October 2, 2008

You CAN go home again. Part 5

I returned to Noble Street with renewed clarity and enthusiasm: determined to discover whatever family history the house might hold and – as originally planned – to carve a petroglyph in a rock in the yard. I hoped the glyph might help move along the energy of all these stuck souls. I knew that the most difficult challenge of the next couple of weeks would be getting (and keeping) myself into the right headspace to do the work – yet I also knew that I needed to work with whatever opportunities, information and situations arose, in as open and respectful a manner as I could muster.

I’d been back only an hour or so, when Aunt Barbara gave me a box full of journals written by my maternal grandmother, Nana Tolstrup. The journals covered the last 30 years of her life and she’d made nearly daily entries – most of which were quite factual accounts of what had happened that day, but others were quite painful to read. I found the ones she wrote around the time of my mothers illness and death, as well as the ones written in her last years particularly painful to read – reading them saddened me, yet it also brought Nana closer. In one passage she referred to me as her “little brown-eyed pixie”. I’d forgotten she used to call me that.
I spent the better part of 2 days reading and photographing the journals, then spent a day working on the design of the glyph. I knew just where I was going to carve it. Cousin Dave had shown me the perfect rock. It was one he said he’d spent a good portion of his childhood trying to dig out of the earth with a teaspoon. Uncle David and Aunt Barbara both liked it, too. It was perfect - just big enough to accommodate a good-sized design, with a nice flat face. I knew that I wanted the design to incorporate three elements: a boat, a circle and crows. The design went through a number of versions before reaching it’s final stage – and Aunt Barbara gave some valuable input (which was incorporated into the final design)My only concern was whether I could manage to pull it off. I’ve had very little experience with stone...and none at all with this particular one. I told myself, it’s not the image, but the intent that is the important part. That’s always been the case with how I approach my work (to quote a former professor, “technique is not her master, nor is she it’s slave”). Uncle David and I decided to practice on some similar stones nearby. The results were not promising, yet the collaborative design and experiment process generated an amazing couple of days. While we worked, I talked with both David and Barbara about all kinds of things – family history, life, hopes, dreams. However, something (not just fear) seemed to hold me back from getting outside to actually carve the thing. Then one evening, Aunt Barbara went to a meeting and Uncle David and I stayed home. He spent the entire evening telling me story after story about family, old times, old places. We talked about the line of people in the family who’ve been inspirational because they always seemed to march to their own tune and spent large potions of their time making wondrously odd things. For me, that person has always been Uncle David. For him it was his Uncle Paul (my great-Uncle Paul). who built small shrines (!) in the woods around his camp in Woodville and made elaborate aquariums (with hand-carved, working lighthouses at each corner) for everyone in the family. We talked about family heirlooms and he pointed out a painted glass cookie jar up on a shelf and said it had belonged to my great-grandmother Louise (Moller) Tolstrup. He’d always heard (but wasn’t certain) that she’d painted it herself. Then he said, “I want you to have it.” I was really touched, though not at all sure if I could get it home to Australia in one piece. We talked about the glyph and he asked, “Why crows?” so I told him about seeing crows throughout this journey and what I'd found out about them. I also told him about the circle/sun symbol and boat represent. He nodded his head in approval when I said that the boat represents the soul’s journey and said it also represented their actual one. Exactly. Then we talked about stone carving technique – and he suddenly leapt up and told me to come with him down to the basement where he dug out an old stone chisel that had belonged to Grandpa Tolstrup – along with a stone hammer! Quite amazing, really. It was, I think, what I’d been waiting for.

