisted of the parents and a son and daughter. The children were possibly ten or twelve when the family moved from Norway to the United States.

In time the parents died. The son and daughter didn't marry. They stayed on at the home. They farmed and were presumably each other’s friend and companionship.

Then the sister passed away. Carl, as he’ll be called here, continued  alone. Big-hearted neighbors of his (the two farms joined) tucked him under their wings like family.

Carl wasn’t social. The couple respected this. But he was foremost a neighbor and this meant checking on him and including him.

They brought him soup and meals. Sometimes meals were fish which the farmwife caught. She was an avid ice fisherman. She had holes on the lake ice out of which many a winter meal took shape.

Perhaps she took over molasses cookies (cookie jars were always full) or buttermilk pie. Norwegians love their dairy in a hundred different renditions.

There were times they’d sit to coffee together. Coffee was an important part of the ritual of rural neighboring. I’m sure Carl visited their farm somewhat easily. They helped each other at harvest and with chores.

We knew very little, just snippets of what we heard. We did hear that Carl drank his coffee differently. We thought it sounded very Norwegian. We put it like that because we didn’t know how else to categorize it.

He poured his coffee, a little at a time, from cup into saucer. The saucer was a small circular plate that held the cup.

The coffee was allowed to cool before he sipped it from the saucer. We kids didn’t think it so much odd as unique. It was a whiff of old patterns our generation found more amusing than anything else.

Coffee served in a farm kitchen came with something ample. Whatever was newly baked would come out now. Or it might possibly be donuts, punched out of yeasty dough and deep-fried at the counter hours ago with the smell of the cooking fat still in the house.

The table might have homemade bread and preserves or fruit sauce, opened from a Mason jar sealed the summer before from high bush cranberries or apples or plums. It was a sufficient feast to tide Carl over if he decided not to fix anything for dinner later at home.

Carl’s farm was in a pretty bend of the river. The house was enfolded in hills. It wasn’t seen from the road as I recall. There was a red barn you could glimpse except we seldom went that way.

As kids Carl scarcely entered our thoughts. He was rarely mentioned and never seen.

We did think his was a set-apart existence. We could imagine the strangeness of coming as youngsters to a place you never quite latched onto.

We were glad for the kindness shown to him by his nearest neighbors, and no doubt there were many others too who looked out after him.

Our children were babies when I learned there’d been an auction at his farm. Carl went as quietly as his years had been spent. It was left to the family items to tell his story.

Friends attended the auction. There were scores of items they said, stopping to visit afterwards.

Among the calls for bids were linens (probably beautifully embroidered), furniture, which included iron beds, three old violins, egg crates and cheese boxes. Typical of a farm sale there were also many tools.

It was the three old violins that got me. I could hear the music. It came to me this is how the long nights of fall and winter were spent. Music chases away loneliness. It instills hope. It unites, soothes and soars.

I wondered who in the family had been the violin players. Three violins among four people could indicate one violin was shared.

Maybe the fourth person was the listener – the audience, the appreciator. Or perhaps the fourth person provided vocal accompaniment.

I can believe this family group sang of their homeland. They came to terms with the new in the healing music of the old.

Summer, which is outward in its energy, changes to fall’s more concentrated air. This family played from their hearts and hopes as the door closed out the cold and darkness of night.

Any sadness, too, I like to think, was kept on that other side as the strains of the violins had their piece.

Ro Giencke – August 6, 2012


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