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.
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.
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.
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.