Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Wonder Bread and Tombstone Blues

I was doing the dishes when the kitchen phone rang.    Mom’s faltering voice signaled that something was terribly wrong, and in those milliseconds I wondered what tragedy had befallen us.

When she told me that her mother had passed on, I was relieved.  I was glad it wasn’t Dad, or cancer, or another unmanageable curve ball thrown by fate at life’s thinly padded catcher’s mitt.

I cautiously weighed my words, expressing to my mother that I was sorry for her loss, while in no way sharing the sense of loss.  I was not sorry to see my grandmother go.


At 102, Mormor (Swedish for "mother's mother") had overstayed her welcome.  Many years earlier, I had asked Dad how long it would be before she passed.  He answered, “Buddy, she’s gonna outlive us all”.

It was my father who had told me the simple, inane reasons for my grandmother’s hostility toward me.  I was eighteen, and we were walking west on Goosewing Beach the day I asked him “Why does she hate me? What did I ever do to her?”.  As the sun burned our eyes, he looked straight ahead, squinted and said that it was really what I hadn’t done that had earned her ire.  I hadn’t been baptized as an infant.  I hadn’t been born on a lucky day.  Her misunderstandings of me were all wrapped up in superstitions, like a mix of Swedish Lutheranism and the Brothers Grimm.  Grim, indeed.

I remember that day at Goosewing Beach, and the afternoon sun drying our skin and swimsuits as we walked.  The gentle incline of the ocean floor made me feel like my right leg was longer than my left as we ambled along talking.  The gradual curve of the shore gave it a slight arc, thus it was named after a goose wing.

When Dad told me why he thought my grandmother had been hard on me for all these years, I was outraged at her stubborn stupidity.  I was also somewhat relieved to know that there was no logical basis for her to be unkind to me, that it was all just crazy stuff with nothing reasonable attached to it.

I appreciated my father’s candor in this matter.  He must have thought I was old enough to know the truth, and mature enough to know that he was my ally.  Realizing that he understood how ridiculous this person was brought me closer to Dad, and made me grateful that he was a witness to the way things really were.

He and my mother were quite traditional and respectful of their elders, thus I never heard them address my grandmother about her ill treatment of their youngest son.  Because I never felt defended against her craziness, I’m sure there was some small corner of my heart that believed they must have agreed with her, that is, until that day Dad and I strolled down Goosewing Beach.

Years later, I was told that my mother and Mormor often argued about me.  I was glad to know that my mother had defended me, but I think things would have been better had I been a witness to a few of those arguments.  It would have done me a world of good to know that my mother didn’t agree with my grandmother.

In the last years of Mormor’s century on this planet, she had gone senile and forgotten who I was.  When I was in town, I didn’t like visiting her, but my mother’s insistence upon it was formidable, so I would eventually cave in and make the drive over to the East Side, the classy Providence neighborhood where she waited for The End. 

The Christmas before Mormor died,  Mom and I got into the familiar, exhausting  discussion about why I should visit my “poor sweet Grandmotha who asks for you all the time”.  By this time, my mother had expunged Mormor’s record of abuse, and just wanted me to remember her mother as the typically wonderful grandmother that most kids have.  I couldn’t do that.  I wanted to forgive the woman, but I wasn’t about to rewrite my own history.

To present an example of how my mother tried for years to present her mother as the quintessential grandmother, I will cite what was known as “Mormor’s Bread”.  My grandmother made an amazing loaf of oatmeal bread; I know of no other bread this wonderful.  What I didn’t realize until I was grown, was that "Mormor's Bread" was a recipe my mother had discovered on a box of Quaker Oats.  It was my mother who, hoping to give us a reason to appreciate her mother, taught Mormor to bake oatmeal bread, and bequeathed it the title “Mormor’s Bread”.  Thus, the only thing I ever liked about my grandmother was concocted by my revisionist mother.

Anyway, appeasing the powers that be, I headed to the East Side, over the Washington Bridge, skidding through snow down the exit ramp, and negotiating a right turn onto Gano Street.   I drove past Revolutionary War era homes, past the Dunkin Donuts, past the Portuguese Club, and eventually parked in front of the nursing home.  I sauntered through the automatic doors, scrutinized by several old-timers in the lobby, who perhaps wondered if I had come to visit them.  The smell of urine and old age was everywhere.

