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Winter Games of Childhood

If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant – Anne Bradstreet

We are having one of the coldest winters in Germany in a long time and it reminds me of the cold winters in Minnesota when we were kids. My mother would paint snowflakes on the windows when we were small and one Christmas she painted the three of us on the window kneeling at a crèche. I haven’t thought of that in years. Makes me have a different feeling about her when I remember it.

When we were smaller before my Dad got his first snow blower, the snow would pile up on the boulevards to what seemed like great mountains. We would try to tunnel from one end to the next or build “forts” in the highest snow near the driveways and have snow ball fights with the neighbor kids. I remember it feeling like a great adventure. It was different with the snow blower; the snow doesn’t pile as much.

We used to go sledding on the hill across the small river behind my parent’s house that we called “the Crick”. The hill was basically covered with trees but that was part of the fun, dodging between them to get to the bottom. Once we didn’t make it and the fancy toboggan my dad had bought had a wonderful dent in the front curl. But like with all things, he found a way to fix it for us and we used it a long time.

The Crick is where I remember skating, shoveling off the snow to make a rink but I think we learned to ice skate on the Lagoon, which was organized and you had to pay to skate there at least during the day. I have a vague memory of the whole family skating on the lagoon, even my Dad but that maybe wrong. I don’t remember how long it took me to learn to ice skate either. Funny that. Maybe it wasn’t so hard. We all wanted to be Peggy Fleming and glide like an angel over the ice. I know I never achieved that but some school mates got pretty good. When I got older I would go to the Lagoon alone at night and skate. That seems pretty much like craziness now but it was a simpler world back then or at least it seemed like it.

The ice on the Crick was also a hockey rink at least for the boys. I remember my younger brother coming home with a mouth full of blood, minus most of his two front teeth after a hockey stick missed the puck and found his face. Great drama and stainless steel caps. As we all got older, I don’t remember us spending much time on the ice. It was mostly my older brother playing football on the snow covered field around the corner. I remember feeling privileged to stand in the freezing cold and being the line marker for where the ball was supposed to be since there were no lines in the snow. Silly really but being a part of it was all that mattered.

The last winter in Minnesota that I remember is the one when my dad died. Ten days later was Christmas Eve and I remember the temperature being minus 95 degrees with the wind chill. I don’t think I really noticed.

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Christmas Elf

Christmas rituals

A ritual is the enactment of a myth. And, by participating in the ritual, you are participating in the myth. And since myth is a projection of the depth wisdom of the psyche, by participating in a ritual, participating in the myth, you are being, as it were, put in accord with that wisdom, which is the wisdom that is inherent within you anyhow. Your consciousness is being re-minded of the wisdom of your own life.
– Joseph Campbell