The next morning, with Grampa’s chisel in hand, I started work on the petroglyph. As I worked, I thought about my ancestors and the stories Uncle David had told me. The image was much simpler than I planned: the stone was too rough and too small to accommodate the amount of detail I’d put into the drawing.. I also lacked the technical skill to incise the lines precisely as I’d wanted – but no matter.
As I worked, I thought about the ancestors. I even talked to them, telling them that I was carving this image for them – it’s their boat and their way home. I hope it works. All in all, I made good progress. It was a good, quiet and grounded day for me and the work went amazingly well.
Uncle David had mentioned several times that he’d kept a box of Nana’s old photos, but was afraid they’d been thrown away. Barbara thought they might be upstairs in the armoir, so I had a look and sure enough, there were several albums and boxes filled with a hodgepodge of old and new photos. Some had names and dates written on the back, but many of them were a mystery to me so I brought them to Uncle David. He was really excited to see them – and knew the names of practically everyone pictured. I found photos of my great-grandmother Tolstrup (Louise Moller), my great-grandfather (Thomas Millidge Ruggles), my great-great uncle (Will Ruggles), my great-aunt Doris (Tolstrup) and my great-great-grandfather (Thomas Edward Ruggles) amongst many others. It was thrilling to finally have faces for the names I’ve researched and thought about for so long. Over the course of a couple of days searching, I found others. the most thrilling of which had the word ‘Mama’on the back in Nana’s handwriting –my great grandmother, Harriet (Tanner) Ruggles. I also found a beautiful hand-painted photo of my great-grandmother Louise Moller Tolstrup dressed in traditional Norwegian costume. Also among the photographs were several of my Nana and Grampa Tolstrup – from the time the time they were courting through their old age. It was wonderful to see them happy, young, in love and full of promise and hope. According to both David and Barbara, Nana and Grampa’s was ‘the great romance’ and looking at the photos, it was easy to believe. Nana’s journals left me with a feeling of sadness, the photos have filled me with joy. It felt to me that the process of finding and identifying the photos, of remembering and honouring our ancestors together not only gave me a sense of connection, place and belonging, but was healing for Uncle David as well. We may be scattered, but we are tribe and Uncle David is our elder: in a very real sense his memories are our family’s ancestral oral history. These are the stories that underpin our identity. My interest in Uncle David’s stories and his willingness to share them has strengthened our already tight bond. It’s also given us a common goal and a common purpose. I’d wanted the energy to shift here – and it had...at least a bit.
Over the next few days discoveries kept coming thick and fast: More and more photos came to light and as each person was identified, Uncle David remembered more and more stories and details. A number of times I wished I was recording him, but decided – for a number of reasons - not to: He was sharing with me not performing for me...and that seemed the difference between recording and not recording our conversation. One night I found a box of Nana Tolstrup’s treasures – including a number of documents, a New Testament Bible given to Grampa Tolstrup when he left for duty in WWI; a dictionary given to Nana in 1912; souvenir photos of Nana and Grampa from the 1939 New York World’s Fair and locks of hair. Uncle David gave me a tooled leather purse he’d made for Nana in the 1950’s and an old wooden ice skate that came from 90 Jacob St (Geo and Louise Tolstrup’s house). I was really touched. Then one night he called me down to the basement again and handed me a sheaf of letters written between Grampa (Louis) Tolstrup and his Mother (Louise) during his WWI years (1918-1919). Quite an amazing find, really....though they were never lost. Uncle David had known right where they were -sort of stuffed into a pigeon hole over Grampa’s old workbench - and I’d guess that Grampa may have put them there himself after his mother died. Some of them were whole, others in tatters. Some legible, some not – but all in need of immediate restoration and care. I read what I could to Uncle David. The letters were full of the bravado...but underneath it all, I could feel Grampa’s pain, fear and horror.

The next morning, Uncle David seemed to want to correct any misconceptions I might have come to on account of the bravado in Grampa’s words. He seemed afraid that I might think Grampa cruel, uncaring or even brutish – but I saw his way of describing his experiences as a way of coping – as a mechanism to keep the horror away – and told Uncle David so. He seemed relieved. I then asked him if it was okay for me to take the letters to a conservator to see if we could perhaps salvage and/or even repair some of the damage. I said I’d also like to transcribe them and then I’d return them. He said, “You don’t have to return them. They’re your legacy, too.”

One of the difficulties of staying at Noble St was also a blessing. There’s no easy access to the outside world here: gaining access to the internet is a difficult and convoluted process; taking public transportation to anywhere I’d want to go requires careful planning. I decided, instead, to give myself over to the experience of being there – and to forget the outside world for a while. I think that resulted in my being totally immersed in the moment – not documenting the moment, or stepping in and out of the moment, but being – day to day – present with whatever presented itself.

Midway through my stay I went along with Uncle David for his volunteer guide shift at Harvard’s Natural History Museum - a quintessentially wonderfully old-style museum, with display cases filled to the brim with natural wonders. Uncle David has been going to this museum all of his life (so have I and so has Max) and for the last several years, he’s worked as a volunteer guide. It was wonderful to see him in his element and he excitedly took me down the back corridors to see some things that are not on public display (a giant fossil of dinosaur foot prints, an octopus model, another fossil of prehistoric reptiles). I enjoyed watching him engage with several visitors – especially little kids - and realised that their memories of magic times spent at the museum would include him. He looked like he was born to it and that he was doing exactly what he was meant to do. The museum has undergone some renovation in recent years - some of the displays have been (unfortunately) reorganised and gussied-up, others have been put into storage and the whole effect is rather tame...and a lot less exciting. Luckily, some of the rooms haven’t been touched. Like Max’s favourite: that features a ceiling hung with whale skeletons. (The narwhal’s still there, Max!) Back at Noble St, I asked Barbara if she knew what had happened to Nana’s button box. It was one of those things that had no real value to anyone – it was just an old box full of mismatched buttons - but I loved playing with it when I was a small child. To me, it had been a box full of wondrous treasures and I was thrilled to find out that Barbara had kept it. She gave it to me and told me to take whatever I wanted. I found several buttons that I remembered from childhood. I must have played with them – spread out on the kitchen table - for about an hour, which amused Uncle David no end. He said, “Looks like you’re having fun” I was. It was the exact same fun, I’d had doing the exact same thing in this exact same kitchen when I was a little girl.
I have to say that by the time the 2nd week rolled around, the whole house seemed lighter: Barbara told me she’d been happy to see Uncle David so happy and I realised that I’d heard her humming quite bit over the last couple of days, too. We’d had several long and deep conversations about life and I’d really enjoyed the way she took to the petroglyph project. First helping me design it ( her input was spot on) and then keeping tabs on it’s completion. She said that she loves the idea that at some future date (and long after we’re all gone) others might find it and wonder who did it and why (me too, that’s part of the point). She suggested that I date it so that when it’s discovered, people will know when it was done. Barbara also suggested that I should take stones from Malden back with me to Fremantle and set about finding me the perfect one. I love these people. They’re my people. They get it and they get me. Not to be thwarted in his efforts to nurture me, Uncle David had taken it upon himself to feed me a series of perfectly wondrous gluten-free treats: buckwheat pancakes, wheat-free corn bread, baked apples, Indian pudding, and (wonder of wonder) wheat-free toll house cookies. I ate far too many and enjoyed it all way too much.

