Sunday, June 17, 2012

"I Don't Know Enough About You"

I knew a lot more about my mother's family than I did about my father's family. My mom had a lot of family and there were aunts and uncles and cousins, grandparents galore.  So I have a lot of memories of family stuff with my Gram and Gramps, 10 aunts and uncles, their assorted children, and a bunch of people who were related to us, but I didn't know quite how!

My dad, on the other hand, had no siblings and only two uncles and two cousins that I know of.   There one older couple who my dad referred to as Uncle Gus and Aunt Gussie that we saw fairly often as we were living in the same town. I don't, however, know if they were actually related to my dad or if they were Aunt and Uncle in name only!  I never met the cousin who was the son of his father's brother, though we got a Christmas card from them every year for decades.  My Dad's parents were divorced when he was a boy and his mother died while he was overseas in the South Pacific during WWII.  He was pretty much estranged from his father and as far as I know they were not in touch with each other for years.  

Up until I was about 5 or 6, I had never met my paternal grandfather and had only seen one photograph of him.  The one photo we had, was taken somewhere between 1908 and 1914 I think,  my dad was born in 1919 so he was not in the photo.  I have no idea who took the photo and there is nothing written on the back.  But I have always been fascinated by it.  The picture was of the house my grandparents were living in at the time.  If memory serves it had something to do with a fishing camp (rental cabins and a lake) that they owned or managed or something, though I could be wrong.  (Little Sis is my editor in absentia and she will undoubtedly correct whatever I get wrong!)

My grandfather is to the far left standing in the yard close to the house, my grandmother is standing on the steps of the cabin and her brother is standing to her right in the yard and either he or my grandmother (I can't remember which) is holding a cat who appears not to want to be held!  My grandmother had dark hair pulled back severely from her face.  She is wearing a skirt down to her ankles, a plain, probably homemade shirt and a long dark apron.  Her shoes were laced up and mostly hidden by her skirt.  My grandfather was wearing dark pants, a light colored shirt, open at the collar and an open vest.  He wore work shoes that looked well-worn.  My grandmother's brother looked to be somewhere around 12 years old.  He was wearing a light shirt also open at the collar, a pair of knickers, and suspenders and he was barefoot and pretty dusty looking.  None of them was smiling, nor did any of them appear to be happy.

In the  photo my Grandfather appears rather tall, thin, and a hard-working raw-boned man with light eyes and a shock of pretty shaggy hair that hadn't been cut in a while.  I believe he was somewhere around 6'1 or 6'2....and in my family that makes him really TALL!

There is one other photo of my grandmother that was taken fairly close to her death (in 1943 or 1944.)  So that is all we had of my father's family.  As a little girl I knew I had a Grandpa Johnsen somewhere, but I didn't know where.  

My Mom, Dad and I moved to Florida in 1952.  As I think back to that time, I realize now that it probably was because of the impending move, but for the first time we went to visit my Grandfather.  He was living in the County Home, as he had never had any money to speak of  and he was in poor health.  My parents certainly couldn't afford to help him financially, besides I'm pretty sure my dad wouldn't have given him any money anyway.  (I don't think he ever forgave his father for the divorce and the hard times he and his mother endured.)  

Still, we drove out to the country from Chicago one weekend afternoon.  I remember it as being a rather depressing kind of place,  just a couple of long low buildings that housed many of the county's elderly, men in one building and women in the other.  I was only 6, but I knew it wasn't a place I ever wanted to live in! 

I only have three real memories of that day.  When we arrived I remember my Grandfather walking toward us and he looked pretty world-weary and unwell and OLD.  But he was TALL!   (I was a tiny 6 year old.... EVERYBODY looked tall and old to me!)  He and my Dad were uncomfortable with each other but my mom and I both knew that it was going okay although it was hard for both of them.  I was a pretty sensitive kid and I was a bit nervous about the whole thing.

