Monday, September 28, 2009

Grandma's House

Grandma's House (south view)
The front porch is hidden by the garage.

When my Aunt Mary, the last of the Munros of Crosby, ND, died in March 2003, the Munro house had been in the family for over 85 years. But after Mary’s death, the house had to be sold. My sister, her daughter and I went back to Crosby over the long Memorial Day weekend to split up what few family possessions were left (Mary was a thrower, not a saver – more’s the pity).

After we finished, Glori and Kelsey went out to the car, but I remained inside to take one last look around. “Goodbye House", I mourned aloud. I could not believe I would never set foot in it again. This was my Grandma Julia's house. It was MY house – my first home. How could it be torn away from me like this?

My grandma, Julia Munro.

But in the ensuing years I have realized with great relief that Grandma's house is still with me, every nook and cranny of it. I know that this house, which is my heart and soul, will live forever in my memory.

My sister has heard that the people who own the house now have let it go to hell, but in my mind's eye it will always be perfect. That's not to say it was a grand house. In fact, it was a pretty funny house, with no discernable design. Single-storied, it had been cobbled together over the years as, one by one, rooms were added on to the original single room. Grandma and Grandpa managed to raise seven children in that three-bedroom house. My aunts and uncles used to joke that they slept three or four to a bed, two at the head and one or two at the foot.

Sitting on Grandma's front sidewalk.

I spent the first four years of my life in that house, until my mom got married. That last day, I remember putting my few toys in a wicker laundry basket and weeping bitterly at having to leave my sweet Grandma’s house. After we moved to Larson, however, we did “go up to Crosby" every Saturday. Dad would save his Crosby refrigeration jobs for that day. Mom would shop for groceries and go to the Laundromat. I’d go to the library or check out the five and dime or the drugstore.

From left to right: Aunt Ina, my brother Johnny,
Mom (with head bent), Aunt Mary (in back), me

Whenever I could, I would stay behind and spend a few days with Grandma after Mom, Dad and the kids had left for home. And just as her house was cobbled together, my image of it was cobbled together from so many things:

I recall taking a nap in the living room, covered with my late Grandpa Duncan's old brown plaid bathrobe, while Grandma entertained her friends at “lunch” (aka afternoon tea – but with coffee) in the dining room. Their musical, lilting voices as they spoke in Norwegian lulled me to sleep like the most beautiful lullaby ever written. Grandma and I would visit the pastor’s house or the pretty, china- and chintz-filled homes of her neighbors, Mrs. Hanmer and Mrs. Tweeten.

Sometimes we'd go all the way across town to Auntie Jenny and Uncle Albert's house. That was a long walk for older lady and a little girl, but I'd be rewarded by seeing Auntie Jenny's funny cuckoo clock people. After dark on warm summer nights, Grandma would take me for walks through the neighborhood. I was unafraid as long as Grandma was holding my hand.

Standing on the snowy back steps in my snowman jammies.
I always seemed to scrunch up my face for photos.


I remember sleeping in a double bed sandwiched between Grandma and Mary, flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. On winter mornings before she went to work, Mary would warn me, "Cover up your eyes now, I'm turning on the light." I would watch, fascinated, as Mary pursed her mouth to apply her lipstick "just so". Summer afternoons, I would walk uptown to the Ford dealership where she worked, then we'd go to the Crystal Cafe for a strawberry ice cream soda.

I can’t forget going to the show (the movies) with Aunt Mary and bringing Grandma back a box of Nibs licorice; taking Sunday naps and afterward, Sunday drives (gas was cheap!); hearing Uncle Scotty claim that "pork gravy makes your hair wavy" (his was!); having Uncle Davy teach me to tie my shoes and watching Uncle Donny clowning around – making me laugh by wrapping a towel around his head to simulate Lawrence of Arabia, a Turk, a pirate. Sometimes we’d get whirlwind visits from Aunt Ina, who was a nurse in Plentywood, MT. Or Mary, Mom, Grandma and I would take the Greyhound bus to visit Uncle Billy in Minot. He actually LIVED in the Roosevelt Hotel – how grand.

With Uncle Donny

About once every two years, Grandma’s brother Olaf from the wilds of Northern Saskatchewan would come to visit. She would somehow manage to get him to shuck off his long johns for a washing (probably for the first time in two years!) It always gave me an unexpected fright to see those yellowed long johns hanging up to dry in Grandma’s front porch. But even scarier was Uncle Olaf, with his wild white eyebrows and rheumy blue eyes.

