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My Aunt Syl

By Connie Nackerud-Stevens

Connie is the daughter of Rolf Harry Nackerud, the fifth child of Gilbert and Alette

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. . . Then comes a time of demarcation, where we literally draw a line across our personal history timeline, step over and go on. A lot of being able to step over that line involves forgiveness. Of others and of ourselves. The latter is often far harder. This brings me to tonight's story about a favorite relative in my life. The one person who taught me about forgiving myself.

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Aunt Syl in her early 20s.An old White Castle coffee mug sits on my desk filled with pens and pencils. It holds great deal of meaning for me as it held great meaning for my very favorite relative.

My Aunt Syl. Born in 1901 in Norway, the second of ten children, she was named Solveig Victoria. She was nine when my father was born, the 5th in the family, and she was presented with the task of being responsible for him. This was the beginning of her life long devotion to children in her family that extended into the great-grands of future generations to come.

After immigrating in 1914 from Norway in hopes of a better life, the family settled in Watertown, South Dakota. She was 13 and my father was 4. At 14 she was told she had enough school and it was time to go to work to help support the family. She was struggling to learn the language of her new country and loved school, but she was ever the dutiful daughter and did as her parents wished. She went to work for a small store, a five and dime, called Woolworth's. The remaining children in the family were born in quick succession and soon it swelled to ten children.

When she was in her mid twenties, her father decided to uproot the family and move to Tulsa, OK. The early oil fields were causing a demand for housing. He was a stone mason he felt there were opportunities to be had. For some strange reason they asked my aunt to remain behind while they went to get settled. This was a very traumatic event for her. I imagine they still needed her meager income to get by. It was about nearly a year before they sent for her and she said it was the loneliest time in here life. As she had proven to be such a fine worker, her boss had written ahead to secure her a new job with the Woolworth's in downtown Tulsa. When she arrived she immediately went to work there.

My father graduated from high school in 1928 and went to work as a bookkeeper. He had wanted to go to college, but with so many mouths to feed in the family there was no money for that luxury. His two older brothers worked with my grandfather in the family home-building business and for a time things were pretty good. There is a little mystery as to what went wrong and exactly when, but grandfather wasn't around the house very much for a time and grandmother was very worn out from bearing and raising ten children, the youngest of which was ten.

My father married my mother in 1930, nearly a year into the Great Depression. Aunt Syl was 29 at that point and still living at home helping to care for the family and working full time. Grandmother grew weaker and after a car accident, in which my grandfather was driving under the influence, she never regained her strength and died in 1932. At this point work was so hard to find that my grandfather took off for California and left my Aunt Syl in charge of the family. She took her older sister who was considered 'simple' and the four youngest school age children and moved them into a one-bedroom apartment. This was the beginning of the Dust Bowl period and life was grim between that and the Depression in that part of the country. Her hourly salary was cut from fifteen cents an hour to five cents an hour. Grandfather promised to send money to help care for the children, but somehow it never arrived.

Now least you think Aunt Syl felt bitter or ill used let me assure you she was neither. She had been a 'mother' since the age of nine and this was simply something one did for the love of family. The three older brothers helped as they could, but they also had young families of their own to feed. The two youngest boys that were living with her got jobs delivering papers and running errands. Aunt Gertie (who you met in this short vignette in a comment posted in another diary) cooked and cleaned. The two younger sisters concentrated on getting through school as that's what Aunt Syl wanted most for them to do since she never had the opportunity to finished school.

World War II came and the boys enlisted as soon as they graduated. The two younger sisters married and started families of their own. Aunt Syl was left with an empty nest and Aunt Gertie to care for when she entered her mid-forties. She picked up with her nieces and nephews as they were born. I was at the tail end of that crop in those days before the grands came along, so needless to say I was spoiled.

It was a huge treat to go spend the night at Aunt Syl's when I was young. I remember climbing those stairs covered with an oriental carpet to knock on her apartment door. Little did I realize the amount of history that had taken place behind that dark wooden door. I loved the smell of that foyer and of her apartment. Like my maternal grandmother's home (link to that story), it was seared into my young memory. It smelled of safety and love and the time spent there was a peaceful part of my childhood.

She had a very old china doll with a fragile hand-knitted wardrobe that she would let me play with while she watched making sure that I was careful and gentle. It was a remnant from her childhood and had belonged to her mother. It was a special kind of trust to be allowed to handle that doll.

When I was seven, we moved to another state. The wrench from my grandparents and my aunt was devastating to me. It was a huge demarcation for me and I wanted it undone in the worst way. She kept in touch by sending me the out-of-date comics from the store. It was an amazing thrill to come home from school and see that fat manila envelope sitting on my bed. Birthday cards carried little hankies and a fresh two-dollar bill.