When we went inside, we all sat together.  I do not remember if he and I talked to each other at all.  But I do remember thinking that he and my Daddy looked nothing alike,  my Daddy was MUCH handsomer!!  :)

Evidently my grandfather knew that little six year old girls got bored just listening to grownups talk, so had borrowed a hand held slide viewer from another resident and he showed me how to look at pictures.  It was sort of like a View Master (remember those??) but you could only put in one slide at a time.  There was a box with lots of slides in it and they were landscape photos as I recall.  Pictures of waterfalls, flowers, mountains, in COLOR too!  Those slides entertained me for quite some time.  I worked my way through the slides while my parents talked with my grandfather.  It was kind of fun.  

Now the conclusion of this story is odd.  NOTE:  Remember that these slides were borrowed from some other resident of the facility and did not belong to my grandfather.

I eventually came to the last slide.  I popped it in the viewer, expecting to see yet another rainbow or something, but I didn't!  I saw a pretty lady who didn't have on one stitch of clothes except shoes!  Shoes!?  I didn't know what to do!  It shocked me deeply.  I  don't think I had ever seen anybody naked except myself!!  And I sure didn't look like that lady!  It was one of those times in life when you know you shouldn't look, but you just can't help it!  So I kept sneaking looks at that last slide.   I can't believe even now, that I didn't give it away.  Somehow I knew that if I told my mom or my dad about the slide, it would cause real problems for  my grandfather.  So I never said a thing to either of them.  I just put the slide back in its slot, and thanked my grandfather for letting me look at them.  (I was a very polite little girl.)  I think we left shortly thereafter.  I thought about that lady for weeks!  Somehow I knew that it wasn't just an ordinary kind of picture....I didn't know what it was exactly....but it sure wasn't ordinary!  I instinctively knew that I wasn't supposed to see that photol  But wow!

I never saw my grandfather again.  I think he died just a few years later, but I never learned anything more about him.  He had been divorced from my grandmother sometime in the 1930s, I think.  Had he married again?  I don't know.  Had other children?  I don't know.  Where had he been all those years?  What had he done?  What was he like?  Who was he??  Did he ever realize the the naked lady picture was in the box and that I probably saw it?? 

All things I never learned.  I wish I had.  I'd like to tell him, "I Don't Know Enough About You!"

It occurred to me today that I don't believe I have ever even thought about my Grandpa Johnsen on Father's Day.  He just wasn't part of my life at all.  All I knew about him was contained in that one old black and white photo, a few stories told over the years,  and one afternoon visit to the County Home to meet him when I was only six!  But he was my grandfather.  He and his wife produced my father.  His blood runs through my veins, and my daughter's and my granddaughter's.  So he is still a part of us.  

Somewhere I hope that he knows I am (finally) grateful!  My grandfather, Walter Johnsen, a man who was not particularly successful, but a man....and an afternoon... I will never forget.

Don't worry, Grandpa, I never told my mom or dad about the lady with no clothes on!  

For all of you out there who are dads, have dads, are married to dads, best wishes to all of you on this Father's Day.  You have one of the most important jobs on earth, being the Daddy, and by and large, most of you do a stupendous job!

Also, for my Grandfathers, my Dad, my husband, my son-in-law and all the dads I am related to, I'd just like to tell you how glad I am to have known all of you.  Your children have turned out well, so you did a good job!  I wouldn't trade ANY of you for any other Dads in the world!



  1. You have a good memory Mellodee..even old dudes in nursing homes appreciate a naked lady.I am amazed you kept it to your self so long. Like you I do not know much about my relatives past my mom and dad. In my family their is a lot of secrets that went to the grave.

  2. Yes, of course I have stuff to add! Ask me. Found the story of you visiting Daddy's father interesting. Had no idea! LS

  3. oh my gosh...what an interesting story! seems like I have read this before in a novel...Death Of A Salesman?

    1. That's odd. This is straight out of my memory from when I was 6. I had never heard of "Death of a Salesman" when I was 6!

  4. i am wanting to know so much more about all of my family these days too--fascinating post--hi! new follower


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