As my stay came to an end, I felt as though I was soaking up experiences and memories: preparing, perhaps for the end of an era. It suddenly occurred to me that, without Nana, this was already a different Malden than any I’d ever known. Though this house represents a unique piece of continuity: a continuity of place that - even in it’s present permutation as David & Barbara’s house – has been part of my life since I was born. I started to feel sad and knew I would miss Uncle David and worry about his well-being: He works too hard and seems to feel too out-of-step with and unappreciated by the world around him. We’d always been close, but over the last few weeks, I’d become fonder than ever of him. He’s held a quite wonderfully unique place in my heart: the only family member in the generation before me who held (and lived) a vision of himself that was outside the mainstream. I’d also come to feel quite protective of him, as well: he has such a tender soul. We’ve always been such a hands-off family, though. Uncle David claims it’s the Norwegian in us. Our own sense of self-mastery and/or independence seems to out-weigh every other consideration. It seems we’re so afraid of over-stepping boundaries that we fail to act when we ought to. We’re also all quite hopeless at admitting we need help. Not a good combination. There are lessons to be learned here...one’s I need to seriously consider for Max & Ebbie’s (and my own) sake.

I spent a day finishing the glyph and when it was done, I arranged the pieces of quartz I’d collected at Odiorne Point around the outside: sunstones to light their journey. I told my ancestors that this boat was for them...to help them find their way to home or to us. I hope it helps them. I know it helped me.
My last night, Uncle David seemed to have a wonderful time: he was smiling and excited as we talked about music, puppetry, science and art. He told me about a puppet show he’d been planning and I suggested we make it a collaborative effort- I felt fairly certain that Max and Ebbie would love the idea (it’s a surprise – I’ll tell you later) and that we could all help make some of the puppets. The conversation was wonderfully animated.
Just before I went to bed, Uncle David gave me a beautiful pendant made of shell and brass that had belonged to my grandmother. He told me that he'd looked at it often when he was a child and thought he'd never seen anything so exotic. He'd always wondered where Nana had gotten it and where it had come from. Before falling to sleep, I re-read some of Nana’s journals and found a passage I hadn’t seen before: in it Nana remarked on the fact that Uncle David and I had always been close and that we were very much alike. Suddenly (and for the first time), I felt her near...and felt as if she were telling me something. It seemed she was saying: pay attention; be careful with what’s been left to me, what’s been offered. Once again, I saw my place as some sort of pivot point between the past and future and realised that the stories I pass on have to honour the living as well as the dead. I though about how tender and protective I feel towards these people; their foibles and frailties. I also thought about how right it feels to see, appreciate and encourage their originality, creativity and strengths. I wanted them to be happy...and wanted to help them towards that end in whatever little way I can. I wondered if it’s possible to do from a distance. I realised that I need to stay in close touch...to recreate a habit of connection, a habit of belonging and I knew that I will miss these dear people. I will miss this place.

4 comments:

Max, Ebbie and the Fuzzheads said...

Seriously incredible series of entries. I can't express myself properly in text, cannot wait to babble about all this in person.

21st Century Pilgrim's Progress said...

ditto and back atcha!

Jim Tolstrup said...

Ah Sandy, yer breakin me heart!
In all the blogs about Ireland I never commented because I think our experiance of that was so similar there was very little to say. As the story got closer to home I must admit that I became anxious. I feel protective of my parents and our family in a way and we are a proud people. But your story is beautiful and poignant. I will treasure it.

Katie and Emir said...

i have been waiting for those last lines...I feel really teary reading all of this. I can't wait for us all to be back together again, but I'm very aware that your presence will be missed elsewhere once we are.

Your last few blogs have really been so moving Sandy. You are a blessing to this world, you really are. As I typed that last sentence a crow kicked up a racket in the back yard!!!