A Burst of Joy

He looked an awful lot like Andrew Jackson. A long narrow face, a shock of white brushy hair, and an irascible temperament. He was my paternal grandfather, Kurtz Olson. Despite his prickly, no-nonsense, narrow approach to life, I found him endlessly endearing. 

The youngest of seven children to immigrants Peter and Matilda Olson, Kurtz was born in Wing River, Minnesota in 1905. Though I don’t know much about his early life, I do know that he had a had a short attention span, and restless feet. 

During the worst of the Depression Grandpa worked as a welder, and scrap metal dealer. My dad like to remind us that with so many people jobless, Kurtz had lots of work repairing and parting out junked automobiles. One of my favorite snapshots from his early years is Grandpa and another man posing with axle grease below their noses. The two were making sport of Hitler, who in the 1930’s was still viewed as laughable. Grandpa Kurtz is smirking, knowing he’s naughty, and enjoying himself. 

During the Second World War, he and my grandmother moved the family to Tacoma, Washington. With the “Arsenal of Democracy” in full swing, Kurtz had plenty of metal work on the coast. After 1945, he again uprooted and moved his family to Spokane, Washington, where cheap hydro power had opened plenty of post-war employment. 

Still, Minnesota remained the holy land. Grandpa would hop in his truck and make frequent pilgrimages to the the upper mid-west, driving straight through (24 hours or so) to his homeland. It was as if traveling from Paris to Versailles, only longer. 

Unlike my immediate family, where I was the only girl, (not counting my mom) Kurtz lived in a decidedly female home. My aunt and grandmother sat at the kitchen table reading the Enquirer and talking shit about nearly everybody. Poor Grandpa. Those two women tied that poor man into knots, and he reacted predictably. It wasn’t that my Grandfather was unkind by nature, but he was easy to wind up, perceiving the world in black and white, no middle.

Despite those women bad-mouthing me and my brothers, he liked me. And I liked him. In a fleeting, incomplete memory I see him waiting under street lights at the Spokane Greyhound depot. We all must have been meeting a relative from Minnesota. In a burst of joy I remember shouting “Grandpa,” as I sprinted to him, where he scooped me up into a hug. Another vivid moment I recall was his truck pulling up in front of our house, and Kurtz coming to the door wearing nothing but a smirk, bright red long johns, and laced boots. What a crack up.

In a NorthAmerican Scandinavian cadence some of his comments were just a hoot. 

“First they call it yam, and then they called it yelly, now they call it pree-serfse.”

And Kurtz always had a dog. There had been Corky, Powder and Puff, Samantha, and Cindy among many others. Samantha was an especially smart Border Collie. After finding herself thrown on the floor of Grandpa’s truck one too many times, she figured out how to brace herself on the dashboard. He would roar up to yellow traffic lights, then stand on the brakes to avoid a red light. My god was it perpetual. My guess is a new clutch about every three months, casualties of his Mr Magoo style. Anyway, Samantha learned to watch the traffic lights and prepare. 

I drove over to his house on some such errand, and pulled into his long unpaved driveway. The little white garage was separate from the house, and left a gap enclosed by a cyclone fence. Opening the gate, I saw my grandpa splitting wood. In the yard next door a dog barked at me on the far side of the fence. I called out, “You be quiet over there,” to which my grandfather said, “He doessent underschand you. It’s a Cherman Shepard.” Then he laughed, and so did I.

My children didn’t know Kurtz. And for that I’m sorry. They missed a true original. I suppose that is my job, and the job of all of us Boomers. We bridge the years between that Depression-era, World War Two generation to our children. They won’t know if we don’t share the story. And since it’s December, I’ll sign off with this Kurtz Christmas anecdote.

On Christmas Eve in about 1936-37, my grandparents packed up their children for an evening church service. Being good Swedes they had traditional candles balanced on the boughs of their Christmas tree. And they left them lit. By the time they returned home a fully engulfed fire lit up the night. They lost everything. My grandfather knew his way around a welder, but somehow overlooked the yule-tree. That incident remains today as serious family lore.