In the winter I would sit right on top of the huge square heat register between the living room and dining room until I got grid marks on my bottom (I loved being hot.) At lunchtime I would watch "Days of Our Lives" with Mary and Gram (my mom watched "As the World Turns" at our house). Sometimes Grandma would sit at the dining room table to read the "Decorah (IA) Posten" (Norwegian language newspaper) or write out recipes in her old brown spiral notebook.

On my rocking horse - I don't remember this toy.

I have way too memories of Grandma's House for just one post. I'll be back with Grandma's House Part II in my next post.

Grandma Julia with family dog Boots in the huge
yard. In the 1960s, to my great sadness, the family
sold two of their three lots and houses were built on them

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


How my thoughts - and my blog posts - do wander; they meander from September, to autumn art, to autumn poetry, to John Keats' Ode to Autumn, to Jane Campion's movie on Keats, to movies in general.

Do you remember when many American movie theatres were named Bijou? I do. I'm not sure why they were called that, but I was compelled to look up the meaning of the word. Bijou (plural, bijoux) means small, exquisitely wrought trinkets or jewels. In short, little treasures, little gems.

Here are my bijoux - my list of  little gems: the little-known and very much under-appreciated movies that I could watch over and over again.

The first, above, is a version of the ancient myth of "Tristan and Isolde", the famous star-crossed lovers, she an Irish princess and he a son of Cornwall and adopted son of its king. Tristan and Isolde meet and fall in love in Ireland, but her destiny is to marry King Marke of Cornwall (played sympathetically by Rufus Sewell).

I've long been a fan of James Franco, and he makes a soulful Tristan. Sophia Myles is luminous as Isolde. If you are a fan of all things Celtic, like me, just the sight of Isolde arriving for her wedding in all her finery aboard a Celtic carved wooden boat lit by torches will make you swoon. I absolutely cannot understand why this movie had such little success at the box office.

Ned Divine has won the Irish Lottery. How wonderful for him. But alas - Ned Devine has just died! So all the members of his little town of Tulaigh Mohr join together in a scheme to maintain the lie that Ned Devine is still alive, so that they can get and split his winnings. Jackie O'Shea (Ian Bannen) is the clever neighbor who gets the scheme going along with pal Michael O'Sullivan (David O'Kelly). Fionnula Flanagan is superb as Jackie's droll wife Annie. And who'd have thought the sight of a naked scrawny old Irishman riding a motorcycle would be so hilarious?

I loved Alison Elliott's quiet, understated performance as Percy Talbot, a young woman just released from prison for manslaughter, who decides to start a new life in the small town of Gilead, Maine. She goes to work for Hannah (Ellyn Burstyn), owner of the town's cafe, "The Spitfire Grill". Gruff on the outside but kind on the inside, Hannah soon accepts Percy, but can Percy find acceptance from the other residents of Gilead? (Is there balm in Gilead?)

Elliott is superb as Percy, a character who will stay with you a long, long time. I think she should have received an Academy Award for this role.

Shirley Valentine is a 42-year-old English housewife who is under appreciated by her boorish husband and grown children, and longs to find "the girl who used to be me". All that changes when she takes a trip to Greece with a friend. Upon arrival, the friend promptly ditches Shirley, leaving her to her own devices. Shirley does find herself in Greece; more than that I won't go into. (Okay, I do have to mention Shirley's reaction when she has sex with a Greek waiter. Funnee!)

The adorable Pauline Collins was nominated for her role as Shirley, though she didn't win. I understand that many women have Shirley Valentine parties to watch the film together. I especially loved the movie because it reminds me of my honeymoon in Greece. The sun-drenched scenes there contrast so strikingly with the greys of Shirley's drab life in England.

Marcy (Janeane Garofolo) works for a Massachusetts politician named McGlory who is inspired to search his Irish roots in order to give him a Kennedy-esque glamor. Rather than going himself, he sends Marcy, who sets off for Ireland, leaving her jerk of a boyfriend (Dennis Leary) behind.

Marcy meets an incredible cast of characters in the town of Ballinagra, which is all aflutter with its annual matchmaking festival. This film has really funny moments involving bumped heads, broken legs and wild car rides. It also gives lovely glimpses of Irish scenery and a truly moving scene in an Irish pub where Marcy is serenaded with lovely old Irish songs. Along the way she meets Sean, a very unlikely suitor. (David O'Hara, best known for his role as Stephen in "Braveheart.) How many matches will be made in Ballinagra this year, and will Marcy find her match or return to el jerko?