We didn't get back to Tulsa too often in those days, but when we did I usually spent at least one night sleeping on her couch. I remember waking in the early morning light and memorizing all the objects surrounding me in the dim room. There was an old-fashioned gas fire place with a curved wrought-iron bench to one side. Two knick-knack shelves held her ceramic lady-doll collection that was her pride and joy. They fascinated me because the skirts were stiff and lacy.

One day I learned that she and Aunt Gertie had moved to a small house. The brothers had got together and helped her buy the house as the steep stairs were getting to be too much for Aunt Gertie to navigate. That was hard for me as I couldn't see her in my mind anymore. By this time my maternal grandmother had also died and my grandfather had moved too. I had no visuals to help anchor me to my past. After my grandmother died we did not travel to Tulsa as a family again. It was years before I saw Aunt Syl again.

She retired from Woolworth's after 50 years of service and here's the kicker: she never missed one day of work! Perfect attendance for fifty years. She had an emergency appendectomy on the first day of her two-week vacation one year, but she recovered in time to be back at work right on schedule. She continued to work part-time and fill in for others going on vacation after she retired up into her eighties.

She had a few rough years as Aunt Gertie health was failing and she had what we now know was Alzheimer's. Aunt Syl took care of her through it all and would not hear of sending her away to be cared for by strangers. We all breathed a sigh of relief when it was over as we thought we would lose Aunt Syl before Aunt Gertie. But she was made of sturdy stock and bounced back. She was now able to travel a little more and spent time with family and visited cousins that she hadn't seen in decades. When she would come to visit I remember her wearing her special bracelet with a charm for each niece, nephew, grands and great-grands too. It was jammed and she got a work-out using that arm.

Fast forward and I am a married woman with three children and Aunt Syl starts making trips to Denver to visit her favorite baby brother after my mother died and he remarried. I reconnect with her and realized what a huge part of my life had been missing. She was never demanding in any way and thrilled with the attention she received. She never lectured or judged, she just reassured that things happened for a reason and most things in life would come right in time. She showed kindness and understanding by example and love in countless small ways.

She had always been a very skilled and accomplished knitter. For years she had added to her wardrobe by knitting beautiful suits and sweater sets. As she grew older she wanted to make things that she didn't have to pay so much attention to, so she decided to start making afghans. She liked to use varigated yarn and knitted in a brick pattern that consisted of knit and purl stitches. The effect was colorful and pleasing. Her stitches were incredibly consistent and firm with neat straight edges. As members of the family saw these afghans the requests started pouring in. Over the years she made over eighty and I once figured out that that amounted to 8 million stitches just for the afghans.

My sister and I drove to Tulsa to help her celebrate her eightieth birthday. I had not been back since I was about nine years old. We had a wonderful time driving the city with Aunt Syl and visiting all the old family places. We had long talks and looked through stacks of pictures. And she told us family history we had never heard. She told us stories about herself, too. One set of pictures was of a family get together with her cousins from Minnesota when she was in her twenties. She had a broad smile and a playful posture in those pictures that showed another side of her.

One morning when I got up early she was drinking a cup of coffee while sitting on a stair of her back porch. That was when I notice the mug. It was small, and heavy with an emblem of the White Castle brand. I had not seen her drink out of that mug on the other mornings we were there so I was curious. She said that she always drank her first cup of coffee each day out of that mug and had since the 1930's when she 'snitched' while on a date. Oh, there was a story there, but it was not going to be told directly. That evening after dinner when we sat around the dinning room table drinking more coffee. More pictures came out and she started to talk about a boyfriend she had all those years ago. Sitting on the sideboard were her birthday cards all lined up and one was from a man that we had never heard of before. Shyly, she said he was an old flame that once had wanted to marry her. When we asked why that didn't happen she said that she had made it clear to him that she put her family first and if they married he would have to allow her to continue to take care of them. That was a deal-breaker for him, but they remained friends nonetheless. For her, drinking that first cup of coffee each morning was her way of keeping a connection to a time in her past when someone besides her family loved her.

That sweet visit was over all to fast and a few more years slipped by. I had the very sad job of calling her one day to tell her my father had died. She knew it might be coming, but it stunned her. He was her baby, the one she had been responsible for all those years ago. By that point in her life she had out-lived nearly half of her siblings.