Now he’s long gone, as is my dad. But through the written word he remains as vivid as his humor, his voice, and his presence in my memory.

Happy Holidays. 

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle.


Sorrow Mixed With Holiday Cheer


Christmas, 1965, I’m the sailor girl, he’s in blue plaid


We sat at the dining room table, my father having cleared a corner where we could both work. Agreeing to combine our efforts, we decided to write out both his and my Christmas cards in one fell swoop. These days, my visits to the folks come around more frequently—either flying or driving the three hundred miles to spend a few days back in my childhood home. And I didn’t mind addressing that stack of cards, especially with my dad sitting faithfully next to me making the job that much more special.

It’s my brothers who do the heavy lifting around the old homestead. My middle brother, in particular, visits nearly every day, pruning the shrubs, cutting the lawn, shoveling winter snow, and answering those midnight calls for transportation to the hospital which are also growing more frequent.

My youngest brother passes his weekend visits with on-sight, live-in chores. Heavy furniture moved, manure bags hauled, and removing and returning Mom’s giant window box cover, an aluminum contraption, some eight feet long. When those chores are finished, number three son whisks my father off to look at cars, both vintage, and new because they both like cars . . . a lot.

They take it easy on me when it comes to manual labor. My main job is to hang out with the folks and just go with the flow. On one earlier stay my Mom decided we should head out to the local mall. Happy to make the foray into retail-land, I wrestled her wheeled walker into the car, jockeyed for entrance onto the freeway, and we spend the afternoon simply looking around the stores, making time for a little overpriced coffee at the mall coffee spot. On this trip her sudden impulse for fun surprised me. All three of us sped the opposite direction on Interstate 90, to the Coeur de Alene Indian Casino, for some noisy, smoky, slot machine therapy.

If Caesar Milan is the Dog Whisperer, then my mother is the Slot Machine Whisperer. Stooped and round-shouldered, that little dynamo of a woman, cane in hand, cruises through islands of blinking, ringing machines, moving as smoothly as R2D2, but with more tenacity. She says ripe machines beckon to her, and damn if it isn’t true. As I sit beside her, losing my mortgage payment (at an identical machine) Mom turns ten bucks into a sweet fifty in a heartbeat. And she can get an awfully cocky for an old lady.

Bending over my work, back at the table, my Dad and I subtly figure out a production line. I copy last year’s addresses from a stack of cards, one by one, jotting them onto fresh envelopes. Stuffing this year’s card inside, I scribble into a spiral notebook each recipient for his records. My father then presses both the return address sticker and postage stamp on to the envelope corners and seals them up. This system is efficient and should have processed smoothly, except that my parents are now eighty-three, and their friends and close relatives are getting up there, too.

“This one is wrong. He’s in assisted living now. Oh, and he died just before Thanksgiving, poor guy. Say, can you put a line through that first address, and write in the new one?”

“Sure. It will still get where it’s going,” I assure him.

“She died a few months ago.” He sighs. “I’d better look at those envelopes,” he reaches for last year’s batch, “and I’ll get my address book.” Dad didn’t want to waste any more stationary. So by the time we were done with his cards, the final number had thinned down considerably, and he looked a little sad.

Despite that bitter-sweet atmosphere of sorrow mixed with holiday cheer, I found our time huddled at the end of that table somehow uplifting. Clearly our effort underscored that our lives can be measured as a series of losses. The loss of youth, of extraordinary moments too quickly expired, of dear friends, beloved pets, and the dearest of family members who leave us far too soon.

Still there was really no place I’d rather have been at that moment. I’m sixty years old and still I got to sit with my sweet, lovable, ever-constant dad, at a table we’ve shared since I was a little girl.

A precious gift indeed, in this season of joy.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir, River of January also available on Kindle