Christmas has always been an important holiday in my family. My mother loved Christmas, loved the decorating, loved the cookie baking (although generally she didn’t like cooking) loved the Tom & Gerry parties (we were not an eggnog family), going to church on Christmas Eve. I still remember going to church on the Christmas Eve after my dad died. Perfect Minnesota weather – snow storm and 95 degrees below with the wind chill. Matched our feelings that night.
When we were kids, the Christmas tree was a big pine with long needles that stood near the front picture window. Some of the decorations my dad brought from Germany when he was stationed there, some were new. Every year something was added. After my dad died, my mother decided she didn’t want the trouble of a live tree and bought a fake one but it was still large with all of the trimmings. But as she got older, the fake trees got smaller and smaller till in the end the tree was small enough to sit on the ledge of the window.
My mother was always doing some kind of handwork, knitting, cross stitch, sewing, and Christmas was a great inspiration for her. When we kids were young, she made her own ornaments for the tree, for the walls and to set around the room. The stuffed elves with bells in their hats sat on a lamp table. There was still one left over in the cedar chest when we emptied her house and he is now sitting in my living room. The huge three part Santa Claus counted cross stitch that she made and was so proud of that she framed it went to my older brother. When we emptied her house, there were 6 giant boxes of Christmas decorations. Each one of us got something of her wonderful work to remember her by.
My mother’s Christmas cookies were really something special. She made super thin rolled sugar cookies, covered completely in powdered sugar frosting and candied sugar. They were so thin they seemed to melt in your mouth. There were always Santa Clauses with red sprinkles and Christmas trees with colored candy balls and green sprinkles. Even though they were both mostly all sugar, somehow the Santa Clauses tasted better. She also made fancy cookies shaped like acorns with caramel and crushed pecans on top. And the orange cookies with thick orange flavored powdered sugar frosting. She made Rosettes and her friends made Krumkake and they split them up. There was also a Party Mix, a peanut brittle and almond bark that were standards. She usually started baking before Thanksgiving and stored the cookies in the freezer. I used to snitch cookies out of the freezer and sneak them into my room. That is so much a part of my memory of how they taste, I freeze the Christmas cookies I bake now, too. They somehow don’t taste right otherwise.
In our house, we have developed our own Christmas. In Germany, the tradition is to bring the tree in the house on Christmas Eve and decorate it with real candles. They usually prefer fir trees with short needles and lots of space between the branches so that the candles have a lot of room. Those trees look funny to me, I am so used to the thick trees of my youth. We don’t actually get a tree any more. Like my mother, as I have gotten older I don’t feel like dealing with the mess and honestly I don’t see the sense in cutting down a tree so that I can have it in my living room. We tried a tree in a bucket but they never survived the winter or the replanting. Now I have a small one made of metal. Still makes me happy to see the decorations I have accumulated over the years hanging on it.
My husband is in charge of putting up the lights outside and putting together the swag that always goes on the door. It always looks beautiful how he does it. Usually I bake my mother’s cookies and we pig for weeks on them. This year somehow I don’t have the energy and we could both stand to lose a few pounds. Maybe I’ll make a few batches on the weekend just for old time sake.
On Christmas Eve we usually watch movies and I drink Tom & Jerrys – my husband has never gotten used to the super sweet taste so he stays with beer and whisky. The German tradition on Christmas Eve is to eat wieners and potato salad. Go figure. Our tradition is to have baked breaded camembert and Pillsbury rolls. Very low cal. Germans celebrate Christmas over two days so we divide them up and each of us is responsible for the cooking for the entire day. We each try to do something special and exotic. Haven’t decided on the menus for this year yet but I am sure they will be delicious. We are both looking forward to the down time, making a special Christmas time and bringing the year to a close.

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Dad dropping me off at collegeDad dropping me off at college

Thirty years ago today

God’s finger touched him and he slept. – Tennyson

On December 14, 1983 my father died of lung cancer that had metastasized to his brain. I wasn’t home. I had been there for several weeks and it seemed he had stabilized so I left to do an audition. Two days later he was gone. This is how I remember him.

My dad was a quiet guy. Didn’t talk much. His thing was doing. He didn’t get angry much but when he was you needed to get out of the way. Something I have inherited. His face was pretty stern looking, at least later in life. I will never forget the look on his face when he drove by me as I was dragging main with my friends when I was supposed to be at the movies. White heat! And the couple boyfriends I brought home always said, “Your dad hates me, I can tell!” And I would always say, “He always looks like that”.

He was a mechanic by trade and was really good with his hands. At home, he made beautiful, simple things out of wood. If he had been born 20 years later he might have been a furniture maker. He always seeemed like an artist to me. But life made him a mechanic in the local meat packing plant. He was really good with cars and loved to tinker on them on Saturday afternoons. I used to ask him about what he was doing while he worked. “Dad, what is this?” “A carburetor.” Silence. Nothing more. No explanation. He just kept working. All the cars he ever had – at least until his kids started driving – were always in tip top shape. In the 70s, he finally sold an old 50s Chevy station wagon that looked like it was brand new and nearly cried as he watched a young kid in town drive it into the ground in less than a year.

One of my favorite memories is when he was fixing the heel of one of my shoes – he could fix anything – and we were talking about how I got blisters from all of my shoes, I think I was 16 at the time, and he said, “You and your mother – pointed heels and pointed heads!” My dad was always good for a euphemistic phrase. Swear words didn’t come out of his mouth that I remember but the phrases he used were great – colder than a well digger’s butt, hotter than a popcorn fart. You get the picture.