The year she was to turn 85 I sent her a poem for mother's day that I wrote trying to express all the love and respect I had for her and all that I had learn from her quiet ways. I'm glad I did, I'm glad she had some time to enjoy it. That fall as she was walking to the store, she had to cross a six-lane street. She was caught part way across with the traffic coming towards her. A truck stopped to let her continue, but another truck on the right side did not see why the other truck was stopped and slammed into her. She lingered for a few hours, but they knew it was hopeless and let her slip away as soon as her body could take no more.

This gentle, kind, protective, spiritual woman who deserved a peaceful passing in her sleep some day was taken out by a speeding truck. Oh, did that play havoc with my mind for a long time. I flew to Tulsa for her funeral and the church was packed. It was of little consolation, but it was nice to see how well loved and respected she was. My poem was read as an eulogy and signed as well for a deaf cousin. I didn't much pay attention to my own words being read as I watched the signer's hands and face interpret my poem. My words have never looked so graceful and watching them signed helped heal my heart a little that day, for how could I ignore the things that she had taught me in my own words.

My cousins asked if there was anything in particular that I wanted from her house. I said yes, I did want a couple of things. I wanted her white mug, which they knew nothing about, her knitting needles, as I wanted something that she had held and worked with, and I wanted a few pictures. Walking into her little house that day was a sad experience. Her smell still lingered, but the house seemed to know that the person that had lived there all those years wasn't coming back. I really just wanted to sit quietly in her chair alone in her house for awhile to try to absorb one last little bit of her and say goodbye, but the cousins were flitting about wanting to get things done and leave.

I went to the kitchen to look for the mug in the cupboard and it wasn't there. I checked through the house and went through the kitchen again. I was beginning to get frantic when all of a sudden I remembered it was her habit to rinse her dishes throughout the day and put them in a drainer under the kitchen sink until she did them after dinner each night. I opened the door and there it was. I was nearly in tears by then and the cousins thought I was a little strange for making such a fuss over an old coffee mug. I didn't bother to tell them the story as she had never confided in them, then I wasn't going to either. They thought my choices rather pitiful and pressed me to take a few more things, so I chose her sewing basket and another afghan; the one that was on her bed. I packed my precious bundles and took my fractured heart home to heal.

Every family seems to have a 'hub' - the one person everyone talks to when they can't or don't want to talk to each other. Aunt Syl was the hub that kept us all informed as to the major highlights in each others lives. Her reach crossed generational lines and extended back into numerous cousins that none of us had ever met. She never gossiped and only gave information when asked. She was the oracle of family history and when she died, much of that history was gone for we were foolish in never recording her stories. I knew before she died that no one else would be taking over that role in our family. With the hub gone the spokes broke away from the rim and little contact was ever made again after a few fitful starts. It was our love of her that kept us together all those years.

For quite awhile after I brought my choices home, I kept the objects from Aunt Syl's life grouped together; very nearly a shrine. But then as I healed they began to migrate to other areas and be combined with other possessions of mine. I knew I could never drink anything from that mug, for to do so would violate her past. So it sits on my desk holding my pens and pencils. Her knitting needles were eventually mixed in with mine and I used hers when I knitted the same afghan pattern for my first grandchild. Her sewing basket has been passed on to my daughter and the pictures are in an album that I made with all the pictures I have of her over the years. Just as I blended her lessons into my life so to did the objects become part of mine. But I still pick up her mug and hold it in my hands from time to time and think about that wonderful woman who taught me so much with so very few words.

This is the Mother's Day poem I wrote to her all those years ago:

My Aunt Syl

Knit every stitch of a blanket that I have wrapped
oh so tightly around my aching soul.
Every stitch speaks of her in a thousand gentle voices,
tells me stories, gives me strength, makes me keep on going.

Every stitch rocks me from a great distance,
soothes my fears, absorbs my tears, teaches me about courage.
Every stitch expresses patience, communicates hope,
whispers to be as kind to myself as I am to others.

Every stitch was knit with a prayer and declares
that I am loved and accepted.
Every stitch recounts to me roots, traditions loving and caring,
reminds me of our happy times together, sharing.

Every stitch shows me that the hard lessons of life
need not break my spirit and sacrifices do not destroy my choices.
Every stitch is a precious gift that warms my soul
and reveals to me the real meaning of living
is believing the best in others.

Cronesense ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

For some historical background on the history of F. W. Woolwoorth's here is a link that goes to an online history museum of its British counterpart. The 3 and 6 as opposed to our five and dime. For a visual reference to the impact of the Dust Bowl era, this link has some impressive photographs and descriptions.

For a visual reference to the impact of the Dust Bowl era, this link has some impressive photographs and descriptions.

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