This is just the perfect little gem of an English movie. (Most of the movies in my list were made in England, Scotland or Ireland.) Hunky Clive Owen stars as a prisoner who is transferred to an experimental new minimum security prison called Edgewater. There, inmates are allowed to work at projects that really interest them. To his surprise, Owen discovers a love for gardening. This ultimately leads to him and his gardening pals (including David O'Kelly from "Waking Ned Devine") to create an exhibit at the most prestigious English gardening event, the Chelsea Garden Show. Helen Mirren, terrific as always, plays the quintessential English lady gardener. Lovely, just lovely.

I almost didn't include this film, because Julia Roberts is in it. However, it is one of her earlier films and she is not allowed to overwhelm it, thank god. The story revolves around the Mystic (Mystic Seaport, CT) pizza parlor, where Daisy (Roberts), Kat (Annabeth Gish) and Jojo (Lili Taylor) all work. Conchata Ferrell, a well-recognized character actress, is marvelous as Leona, the pizza shop owner.

"Mystic Pizza" tells of the friendship among the three girls and their romantic entanglements - Daisy with a spoiled rich boy, Kat with a married architect, and Jojo with a hardworking, down-to-earth fisherman. Roberts is dark and exotic enough to portray one of the town's Portagee (people of Portuguese descent). As her sister, Gish is less believable. However, Gish is the best actress here, and her story is the most poignant.

"Indian Summer" tells the story of a half dozen thirty somethings who get together for a reunion at Camp Tamakwa, the summer camp at which they all once stayed. I think the grace of this movie comes from its wonderful ensemble cast, just as good as that of the much more well known movie, "The Big Chill". It includes Alan Arkin, Elizabeth Perkins, Kevin Pollack, Diane Lane (always wonderful in anything), Bill Paxton and Kimberly Williams (now Kimberly Williams-Paisley).

Now adults with lots of adult problems, they re-kindle friendships while re-living their carefree days. Adding to the poignant "end of summer" sense of sadness is the news that the camp owner, Uncle Lou (Arkin), plans to close the resort and sell it.

"Amelie" is a most charmante film! Amelie (Audrey Tatou) is a shy, reserved, somewhat quirky young French lady (no wonder I like her). She works in a small cafe peopled by eccentric characters, is an inveterate daydreamer and appears destined to be alone forever.

Having had an affection-less childhood and not much of a social life, Amelie decides to help the people around her fix up their lives. To help her father, who dreams of travel, she sends his garden gnome traveling around the world. Through manipulation, she sets up two people in the restaurant, and becomes an avenging angel for an abused, beleaguered grocer's assistant. There's also a mystery, in which Amelie finds a scrapbook compiled by a young man who retrieves torn-up photos from automatic photo booths. Who is the mysterious man who appears in many of the photos, and what about the young man who lost the scrapbook - will he end up in Amelie's life?

Tatou has been compared to another Audrey - Audrey Hepburn - and I can see the comparison. Not only is she similar in appearance, she is also as fey and whimsical and pixie-like. And Amelie's Paris is the Paris we all dream of.

Not a lot happens in this movie, but what does happen stays with you forever. I have always been a fan of Ethan Hawke (though his greasy hair is always in need of a good washing). Playing Jesse, an American student, he meets lovely French girl Celine (Julie Delpy) on a train. He persuades her to get off at Vienna to spend a mere 14 hours together. They ride a bus, they walk, they drink wine, they talk, they talk some more, they fall in love. In a review by the late Gene Siskel, he marveled at how well Hawke conveys Jesse's feelings for Celine with no words, just facial expressions. I agree.

Their story is all the more painful and poignant because of the fact that they may never see each other again, for they will go their separate ways in the morning; she back to Paris, he back to America. Will they meet up again, as promised?

That answer ultimately came 9 years later, with the release of "Before Sunset" in 2004. That film is almost - almost - as good as "Before Sunrise". I was a bit upset by Hawke's surprisingly gaunt appearance as opposed to Delpy's still fresh face.

All 11-year-old Billy Elliot wants to do is dance! But his derisive father and older brother think it's sissy and wonder if he might be gay. He's not - "Just because I like to dance doesn't mean I'm a pouf!" No, he just wants to dance. Motherless Billy (Jamie Bell), the son of a coal miner in a bleak English town, is supposed to take boxing lessons at the local gym, but instead discovers and joins a girls dance class. How the winsome, undaunted Billy prevails in pursing his dream is a sweet, sweet story. Julie Walters is wonderful as his chain-smoking, crusty but compassionate ballet teacher who soon discovers his raw talent.