At parties or events, my father used to stand at the side and watch. Drove my mother nuts. She wanted to go and do. He tended to want to stay home. On the other hand, he loved to dance. I will never forget seeing my parents dance at the wedding of my dad’s youngest brother. It was amazing to me to see the energy and joy that flowed out from my father. At the resort we went to nearly every summer, my friends told me my dad looked like a movie star. When my parents came to hear me sing my final recital in college, my dad stood at the side of the reception with his hand in his pocket. My voice teacher at the time was also 6′ 4″, a great man and teacher, and he siddled up to my dad and they stood there together exchanging just a few words but a smile krept across my dad’s face. I will always be grateful to Ken Smith for doing that, may he rest in peace.

My parents had their problems over the years but they always found ways to keep finding each other. Back then CB radios were all the rage and that hobby really made a quite difference in their lives. The radio appealed to my father’s technical side and the social life associated with it appealed to my mother. They bought a motorhome and started travelling to events. That was also perfect because they were taking “home” with them. “High Pockets” and “Low Pockets” were their CB nicknames – my dad being 6′ 4″ and my mother 5′ 6″ – and I made them a design for a business card. Things were good in 1983.

His illness seemed to come on suddenly. My parents had recently been on a cruise to Hawaii – the first cruise they had ever taken, when he collapsed in the kitchen in end of September 1983. The tests showed a large tumor in his lung and 5 tumors in his brain. Radiation therapy was recommended. I was living in Washington, D.C. at the time and went back for a couple of days. I remember my dad sitting there looking shell-shocked and my mother talking about fighting it. But I knew my dad was terribly frightened of cancer. Both of his parents had died of it and when my mother had kidney cancer 8 years before – which was operated successfully and she outlived 35 years – my father broke down crying in the car with me and sobbed, “Maybe it would have been better if we hadn’t known.” I went back to Washington and promptly totalled my car. One of the last things he did before he couldn’t do anything anymore was to buy my mother a new car and promise me her old one. That was what he felt was important.

When I would call, my mother would always say, “As good as can be expected.” What my younger brother told me later was the his horror at having to carry the man we all felt was the strongest in the world. They told me very little of how it was with the treatments but after 6 weeks the diagnoses was “terminal” and I took a leave from my job and went back to be with him.

I didn’t do much. Visited him in the morning. Went home to practice while my mother was there after work. Went back for a couple of hours in the evening. He laid there with his eyes closed most of the time. The pain must have been tremendous. At Thanksgiving time he seemed alot better and it was hard for us and the visitors who came to believe that there was no hope of recovery. And he was antsy to get out of bed. But by then he was too weak to move and after a couple of days he relapsed into sleeping most of the time. One time he seemed to me that he was choking and I panicked and yelled, “Nurse!”. His eyes flew open and he growled, “What are you screaming about!” I couldn’t believe it. But he hardly spoke otherwise.

I had an audition scheduled in New York for middle December 1983 and my family encouraged me to go. It seemed to us all that he was going to hang in there for a while. So I packed my car, my mother’s old car that he had given me, and stopped at the hospital on my way out of town. I held his hand and said, “Daddy, I will love you all my life.” And I left.
Three days later he was gone.

I did the audtion, sobbing. Thankfully someone I knew was on the jury and could explain what had happened but I shouldn’t have been there. Then I flew home. We had a visitation and my brother picked me up at the airport and drove me right to the funeral home. Painted and cold in that box, he didn’t look at all like himself. But what meant a lot to me were all the people who expressed their condolences. We lived in a medium sized town but it seemed like everybody new Bob Johannsen and knew to respect him. These things are important when you lose someone.

His children are now all older than he was when he died. We’ve made it this far. Funny how young this feels now that I am here. My mother died two years ago, still lamenting that he left her alone, although she had a good life because of the precautions he took to give her financial security. And even after all these years, I still miss him. I still talk to him in my head. I still see his graceful movement and stellar blue eyes. Daddy, I will love you all my life.

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