We each clutched a Styrofoam cup of lukewarm Lipton’s tea in the community room of the nursing home, she in her wheel chair, I seated next to her. A TV screen flickered across the room, the sound turned down to a murmur. Her pale blue cardigan, well-worn, the yarn pilled with use, caught the faded blue of her gentle eyes and hugged her thin shoulders. She wore her familiar black rimmed, cat’s-eye glasses with tiny rhinestones that had lost their glitter a long while back.
Gertrude Linnea. Daughter of Swedish immigrant parents, John and Christina. Sister to Edwin and Florence. Wife of Otto (son of Icelandic immigrants). Mother to Baird, my father and Linné, my uncle. Grandmother to me and my four sisters and my three cousins up north in Alaska. My amazing Amma¹.
She still glittered.
Amma smiled happily as I walked into her room. and had greeted me with the Swedish endearment, “Lilla vän”, which means ‘little friend’ or ‘my dear’, in her Ethel-Barrymore- sounding voice, lush and sonorous. Loaded into a wheelchair I rolled her down to the TV room to have some tea in a hum of so-good-to-see-you back-and-forths.
I recall feeling particularly down that day. This was in the early ‘90’s. I was an aspiring singer-songwriter and had just released my first full length recording, Karin Blaine. I had garnered some regional attention in the mid 80’s with airplay on a Seattle radio station, KEZX, via a couple of songwriting contests, and now, finally had my own album out. The release got released, time passed and I found myself flat broke with burnt out stars in my eyes. It was time to adjust my expectations, ask for my old waitress job back and close my Karin Blaine checking account I was frigging bummed. Seeing the ‘dba Karin Blaine’ on those checks had been a thrill. Sh#$! ²
My project had been recorded ‘live’ at the very cool, now defunct, Still Life Coffeehouse in Fremont coffeehouse. I had packed over a hundred of my fans into the place and Amma had been there, seated at a front table with her kooky friend, Dee Dee Rainbow. Dee Dee was a ocal Seattle celeb in her own right, distinguished by her outrageous rainbow colored gowns, sparkly magic wands and rainbow glitter everywhere, in her hair, on her earrings, eyelashes, nail polish. She was a hard-to- miss fixture at local music events. The two of them were quite a pair, my grandmother who resembled Mrs. Olsen, the star of the old Folgers coffee TV commercials who , also, wore an old cardigan and a fake gray bun of hair and Dee Dee, in her rainbow regalia, an over-the-top figure reminiscent of JP Patches, Seattle’s hilarious local TV clown. Part of my devoted fan base. Throughout the show Amma beamed proudly and Dee Dee Rainbow waved her wand.
Back in the nursing home TV room, I sipped my tea. “I can’t even pay the stupid $9 monthly bank fee to keep the account open”, I whined. “Lilla vän”, she repeated gently, having listened patiently to my tale of woe, her cup of tea shaking slightly in her beautiful old hands. With a knowing sigh she exclaimed, “We’re all in the same boat!”
We’re all in the same boat!
Geez! I thought a moment. A bit startled by her remark. Unable to see how we were exactly in the same boat, I mean, she was almost eighty seven years old for heaven’s sake, and, I, a young thirty-something. How were her problems and my problems at all connected, related, equal? In the same boat? Surely, not.
But, she was right, of course. The human boat, we’re all in it.
Life doesn’t go as planned, dreams crumble, expectations get smashed, we lose some, we win some, we get lost, we survive, we die. Sånt är livet, kort och smutsigt, quip the Swedes. Such is life, short and dirty. She knew all about it, she’d been in the boat for almost 87 years and capsized a couple of times.
In her mid thirties, her life was an idyll. A home in Carmel, California with her school-superintendant-husband, Otto, two lively, adolescent boys and a collie named Flash. Then, disaster hit. She had contracted tuberculosis.
To protect her family from the contagious disease and get proper treamtment, Amma left home for a sanitarium. The doctors told her she had one year to live. The Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria was eating holes in one of her lungs. There were no antiboitics.
The future looked very grim but in the ‘san’ as she called it, she was introduced to the writings of Adelle Davis, one of the first American proponents of healthy eating and nutrition. Inspired by Davis, Amma created her own daily vitamin routine, something she followed for the rest of her life.
Maybe it was the calcium tablets, the vitamin C’s, the B’s or just sheer grit. Maybe it was her own love of life, but she returned home from the sanitarium five years later, cured of TB, with one working lung. A short while later, another tragedy struck and her husband suffered a fatal heart attack. He was forty three. She was thirty eight. It was 1942 and the WWII was on.
Life can get brutal in the boat.
Born in Seattle to Swedish immigrant parents in 1904, Amma had lived with her family in a rented wood-frame house near Lake Union in the Eastlake neighborhood of Seattle. The family owned a milk cow and a goat. Her father, John, worked as a gardener for the city. Her mother, Stina, was an accomplished cook and baker, having worked as a chef in Stockholm before coming to America to marry her husband. It was an arranged marriage and not a particularly happy one, the story goes.
Gertrude, pronounced Ye (like ‘yes’) – trude, was responsible for walking the cow along Eastlake Avenue to graze before and after school. A trolley ran along Eastlake, as did motor vehicles, but there existed a fair amount of undeveloped space. Amma always said she hated this chore, “Gertrude, the cow herd, they called me,” she remembered, ashamed of her family’s humble lifestyle.
In 1942 she needed a job. Possessing a a mellifluous speaking voice and a flair for drama she found temporary work as an announcer on a wartime radio broadcast. When that job ended she moved with her youngest son to Berkeley, California, enrolled in the university and earned a degree in nutrition following in the steps of her idol, Adelle Davis. Then, with her degree in hand, she moved north with my uncle Linne to Seattle where her sister lived. It was here she put together her successful catering business, the Northwest Sampling Service, that cooked and served dinners for large gatherings for years during which time she helped put my dad through medical school and fed us meals consisting of Lynden chicken, Rice-A-Roni, Tiki Punch and Vernell Mints, the main sponsors of her catering business.
The fact that she sat before me in her wheelchair at the nursing home, having outlived her terminal diagnosis, the fact that she picked up the pieces after my grandfather’s early death and put herself through college, the fact that she created a successful business that helped us all, the fact that she had a grateful heart and a love for life in spite of everything, was stunning to me. My beautiful Amma in her cat’s eye spectacles and pale blue sweater, the poor immigrants’ daughter, the cow herd, the mother, the widow, the business owner, the do-er, the giver, the grateful spirit who had been through hell and made it back. Hers was an amazing story, although not an unusual story in the human boat. I mean, lets face it! Humans are remarkable.
And these days there are thousands of remarkable people in boats, literally, but also, on foot, wading, hiking, swimming, each trying to overcome, survive, get safe, start over. They are more often than not greeted by close-minded government policies and xenophobic politicians.
In my country, governors, congressman, presidents, administrators, policy makers and many fellow citizens have become insanely inhumane as regards immigration. Heartless, ugly and visionless they (we) are unable to help the remarkable lives and futures of asylum seekers and refugees unfold. We fail to see that we are in the same boat as our lilla vän pictured below:
But – truth is – we are. We are all in the same boat or suitcase as it were.
How do I know?
My Amma told me so.
What can we do? Get in and row.
Amma is the Icelandic word for grandmother.
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