This is a charming and offbeat coming of age film. It is touching, joyful and exuberant. Hint - even though this is an English film, you might want to hit the subtitles button when you watch it. The accents are very broad, and were hard to understand even for me, and I watch a lot of British films.

This is a delightful movie! In it, Julie Walters - excellent as usual - plays Annie, who has lost her husband to leukemia. In a performance even better than Walters' is the great Helen Mirren, Annie's witty best pal Chris who has been with her through thick and thin. Trying to think of ideas to raise money to benefit the Yorkshire hospital in which Annie's husband died, they come up with the idea of a nude calendar and enlist their very prim and proper ladies' club members to make it a reality.

These typical middle-aged English housewives - after much reticence, shyness and giggling - come up with a tasteful calendar which is a huge success. (Naughty bits are hidden behind such items as sticky buns and flowering plants.) However, the notoriety drives a wedge between Chris and Annie. It is interesting to see what role jealousy can play in a seemingly indestructible relationship between two dear, dear friends, and to see if and how they can repair it. (PS - Ciaran Hinds ("Persuasion") is wonderful as Chris' husband.) The movie, by the way, is based on an actual event.

Frankie's dad is a real arse. But instead of telling the deaf Scottish lad the truth about his father, Frankie's mum explains away his absence by telling Frankie that Dad works on a ship that sails to ports all around the world. Her lie holds up as Frankie follows the ship's travels and she writes Frankie letters purporting to be from Dad, until they learn the ship will be docking at their portside city. In a panic, Frankie's mum decides to hire a stranger to pretend to be Frankie's dad.

Get ready, fake dad turns out to be none other than Gerard Butler!! (Sigh!) It's wonderful to see Butler as this rough, tough and taciturn man who slowly reveals his sensitive, tender side as he gets to know Frankie and his mum. Then, real dad comes back into the picture.

Again, if you are a fan of Celtic legends, you can't miss the magical movie, "The Secret of Roan Inish". Fiona is a young Irish girl trying to persuade her sorrowful grandparents to move back to the island of Roan Inish, their ancestral home. Via family stories, she learns that her people have been touched through the years by Celtic myth and magic. The tales mix several well-known Celtic legends, including that of the legendary shape-shifting selkie, and that of the little boy who was swept out to sea, forever lost.

Fiona knows that her own baby brother was carried out to sea in his cradle when they were moving off Roan Inish. However, she believes her brother is still alive and living on the island. In addition, she learns that one of her ancestors once captured a selkie - a seal woman - after she had slipped out of her seal skin. Is what happens next fantasy or reality? Does it really matter? This magical movie is based on Rosalie Frye's book "The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry."

Like "Calendar Girls", "The Full Monty" features nudity. But as the title implies, it's full frontal. A group of unemployed and desperate Sheffield steelworkers decides to become a Chippendale type dance group, though they don't have the bodies for it. You don't think this plot is the basis for a funny, heart-warming and uplifting movie? I beg to differ!

First of all, we aren't confronted with any actual nudity. And second, we really learn to like these disenfranchised men who only want to earn a little money and a little respect. As they prepare for their one-night striptease show, we learn that they're actually nice and sensitive men who care about each other. We come to care about them too. The comedy comes from the fact that they are so ill prepared and so under equipped (pun intended) for what they are about to attempt.

(PS - Like "Amelie" there is a subplot of a little traveling garden gnome.)

Sweet, charming, endearing, quirky, eccentric, lovely, heartwarming, magical, whimsical, witty, romantic, touching: that's how I like my movies. I like them funny too, as long as they're not the horrid gross out comedies that America seem to produce so often (e.g. "American Pie.") Do you have any bijoux you think I should check out?

Friday, September 18, 2009


"PORTRAIT OF JOHN KEATS" by William Hilton

Usually at this time of year, I include John Keats' "Ode to Autumn" in my blog, either a few lines from it, or the entire poem.

"ODE TO AUTUMN" (first verse)

"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun,
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set the budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimmed their clammy cell."

This year, I am particularly enthusiastic about lauding the poem, for this autumn season features the release of Jane Campion's long-in-coming new film, "Bright Star", which tells the love story of Keats and young Fanny Brawne.

Ah, Johnny Keats! If you've ever taken a class in English literature, you know about Keats, one of the famed trio of English Romantic Poets, along with Percy Bysshe Shelly and Lord Byron. You must recognize lines like these:

First verse of "A THING OF BEAUTY" ("ENDYMION"):

"A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases, it will never
Pass into nothingness, but still will keep
A bower of quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health; and quiet breathing..."


"Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing. "

Last verse of "ODE ON A GRECIAN URN":

"When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,--that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.' "

The film, told mainly from Fanny's point of view, has gotten generally excellent reviews. Keats, as one reviewer puts it, makes a fine subject for a period romance: " His now-revered poetry was scorned in his lifetime. He was genteel yet poor, dependent on the kindness of his friends. He died young, of tuberculosis (naturally). And the great love of his life was a woman he could never afford to marry."

Keats met Fanny, daughter of his next door neighbor, when he lived in Hampstead Heath, London, with his friend and supporter, Charles Brown. At first, Keats considers Fanny, age 16, to be a little minx, but is clearly captivated by her. She, on the other hand, is unimpressed by his poems. But her willingness to learn about poetry leads to friendship, then a slowly developing romance and finally to a deep ardor.

In the movie, the love story of John and Fanny is told mainly through conversations about poetry and love letters received by Fanny. Theirs was a very passionate, yet chaste, relationship, never physically consummated. As one reviewer succinctly puts it, they lived in an age hidebound by propriety and social rituals and restraints they were obliged to observe.

Their doomed love affair was cut short due less to illness than to his poverty, social mores and the interference of friends. Brown, especially, could not stand Fanny and did everything he could to come between the two.

Keats' began a career as a medical student but as time passed his thoughts turned more and more toward writing poetry. His final years were marked by incredible bouts of creativity - his luminous sonnets and his masterpieces, the odes. Together, they form a body of work that is among the best loved and most popular in English literature.

The movie's title comes from the title of the last poem Keats ever wrote, to and about Fanny:

"BRIGHT STAR" (also known as "HIS LAST SONNET")

"Bright star, would I were stedfast {sic} as thou art--
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors
No--yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever-or else swoon to death."

Sketch of John Keats by Charles Brown, 1819

First lines of "ODE TO A NIGHTINGALE"

"My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lete-wards had sunk:
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot
But being too happy in thy happiness,---
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease."

Keats' mother died of consumption (tuberculosis), as did his brother Tom, whom John cared for during his illness. Not long after Tom died, John began to show symptoms of the disease. I think this foreknowledge of an early death is especially reflected in this poem:


"When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charactry,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen'd grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love; -- then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink."


With his relationship with Fanny thwarted and his tuberculosis symptoms growing worse, Keats moved to Italy in 1820 in hopes the better climate would lead to a recovery. Instead, he died at age 25 on Feb. 23, 1821, in his home on Rome's Spanish Steps. His last request was that he be buried beneath a tombstone unmarked with his name, carrying only these words: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water."

However, two friends added this epitaph: "This grave contains all that was mortal of A YOUNG ENGLISH POET, who on his death bed, on the bitterness of his heart, of the malicious powers of his enemies {his critics with their scathing attacks} desired these words to be engraved on his tombstone."

Of course, Keats's words were not writ upon water, but stone, and printed upon thousands of book pages. He proved his vicious critics wrong. Their names have been forgotten; his never will. His place in the pantheon of English Romantic poets is assured.

I hope the movie "Bright Star" renews an interest in Keats' poetry and causes his star to shine even brighter in the literary cosmos. Although Fanny may be the bright star of the film, John Keats is the actual bright star - the fixed point around which mere planets orbit.

To read any or all of John Keats' poems in their entirety, go to and type in his name.

I expect to go to this film over the weekend, if it opens in Bismarck.
Added Friday afternoon: "Bright Star" isn't opening in Bismarck this weekend, but they are devoting two screens to "Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs". Stupid town.

Monday, September 14, 2009



(This has got to be my very favorite painting depicting autumn, and I unashamedly use it over and over in my blog!)


"September: it was the most beautiful of words, he'd always felt, evoking orange flowers, swallows, and regret."

~ Alexander Theroux ~

Last autumn, I was all about writing: I was consumed with setting down the fictional, vintage-style diary called The Autumn Sketch Book of Bess Stanhope, a 1920s school teacher in North Dakota. This year, I seem to be into art: the Victorian - or at least traditional - type paintings of autumn, and the lyrical poetry of September, written by others far more talented than myself.

Therefore, I'm sharing some September songs - words and images of this beautiful time of year.