Mormor seemed to know who I was, and was happy to see me.  She repeated her questions every two minutes, and I would repeat the answers, realizing that she had some memory of who I was, but lacking the ability to retain new information. 

When she asked me what I did for a living, I told her I was a musician, to which she responded, “Oh, what kind of music do you play?”.  Wanting to see if she had any of her sauce in tact, I said, “Jazz”, believing her mind was too far gone to relate to the term “Rock N Roll”. 

She frowned and said “I thought you played heavenly music” and I said “Well, it is heavenly”.  She quickly said, “How do you know?  Have you been there?”, amazing me with her wit, on one hand, and reminding me of days long gone on the other.  I told her I assumed she’d find out sooner than I would, and she surprisingly said in a matter-of-fact way, “I suppose you’re right”.

She kept forgetting who I was, and it became difficult for me to remind her that it was Philip, expecting her to express displeasure at the mention of my name.  “And whose son are you?”   “Anna-Lisa’s, your daughter’s son.”  “You are?”  “Yep, that’s me”.

The litany of ask, answer, repeat continued for the entire visit.  I just wanted to get to the benediction as soon as possible.

When I got up to leave, she reached out her hand and clutched my wrist, protesting, “Don’t leave me!”.  It was the first time I’d ever heard this voice express any desire for my company. 

I pulled the clamped fingers apart, and escaped, troubled by her kindness to me, a stranger.  When the elevator door closed, I gasped in a brief, tearful moment, a moment rife with irony and sadness.  Now that she had no memory of me, my grandmother had been more or less kind to me, wanting me to stay.  She was fully capable of kindness to this strange man whom she didn’t know, and I experienced a sadness and jealousy of sorts, having experienced my grandmother the way any alien might have.  Thus, her withholding of decency and love for all those decades became more acutely mean.


Thus, upon hearing the words, “Your grandmother has passed away”, I felt no sorrow.

After the initial formalities had been exchanged, my mother told me she wanted me to be a pallbearer, to which I had no easy way of responding.  I didn’t argue, but wondered how I would gracefully escape this task.  Carrying that casket would implicate me as one of the bereaved.  It felt dishonest to me, like pawning something off as Mormor’s Bread.

Mom and I hung up, and I called my brother.  Neither he nor I were particularly sad about the recent departure of our maternal grandmother.  I made comments which made him laugh nervously, as if a lightning bolt might strike me, and then carom through the phone lines and dispense with him as well.  The gist of my remarks was “Thank God she’s gone.”

Eventually, I told him of my uneasiness about being a pallbearer for a woman whom I was reputed to have little patience or love for.  David said he’d take care of it, and we said goodbye.

A while later, my mother called back, her voice quivering with tears, yet demanding an answer for my decision to bow out of the pallbearer role.  I explained that I was truly sorry she’d lost her mother, truly.  But likewise, I said that I wasn’t sorry for myself because I hadn’t lost someone who was dear to me, rather, “With all due respect, Mom, she was never nice to me.”  I explained to her that in asking me to pretend I had any regard for Mormor, she was asking me to deny the many years of mean-spiritedness I had endured.  I felt as if I was being lured into a trap of grave consequences (pun intended).

My mother’s ability to over-dramatize a situation produced a memorable line, framed in her New England accent:  “IF YOU COULD SEE HUH PAW, LITTLE DEAD BODY!!”.  That didn’t help her cause and I stuck firmly to my guns.  Disgusted with my lack of flexibility, she hung up.

A while later, Dad called.  Please remember that my father was the least manipulative person I’ve ever met.  Dad truly had no self-promoting agenda, but in this case, his words shocked me and betrayed a sense of desperation which I’d never seen in him before or since this moment. 

“Buddy, if you won’t do it for Mom, will you do it for Jesus?”


I was stunned.  I quickly gathered my wits about me and said, “Dad, I’m not doing this for Mom, and I’m not doing it for Jesus, but I will do it for you because if I don’t, you will hear about it until the day you drop”.