"A REST AT HARVEST 1865" by William-Adolphe Bourgereau

"Tang of fruitage in the air;
Red boughs bursting everywhere;
Shimmering of seeded grass;
Hooded gentians all a'mass.
Warmth of earth, and cloudless wind
Tearing off the husky rind,
Blowing feathered seeds to fall
By the sun-baked, sheltering wall.
Beech trees in golden haze;
Hardy sumachs all ablaze,
Glowing through the silver birches.
How that pine tree shouts and lurches!
From the sunny door-jamb high,
Swings the shell of a butterfly.
Scrape of insect violins
Through the stubble shrilly dins.
Every blade's a minaret
Where a small muezzin's set,
Loudly calling us to pray
At the miracle of day.
Then the purple-lidded night
Westering comes, her footsteps light
Guided by the radiant boon
Of a sickle-shaped new moon."

~ Amy Lowell~ "Late September"

"THE CIDER MILL" by John George Brown

"The breezes taste
Of apple peel,
The air is full
Of smells to feel -

Ripe fruit, old footballs,
Drying grass,
New books and blackboards
Chalk in class.

The bee, his hive
Well-honey, hums
While Mother cuts

Like plates washed clean
With suds, the days
Are polished with
A morning haze."

~ John Updike ~ "September"

"AUTUMN LEAVES" by Thomas James Lloyd

"I have come to a still, but not a deep center,
A point outside the glittering current;
My eyes stare at the bottom of a river,
At the irregular stones, iridescent sand grains,
My mind moves in more than one place,
In a country half-land, half-water.
I am renewed by death, thought of my death
The dry scent of a dying garden in September,
The wind fanning the ash of a low fire.
What I love is near at hand,
Always, in earth and air."

~ Theodore Roethke ~ "The Far Field"


"There is a harmony in autumn, and a luster in its sky, which through the summer is not heard or seen, as if it could not be, as if it had not been!"

~ Percy Bysshe Shelley ~

"GATHERING WHEAT" by Thomas Ridgway Knight

"September days have the warmth of summer in their briefer hours, but in their lengthening evenings a prophetic breath of autumn. The cricket chirps in the noontide, making the most of what remains in his brief life. The bumblebee is busy among the clover blossoms of the aftermath, and their shrill and dreamy hum hold the outdoor world above the voices of the song birds, now silent or departed."

~ Rowland E. Robinson ~ "September Days"

"HARVEST" by Arkadi Plastov

"Harvest home, harvest home!
We've plowed, we've sowed
We've reaped, we've mowed
And brought safe home
Every load."

~ Traditional Harvest Home Song ~

"SEPTEMBER IN PROVENCE" by Francoise Persillon

"The golden-rod is yellow;
The corn is turning brown
The trees in apple orchards
With fruit are bending down.
The gentian's bluest fringes
Are curling in the sun;
In dusty pods of milkweed
Its hidden silk has spun.
The sedges flaunt their harvest,
In every meadow nook;
And asters by the brook-side
Make asters in the brook.
From dewy lanes at morning
The grapes' sweet odors rise;
At noon the roads all flutter
With yellow butterflies.
By all these lovely tokens
September days are here,
With summer's best of weather,
And autumn's best of cheer.
But none of all this beauty
Which floods the earth and air
Is unto me the secret
Which makes September fair.
'Tis a thing which I remember
To name it thrills me yet:
One day of one September
I never can forget."

~Helen Hunt Jackson ~ "September"

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


"CHRYSANTHEMUMS AND ROSES" by Eugene Henri Cauchois

Recently I wrote that I didn't need a turn of the calendar page to tell me that it is fall. Another thing I don't need - yet - is the store displays full of bright orange pumpkins, black cats and crows and scarlet and vermilion maple leaves.

Let's not rush the season. Let's appreciate some of the more mellow colors of September - the yellows, the tawny golds and the ochres; the wheats and the straws; the rusts and the russets and the bronzes; the bricks and the burgundies; the nut and fawn and cocoa and deep browns; the purples and the mauves and the plums; the blues; the light greens; the faded and rosy reds.

It's a time of year when you can make an Old Master's flower bouquet, mixing the light pink roses of late summer with the burgundies of autumn.

(Today I still had a couple of roses on one of my Morden Pink shrubs.)

"HAY BALES" by Jennifer Holmes

It's a time when the meadows are full of rolled hay bales, like so many giant pieces of shredded wheat. (When I was a kid, I wouldn't eat shredded wheat because I thought it would taste like hay.) I think hay is definitely one of the elusive scents of autumn that I have previously written about.

I don't know where this picture was painted, but it certainly could be set along the Missouri River near Bismarck.

"GOLDEN LIGHT ON THE PRAIRIE" by Robert Frost (Frosty) Paris

It's a time to rejoice in golden slanted light, and the gold of North Dakota's aspens (cottonwood trees), among the first of our trees to turn. Who says yellow fall leaves aren't stunning too? And look at those tawny and russet grasses, will you?

(Frosty Paris is a local artist - from Mandan, ND.)

"APPLE PICKING" by Camille Pissaro

September - when apples are harvested. We don't have many (any?) apple orchards in North Dakota, but I do cherish an early fall trip we took along the Mississippi River on the Wisconsin-Minnesota border. We headed north from La Crescent, MN, famous for its apple festivals.

"GREEN APPLES AND MUMS" by Beth Browning

September, when garden centers are filled with purple, yellow, burgundy and bronze-colored mums for adding instant color to a fading garden. I love those slatted wooden baskets they come in. And oh, the tang of a chrysanthemum blossom!

"BUMBLE BEE-ZZ" by Ernest Beach Smith

It's during this month that the marigold takes center stage in the garden, with its bright yellows, pale oranges and dark rusty reds. Marigolds are another flower with that sharp, tangy scent.

"HOME BUS" by Art Scholz

No matter how old I get, September will always be about boarding the school bus to begin another year at the high school in town. I love this painting for the way the golden-yellow of the bus and the faded red of the outbuildings are mirrored by the trees.

"PEARS AND FLOWERS" by Lois Wooster

Early fall is a time when the golden yellow flowers take over from the pinks, lavenders and blues of summer.

As with apples, North Dakota doesn't have many pear trees. The painting above reminds me of the only pear tree I've ever seen. Our book club used to take an annual September trip to the Judge's Chambers, a former home turned restaurant and gift shop at Napoleon, ND. Its yard had a pear tree that hung over one of the tables out on the deck.

Since our visit was on a warm fall day, we asked to sit out on the deck. The owners demurred, saying the fallen pears were attracting hordes of wasps, but the members of the club insisted that we do so anyway (they're sort of pushy that way). The owners relented, we cleared away the pears ourselves - salvaging the ones we could - and sat in the slanting afternoon light, waving away the few remaining wasps that hovered over our soft drinks.


I chose this painting out of dozens available of sunflower field paintings, because it really emphasizes that not only are sunflowers golden, they're also the most gorgeous velvety brown.
And in North Dakota, sunflower fields do go on forever.

As a child, I was always so sad to see goldenrod bloom, because it meant the end of summer and the start of school. Now, I welcome my first glimpse of it, and am so happy that it is no longer blamed for causing hay fever (that's ragweed).

"ASTERS AND A PUMPKIN" by Jan Blencowe

This is the only painting I'm allowing with a pumpkin in it! That's because it's the only good painting I could find of New England asters. Plus, the pumpkin is a light orange rather than a reddish orange. It has a late-garden feel instead of Halloween-y feel to it. Aren't the purples and blues of fall are a perfect contrast to her yellows, golds and oranges?
Come October, I will be ready for the red oranges and the black, the scarlets and vermilions. But for now, I will:
"Try to remember the kind of September,
When life was slow and oh so mellow,
Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain so yellow . . ."

Saturday, September 5, 2009


The Wangens: Ole, Marie (Mary), Julia,
Olaf, Jenny, Margrete

My great grandparents, Ole and Margrete Wangen, lived a hardscrabble life in a mountain valley in Norway. They died young - at age 50 for Margrete, 51 for Ole. In the original of this photo, Ole looks like a kind man, with smile wrinkles around his eyes. In contrast, I always thought Margrete looked rather stern. That is, until I enlarged and cropped the photo for my previous post. Now I see a slight smile where before I saw a frown. But I will always think she looks rather scared to have her photograph taken, by the way she grips her youngest daughter's arm.

I think that girl is Jennie, making the next oldest girl my Grandma Julia. For sure, I know the oldest girl is Aunty Marie (pronounced Anty Mary) and the boy is Uncle Olaf. ('ve always been curious about why Margrete, Julia, Jenny and Marie had such Anglicized names, while Ole and Olaf had Scandinavian names.)

Ole and Margrete would never know their dozen and a half grandchildren, or learn that their children emigrated to Canada. That Olaf would be a confirmed bachelor living in wilds of northern Saskatchewan. That both Julia and Marie would end up in Crosby, ND, and have seven children each. That Jenny - like Julia - would marry a Scotsman, and go to live in Whitefish, MT.