So, on a cold December day in Cranston, Rhode Island, under unspoken protest, I joined the grieving heirs of a woman who gave me no reason to mourn her passing.  I sat, emotionless, through the prayers and eulogies, puzzled by my sister’s tribute to the woman who had taught her to embroider, and saddened only by the knowledge that quite a different kind of investment had been made in my sister’s life than in mine.  I listened to the Swedish hymns of her Lutheran faith, but didn’t partake.  It was difficult to imagine that she and I worshipped the same God, and I wasn’t about to pretend that she was my sister in Christ.

After the service, we brought her “poor little dead body” to the cemetery, and lowered it slowly into the barely thawed ground.  I felt a genuine sense of relief as the casket sank, yet also aware that something like her ghost would probably be around for years to come.

Back at Bethany Lutheran Church, the cousins, aunts, uncles, and an ex-aunt gathered around several tables in the basement.  We drank coffee and ate little sandwiches, cut into small triangles of Wonder Bread with tuna, chicken or ham salad only detectable by their slightly varying hues of beige or pink.   Let’s not forget the large plastic bowl overflowing with Hawiian Punch.  It was as if the reception was being catered by a few old Swedes from Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon.   

One thing I don’t miss about the Evangelical stream of Christianity is the clumsy use or down right absence of alcohol.  Bring on the wine for Communion, champagne for weddings, and whisky for funerals.  I like to think that Jesus did no less.

The triangular sandwiches were piled high on two platters under a ceiling that hung low, fluorescently lit with a nauseating glow.  Kind words awkwardly expressed obligatory remembrances which only a few believed, while the truly bereaved smiled sadly and choked back genuine tears.  I felt sorrow for my mother, a good woman trying to do her mother right, but there was nothing to say.  I just wanted to leave.

My brother’s son David Ward, about 5 years old, came over and took my hand, and proceeded to lead me to an old grand piano in the corner.  “Uncle Phil, play the blues”.

I sat, and started playing a shuffle in the key of C.  My left hand played a walking bass line, while David Ward began repeating a bluesy riff I had taught him on our last visit.  Gradually, family members encircled us, until the entire party of relatives completely surrounded us.  One by one, my cousins and siblings requested songs.  I obliged, playing into the late afternoon, bidding farewell to a woman who hated the music which serendipitously closed down her funeral party.

Later, I was entertained by two ideas.  On one hand, I had just danced on my grandmother’s grave by playing my music, not hers, at her funeral.  I was warmed by the idea of having had the last word.

But there is another side to me, a side which is haunted by goodness, permeated by what I believe to be true about Christ, the resonant idea that His gospel is one of reconciliation, mercy, and peace.  The better angels of my nature beckoned me to listen to what beauty might have been present when my nephew asked me to “play the blues”.

I pondered this woman of odd faith, superstition, sternness, and joylessness.  I reckoned that she really did believe in Jesus, although not in any kind of generous way.  Yet, what if she had been enfolded into the arms of a waiting Father on high?  What if she had beheld His light, as I hope to behold it one fine day?  Furthermore, if she was in that ‘cloud of witnesses’, wasn’t it fair to assume that a bonus therein was for her to witness her own funeral? 

Assuming her spirit was with us in some form or fashion, and assuming the cloud on which she was eternally perched (and harping, no doubt) was in close proximity to the church she’d worshiped at for decades, it wasn’t hard to imagine her being present in the basement of Bethany Lutheran when I started playing requests.  Maybe the intermittent buzzing in the fluorescent light fixture was the protestations of her ghost.

In my more generous moments, I like to think that she was looking down with her newly enlightened mind, and the she got it, got me.  And if that truly was so, then, she might have finally been able to celebrate the lives of people she didn’t understand.  Perhaps, as an enlightened soul, she understood all her heirs in a way that we couldn’t even comprehend until our day of going Home.

I’ve always been grateful to my nephew for his innocent request to jam with his uncle.  It didn’t change my relationship to Mormor; I couldn’t erase her presence in my life as a crucible of sorts.  However, our little jam session did afford me the opportunity to ponder her as an eternally forgiven soul, whose road brought her to the literal end of herself, and to a resurrected goodness and unconditional lovingkindness.  