(Click to enlarge)

Aside from the group photo, the only other photo brought from Norway was the picture of
"The Farm". It was located in the Gudbrandsal Valley in Oppland County. (As a newspaper reporter at The Journal in Crosby, ND, I had to learn to spell Gudbrandsdalslag, which is a gathering of people whose ancestors came from that valley.)

This was the primary farm my grandparents lived on, called Sore (South) Plassen. However, they also lived on the Wangen farm for a time. In Norway, one's surname was often the place one was from, so in great confusion my great grandparents and their children were variously known as the Wangens, Vangens, Plassens or Pladsens. I know that Julia and Olaf called themselves Wangen in America, so I assume Jenny and Marie did too.

My grandma used to tell me stories about Norway. Unfortunately, I remember so few. How I wish I had taken a tape recorder and preserved these stories.

I do know that Margrete was a midwife who traveled to her patients on cross country skies. Ole was, of course, a farmer. I remember the story of how he came back from a rare trip to town and brought a special pencil back for the children - one end had red lead, and the other, blue. This was seen as a great, great treasure by the children. I also remember that the children cut the whiskers off the cat, and she could not go through her usual crannies and resume her mouse catching ways until her whiskers grew back.

Unfortunately, those are the only thing I remember, except for a few Norwegian words and phrases (Tusen Tak - thousand thanks, Velkommen - welcome, Gladelig Jul - Merry Christmas, God Dag - Good Day, Vaer Saa God (literally, "there you go", as in "you're welcome" after giving someone something, or "here's the food - come and eat").

And then there was her "Nye, nye, nye"( Yulie, Yonny, Ronnie) when we were naughty. But anything else about how the Wangens lived in Norway was lost in the mists of time, until my Cousin Kevin Olsen visited Norway last summer.

Among his pictures, there it was - Sore Plassen - so similar to what it looked like in the earlier photo. That it looks the way it does today is due to an amateur restorationist who rescued the farm from ruin and uses it as a weekend home. He was happy to show Kevin the farm, and a distant relative took Kevin around to the church, graveyard and other places.

Above: a closeup of the carving of the windows. I had grown up seeing examples of fine Norwegian wood carving, but to see the carvings around the windows of my great grandparents' house sent a thrill through me. At last, I can now can begin to imagine their daily life.

I'm sure that, except for the modern contraption on the left, the living room furnishings look much the way they did back then, especially the clock, the simple wooden furniture and the folk-painted cabinet in the back corner.

The corner fireplace in the main room. Seeing it, now I can truly visualize the Wangens gathered around it for warmth and companionship.

The kitchen, so unlike my modern kitchen, except for the copper pans!

My Cousin Kevin up at the Summer Farm

I remember reading "Heidi" as a child, and a couple of years ago, I read "Kristen Lavransdatter". Both tell of driving the animals up the mountains to graze in the high pastures during the summer. From this photo, I discover that the Wangens had a "summer farm" as well.

As I said, I remember very few stories from Grandma's childhood. However, there was one thing she told not to me, but to Kevin: that from her childhood home, she could see seven waterfalls.

A memorial to all the Norwegians
who immigrated to America.

In the 19th and early 20th century, Norway suffered from terrible famines. The first of the Wangens to catch "America Fever" was my Great-Great-Grandmother Jorgine Wangen, who ended up in Mankato, MN. All the while I was growing up, I never heard her name mentioned, much less the fact that she lived so near North Dakota. Did Grandma Julia not know what happened to her grandmother after she left Norway? (Grandma was very young when Jorgine left.) Why did Margrete and Ole decide to stay in Norway and not go with her mother?
Lesjaskog Church

I'll never know. What I do know is that after their parents died, just 21 months apart, the four siblings, mere teenagers, could not keep up the farm. They gathered a scant few possessions and left Norway for Canada. Their ship departed in April, 1912, either a week before or a week after the Titanic. And like the immigrants on the Titanic, they were steerage passengers.

My Cousin Kevin Olsen at my
Great Grandparents' grave marker

Margrete Vangen, nee Brandlien, 25-6-1858 to 14-2-1909
Ole Olson Vangen, 1-7-1859 to 29-11-1910
Hvil i fred (Rest in Peace)

As I enlarged this photo, I uncover one final, previously unknown fact about my great grandparents. My great grandmother Margrete and I share the same birthday.

Hvil i fred, Margrete and Ole.
Postscripts added Sept. 5: I just realized that Grandmother Julia and my Cousin Anita missed sharing my great-grandfather's birthday by one day (July 2 instead of July 1).
And I would be terribly remiss if I did not thank Kevin for researching the Wangen ancestry.