That’s where I want to go.  Until then, if you want, I’ll play the blues.
Mormor's Bread
Pour 2 cups boiling water over 1 cup rolled oats and let stand for one hour.
Dissolve 2 tablespoons yeast in 1/2 cup warm water.  
Add the oats, 5 cups of flour, 1 tablespoon shortening, 1/2 cup molasses, 1 teaspoon salt.  Knead.  (Add or reduce flour amount according to dough consistency.)  
Let rise one hour.
 Punch down and shape into loaf.  
Place into two greased pans.  
Let rise 1 hour.  
Bake at 375 for 40-45 minutes.


  1. Smart, honest, clever... just like you Phil. Well written and moving. MORE PLEASE!!

  2. That was a laugh out loud (with tears in my eyes) post. Bet they sang Trygar Ika Ingan Vora (Children of the Heavenly Father)at the service. Being 100% of swedish extraction, I feel a need to defend "our people" (but I won't...will wait until I can buy you a whiskey in defense of the swedes). But I've got to have one of my kids read your blog. He has similar difficulties with his mother's mother, who he feels just doesn't "get him". Life is complicated, especially when you're born into a family.

  3. Thanks all.

    Morning Coffee aka Biff, I can't remember if "Children of the Heavenly Father" was sung. More'n likely...

  4. Unbelievable. You couldn't MAKE this stuff up! Thanks for sharing.......

  5. Nashvegas, trust me- I WISH I were making it up!

  6. Phil, I don't know you terribly well, but I like you lots, and feel like I know you about ten times better after reading this. Just fantastic- thank you for the wonderful writing and giving so much of yourself.

  7. a gem of a story phil. truthful, wry and poignant. garrison couldn't tell it any better.

  8. So well done, Phil, you covered so much ground. Peace/love, and I hope to play a little blues with you sometime soon.

  9. I don't ever remember meeting your grandmother, but I sure do remember good times at Goosewing. Of course there was that time at one of our church group Goosewing gatherings that, I think it was your brother David who was chasing my mom around and she fell in a hole in the sand and broke her leg. Despite the pain and the hassle of the broken leg, she thought it was so cool to have been included in the "young peoples" goofing around.

  10. Thanks All~

    Will McF, any time you wanna tear a guitar up in my presence, I'm in.

    Kathy K- Yes, it was my brother who was responsible for your mother's broken leg. I'm not sure what the statute of limitations on legs, but he's quite wealthy; I say, sue the bum ;)
    Also, KK, I've always been curious about the phrase you have correctly put in quotations: "Young Peoples", although I believe it should have an apostrophe.

  11. That was a great read Phil. I have always known about this troubling relationship but your little story finally made it so very vivid. I could almost taste those crummy little triangulated sandwiches. I am continually fascinated by the deck of cards we're all dealt family-wise. You definitely got the Old Maid with Mormor, and I'm sorry for all the pain that card brought you. I think about this stuff all the time with my family, but every time I'm tempted to wish I'd been born in a different one, it scares me to death to even contemplate changing what is, in the end, an unchangeable part of our history and ourselves. God's the dealer. We gotta play the game and play to win no matter what, with no tap backs. So glad you could find a point of redemption in your hand. I have the feeling that's the only point that ultimately matters in the game after all ~~

  12. Michael,
    Thanks for your words, and I enjoyed the "Old Maid" metaphor. Some good writing there.

    All children fantasize being in another family. But, like you, I am really grateful for what I had.

  13. That oatmeal bread is going to stay with me, Phil, for a long, long time. As is your response to your dad, and your struggle to balance authenticity and compassion. The images are fine and resonant. Paula

  14. Phil, I was thinking about you today and searched to get several sites for updates. This one really brought back memories. I thank God that you are using your talents and experiences to bring glory to the Lord. I pray for you. I remember, with fondness, your drum solo for the VBS closing program in the Barrington College Barn. I believe it was 1974. Ruth Lyon

  15. Ruth,
    How long has it been? Many, many years! Thanks for reading my work, and thanks for the prayers. My drum solo? That's awesome!


Your comments are welcome, and I will try answer any questions, if possible. Thanks for reading! pkm